The Illusionist director discusses his love for traditional storytelling, hand-drawn animation and Scotland.
Sylvain Chomet announced himself with The Triplets of Belleville, the impossibly detailed animated film that garnered two Oscar nominations without a computer graphic in sight. Since then, Hollywood studios have been falling over each other to try and get him to swap Paris for Beverly Hills, but instead he chose Edinburgh, where he established the animation studio Django Films.
His new film The Illusionist, the product of several million hours work and a budget of £10 million, is an adaption of the great French director Jacques Tati’s last, unmade script and a love letter to the rugged beauty of the old Scottish city. It opened this year's Edinburgh Film Festival and hit UK cinemas last week. He talked to LWLies about his love of Tati’s films, why he chose to set the film in Edinburgh and his plans to move away from animation to make live action films.
LWLies: We understand Jacques Tati’s daughter approached you and asked you to make The Illusionist?
Chomet: Yes, well we approached her when we were doing The Triplets of Belleville in Montreal because we needed to get some footage from one of Tati’s films, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, to put in Triplets, so one of our producers in France actually contacted Sophie Tatischeff to get some of this material. We showed her some elements of Triplets and then she had this idea that my kind of animation, my graphic style, would work really well with her Dad’s script. I was supposed to meet her two months later but she died in the meantime so I never met her, or even got to talk to her on the phone, so it was a very brief encounter. When Triplets was finished I was going to Cannes to present the film and I asked the producer to pass me the script so I could read it on the train. I was not really keen on doing an animation of someone else’s work because I already had my own projects and wanted to write my own films, so I read the script and I was thinking ‘I hope its not good’ because I could say I understand why Tati didn’t do it and then say ‘No, that’s not for me, thank you very much,’ and carry on with my own projects. But it wasn’t the case. I completely fell in love with the script, and at that time it wasn’t something I completely wanted to do, I really wanted to do a film about a father and a daughter relationship.
Do you really see it as a simple father and daughter story? Because there is a sexuality there as well, which was covert and latent, but it was there. Do you not see this at all?
In the original script maybe it was a bit more obvious because the woman character was a bit older. When Tati originally wrote the script he actually contacted a woman to play the role and she really looked like Brigitte Bardot, and she was a model for Picasso at the time. It was during the early beginnings of Brigitte Bardot and she was strikingly the same. This women is still alive and she lives in the South of England and she is a painter, so that’s the big difference, and when I saw her portraits of her, by Picasso actually, I didn’t use it. I didn’t go in that direction because Bardot became amazingly famous in the meantime and there was no way I would use a character that looked like her. So I went for something a bit more experimental. My daughter was 12 when I started the film and now she’s 18, so I had to make it a bit less sexual, although there are some elements in the film when you think something might happen...
When they’re in the house together, you wonder whether he will step through into the bedroom or vice versa. It always seems possible.
Which she does at the end of the film when he comes home and he’s drunk, and he does step into the bedroom but then realises that something has happened, but not with Tati. I think Tati was very shy with his relationships to women. Even in his own movies, there were a lot of pretty women around, but the character was always very shy with them.
How long have you found Tati an inspiration, and when did you first discover him?
Since I was born he was around, he’s just a part of French culture and I can’t really say when the first time I even saw a film by Tati, it was just like the air you breathe. When I got older, and particularly when I started work on this film, I really started to look at the details of his art.
Did anything strike you or surprise you?
What I discovered is the way he was filming was very special because Tati wasn’t really born with the camera in his hand and I don’t think he thought of doing cinema in his early days because he was a musical artist. So he had a way to shoot, he was basically shooting a scene; it was very theatrical or very musical, just setting a camera and not moving everything. You could always see their feet as they dance, never any close ups. The camera is never really telling the story; the story is on the screen, in the frame.
Considering this was Tati's script and considering his role in French culture, how much did you feel a weight of responsibility here?
I tried to ignore that completely and I’m probably going to realise that in the next month and collapse. I really tried to think a lot more about Sophie Tatischeff because she passed me this thing and I thought of the estate of Tati who were partners with Sophie and are now in charge of his films. They are very talented people and I felt part of that family and I never really thought about the weight of Tati’s heritage. I really tried to make it my own as well, I put a lot of my own vision in to it. I made the father and daughter relationship a lot stronger than it was in the original script.
The original film wasn’t set in Edinburgh was it?
No that’s right, the original film was set in Prague.
So why Edinburgh? What struck you about the city?
I went to present the Triplets of Belleville in Edinburgh, and I just instantly fell in love with the city. There was something about it; the change of light, the clouds passing. It's a city full of light and it's an amazing light that you can only find in Provence because there’s a lot of wind and the light is very sharp. I really loved the people as well, they were very welcoming, but in a true way. I always felt very at home and very much part of a family and very integrated in Scotland. So that’s why I set it in Scotland, because I don’t like to invent, and Prague doesn’t mean anything to me. I need to live most of the experience, so in the film when the train arrives in Scotland that was the experience I had when I arrived in Scotland. The arrival on the island of Mull with the fog; it’s something I lived, and I think it’s much better to try and transmit these feelings when you live them. You can’t invent Scotland, it’s impossible, you have to experience it.
Do you see imperfections in your work when you watch it back?
Oh yes, I have always found that with my own work. I’m a bit of a maniac like that. I’m never satisfied so sometimes I just shut my eyes because I recognise details that no one else will ever see. But after a while, I relax. I can watch Triplets and be relaxed about it, but it usually takes three or four years before I can appreciate it. But I’m still very moved every time I sit through the film. It’s talking about the transformation of people, the girl becoming a woman and the man being at the end of the road... I think it's very touching.
At what stage do you say ‘Right, finished’ and move to something else when you’re making something this detailed?
I try to start from the beginning and never come back. I always try to be convinced that that is the right choice and then go with it. So I really move step by step. When I was happy with the adaption I moved to the animatic and when I was happy with the animatic I started to work on the music and then I started to work on the animation. It's very important not to look back. You have a vision of a film and you go for it. If it's not right then that’s your entire fault, but that’s the way it works.
Do you think you’ll always make animation or do you think you’ll go into live-action cinema?
I have two live-action projects lined up, although I don’t know which one I will start first. I'd really like to try live-action because I love animation, but it just takes so much time.
Are there any challenges that concern you when it comes to filming live action?
People who do animation are very well trained when it comes to going into live-action because you have a sense of detail and control and organisation. Most of the people that come from animation, like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, they do a lot of work on the storyboard prior to the film so its always very organised. I'm not too interested in doing that.
Do you see film as a composition exercise first and foremost?
Well there are so many different styles. It depends on where you come from. Tati came from musicals and everyone has their own sensitivity, some people are more graphical whereas others are much more close to the dialogue. When I do live action it’s going to have a sense of graphicism, much more than someone like Godard, for example. He does not really use graphicism, it’s much more about the drama and the dialogue and the camera. [People like Godard] were people that used the camera much more, as a pen. I am a bit to the contrary. I am at ease with the camera and what I want to see, but Tati did not use the camera at all...
What inspires you in life?
My life inspires me in life.