In 2008, artists Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud teamed up to adapt Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis about her life growing up in Iran, a film that received a lot of attention for its cleverness and ingenuity as well as receiving an Oscar nomination in the animated category.
For their follow-up, they decided to tackle Satrapi’s 2004 graphic novel Chicken with Plums, but in order to not repeat themselves, they decided to bring it to life as a live action film.
In the movie, Mathieu Amalric plays a famous Iranian musician named Nasser Ali Khan whose prized violin is smashed by his angry wife (Maria de Medeiros from Pulp Fiction), and realizing he’ll never have an instrument that plays the same, he decides to die so over the next seven days he reminisces about his life.
Fans of Satrapi’s cartoon work will certainly be surprised by how well it translates into live action as the movie captures the spirit of the graphic novel with visuals that are both cinematic and fanciful, while also giving the filmmakers a chance to play with a tone that’s equally whimsical and poignant. The film also has one of the beautiful endings we’ve seen, capped by a ten-minute cinematic montage that’s unlike anything we’ve seen since maybe the silent sequence in Pixar Animation’s Up.
Earlier this week, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the duo in two separate interviews, starting with comic artist Vincent Paronnaud who is once again working with Satrapi to achieve her vision.
ComingSoon.net: Having already adapted Marjane’s graphic novel “Persepolis” into an animated movie, why did the two of you decide to adapt another of her graphic novels but this time to do it as a live action movie?
Vincent Paronnaud: To do something different, that’s the real reason. You know, we were in the process of finishing up “Persepolis” and we hadn’t really thought of other things but we were starting to think of other things where we could get a little breathing room. We started to talk about doing a live action movie and since we started talking about it, we ended up doing it.
CS: You had already your relationship and your roles in writing and directing when you did “Persepolis” so how did that change going into this project? Was the writing essentially the same?
Paronnaud: As far as the writing process, it was exactly the same in terms of how we developed it. We did storyboard almost exactly the same as we would for an animated feature. The big difference came into play when we started having to deal with the technical aspect of a live action movie, when we started to talk to the head set designer, to the cinematographer, etc. That was when it really started to be different, and the real shock when we did the shoot. It was really stressful. We had little time to do what we wanted to do and then to work with the actors, that was a beautiful discovery, it was wonderful. I mean, that’s the biggest change and the greatest difference with having live actors who are now integrated and part of our work. You then become almost like an audience member or a spectator to your own work.
CS: I would think Mathieu was a revelation because he’s simply amazing in this role, and I realized that for much of the movie he’s acting without dialogue even though there’s narration describing the scenes. What was the screenplay like? It’s almost like a silent film in some ways except for that narration?
Paronnaud: We kind of worked on character archetypes. You had the artist and the b*tch wife, so he had that part of the information but he understood that we wanted something more subtle that approached it from underneath. He understands that on the one hand because he’s a professional but also because he’s really bright. So he’s not afraid to say go from a register where it’s burlesque to something extremely moving and palpable. In terms of the work in progress, Marjane worked more hands-on with the actors, and she spent a lot of time talking to them, not only about their part. I mean, she told them bad jokes and so it kind of nourished the whole process, but in any case, in terms of the process, if we hadn’t had these actors to work with, I think we would have been screwed. Especially because they understood the film we were trying to make, so they were able to imagine it on a bigger scale. A lot of those actors like Mathieu or Isabella Rosellini or Maria de Medeiros, they are also actors that are filmmakers so they have an understanding of the whole process. They loved being there and the fact that we were recreating a set from the ’50s and to be part of that. They really responded to that and they understood what we were trying to do.
CS: I know you shot this film in Berlin and I was curious why Berlin? How did you end up there? It seems like an odd place for a French film that takes place in Iran.
Paronnaud: Yes, yes, but that was kind of by chance because of certain co-production issues. The result was kind of fortuitous and it marries well with our idea of a world that encourages tolerance. You have an international cast, a film that is taking place in Iran, and we’re doing it in Berlin, and it’s in French, so that appealed to me.
CS: How was it working with German crews? Did you find a common language that worked for everyone?
Paronnaud: It was really good, they were professional. I like that word “Professional.” Beyond that, we had people who did what we asked them, but they went the extra mile, which is really great, because on a movie you’re always behind schedule, you always have a hard time doing what you want.
