Trevor Hogg explores the making of Michel Hazanavicius' Best Picture contender, The Artist...
“The first person I had to convince was me, and think, ‘Okay, even if everybody thinks it is undoable, I am going to try because I really want to do it’,” stated French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius who began developing The Artist (2011) about eight years ago. “When I started to think about what this silent film would be, I had two possibilities; either pure entertainment, a spy film in the vein of Spies  by Fritz Lang which inspired Hergé to create Tintin or a film dealing with more serious issues, probably involving more work. This was more appealing to me because as a result we would move away from OSS [his previous two movies were espionage spoofs involving a clueless French secret agent codenamed OSS 117]. I wanted to work with Jean [Dujardin] again but didn’t want to end up doing the same things. I didn’t want this project to be perceived as a whim, or a gimmick, so I started looking for a story that could fit into this format.” Other factors needed to be taken into consideration for Hazanavicius. “My main concern was not to be too complex with the story because if it gets too complicated you need words. What was liberating was that it didn’t have to be realistic. It’s in black-and-white, its period, and people are moving their lips but you’re not hearing them. This is not realistic so you can play with other things that in normal movies might be considered ridiculous, too symbolic or clichéd.”
“I decided to work on a story of a silent movie actor, which [would] make things easier for the audience, because it makes sense to watch a silent movie when the story is about a silent movie actor,” revealed Michel Hazanavicius who read a lot of biographies on the actors and directors from the cinematic era to help provide him with a “springboard to the imagination.” “I watched a hundred silent movies; the ones that aged the best were melodramas and romances,” commented the writer-director. “It was always about the story rather than the character. In terms of research, I knew [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton, but the discovery was seeing silent cinema, dramas like Sunrise  and The Crowd , which were more minimal and had a real purity of performance. Valentin [Jean Dujardin] is based on Douglas Fairbanks, who was very happy in his own skin and content to make the same pantomime movie again and again. It was good to know there was another silent acting style to help build a bridge to modern audiences.” The key was to find the right cast. “My starting point, linked with the desire to work once more with Jean [Dujardin] and Bérénice [Bejo], was: a silent movie actor who doesn’t want to hear anything about the talkies. I circled around this character but as soon as I got the idea of this young starlet and the crossed destinies, everything fell into place and made sense, even the themes pride, fame, [and] vanity. I wrote the script very quickly, it took me like four months, which is very short for me. I knew that I could shoot every sequence with no dialogue, so at the end of the writing, I said, ‘Okay, I think I can do it.’” Hazanavicius confessed, “My [original] title was Peppy and George. It was nice and old fashioned, but a little too simple.” He adds, “To do a silent movie, you have to have more expressive actors. John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are very expressive, and when they talk, you can feel what it’s about.” French actor Jean Dujardin reflected, “It’s quite pretentious isn’t it? The notion the audience is going to be interested in you for an hour and a half. Think too much about that and anxiety takes over. I’m happiest on set because I’m not myself. I’m someone else.” Dujardin relied on his costumes and the shooting locations to help him with his cinematic performance. “I lived with a slick black haircut which was really short in the neck and a little thin moustache; that and spending time in those big houses in the Hollywood Hills got me into the skin of this actor.” Bejo agreed with her co-star. “For us as actors, and even for the director, it gave us a sense of authenticity to what we were doing because we were talking about Hollywood and we were in Hollywood.”
