It's impossible to mistake the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with that of any other filmmaker. With the exception of his ill-advised Hollywood sequel Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet has created a vivid and unique world in each of his features to date, and he has forged a reputation as a director capable of appealing to mainstream audiences while retaining the mark of an auteur. Before Alien, Jeunet made the dark and surreal Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with Marc Caro, and then his collaboration with star Audrey Tatou and writer Guillaume Laurant led to a pair of brighter, more romantic films: the smash-hit Amélie and A Very Long Engagement. His latest film Micmacs has everything a Jeunet fan could ask for in one of his pictures, and it is yet another hugely entertaining adventure. Jeunet was in London last week to promote the film, and I had the opportunity to interview him just before he left for Scotland, where Micmacs was opening the Glasgow Film Festival.
After having such a productive relationship with Marc Caro you have now developed a strong relationship with Guillaume Laurent on your last three features. Why is it important for you to have a co-writer, and how do you work together on a screenplay?
You have to find the right partner, it's very important. It's just like finding the right lover in life, and when you have found that person you don't want to get divorced, you must keep him or her. It is important because it is like ping-pong. Guillaume is the perfect partner for me, and when I find an idea we immediately
Did you have the opportunity to research the weapons industry before filmmaking?
Just by luck I knew an ex-Minister of Defence in Belgium, and they were very open. They opened the door, we could take some pictures, and they explained everything. It was pretty weird because they showed us things like an arrow that goes through a tank, and it doesn't explode, it just gets the temperature so high that everyone burns inside the tank. We met so many interesting people, they had a passion for technology, in fact they completely forget the destiny of the technology, and when you say it's to kill people they say, "Yes, but we are on the right side. We work for the Minister of Defence not the Minister of Attack." They protect themselves like this.
Once again, you have come back to this theme of an orphan taking on a monster.
It's the story of all my films. Even Life of Pi, which I didn't do for the question of money, it's a story of an orphan and a monster; it was a tiger, this time it's a weapon seller, another time it's a butcher in Delicatessen or a slimy monster in Alien. I don't know why, it's not on purpose. Every time I write the story I think, "Oh shit! It's one more time the same story!" I hope one day to change, but maybe then it will just be shit. [laughs]
The central character of Bazil was originally written for Jamel Debbouze. When he was replaced by Dany Boon, did your perception of the character change?
No, not a lot, except that Jamel Debbouze has a handicap, because he had an accident with a train when he was a kid, and I changed the beginning of the film because Jamel was supposed to have the accident with the mine. They are very different in terms of physical aspect – Jamel is like a shrimp and Dany is like a bear – but in their minds they are very similar. They come from the street, and they have imagination. Dany is a writer, an actor, a performer and a director. I am very jealous, because he had 21 million admissions for his film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, can you believe it? Amélie was a huge success and it was 8½ million. Yes it was a good film, OK, but 21 million? Nobody can understand it. In the whole world Amélie is still a bigger success, but in France
Did you immediately think of Dany for the role when Jamel pulled out?
Yes, because I am professional, and I could imagine Jamel could have an accident or refuse the film, so then Dany Boon was already in my mind. I discovered Dany Boon around 15 or 17 years ago doing his one-man show. He was playing a depressed guy and going
You are working with Dominique Pinon yet again.
I can't make a film without Dominique. It's not a question of superstition, it's just that he surprises me every time, and he has a beautiful face, for me it's beautiful, like an African statue. Marc Caro used to say to me, you have African statues and Greek statues, and we prefer African statues. It has become a kind of game between us; this time I threw him in the Seine and he even had to have injections for protection against the rats' pee. Also, you can't see it in the film, but under the water we had two divers to pull him to the bottom so he popped up like a bubble. He loves that, he pretends to be shocked but he loves it. Maybe the toughest part was the cannon, because he stayed for a long time inside the cannon, and sometimes we told him, "OK, we are going to eat, see you later!" [laughs]
Most of your regular crew are involved in Micmacs too, and even though you are working with a new cinematographer, Tetsuo Nagata, the visual style is very familiar from your other films. How do you work with your DP to achieve this look?
First, you choose a DP because you know he will be able to do that. I love Bruno Delbonnel, but Bruno was busy with Harry Potter, and I gave him my green light because it was very important for his career. Tetsuo Nagata is different, he's very stubborn, very Japanese, but the result is almost the same. I practiced before because we made together a commercial for Chanel N°5 – after Alien 4, Chanel 5 [laughs] – and it was a very personal film, I'm very proud of Chanel 5. We lost four months because Dany Boon was unavailable, and the same day Chanel called to ask me if I was available, so I said "Yes, for four months I am available", and the day after we were in New York. I wrote the story in ten minutes on the airplane and I had complete freedom on a short film with a huge budget, it was crazy. Look at the long version on the internet, it's two and a half minutes but it is like a feature.