CS: I’d imagine that one of the big differences adapting the graphic novel is that with an animated movie, you can storyboard it then make the animation look a lot like the storyboards. Here, you had to create 3D sets and environments for the actors from the art. Can you talk about how you developed the artwork into physical sets?
Paronnaud: We had really prepared the shots well, and our filming technique was very classical and there was very little camera movement, so starting from there, we built a set that was really specific for that camera angle, but that kind of adhered to the way we envisioned the film and we had a fabulous set designer. I mean, he was able to alter the Tehran streets into a street fair and then into something elseI can’t even rememberbut they were really skilled at changing one thing into another.
CS: Everything was built on the soundstages and you did nothing in actual locations.
Paronnaud: Yeah, that was what we wanted. We didn’t want anything that was natural or real, everything artificial.
CS: That’s pretty amazing because often you’d build a three-dimensional room in the soundstage and then you’d decorate it so it could be shot from different angles, but if you design it by shot, you just have to create whatever you need for a backdrop and never have a full physical room at any time.
Paronnaud: Well, we had planned all the frames so the head of set design knew exactly where the camera was going to be placed for each shot, so he planned putting up a wall, taking down a wall, changing the position of the wall, etc, that was all planned.
CS: As an artist, your imagination is limitless and you can draw anything you want but when you have to make it physical for live action, you do have limits.
Paronnaud: Actually, we started off a bit more timidly than what we ended up reaping. We didn’t really know what we could ask for exactly, and it’s after we spoke to the head set designer that we realized we could have some amazing things, but then we had to really think it through carefully because we didn’t have enough money for certain things.
CS: You guys didn’t have a production designer working with you? I imagine the two of you as artists would do your own production design but most live action movies have a production designer working in preproduction with the set and costume designers to get what the directors want.
Paronnaud: No, we did that. What would happen was the head of set design or the costume designer would show us some stuff and usually it was pretty damn good. They started off with some pretty good choices for us.
CS: I wanted to ask about the music because not having a lot of dialogue, the music does drive the tone of it. How did you guys approach the movie and did you have a lot of ideas early on of what you wanted in the script stage?
Paronnaud: For starters, the musician is a very good friend of mine and we played together, we had a group. He had already worked on “Persepolis” so when we started to work on the storyboarding, we would send him little clips and also sometimes some musical suggestions and it could go from anything from Debussy to more traditional stuff and that’s how we started working on it. He made some suggestions and then I went to see him in Berlin, ’cause that’s where he lives, so we actually had the music before we had the movie. Sometimes they would even play the music when we were starting to shoot scenes so that the actors would have the feel of the ambience. He had first done the music digitally so we had that first and then he ended up doing it with an orchestra in Berlin.
CS: Any idea what you want to do next? You have an animated film under your belt and a live action one and I assume you’re still doing cartoons. Do you have any interest in adapting one of your own comics into a movie?
Paronnaud: Yeah, I’m putting some stuff together and preparing, I’m writing some screenplays and I’m doing comics. I’m working on stuff but it will be more violent. I have sick ideas. (He says that last bit with a little gleam in his eyes that makes us think he’s not kidding.)
And after that, we spoke to Vincent’s frequent collaborator, the talkative Marjane Satrapi in a video interview you can watch below, where we discussed:
* Why she decided to adapt her second graphic novel as a live action film
* How they approached making the movie without having a huge budget
* Some of the differences between directing live action vs. animation
* She talks about the story and the different levels and changing tone of the story
* How the graphic novel was inspired by a picture of a musician relative of hers
* Talks about some of the changes she made from the graphic novel like having the main instrument being a violin
* How they approached the casting
* Working with the actors on set vs. working with animators
* Talking about the tone of the movie
* Why she decided to tackle “The Voices” as her next movie
* How she’s approaching someone else’s screenplay
* She mentions liking American actors like Steve Buscemi and Jeff Bridges but doesn’t say they are being approached for “The Voices”
* She has no current plans on doing more animation
Chicken with Plums opens in New York on Friday, August 17, and in Los Angeles on Friday August 31.
Thanks to Dominique for her help interpreting on the interview with Vincent.