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Why Michel Hazanavicius Expects Audience to Boo His Cannes Opening Night Film ‘Final Cut’

The filmmaker explains to IndieWire his unusual ride through Cannes expectations as his meta movie opens this year's festival.

Director Michel Hazanavicius poses for a portrait to promote the film "The Artist," during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011 in Toronto, Canada.  (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)

Michel Hazanavicius

AP

Usually, the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival is a glamorous celebration of cinema. Director Michel Hazanavicius has very different expectations for “Final Cut,” which kicks off the 75th edition this week. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people whistle or boo after 20 minutes,” he told IndieWire over Zoom from Paris, and grinned. “I would be very happy if somebody did that.” 

That’s because “Final Cut” isn’t an obvious crowdpleaser — at least not at first. An adaptation of the 2017 Japanese comedy “One Cut of the Dead,” the movie borrows the format of Shin’ichiro Ueda’s original by opening with a half-hour zombie B-movie all shot in a single long take. A very obviously bad long take. And then, it becomes…something else. 

It would be a spoiler to reveal the full scope of both “One Cut of the Dead” and “Final Cut,” but the bulk of the drama actually revolves around the story behind the production of the movie that consumes its first act. Ultimately, “Final Cut” is a heartwarming look at the collaborative nature of filmmaking, but you have to sit through a rather mediocre zombie story to get there. “Final Cut” adds another meta layer to the proceedings: It’s about the production of a zombie movie, which is itself about the making of a zombie movie, which is being adapted from a Japanese zombie movie on the same subject. Got all that?

But Hazanavicius said that the theme itself was actually quite simple. “The movie puts the light on people who really make movies — the technicians — and how they get through the day,” Hazanavicius said. “The clock is running and you want to keep your integrity as an artist but you have concrete things to deal with. That is very real to me.” 

Hazanavicius has endured almost every kind of Cannes experience. In 2011, his black-and-white silent film homage “The Artist” premiered at the festival, scored U.S. distribution with The Weinstein Company, and went on to sweep the Oscars (Hazanavicius won for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay). Three years later, he was back in competition with his war movie remake “The Search,” which was booed and panned at the first press screening before Hazanavicius could even walk the red carpet. His 2017 Jean-Luc Godard biopic “Redoubtable” landed at the festival with a muted response. 

Uggie The Artist

“The Artist”

The Weinstein Company

“I feel like I was born in Cannes for ‘The Artist,’ but I died in Cannes for ‘The Search,’” he said. “It’s a poker game. You come with your cards but you never know. What I love in Cannes is that it’s the spot where cinema is important. When people love you, they really love you, and when they hate you, they hate you. In any case, what you’ve done is important.”

Yet “Final Cut” wasn’t supposed to be a part of Cannes at all, opening night or otherwise. Initially slated to premiere in the midnight section at Sundance, the movie was pulled by sales agent Wild Bunch after that festival went virtual. Hazanavicius started making headway on his next project, the animated adaptation “The Most Precious of Cargoes,” when the Cannes slot opened up. “Suddenly, this opportunity came along and there was so much excitement,” he said. 

It was an unlikely outcome for a low-budget project that the filmmaker took on two years ago in the midst of the pandemic. Hazanavicius was working on another comedy project that was delayed by lockdowns when Wild Bunch head and producer Vincent Maraval called him after he acquired the remake rights. “So I watched the Japanese movie, which I’d never heard of before, and the concept and structure for the movie were so brilliant,” Hazanavicius said. “So I called him back and said, ‘OK, I’ll make it.’” 

Hazanavicius delighted in the opportunity to recreate the zany long take from the movie, which runs 32 minutes and was shot several times over the course of four days. “Even though we had to make a shitty movie, we had to do it the right way,” he said. “For my ego, it was really weird. Nobody will see that there’s a lot of work that went into it.” 

“One Cut of the Dead”

He found much that was relatable in the plight of a director forced to navigate commercial and artistic concerns irrespective of the end result. “I know this movie is funny and I think people will laugh — there’s no way they won’t,” Hazanavicius said. “But the story behind the laugh is an homage to filmmakers.”

Yet “Final Cut” was nearly overshadowed by another twist: The original French title was “Z,” a letter that took on ominous ramifications after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (it became a symbol frequently adorned to Russian tanks abbreviating the phrase “for victory”). A few days after it was announced as the opening night selection at Cannes, the title was changed (its French title is “Coupe”).

“It was a French movie made for the French market coming from a French director,” Hazanavicius said. “When they announced the opening of Cannes, it became an international film right away. Then something changed. Some Ukrainian directors and distributors called me. They very respectfully told me that for them it was very harsh, the symbolic charge of that letter. It was very hard for them. I realized that I hadn’t anticipated that reaction.”

He said he understood the feedback. “Nobody did anything wrong,” he said. “The title was chosen way before the invasion of Ukraine. But if I hadn’t changed the title it would be like I was indifferent, and I was really not comfortable with that indifference. It was not that easy for everyone to change it. We had to put thousands of posters in the trash. But what I realized was that everyone — the distributor, the guy who printed the posters, everyone — was happy to do it.”

Hazanavicius’ own relationship to filmmaking has given him a lot of influence in his country’s industry. For years, he held onto a spot on the Cannes board of directors, but quit two years ago amid questions of how to work towards gender parity. “We were all men sitting around saying, ‘Yeah, we need parity,’” he said. “So some of us had to step down.” More recently, he has been concerned with the future of filmmaking for movies that don’t have obvious commercial weight. “We have big difficulties now for audiences to come back to theaters,” he said. “We have this big blockbusters, all the Marvel movies, that gather people in the theaters and small movies. It’s difficult to exist between these two poles.”

“Final Cut”

But Hazanavicius has held onto a business model that works for his needs. “Final Cut” was made on a bite-sized budget of $4 million euros, and as a co-producer, he only makes money on the project if the movie exceeds that amount at the box office. “We invested our time to make it cheap so if it works we will gain money,” he said. “I think it’s more interesting and challenging to do that. It’s more interesting than just saying, ‘OK I got paid by Netflix, and it can be good or bad.’ We have a carrot and we can run after it.”

Hazanavicius was reticent to work in the U.S. again despite his profile in the industry, though he was currently developing an English-language period comedy. “The process was so long that I could make another movie while waiting for an answer from the studio,” he said. “Here, it’s really heaven for directors. I write a script, I find the money, I rewrite to fit the budget, and I shoot. I’m not dependent on someone else’s decision. I’d love to make another American movie but it has to fit the way I work. I don’t want to be pretentious but I don’t want to be waiting for things to happen.”

As for “The Most Precious of Cargoes,” Hazanavicius said he had already filmed and edited the entire movie with actors so his animators had a reference point. The story, a fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, has deep personal resonance for him: the author of the book, Jean-Claude Grumberg, was close with his parents for decades. “And I’ve been drawing since I was 10,” he said. “So it was this cross of two very intimate things for me.” 

Nevertheless, he was still processing the need to slip away from the project for the “Final Cut” premiere. “Not only do I have to try on my tuxedo, but all my friends are asking for tickets for the premiere while this entire other crew is calling me about animation,” he said. “It’s nice. But it’s exhausting.”

“Final Cut” premieres tonight at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. 

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