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Gainsbourg – Joann Sfar interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED graphic artist and director Joann Sfar talks about the making of Gainsbourg, his surreal look at the life and times of Serge Gainsbourg, as well as liaising with the artist’s family and why it was almost disastrous when Charlotte Gainsbourg pulled out of the film.

He also talks about the tragedy surrounding his leading British actress Lucy Gordon and why he got jealous of supermodel Laetitia Casta and her relationship with Brigitte Bardot…

Q. Having been such a lifelong fan and admirer of Serge Gainsbourg, making a movie must represent the realisation of a lifelong ambition?
Joann Sfar: I don’t know [laughs]. It’s a movie based on my comic book and it’s very much a movie from a guy who wants to learn how to make movies. I wanted to have fun but I didn’t want to make a traditional biopic. It had to be based on the comic book characters, and I am pleased because it really looks like the comic book. I love the idea of making drawings and seeing them become real. It’s really like heaven to be able to draw something and then see it as a reality, even strange moments such as fire. I got to draw everything, from the sets to the costumes, and that was an amazing thing for me.

Q. How easy was it to stay true to such a unique vision?
Joann Sfar: Well, they came to me. But I always wanted to do a musical and the producers always told me: “Don’t say it’s a musical because they don’t work!” But I love musicals, not biopics. So, I took a leaf out of films such as An American in Paris, or Everybody Says I Love You, as well as the Walt Disney cartoons, where music suddenly arrives in middle of the story to such amazing effect. I also spent three years saying I don’t care, it’s not my money! If you want, I’ll go back to comic books! If you pretend you’re completely mad, people believe it. The only thing I wanted when making the film was to have fun.

I love live theatre even more than cinema, so I had my cast spend five months in rehearsals. They rehearsed like it [the film] was a live performance. I tried to take advantage of the fact that I was not used to making a movie. Movies are still so new to me so I had to use my fascination, and the fact that I’m almost a teenage filmmaker, to my advantage. And that’s why I don’t pretend to have made a good movie… but one that people are able to feel the love I have for this industry.

Q. So, when did you first become enamoured with Serge Gainsbourg?
Joann Sfar: This is not only me… it was the same for all French young people when I was a kid. He was the only French guy with attitude on TV. Most French artists were so boring. But he always talked about sex, he was always drunk on stage, and he could be sad and funny at the same time. That’s why, when it came to the movie, I didn’t want to worry about the reality of Serge Gainsbourg, I wanted to work with his poetry and his strange Russian way of being a lover – he would sexually harass women while being in love with them. Remember, this is the guy who f**ked Brigitte Bardot [Laughs]! I liked digging into strong archetypes and playing around with them. I also enjoyed creating a different kind of Paris… a Paris for Japanese tourists. This is not the real Paris either.

Q. How easy was it to cast the role of Serge? Did you find Eric Elmosnino quickly?
Joann Sfar: Eric is wonderful. He didn’t give a damn about Serge [laughs]. All the other actors I saw were so worried about creating an impersonation, which is something I didn’t want, but he didn’t give a damn about the character – he just loved script. Like me, he does not like real life. He comes from live theatre. I saw him when I was 15, in Nice, playing a character from Moliere. He was so handsome and charming and funny. Once we started working on Gainsbourg together, we became very, very good friends, and now have a strong relationship. I wish I could work with him on all my movies. He had this idea of putting sadness in funny moments and putting fun in sad moments. He would spend his time twisting with people’s perceptions.

Q. Another key role is that of Lucy Gordon, as Serge’s wife, Jane Birkin. Obviously, the film was rocked by her death [she committed suicide which the film was in post-production], but you must be very proud of the work she did for you?
Joann Sfar: It was a tragedy. No one expected it because she was the strongest person on set and always so joyful. We learned about Lucy when we were editing, so it was very difficult because the whole editing process was done while we were thinking about her. It was very, very difficult. I am still very close to her family. No one could have expected this. In fact, it’s still very difficult even today to watch some of her scenes. But she was so good in the film and gave such a brilliant performance.