How do you position Micmacs in your body of work, compared with your darker earlier films with Caro or the much lighter tone of Amélie?
I would say it's a mixture of everything I've made, a kind of conclusion, and now I need to make something different. I had some reproaches in France – "You always do the same thing" – and it's true, but I was supposed to make Life of Pi, and that would have been very different with the sea, the tiger, and the kid. For money reasons it didn't happen, but I felt I had to shoot something, so I opened my box and just put everything I love in this film. If you like my films it's OK, but if you don't then don't go to see this film. There is a restaurant across the road that serves meat, but I am only serving fish [laughs]. I thought about young...I don't want to say kids...but young people for this film, because it is a slapstick, a cartoon. Ideally, I would like to have the audience for Pixar movies – it won't be the same thing, I know – but I think it could be the same audience.
I loved Tiny Pete's animated figures. How did you create them?
In fact we didn't invent that for the film, because I knew a guy I discovered in an exhibition in Paris and he is an amazing artist. I called him and he lent us the four sculptures, and they are completely integrated in the set so nobody could imagine we didn't build that, but it was existing before.
I also enjoyed the Delicatessen reference...
Yeah, and I wanted to do Amélie, it would have been the funniest. I wanted to see Amélie with kids, babies crying "Waah!", and Mathieu Kassovitz sitting with a beer in front of the TV [laughs]. Of course, Audrey said no because she was shooting Coco Before Chanel, so I made it Delicatessen at the last moment.
And there are a number of billboards advertising MicMacs within the film. What was the significance of those?
It doesn't make sense [laughs]. You know, there was no limit for this film, because I just wanted to shoot it and I don't care. It's funny for me and it will be funny for some people. There are five posters, and if you don't see them all you have to buy the DVD to find out [laughs].
You've mentioned Life of Pi a number of times in this interview. Is that project completely dead, or is there still any possibility of making it?
I know they are supposed to make the film with Ang Lee, but I know they don't have the solutions. You have the three worst elements: a tiger, a kid, and the sea. It would be completely impossible, so we have to do everything with visual effects. In the end they asked me to produce it myself, so we made some research and we were less expensive, 59 million instead of 85 million, but in Hollywood they want to cut the budget, they want a cheaper budget, and I don't think it's enough. I don't know, I would like to make the film, but I really don't know. I think this is the kind of project we will speak about in ten years, and one day there will be the technology to make a fake tiger and you won't see the difference. In Narnia, you see a fake lion and it looks fake, but you don't care because it's a fantasy movie. In Life of Pi you have to believe in the tiger. We might have the technology but it is very expensive.
You already use some visual effects in your work, but your films still have a very real, handmade quality. Is it important to maintain that balance?
I need both. In Micmacs you don't see it, but there are 350 shots with visual effects. Sometimes it's just to erase something, and sometimes it's more difficult. In this film it's not the fake balloon like in A Very Long Engagement, it's not very difficult things, but there are lots of visual effects. It's a tool, and I use every tool, I love to play with everything. Orson Welles said a film was like an electric train, and for me it's a Meccano. I want to use everything in the box: the costumes, the casting, the dialogue, the music, everything. I don't want to leave anything in the bottom of the box.
After your experience with Alien: Resurrection, would you be willing to work in America again?
Why not? The freedom is the most important thing, because in France I have complete freedom, and by law you have final cut in France. For Alien it was different, it was the toughest day of my life every day, and one day I even drove past the gate of the studio in my car, because every day was a fight. In the end I am proud of the film, and I stayed friends with 20th Century Fox, they were helping me make Life of Pi, but I prefer the freedom. I would like to find a compromise because I would like to shoot with American actors. When I hear my American agent say, "There is an American actor, he lives in New York, and he would like to meet you. His name is Al Pacino." I say, "Oh, why not!" [laughs]. Michelle Pfeiffer, Forest Whitaker, Nicole Kidman, so many actors say they want to meet me, but only with the freedom. Maybe I could make a French production with an American actor, like Taken from Luc Besson, I am thinking about that, but it depends on what subject I can find. But I would like to change, I would like to change the spirit, I would like to change the way I shoot. I wanted to shoot with a handheld camera very fast, but my DP and a lot of people told me no, it was too jittery, and when I saw Slumdog Millionaire I was very pissed off, because I would have liked to do that. I like 3D also, because Micmacs could be in 3D, so why not? I need to change.