His crazy idea makes silents golden again
Last weekend, when the Boston Society of Film Critics joined the New York Film Critics Circle in choosing “The Artist’’ as the year’s best picture, it all but guaranteed a walk down Oscar’s red carpet for this silent, black-and-white French film that, against all conventional wisdom, has become a critical and popular success.
Even the filmmaker’s resume is a surprise. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius was previously best known for a pair of James Bond spy spoofs that are barely known in America: “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies’’ (2006) and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio’’ (2009). It’s probably safe to say he’s the only one who saw “The Artist’’ (opening Friday in the Boston area) as a logical next step.
“After the OSS films, I knew I wanted to do a silent film,’’ says Hazanavicius, 44, while in Boston recently (he lives in Paris). “And I knew, if I don’t do it now I never will. . . . I met a few producers who were not good for project.’’ In other words, they told Hazanavicius he was crazy.
But then he met a champion in Thomas Langmann, the 40-year-old French producer with a notable film lineage. Langmann is the son of the late Claude Berri, who directed the internationally acclaimed “Jean de Florette’’ (1986) and its sequel, “Manon of the Spring’’ (1986).
Still, “the producer was worried,’’ says Hazanavicius. “That’s what they’re meant for. But it was clear between us from the beginning that maybe we’re going to lose money. I said, ‘If we lose money, we’ll do another picture together that will make it back.’ So maybe we’ll lose money on this one but we’ll do a prestige movie, a good movie, that we can take to the festivals. You’re not worried when you know it’s good. I had nothing to lose. People say I’m courageous but actually the producer was courageous.’’
Langmann says he’d wanted to make a film with Hazanavicius long before he saw a script. “When we met, I liked him as a person. I was surprised when he said he wanted to do a real, silent, black-and-white film. I said OK, that’s something different. Then his script was really good. When I pay 10 dollars or more to see a film, I want something different. But if it wasn’t done right, it could have been a terrible, experimental movie seen by just your friends.’’
Langmann’s key contribution was that he advised Hazanavicius to change the film’s title from “Beauty Spot’’ to “The Artist.’’ He also greenlighted the film’s shooting in Hollywood, a vital element since the film is about a 1920s silent film star, George Valentin (“OSS’’ star Jean Dujardin), whose life is thrown into a tailspin with the arrival of talkies. In “A Star Is Born’’ fashion, Valentin’s career declines while young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, who also starred in the “OSS’’ movies) becomes a screen sensation. “The Artist’’ follows the two parallel stories, mixing melodrama, romance, slapstick, and many film references, from F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise’’ (“I watched this film over and over,’’ says Hazanavicius) to “Citizen Kane,’’ “Vertigo,’’ and “Sunset Boulevard.’’
“Billy Wilder is the director of directors,’’ says Hazanavicius, who is married to Bejo. “I watched a lot of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ I was jealous of one scene when Norma Desmond goes to the studio in a hat with a big feather and a microphone hits it. With one shot, [Wilder] tells the whole story.’’
Hazanavicius wasn’t trying to re-create a silent film; he was trying to recapture the spirit of a silent (or almost silent) film. “The Artist,’’ he says, “knows it’s a silent film,’’ which allowed him to both respect and play with the genre’s codes. And of course, it isn’t really silent. Live music, often a pipe organ, accompanied films of the silent era. Hazanavicius employed his friend and frequent collaborator Ludovic Bource to compose the original score that brims with homage to film composers such as Charlie Chaplin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Herrmann but is also modern in creating music specific to each character.
“I wanted to make a modern movie for a modern audience. Silent movies were done for a much less sophisticated audience than now. The idea was for me to create the mood, the atmosphere of classic Hollywood, not just the silent era,’’ he says. “The best compliment is when people tell me, ‘Your film reminds me why I love movies.’ ’’
A film steeped in film lore begged to be shot in Hollywood but Langmann says, “Michel could not even bear to ask me to shoot in the US and give up all the French subsidies. But he went to Hollywood and saw how close it all was to the scenes he’d written and dreamed about. I said, ‘Well, let’s shoot the whole thing there, then.’ It was a crazy move but today it’s changed everything.’’
What also changed everything was Cannes. Hazanavicius had to convince Langmann to enter “The Artist’’ into competition at this year’s high-profile film festival on the French Riviera. “I was afraid of Cannes. I thought it was a popular movie, not an art movie. In France, Dujardin and Bejo are popular movie stars,’’ says Langmann. Ushered into competition at the last minute in May, “The Artist’’ was wildly received at Cannes and bought by Harvey Weinstein. Through it lost best picture to “The Tree of Life,’’ star Dujardin won the best actor prize.
“At the festival, I met really great directors who all told me they were jealous of me, because I had done it, I had made a silent film,’’ says Hazanavicius. “Creating moving images belongs to cinema and only to cinema. Dialogue can be a stage play, music. . . . Cinema is about creating moving images and silent films are the purest way for a director to do that. You ask the audience to use [its own] imagination, to be more engaged, and that makes the story much closer. It looks simple because the silents allow simple access to the story.’’
Langmann says he doesn’t even want to think about “the amazing and unexpected thrill’’ that an Oscar nomination would mean. There would also be a more personal satisfaction. His father won an Oscar for his short film “Le Poulet’’ (“The Chicken’’) in 1965 “but in those days he didn’t have the money to buy a ticket to attend the ceremony. He received his Oscar through the post. When I was 20 years old, he gave it to me and it’s been with me always. It means more since he died in 2009,’’ Langmann says. “So it would be very special for me and he would be so proud.’’
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.