From his surrealist animated shorts of the late '70s, to his breakthrough 1991 debut, Delicatessen, to finding international recognition with follow ups The City of Lost Children and Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of the most treasured filmmakers in French cinema. Micmacs, his latest bag of tricks, may only be the director's sixth film in 20 years, but as an extension of his superlative visual style, it is at once an alluring and intriguing slice of cinematic whimsy. LWLies took a dip into the Jeunet universe recently to discover what has made him a filmmaker of such distinctive vision.
LWLies: The distinctive Jeunet world – the art design, set design, production design – where does it come from? From page to screen, how does it happen?
Jeunet: It’s difficult to explain except to say it in one sentence… I’d been making some kinds of movies since I was eight, small theatre plays with puppets, small movies with a tape recorder and some pictures on the wall. But I didn’t see any films. And then one day I saw Once Upon A Time In The West, at 17, and I understood how it’s good to play with the picture and the music and the camera, and I think it was such a huge influence that I continue to make Once Upon A Time in the West. And also Stanley Kubrick's, A Clockwork Orange, I saw it 14 times in the theatre. And also the cartoons and also, I don’t know, many influences. But the direct influence is the short lens that I use in my films and that comes from Orson Welles and Sergio Leone, and the colour because I love animation. The spirit of childhood I don’t know so don’t ask me. I love a lot the story of Tom Thumb, and each film I write is a variation of that story.
Your worlds seem more Clockwork Orange than Once Upon A Time. You seem to be trying to get away from any naturalistic aesthetic. You’re trying to create fantasy worlds, in fact, trying to make the real world look like a fantasy. Do you do a lot of sketch work? Does it all begin by your hand?
I don’t know how to draw but I find some pictures and I give the direction to everybody, to my collaborators, and as you can see the aspect of the picture has been the same since Delicatessen and I’ve changed the DP three times. So if the spirit is the same it’s because I know exactly what I want. I do the framing myself, I don’t execute on the stage or take the camera but I rehearse on the weekends with stands with my video camera, so that on the Monday morning everything is ready and everything is very precise in terms of the framing. I am very present for every step. For example, I am present at the casting and I see sometimes 10 or 20 people just for one small character. So everything is in my mind and the style is always the same. I don’t want to compare but a little bit like Tim Burton: you can recognise immediately a Tim Burton movie. I think there are two kinds of director: for example Roman Polanski changes his style for each subject; or Fellini or Kusturica or Tim Burton you can recognise after five seconds. And I prefer this kind of director.
So you think one style is ‘better’ than the other?
The problem is you can get the audience tired pretty early if you have a style because after six or seven movies in the same style, especially in France they say, ‘Oh, it’s always the same thing.’ But I love to recognise a style, if you love the director of course. On the other hand, it’s clear for the audience. I have a fish restaurant. If you don’t like fish, go across the street because there are other places for meat and vegetables. It’s good for the audience.
How much room does your style leave for improvisation or last minute inspiration?
Martin Scorsese used to say that improvisation is for before the shoot not during the shoot, you don’t have the time. Before I love with the actors to look for ideas and rehearse but if at the last moment an actor proposes something different – if it’s in the right way – I jump on it and am very happy. This is a gift for a director because of course I believe in working hard – I make a story board, blah, blah, blah during the weekend – sometimes I am very happy to change at the last moment. I can find a new idea at the last moment. And sometimes you have some gift from nature, so suddenly you might get a dark sky and wind and it’s different but beautiful. You have to jump on it.
Could you describe a little bit about your relationship with Dany Boon and how you worked with him?
For a few scenes I kept the door open because I thought it was the same thing for Jamel Debbouze because I wrote the script for him. With people who are used to performing in one man shows, they are so inventive so it’s good to let them find ideas. For example, Dany Boon clicks his fingers, which is something he does in real life for his kids. When he does the animatronic dance or when he pretends to speak the fake German language… This kind of stuff comes from him. Sometimes you have an idea and you pretend that it’s their idea but you push the guy under direction, you know?
So that’s how you prefer to work? You don’t like to lay down the law?
Usually I do some tests with everybody. During the tests you can see if you will be friends, if you will be okay, and if it will be a pleasure to work together. If it’s okay, if you find the right way and the actor does something I will show them on the monitor that they did something interesting. But the work is done during the tests and the rehearsals.
Could you work with somebody that you didn’t like?
It’s not fun to work with a guy you hate. Dominic Pignot is my best actor, I work with him every time, but I can’t say that we are friends in real life. With Dany we are very friendly. With Audrey we are very secret and very distant – she doesn’t speak about her own life. Maybe I didn’t have any dinner with her after two or three movies. It’s strange but she’s very secret. But I couldn’t work with a guy I hate, no.