Q. Laetitia Casta positively exudes sexuality as Brigitte Bardot… another of the things that impress about the movie. How hard did you have to work on creating that smouldering sexuality?
Joann Sfar: Oh yes, I wanted that from her… I wanted sexy. When we first started working on the dance with Laetitia I first asked a dance teacher to work with her. But then she came to me and asked: “Do you want me to give the audience a hard on?” I said “yes” and so she asked me to fire the teacher! We then started to work together on it, so everything she brings to the stage is something she and I invented together – nothing came from the coach [laughs].

She took very seriously the idea of embodying Brigitte Bardot. In fact, she even went to meet Brigitte and I’m very jealous because Brigitte told her very many sexual secrets. But she wouldn’t pass them on to me! I desperately want to know what it was like to get laid with Serge, of course, but with Brigitte even more so [laughs]!


Q. Serge’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, was originally to have played her father in the film. How much of a blow was it when she left the project?
Joann Sfar: For me, the movie was finished when Charlotte told me she didn’t want to be her father. That was the point of the movie at that stage, to have her playing him and bringing that intimacy. But then when I met Eric, I saw that he had this fragility and imagination to make the movie I had dreamed of making.

Q. Has Charlotte seen the movie?
Joann Sfar: No. They don’t want to see the movie. They [Serge’s family] gave me the allowance to make the movie but they always said they didn’t want to see it because it was too painful for them to see Serge on the big screen. But they wanted it to exist. So, I owe them a lot for making it possible. A lot of people have asked them for the rights to make a movie about Serge but they have always said no. So, I’m happy and sad… because they cannot ever see my work even though they gave me this great gift.

Q. What would Serge have made of the movie?
Joann Sfar: I’m sure he would have loved the project because he wanted to be famous forever.

Q. You travelled to Paris when you were young to meet Serge in person, but he died a month after your arrival. Did you get a chance to meet him in that time?
Joann Sfar: No, I never met him. It was my dream to meet him, though. So, I made the comic book and would post the pages through his mailbox, even though I knew he was dead. It’s just something naive that you do when you’re a young fan [laughs].

Q. The production notes refer to Federico Fellini and FW Murnau’s Nosferatu as inspirations when it came to creating the look of the film. Did you have fun with those references, and was the Murnau nod also a wink to your own love for vampires?
Joann Sfar: Yes, definitely. I referenced Fellini and Murnau because I would also love to be a fantasy filmmaker. I love Guillermo Del Toro and Tim Burton. My biggest dream is to make a big vampire movie but that’s very hard in Europe. That said, I’m pretty sure my next one will be a fantasy movie. I was lucky on Gainsbourg to have people who worked with Guillermo del Toro and I’m pretty sure I will work with them again.

Q. Are you writing that at the moment?
Joann Sfar: Yes… but I’m only at the early stage, so I don’t know what direction it’s taking as yet. Maybe I could make it with American money [laughs].

Q. Why is it so hard to get a film like that made in Europe?
Joann Sfar: We have the talent, just not the money and not the audience. People in France don’t really like fantasy. You need to go to Spain, England and Germany for that. Many of the people from my crew come either from Spain or England. But I hope to be able to work with them again and I wish to create European cinema on that scale. It could happen and attitudes may be changing. [Animated fantasy movie] Despicable Me was made entirely in France, so there is the talent here and now maybe the desire too.

Q. How is your next film, The Rabbi’s Cat progressing?
Joann Sfar: Very well. We are just finishing the movie and it has received a wonderful reaction from early test screenings, so much so that they are giving us the money to put into 3D. So, we have to rework every shot in 3D! I think they are hoping to make it a big release, maybe next February, in France. And that makes me very happy because I always envisioned this as a Jewish Persepolis. But the test audience results showed that it was being very well received by mainstream audiences, and especially family and kids, which was something I had not intended while making it. But that’s why they have now asked us for 3D, which makes me very happy. I love to make animation…

Q. Did you enjoy creating the animation for the opening titles of Gainsbourg?
Joann Sfar: Yes but strangely it’s not the easiest thing to do for a cartoonist. Preparing the animation is close to the comic book process but there are plenty of problems. It’s very interesting, but it’s also sometimes a pain in the arse [laughs], especially because it’s so very long. Something that takes 10 minutes in comic book form can take 10 months in film form. But I love the results.

Read our review of Gainsbourg