Roundtable with the director of City of Lost Children, Amélie, and Micmacs
By Don Simpson | June 22, 2010
Jean-Pierre Jeunet was born on September 3, 1953 in Roanne, France. His career in cinema began with making short animated films with his creative partner, Marc Caro. Jeunet and Caro’s mind-blowing feature-length debut was Delicatessen (1991). The duo went on to create the magnificently imaginative The City of Lost Children (1995) which opened the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. 20th Century Fox then entrusted Jeunet with the direction of their fourth Alien film – Alien: Resurrection (1997) – which also marked Jeunet’s separation from Caro. Jeunet’s solo directing career continued with his most successful film to date and the film that best represents his unbridled love for cinema –
Amelie (2001). His next pairing with Amelie star Audrey Tautou – A Very Long Engagement (2004) – didn’t fare quite as well in the box office but it was still critically appreciated. And now Jeunet has created the fantastical world of Micmacs (2010)…
Jeunet is one of my favorite directors of the last two decades and I consider Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Amelie to be some of my favorite films of all time. I consider Jeunet to be one of the very few cinematic geniuses working today. So, sitting a mere three feet away from him was utterly mind-blowing, and being able to ask him questions was…well…it was a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous and intimidated to be in the presence of the great Jeunet; but upon meeting him in the cloakroom of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel it was like meeting an estranged French uncle. Despite his jetlag, he was the friendliest and most jovial filmmakers I have ever encountered. (When Jeunet says “I am Amelie,” I believe it 100%.) As much as I dreamed of chatting one-on-one with Jeunet about Micmacs and his love of cinema (not to mention the conversations I would love to have with him about Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Amelie), the interview was a roundtable discussion with two other online film critics – Devin Pike (Red Carpet Crash) and Brent Moore (Geekscape) – whose questions also appear below.
DP: Tell us about the process you went through putting Micmacs together?
Jean Pierre Jeunet: Maybe you don’t know, but I spent two years working on Life of Pi. It was a very beautiful project. I wrote the script and worked on the storyboards; we went location scouting in India; we worked to make wave machines. It was a beautiful project but it was too huge of a budget for a kid, a tiger, and the sea. You know? We didn’t understand that we had the worst elements – a kid, a tiger, and the sea – in the same film. So, I had to renounce the film after a while and I was so starving to shoot that I wrote Micmacs very quickly. I opened my box of ideas and there were three feelings inside it: to make a story of revenge, because I am a big fan of Once Upon A Time in the West; a story of unique and original people, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Toy Story; and to speak about weapons dealers because it was on my mind for a long time. I was concerned about mixing the slapstick comedy with such a serious issue; but I tried, and I hope it works pretty well.
DS: Do you consider Micmacs to be a political film?
JPJ: No, because it’s not a stretch to say it’s not good to sell weapons. And everything we say in the film is true. We made real research because even if it’s for a slapstick comedy, you have to know what you are talking about. We did an interview with a Belgium weapons manufacturer and they were very nice guys with a passion for technology. We visited the factory as if it was a chocolate factory. They had just invented a weapon that can penetrate a tank and burn everything inside in a fraction of a second! Terrifying! And they talk about it as if it were just a technological innovation! They were very nice guys with very open minds. You say to them, “But you kill people?” And they say, “But we work for the right side, we work for the Minister of Defense.” Very interesting.
BM: Visually, your last film A Very Long Engagement seemed to be the most restrained. Micmacs seemed to go back to the style of Delicatessen. Was Micmacs a conscious decision to get back to where you started?
JPJ: Because I was starving to shoot and it was a kind of frustration after the two years. I put everything I loved into this film. I had no limits. I even put the poster of the film inside the film – a stupid joke, but I didn’t care. I used humor and references just for the pleasure of it. I think that’s my style. I put references about Sergio Leone and Mission Impossible, about so many things…Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin… It just was a pleasure to make. And A Very Long Engagement – I think it’s still my style, it’s just different. It’s about the first World War. For the next one, I would like to find the same spirit.
DS: What role do you see the history of cinema playing in your creations?
JPJ: Maybe I am stealing from [Quentin] Tarantino, but I would say that the real subject of my films is the cinema. They speak of the pleasure to make films. To make films is very important to me. I started when I was eight. At that time I didn’t see any movies. The first big movie I saw was Once Upon A Time in the West, and I was seventeen. I had a view master and I would cut the frames and change the order of the frames. It was a kind of movie. That’s the best advice that I could give to young people: just do it. Especially now, because you just need a video camera and a computer.
BM: Have you ever considered making a feature-length animated movie?
JPJ: I have thought about that for years and years, but I don’t do that because I know animation. A lot of people do that because they don’t know what animation is. When I read about Wes Anderson, the director of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and how he directed the film by e-mail. That would not work for me. I like to be very close to every technician and the editor. And I know that it’s a very long process that would take three or four years. It’s a very long process. If I were to make an animated film it would be stop motion. Have you seen Mary and Max? It’s a masterpiece! I met the filmmakers last week in Australia. I would love to work with them.