“After my previous movies, I met some producers, and felt that they were scared a little bit,” recalled Michel Hazanavicius. “Then I met Thomas Langmann, who was the right person; I could see in his eyes that he was hooked, and really wanted to see that movie. When I met John Goodman, he said to me, ‘I’ve never seen this movie. That’s why I want to do it.’” Goodman remarked, “I was intrigued, and then after the meeting I was more than willing to jump on because it was different. And what the hell, I didn’t have to learn lines. ‘I’m your boy. Sign me up.’” The American actor enjoyed his role in the picture. “The older I get, the more I appreciate what came before. I’m fascinated by these guys who started everything. I just read a biography of Cecil B. DeMille. He was a two-bit starving actor who couldn’t make it; he just happened to know some people. He directed some things. They were going to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was raining so they wound up here.” In regards to his canine companion, Jean Dujardin stated, “There was a lot of improvisation with Uggie, like when I put the dog on the table or sometimes I follow him [or] sometimes he follows me. I had a lot of treats in my pocket. We worked with Omar [Von Muller], the dog trainer.” Bérénice Bejo embraced the creative challenge imposed upon her. “I like it very much when acting is not conveyed solely through dialogue but by the body, the walk, the attitude, [and] the precision of each gesture.” Bejo received assistance from her filmmaker husband. “Michel always knew which music to play. For the scene where I get off the bus and arrive at the studio for an audition I think he played Day for Night. It’s so cheerful that I was immediately transported. It gave me wings!”
“I worked with the same composer for twelve years now,” stated Michael Hazanavicius when referring to his collaboration with Ludovic Bource. “He’s my friend. But we almost killed ourselves for this one. Here, the music is the right hand of the image. The images and the music tell the story together.” A different technique was utilized by the filmmaker. “I was very precise. Like, ‘When he puts the butter here, and he looks at her, and the music has to start here.’ Or for example, when he puts the fire on the film stock, the composer started the music when the fire began, but I said, ‘No, no, put the fire when he gets the idea.’” Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman did not use old cameras during the principle photography. “There’s a guy at Panavision who’s a technical geek about those kinds of movies,” remarked Hazanavicius, “and he did some alteration of the lens for us which gave us some distortion in the image. I used it, for example, when the lead actor contemplates suicide the shot of the gun and of the dog, there’s a small distortion.” Not all of the modern conveniences were employed. “It’s not so much about the technical aspects. It’s more about the way you conceive things. I didn’t use a Steadicam, for example, because a Steadicam shot doesn’t make sense to me in a period movie. For the crane shot, it was a very modern crane and it goes farther.” The footage was converted afterwards. “I used colour film after a lot of tests. We always say black-and-white, but actually it's about the greys. To have all the nuances of grey and to be able to play with it, we shot in colour, and then in post we went to black-and-white.”
“When we were doing the preparation of the movie, we didn’t have all the money so we were looking for all the solutions possible, and 3D was one option,” revealed Michael Hazanavicius who contemplated the idea for about two weeks. “I thought it could be great. I imagined it as a very special image, a very new image, but fortunately, I didn’t have to do it.” Made on a budget of $15 million The Artist has earned $61 million worldwide. “My job was to make the movie. That’s what I did. I know what we did in France was to have the maximum screenings just to let people talk about the movie and say they enjoyed the movie.” Hazanavicius observed, “You can’t remake films exactly the way they were made 90 years ago. Audiences have been exposed to so much; they are sharper, quicker and a lot smarter. It’s exciting to stimulate them. The films I like the most are when the directors wander around and dare to make what they want while respecting the genre throughout.” The silent movie has become an awards circuit sensation receiving 10 Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), Best Supporting Actress (Bérénice Bejo), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Original Score; at the BAFTAs the awards list was replicated along with additional nominations for Best Make Up & Hair, and Best Sound. The Golden Globes were equally enamored lauding the 1920s tale with Best Picture – Comedy or Musical, Best Actor – Comedy or Musical (Dujardin), and Best Original Score while also handing out nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Bejo), and Best Screenplay. “This is a period movie, made now,” stated the French filmmaker who contended for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival while his leading man won for Best Actor. “The way I wrote this movie, I tried to respect the spirit. I tried to respect the melodrama, the structure, even the Hays Code, in the way that there is no kiss. It’s a very sweet romance. It’s very old fashioned.”
For more on The Artist, visit the official site.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.