You’ve only made three or four features this decade. Do you need to take that time?
You want to depress me? It’s only because I write the story, and not everybody can do that, and it’s always a long process to find the money. And you always have a problem, for example when Jamel passed on I lost four months. And it’s a long process to make the film for the timings – five months is a long process. And I do the promotion. I’m lucky because my films are sold everywhere in the world, but I have to run away around the world to speak about the film and during this time I could be making a commercial or trying to imagine the next one. But it’s three or four years; it’s not a choice.
Bill Hicks says about filmmakers who’ve done adverts that as soon as you do that you have no artistic credibility whatsoever. What’s your take on that?
Marc Caro was a little bit like this a few years ago, now he does adverts because he needs to eat. Chanel 5 was an exception; it was not a commercial, it was patronage, when the king gives some money to the artist. It’s like this. I was so lucky because the artistic director who passed away one year before, called me at the right moment and they said yes immediately and I said maybe you need a budget? But I had the perfect freedom to make anything I wanted, and they were so elegant in terms of freedom, money, everything. It was a perfect dream. So it wasn’t a commercial. If I put the bottle of perfume in there because it was my idea, they didn’t want that. It’s perfect. I didn’t sell my soul.
Do you think that there will be a relationship between brands and cinema in the future? Especially as indie film struggles to get money.
I don’t think so. I think it’s too expensive for them. But I don’t like it in a film when you recognise the brand or the bottle of water. Usually I don’t do that. But each time I have something they don’t pay for it. You know the cheese? It’s a very famous brand in France but they didn’t pay for that. Each time we ask they say, ‘No, no we are not interested!’
Having two or three years break between films, do you take the time to reflect on previous films and mistakes made, or do you prefer to keep looking forward?
I love to re-watch my films. I love that. I often do that. Because the first time, I put so much into making the film it’s like looking at a vacation book or a photo book. And also because even if I am not proud about something because for example I see Delicatessen and now I’ve changed my mind… When I saw The City of Lost Children in a theatre in LA I was preparing Alien: Resurrection, I was ashamed: I noticed all the mistakes. But on the other hand I know I try to go as far as possible when I make a film and I am not ashamed about all the details when we revisit a film. I suppose some directors don’t want to rewatch a film because they are ashamed of it because they know they could have gone further. That is my suspicion. I know we did the best we could. But after three or four years, you see the film as if for the first time and at this time, of course, you say ‘What is this bullshit?!’ or ‘This is interesting!’ And sometimes there are some surprises. For example, the last time I watched A Very Long Engagement to check the Blu-ray I thought, ‘Oh my God, they sent some young people to the First World War. They were so young!’ It broke my heart… and I wrote the story.
How do you look back on your experience with Alien on the franchise’s 30-year anniversary?
It depends. One day I think, ‘This story is so silly!’ Another time, ‘Oh, it’s not bad! It’s very violent. I did that?!’ It depends on my mood.
Was it one of those things where you couldn’t say no?
I said yes for the experience, it was impossible to say no to Hollywood. I was sure I would be fired after two weeks and that wasn’t the case. But the experience was amazing with my French crew, our own life exploded, it was great. But the film, for me, is a sequel, and a sequel by definition is not interesting. They hired me to change it and bring some personal ideas.
Micmacs is a fantasy version of a reality world which, at the end, moves into a political space. Do you think that it’s difficult to make a political point in a film that has been trying to keep reality at arms length? Do you water down the effect because of the style of the rest of the film?
I didn’t want to give a message. I hate this sentence: message. In France, we have a new word: ‘citizen’s approach’. You must be a citizen. Fuck me! It’s so fashionable, like pollution, you have to recycle everything. I saw it, they put it in the same truck. It’s just bullshit. They try to make you feel responsible about how much you put in the garbage, so they sell some battery in a big box of plastic – is it my fault? Do I have to eat the plastic? I hate that. So a message? It’s not a message. I speak about weapons sellers and I give some information because we made some investigations with a journalist and everything is true about that. So if some people think a little bit about the weapons seller, it’s not bad but you won’t change the world, you won’t change the weapons sellers especially, they are going to continue making a lot of money and that’s it. But it wasn’t easy to balance the serious part of the film and the fantasies, the slapstick. I was a little bit concerned about that. For example, when we were doing a test a guy told me that when we see the picture of the kids at the end, it’s too realistic at this time. But on the other hand I wanted to show that. It’s a little bit risky but it’s just a film.