DS: You’ve worked with several different cinematographers over the years, yet your films all have a very specific and consistent aesthetic that identifies them as Jean-Pierre Jeunet films. I’m curious how closely you work with your cinematographers in achieving your visual style?
JPJ: I love directors with a very strong style, when you can recognize the director by their style immediately like David Lynch or the Coen Brothers or like Sergio Leone – you always know it’s a Sergio Leone movie. A long time ago it was Kubrick or Fellini. I prefer this kind of director. I also have a great respect for directors who are able to change their style for each film as well, like Roman Polanski and Ang Lee. Ideally I would like to work with the same Director of Photography for all of my films, but after a while they are too expensive or they have other projects. I made three movies with Darius Khonji because he is so very good, but it isn’t easy to work with him so I am the only one. Bruno Delbonnel for me is perfect – he’s my best friend – but he was hired for Harry Potter. Now I work with Tetsuo Nagata – he made La Vie En Rose. I made a connection a long time ago with him, but this time I rehearsed with him a long time. Of course I give him some pictures, some photographs. We watched some films together, like La Vie En Rose, and I say “I love that” or “I don’t like that. Don’t do that. Never!” I forgot the Japanese are so stubborn. It was very difficult to get what I wanted. During the color timing, luckily he was busy with another Japanese/American movie so I was alone with the technician and did everything I wanted. We spent seven weeks color timing. Strip by strip with masks. I love that. I was scared, but I love that. In France they love when it is realistic, when it’s aesthetic. If it’s too modern, no problem. For me, it would kill me.
BM: You use a very common color palette in your movies – green hue with strong golds and reds. Is there anything particular about that that draws you to that style?
JPJ: Ideally I would want to change for this film; but the weather was gray every day, no sunshine. There is just one way to save a picture when it’s ugly, and that’s a warm color. And on the other hand I needed something warm because to have warm characters you need a warm film. But in terms of technique I would have wanted to change because now I’m ready to shoot faster with a lighter camera – we are just waiting to have the perfect camera.
BM: Do you have any opinion on using 3D?
JPJ: Yes, I would have wanted to make Micmacs in 3D but it was too early. We didn’t think about 3D at this time, but when I saw Avatar I thought “Oh man, I would want to make this kind of movie.” It changes completely the perception of the cinema.
DS: Do you find that you enjoy writing for male or female leads better? Does one seem more natural for you to approach?
JPJ: Female or male, I don’t care. In fact, Amelie was me. There were so many personal things inside that character. I used to say “I am Amelie.” After two films with a female lead, I wanted to change.
BM: How did you decide on casting Danny Boon as your lead?
JPJ: I did not write the script for him. It was the exact same story for Amelie. It was for another actor Jamel Debbouze who was exactly his opposite. He was very thin with a handicap and Danny is pretty tall and pretty fit, but of the mind they are pretty similar. They come from the suburbs; they have imagination. So I made some tests. It is very important to make some tests, because when Danny Boon read the script he said “Oh, it’s a beautiful script and I would love to work with you but I feel I’m the wrong guy, so I won’t take the movie.” So I said, “You’re right, don’t do it. If you don’t feel it, don’t do it.” Then it’s “On the other hand, I would like so much to work with you. Maybe we could play together just for one hour for pleasure?” It was a trap.
DS: Did you use a different directing approach with Danny Boon since he has directing experience?
JPJ: I love to work with directors. I did the same thing with Mathieu Kassovitz on Amelie, and Jodie Foster on A Very Long Engagement. It’s easy because you can say “I need to make a track” and they understand. It’s very easy.
DS: Did the Chapin and Keaton references appear in the script or did that come about naturally?
JPJ: It wasn’t on purpose. It’s strange because when we shot the scene when he’s starving in front of the restaurant, I saw Charlie Chaplin and I told him, “You make me think of Chaplin” and he said, “Oh yeah? You think so?” It wasn’t on purpose but I suppose he thought about that afterwards and continued to do it. And Buster Keaton – I think it’s more in concept, like in the cannon scene.
DP: What gets you excited about a new project?
JPJ: I need to love everything that I shoot. I couldn’t make a film about the 70’s because I didn’t like the cars, the hair or the wardrobes; I didn’t like the colors. I couldn’t make film like Martin Scorsese. The Paris I show is my Paris. I do a lot of location scouting myself on my scooter. I need to love everything – the story, the characters, everything. That’s the reason it is very difficult for me to find a subject. When you get older it is more difficult of course. I’ve made six films now, and what else do I have to say?
For more info please visit the Micmacs website via Sony Pictures Classics: www.sonyclassics.com/micmacs/