Amelie creator sticks to his guns
One of France's most original directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet has turned down major Hollywood projects to stay true to his own imagination. Now, in his latest film, he is using it to take on the arms trade, he tells Evan Fanning
IHAVE just sat down opposite Jean-Pierre Jeunet to discuss his enchanting new film Micmacs, when he suddenly bursts out with "Allez Arsenal!"
It's been the end of a long day of interviews for him so I decide if he wants to talk about football, then we can do just that. As soon as he realises I'm from Ireland, his upbeat tone changes. "Don't speak about the French team," he says. "I am so ashamed, so ashamed."
It's not exactly the start I had planned for. Nowhere on my list of carefully crafted questions to put to the director of such curiously engaging films as Amelie and Delicatessen did it say: 'Bit of football chanting before we discuss Thierry Henry's handball.' But here we are.
It doesn't last long, however, and soon we are somewhat back on course discussing the life and work of the 56-year-old who is arguably France's most celebrated living director. But not before he attempts to steal my recorder. "Thank you for the gift," he says as he lifts it from the table. "In Japan they used to give gifts -- small cameras and phones -- it was a Japanese habit. But not any more, not since the crash."
If you were to paint a psychological portrait of Jeunet based purely on his films you would end up with some mad scientist in an underground lair, making grand and anonymous acts of kindness while maybe indulging in a bit of cannibalism.
Instead he sits stocky and relaxed in a black zip-up top, his grey hair cropped tightly to his head. His bulging eyes, flickering as he speaks, are the only real sign of the mischievousness of his movies. He speaks very deliberately, but slightly hesitantly. He doesn't quite trust his English and has an interpreter beside him whom he calls on occasionally to explain the intricacies of his films -- the latest of which is a delicious tale of an almost cartoon-like gang fighting some evil weapons sellers.
"It's an animation film with legs," Jeunet says cryptically.
Whatever he means by that, it certainly has been a long time coming. It's been more than five years since A Very Long Engagement was in the cinema, during which time Jeunet flirted with Hollywood for the second time in his career (the first being 1997's Alien Resurrection, which introduced Jeunet to the woman who would become his wife, US editor Liza Sullivan).
He spent two years working on an adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel The Life of Pi. "I wrote the script. I made the storyboard. I did location scouting in India. I studied wave machines in Spain in a studio. We did a lot of work. But it was too expensive -- $25m for an Indian kid and a tiger. Forget it. At least, the studio told me: 'Forget it.'"
The other Hollywood project he discussed becoming involved in was Harry Potter. It's somewhat hard to believe that Jeunet, who would seem to revel in the autonomy of independent film, could even toy with becoming involved with such a franchise as the Harry Potter films, but ultimately it was the lack of control on offer which dissuaded him.
"They offered it to me at the end of A Very Long Engagement. I was exhausted. It wasn't so fun because everything was ready. The first one could have been very interesting to make, but for the fifth the set design, the costumes, the cast are all there. You just have to say 'rolling' and maybe 'cut'. It would have been a huge job, but you have nothing to invent. I didn't feel like it at that point, but maybe now is different. Too late."
And so he went quickly into Micmacs, a title that he has trouble translating. "It's a kind of mess," he says. 'Shenanigans' is his interpreter's take on it. But is it a well-known expression in France?
"More or less," he says. "Kids don't know what it means. I made a mistake."
Mistake or not, Micmacs is the story of Bazil (Dany Boon), an oddball who has part of a bullet lodged in his brain following an incident outside the video shop where he works. Finding his job gone after his release from hospital, Bazil is forced onto the streets to become a mime artist. Here he falls in with a gang who are part Toy Story and part Seven Dwarves. From their base underneath a rubbish dump in Paris they build the tools and devices needed to take revenge on the weapons manufacturers who have caused Bazil's misfortune.
It's hard to see where the origins for such a sprawling, wild idea could come from, and some of the devices and set-ups in Micmacs have to be seen to be believed, but Jeunet, who began in animation before moving on to directing music videos and commercials, sees it in a fairly simple light.
"It was a mix of three things: the feeling to make something very slapstick, like a cartoon with a band of stupid guys; the feeling to make something about weapon sellers; there is a third thing -- but I can't remember... ah, ah, a story of revenge, like Sergio Leone's movies."
The idea to take on the weapons manufacturers came when he was making The City of Lost Children. He had lunch every day in a cafe which was also frequented by engineers and workers from a local munitions plant. He watched them eat their lunch, knowing the work they would go back to would lead to the destruction of many lives.
"It was on my mind [to make a film about weapons sellers] for a long time. I did some research with a journalist. We did some interviews with old guys from the weapons industry in France and a manufacturer in Belgium. We met some really interesting people. They have the passion for technology but they completely forget the destiny of the technology. It's very interesting. They say: 'We work for the Ministry of Defence' not the 'Ministry of Attack'. Every sentence we use in the film came from the investigation and research. For example, it is more expensive to hurt a soldier than to kill him. It's a new philosophy."
While Amelie, Jeunet's most celebrated film, contained many elements of his own life, Micmacs, he says, "just has a picture of my dog". Thematically, however, its story, and the overriding theme of all his work, is one close to his own.
"It's always the same story of a kind of orphan fighting against a monster, and the monster this time is the weapons sellers, and the orphan wins because he has imagination. And that is the story of my life because I escaped. My destiny wasn't to make films, because I was living in the provinces, my father worked in the telephone company, so it was difficult to imagine making a film one day. If I escaped from that world it was because of my imagination."
It is his imagination which has led him to the position he is in today. Amelie was never destined to be anything other than a small French film, but the world fell in love with Audrey Tautou and the weird and wonderful way her mind worked. It took more than $170m worldwide and was nominated for five Oscars. The Cafe des Deux Moulins in Montmartre, where Amelie worked, is packed with tourists every day -- but, he says dryly, "they never invite me, they never pay me anything".
It is the film which has given him the most satisfaction. "It was my most personal movie," he says. "I put a lot of personal things inside, and it was the perfect dream for any director because it was an auteur movie. I expected maybe one million people to see it, and it was a huge success.
"At the time, it was a tsunami of positive reaction from the critics, from the audiences, from awards. Now, in France, if you say: 'Oh, I love Amelie' you are tacky because everybody did. It's more fashionable to say: 'Oh, I didn't like it. I was alone.' In France, they love so much to hate what people love."
He has been with Sullivan since they met on Alien Resurrection. If Amelie is his most personal film, I wonder is he a man full of grand, romantic gestures.
"Not really. I am pretty cynical and negative, but I am very optimistic because I know that in 50 years human beings are going to disappear from the planet. Human beings are the worst enemy of the planet so, if you want to save the planet, kill the people. That's the reason I drive a SUV: to kill the world, to save the planet."
Finally, I wonder if he has any plans to return to Hollywood, to make a film which showcases his imagination on a grand scale. "I made Alien Resurrection so I have the experience [of making a highly commercial movie]. It was interesting. I think the experience was more interesting than the film, because it was just a sequel, like Harry Potter.
"I receive a lot of American scripts, but they are often stories from comics, from Marvel and these kinds of things. I don't even want to watch this kind of film anymore. I want to see something more clever. Not for a teenager with acne."
'Micmacs' is in cinemas now