Jean-Pierre Jeunet is everything you expect him to be and more. He’s like a character in one of his beloved, whimsical French classics. Which makes sense because much of his work is deeply personal, especially “Amélie,” for which he mined his own experiences. He’s the type of person who nonchalantly pulls out his phone to share photos of little creatures he’s crafted out of shells and leaves, and it makes perfect sense, like stepping into Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Like Amélie, he sees the poetry and connections and small pleasures in the little things in life
He’s very charming, very French, and totally frank and uncensored. Even though he claims not to believe in “that bullshit,” he’s rather spiritual, and mystical, speaking frequently of premonitions and other lives. While he’s dipped his toe into Hollywood filmmaking and has tangled with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, as we chatted at the Marrakech International Film Festival, where Jeunet was serving on the jury, he seemed unruffled by his experiences and remained cheerful and positive about future projects.
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Jeunet started making films with Marc Caro after they met at a film festival as animators. They collaborated on an animation fanzine and started making short stop-motion animated films. Jeunet says that the two were considering putting together an exhibition on their work because, “We have so many objects. For each film we built something interesting, and I keep everything, the storyboards. Usually an exhibition at a cinematheque, you have a lot of things to read or photographs. For us we have so many objects.” Of course, this wouldn’t be for another several years, but the prospect of a Jeunet/Caro exhibition/retrospective is enticing, considering the work that they made together, including “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children.”
Their first film directed together was “Delicatessen,” though they originally wrote the script for “City of Lost Children” earlier. But because the project was too expensive, they cast about for something cheaper. Jeunet got inspiration from where he lived, saying, “I was living above a shop for a butcher, and I would wake up every morning to the sound of the knife, and it was the beginning of the idea.”
The two artists separated when Jeunet went off to Hollywood to make “Alien: Resurrection.” Jeunet returned to France to make “Amélie,” which he described as “not the cup of tea of Marc Caro.” He chuckled, “We needed to find something more personal and we are not brothers, we are not lovers.” Jeunet says of “Amélie,” “It is my experiences, my stories, my anecdotes, my collection of souvenirs, memories, and it’s less fantastic. It’s poetic, but it’s reality, but something different because I don’t like the real realism, the French realism. For me as a director it’s not interesting to do.”
Jeunet originally wrote the film for Emily Watson, but when she pulled out, he thinks it was fate that brought Audrey Tautou to the role, saying, “It was no coincidence, it was written, probably.” During her screen test (which is on the DVD), Jeunet said, “Within five seconds I knew. I told her, ‘where do you come from?’ and you can hear in my voice, I was very emotional.” While it’s difficult to imagine Emily Watson in the role of the quirky gamine Amélie, Jeunet says that perhaps she would have been somewhat like Bridget Jones, curiously enough. He says Tautou “gave it something more fresh.”
Of the rapturous reception that “Amélie” has garnered among fans, Jeunet remembers that “when I was writing it, I was thinking ‘who will be interested in this bullshit?’” but, “at the end of the film, we could feel something, it was special, there was something in the air, a buzz, you know?” Many fans feel a deep connection to the character, which he says is, “a dream for every director, every creator. Because you make something so personal and it becomes a huge success, it was a perfect win.” Jeunet says that “it’s difficult to understand, but there is something about generosity, Amélie doesn’t want anything in return, and I think that is one of the secrets, and it speaks about the little pleasures in life.” He also attributes the post-9/11 release in the U.S. to the way in which audiences wanted to connect to a film like this.
Jeunet hasn’t just made fantastical dreamy French films, though. In the late ‘90s he journeyed to Los Angeles (another city of lost children) to try his hand at a sci-fi blockbuster sequel, “Alien: Resurrection.” He lived above a golf course in Beverly Hills near the 14th hole, and when he moved out, he tossed all the wayward golf balls that had made their way onto his lawn back onto the course. Years later, he discovered that Alfred Hitchcock had lived in a neighboring house and did the same thing.
Jeunet actually had a premonition about his pilgrimage to Hollywood on the set of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” of all films. Though he protests, “I don’t want to say I heard a voice, because I don’t believe in this bullshit,” he still “had a feeling ‘you will make a film in Hollywood one day.’ When they called me for ‘Alien,’ I was right.”
He also cites his time working on the film as “lucky, because I had almost complete freedom. It was rare, I had nobody on set.” When hired, Fox told him, “We love your special idea, we think it’s less risky to take a risk with you. Risky for me because I didn’t speak English at all at this time.” He says they gave him “freedom, they respected me. Every idea I brought, they bought it. Of course I had big pressure to save money. It wasn’t easy, I don’t want to say it was easy. But I had the freedom, I think I couldn’t have that now, it’s very different now.” In fact, when Fox asked him to share a director’s cut of the film, he told them the final cut was his cut.
He even experienced a great amount of freedom on “A Very Long Engagement” with Warner Bros., who owned the rights to the novel. He had long been interested in it, and after “Amélie,” the studio gave him everything he asked for — final cut, in French, with Audrey Tautou, and he thought, “Where is the trap? No trap, they gave me total freedom and a lot of money.”
The project is another personal one for Jeunet, who says that, “I have the feeling that I died in another life in the first World War, a strange feeling. I met a lot of people saying that, even American people, the same feeling.” Of course, he protests yet again, “I don’t believe in this bullshit,” but insists, “for me it’s not a joke, I have this feeling.” Even on the set of the film, “When I was in the trench for the first time, I put on the helmet and I went ‘oh my God, I know it.’ I don’t know, it’s a feeling. When I was a teenager I read everything about the first World War.”
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Despite these positive experiences with Hollywood, not every interaction with studio moguls has been great, and his beef with Harvey Weinstein, particularly over the release of his most recent film, the English language “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” has been well-documented. Jeunet does not mince words about the feud, and says, “Gaumont sold the film to Harvey Weinstein, and he fucked me, of course, because I refused to re-edit the film. He kept the film for two years and he released the film without advertising, nothing, it was a disaster.” He even knew going in to be wary of Weinstein, after his dealings with him on “Delicatessen,” wherein Weinstein asked Jeunet and Caro to significantly edit the film, and they responded by saying they would cut their names from it. Jeunet says he told Gaumont “be careful,” but “they sold the film finished and he said, I won’t touch a frame, of course he put the pressure. He lies.” It’s safe to say Jeunet won’t be working with Harv again, as he adds, “I do not negotiate with terrorists.”
The good news is that Jeunet can continue doing his own thing, which he is. He’s got a feature in the works that he describes as “a little bit like Amélie, but about sex.” He’s even working on an animated short with those little shell/leaf creatures. The two-minute short is a 3D animation rendered from photographs of Jeunet’s creations, with recordings of actors including Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz reading poetry by Jacques Prévert.
He also recently directed the Amazon pilot “Casanova” with Diego Luna. Jeunet says, “We made something a little bit like ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’ between ‘Barry Lyndon,’ that was our reference.” He mentioned that Amazon asked the showrunner to write a few more episodes before they make a whole series, but says he’d only be involved as a producer. Frankly, he says, “The pilot was okay for me because they gave me ten million for 50 minutes, so it was big. Even though it was fast, it was cool. But I won’t be able to shoot in nine days, I had 22 days. Nine days with three million [laughs] it’s not for me, I’m too picky, no, no thank you.” So it doesn’t seem like more TV is in his future.
Thankfully, Jeunet has such a well-defined personal vision that he’s at a point in his career where he can do what he wants, and it’s clear that his success is due to sticking to his own vision and never compromising or backing down. His films hit a personal nerve for many fans, so we’re just glad he has the opportunity to express those whims and visions.