Friday, July 23, 2010

"The main concern was that I don't know how to write a movie" - An interview with Joann Sfar

Joann Sfar is certainly not a man who lacks ambition. For his first film as a director, this acclaimed graphic novelist has chosen to tackle the life of French cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg, and if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he has elected to tell his story in a surreal, unconventional manner that aims for an artistic rather than literal truth. Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) is a fascinating and distinctive portrait of a unique artist, and I met the young director in London last month to talk about it.

When did you first discover Serge Gainsbourg and why did he become such an important figure for you?

Not only to me but I guess to French youth. Gainsbourg was the only guy with an attitude on French television. Everything was so boring on French television when I was a kid and this guy, he was not shaved, he pretended to be dirty, he would say dirty words and almost harass women on stage, and yet he was so intelligent at the same moment. He always mentioned sex and alcohol and so on, and when you are a kid and you see this guy, you want to grow old. He's the guy who makes you feel that being a grown-up is so cool. Then when you discover his work you find also the sadness and the kind of cliché of the French Don Juan, the Russian-Jewish spirit which is almost mad and desperate with love, and it's very appealing for a storyteller.

So it was his rebellious spirit that most attracted you to him?

This is a strange question because he always claimed to be a rebel, but the truth I guess is that he wanted to be loved. He would do any silly thing for people to take notice of him, even if it meant hating him, but he could not stand the idea of people not talking about him or forgetting about him. His main idol was Salvador Dali, so you can imagine kind of behaviour he wanted to have. He would open a newspaper and if his name is nowhere it's a tragedy for him.

Your film suggests that the events of his childhood informed his whole life.

I've heard many things about Jewish people during World War II, but his story in my perception is very strange. He had no idea about being a Jew, there were no religious activities in his family and then one day the French police call him and give him the yellow star. So it is very strange to have a religion that is given by the administration of your country and he had a very strange relationship with France. After 50 years, he invites black Jamaican musicians to rob and sing the national anthem, so it is an answer to his childhood and it was a long, passionate relationship with France. I also love the symbolic relationships he had with women and clearly he wanted to conquest France through women and through love stories. I feel that when he had those three months of passion with Brigitte Bardot it was clearly a symbolic love story, and maybe one of the motives of the movie is that I wanted to shoot Brigitte Bardot. You know, I say this as a joke, but if you have been drawing for twenty years and they give you a camera, you want to put a real fantasy princess on screen, and Brigitte Bardot is a hit not only for French people but everyone.

Was it difficult to decide what aspects of his life to focus on in the script, and which ones to leave out?

The main concern was not Gainsbourg, the main concern was that I don't know how to write a movie. I am quite used to writing comic books and I didn't want to listen to the masters of scriptwriting because it would like having the master of sex in the room while you are performing [laughs]. I'm perfectly aware of the fact that I don't know how to structure a movie and I'm not quite proud of the structure of my movie. I worked with what I knew like dialogue, image, colour, scenes, and I have to confess I'm proud of the actors, the image and the scenes, but maybe I'm not quite proud of the structure because I'm learning. I don't know how to give simplicity to the structure of a movie. I did structure this movie as I would have done for a comic book and I've got to improve this, because when you've been performing an art form for a long time, on the one hand you respect the rules and on the other hand you want to break the rules. That's what I do in graphic novels, but I have just discovered movies so I have to learn the grammar and at the same moment show disrespect to this grammar, and perhaps that's too much of a burden for my first movie. I had no idea it would be so complicated to mix songs, children, animals, puppets, I didn't know that the production would be so difficult.

I'm very happy that I went through this movie, because afterwards everything will be easy for me. For instance, I was so surprised and happy to see the audience laugh because I had no idea I could write comedy moments. In the future I only want to write comedies, whether they are children's comedies or adult-oriented, because I am so happy when people laugh, and writing an emotional line is quite new for me. I'm in the beginning of a learning process, and I say all this because I don't want to say, "Oh, I'm an artist, this is how I see my movie," I'm not like that. This might sound very pretentious but I would like to do intelligent entertainment. I don't feel I'm there yet, but I'm on my way.

While I was waiting outside I was told that there is a re-edited version in the works for the film's general release. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes, I did that. It isn't finished yet but it will be released in London next month, that's what you will see in the theatre. It will be about 15 minutes shorter. It does not change big things to the story, everything is here, but the language is quite different, and I understood many things. The film appears to address a younger audience. It is as complex but with more rhythm.

How did your background as a comic book artist help you shape the film's visual style?

The useful stuff was not comic books it was drawing. When you know nothing about technical cinema terms, not only with the camera but with the wardrobe, production design and so on, you need to make very precise drawings. You show them to the technicians, you wait for their answer, which will be very concrete, and then you draw again. Even with things like the focus on the camera, I don't know the names but I know precisely the kind of picture I want, so we try all of them. It's a very good way to talk to a technician because he can interpret the drawing, and he does not feel he is your slave, because he has a lot of invention as well. We made thousands of drawings through the movie, and they told me they were very happy to work this way.

Were there cinematic influences on your approach as well?

Maybe there is one; it would be An American in Paris. I wanted to have all of the clichés of a love story on the bank of the river Seine, like in Everybody Says I love You which was already a reference to An American in Paris. I wanted to shoot it on the real location but to make it look fake. I don't want my life to look like real life I want it to look like a movie, so there's a lot of light and a lot of colour. I would love to do a musical and I love the idea of doing a romantic comedy.

That sense of unreality is in the script as well, and we get the idea that we are not watching the historical reality of Gainsbourg's life.

I'm taking everything as it was said. It has been highly documented but it is documented only in his voice. The other thing is that I don't like it when a movie has the camera moving on the shoulder and you pretend that what you say will be more true because the camera is moving like you are a journalist and not a storyteller. My whole point is that you can give true emotion through fake image, and that's the whole point of live theatre. When you read Shakespeare, when you read A Midsummer Night's Dream, you know nothing about fairies but you know many things about feelings. I love to do this, and even though Brigitte Bardot is still alive, I love to treat her as a princess from the middle ages, as an icon. This is clearly not a realistic cinema but I hope people really cry and I hope they really laugh.

It can be controversial to take a non-historical approach to an iconic figure, though. Have you had any criticism for this approach?

Fortunately, it was wonderful when the movie was in Paris. Maybe they were easy because it's a first movie, they might shoot me for the second one! [laughs] We have sent the movie to 30 countries, but most of the time people don't even mention Gainsbourg who they don't know, and instead they say it is a love story in Paris with Brigitte Bardot, which is fine for me. I feel I was working more on the art of Gainsbourg than on his accurate life.

I understand you are currently working on a screen adaptation of your comic The Rabbi's Cat?

Yes, we finished the animation two weeks ago, and we are having very good screenings. We are considering putting it in 3D, but I am very stupid because this will add five months of work. We have to work on almost every shot of the film again because we have to change the floors and the space and so on, but I hope it will be released next February.

And do you think you'll focus more on animated films in the future, or will you direct more live action?

First I'd like to do more comic books, but I created a production studio for The Rabbi's Cat and I am not the only director, there are others. Our movies will be clearly European and worldwide oriented, I don't want to just stick to French audiences so most of our movies will be English-speaking movies, and we are considering working with the Universal studio in London because we are very fond of them. We are in the beginning of the process, but maybe one day we could create a studio like the Aardman studio or Miyazaki's studio, where they are a universe and every year you go back to their universe. Not every movie will be good but it's about writing a line from one year to another.