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Micmacs – Jean-Pierre Jeunet interview

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRENCH director Jean-Pierre Jeunet talks to us about making his latest movie, Micmacs, and why the theme of an orphan taking on a monster is such a recurring theme.

He also talks about his experience of Hollywood [making Alien Resurrection], his attempts to make Life of Pi, and why he likes to use every toy in the filmmaking box.

Q. Why is it to important for you to have a co-writer such as Guillame Laurant?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: It’s important because it’s like ping-pong. But you have to find the right partner. It’s exactly like in real life and finding your lover. It’s very important. And when you have, don’t give up: keep him or keep act. And Guillame is a perfect partner for me. When I find an idea, immediately we exchange more of them [gestures like ping pong]… and I could not say whether it was my idea or his, or ours. But I need to find the concept first because it’s my film and I’m going to spend two years on it.

Q. And what was the inspiration for Micmacs?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: The concept for this one was a mix between three different ideas: the feeling to speak about weapons sellers, the feeling to have a band of silly people like the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White or the toys of Toy Story, and to have a feeling of revenge. I’m a big fan of Once Upon A Time In The West, so I wanted to meet the three different themes. I also love the idea of Pixar or Disney movies to have one idea per shot: so we opened the box and threw in thousands of notes and ideas. Once that box was packed with ideas, we started to write. And when we wrote, he writes the dialogue scenes and I write the visual scenes and by email we exchange ideas and I re-write his stuff!

Q. You also like the idea of an orphan fighting against a monster. Why do you like that theme so much?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: It’s the story of all my films… even Life of Pi, which I didn’t do for lack of money, but it was the same story of an orphan fighting against a monster. In that, it was a tiger, in Micmacs, it’s weapons sellers, another time it’s a butcher in Delicatessen. I don’t know why. Often my wife is reading them and she says: “Oh shit, it’s one more time the same story!” I hope maybe one day I’m going to change.

Q. For Micmacs, I believe you did some research by speaking to weapons factory owners? What did you learn? And why did you have to go to Belgium to do it?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I knew an ex-Minister of Defence in Belgium, by coincidence, and they were very open. They opened the door… we couldn’t take pictures but they explained everything. It was pretty weird. We met such interesting people who had a passion for technology. They explained in fascinating detail about the manufacture of these weapons. And they conveniently forget the destination of that technology. When you say: “But it’s to kill people…” They say: “Yes, yes, but you know, we’re on the right side. We work for the Ministry of Defence, not the Ministry of Attack.” So, they protect themselves and they don’t care because they love technology. It’s a question of money also.

Q. When Danny Boon came on board, how much did the character change?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Not much, except that [original choice] Jamel Debbouze had a handicap. I changed the beginning of the film because Jamel was supposed to have the accident with the mine, so now he’s the father of Danny Boon. But they [Jamel and Danny] are so different in terms of physicality: Jamel is like a shrimp and Danny is like a bear. But in their minds, they’re very similar. They come from the streets, they have imagination, they are very close.

Q. Danny Boon is also a mime performer. Did you like to use that?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: He’s a one-man show. He’s a writer, an auteur, an actor and a director. He also made animation. I’m very jealous because he got 21 million admissions for our film.

Q. Did you think about Danny straight away after Jamel pulled out?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Yes, because I could imagine him in the role. I discovered Danny 15 or 17 years ago doing his first one-man show. He was playing a depressed guy and was so funny.

Q. I really enjoyed the Delicatessen cameo…
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Thank you. I wanted to make it Amelie, it would have been funnier. I wanted to see Amelie with kids and a baby crying, Mathieu Kassovitz with a beer bottle in front of the TV. But of course, Audrey [Tautou] said ‘no’ because she was shooting Coco Before Chanel. So, I made it Delicatessen at the last moment.

Q. You also place loads of billboards advertising Micmacs in the background of the movie. What was the idea behind that?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: It doesn’t make sense, does it? But I thought I don’t care: it’s funny for me, so it can be funny for some other people. There are five posters. If you don’t see them first time, you have to buy it on DVD [laughs]!

Dominique Pinon in Micmacs

Q. You’re working with Dominique Pinon again and have said it’s almost impossible now to make a film without him…
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I can’t make a film without Dominique. It’s not a question of superstition; it’s just because he surprises me every time. And he has such a beautiful face, for me… like an African statue.

Q. Do you have kind of a competition with each other to see how much you can put him through? This time you fire him into the Seine…
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Not really. But it became a kind of game between us. Yes, we throw him into the Seine and he had to have an injection for protection against the rat pee. When he was in the water, we had two divers to pull him to the bottom.

Q. How did he react when you told him that was going to happen?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: [Shrugs shoulders playfully] He loves that! He pretended to be upset. The toughest part was when he was inside the cannon, because he had to stay in there a long time. Sometimes, we fooled him by saying: “OK, we’re going to eat! See you later!”

Q. Have you ever considered being in front of the camera?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: No, never. I’m too handsome [laughs]!

Q. How do you position Micmacs in your filmography? Your first films are very dark, whereas Amelie is very bright and positive. So, where does Micmacs come?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I would say it’s a mix of everything I’ve made; a kind of conclusion. Now, I need to make something different. I had some reproach in France about always doing the same thing. And it’s true… because I was supposed to make Life of Pi. It would have been very different: the sea, the tiger, the kid… But for money reasons it didn’t happen. So, I decided to shoot something and I opened my box and put everything I had in this film. So, if you like my previous films, Micmacs is OK. If you don’t, then don’t go and see this [laughs]!

Q. What kind of audience did you have in mind while you were making it?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I don’t want to say kids, but young people, because it’s a slapstick cartoon. Ideally, I would like to have the audience they have for Pixar movies. But I think it could be the same audience!

Q. You had a big Hollywood experience with Alien Resurrection and you tried to do Life of Pi. Will you make another American movie?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Why not? For Life of Pi, I wrote the script and I had the freedom. So, the freedom is the most important thing for me. I need the complete freedom. By law you have the final cut in France. Did you know that? For Alien, it was different. It was OK. But I always used to say that every day was the toughest day of my life. One day, I almost missed leaving the gates of the studio in my car because it was tight every day. But I’m proud of the film and I stayed friends with Twentieth Century Fox. They offered me to make Life of Pi. But I prefer the freedom and I’d like to find a compromise because I’d like to shoot with American actors.

When I hear my American agent… last time he told me: “Oh, there’s an American actor, he lives in New York, he’d like to meet you. His name is Al Pacino…” You say: “Oh yes, why not?” It’s the same with Michelle Pfeiffer, or Nicole Kidman… so many actors. I’d love to work with all of them, but with the freedom. I would like maybe to make a French production like Taken, from Luc Besson, with an American actor. I’m thinking about that. I need to find the right subject. I also want to change the way I shoot: very fast. My DP said it was too early, though, but when I saw Slumdog Millionaire I was very pissed off. I would have wanted to use that style of camera-work for Micmacs. And 3D also… Micmacs could be in 3D. Why not? So, I want to change things a little.

Q. Have you given up completely on Life of Pi? Or will you come back to it later on?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I know they’re supposed to make the film with Ang Lee but I know they don’t have the solutions. You have the three worst elements: a tiger, a kid and the sea. The tiger loves kids, they are very good swimmers, and there’s a lot of sequences in the sea. It’s completely impossible. We’d have to do everything in visual effects. We researched the cost ourselves and we came out less expensive than the studio – we were 59 million euros instead of $85 million. But when you converted euros into dollars it came out exactly the same! In Hollywood, they want to cut budgets now. So, I don’t know how they’re going to make that film right now, I really don’t.

I think it’s the type of project we’ll speak about in 10 years. One day the technology will be good enough to make a fake tiger and you won’t see the difference. In [The Chronicles of] Narnia they use a fake lion. But it looks fake. You don’t care because it’s a fantasy movie. In Life of Pi, you have believe and it has to look real. We’ll have the technology to do that.

Q. You use CGI now in your films but they also still have a very real feel and a hand-made quality. Is that important to you?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Of course! In Micmacs, you don’t see but there are about 50 shots using visual effects. It’s a tool, though, and I love to use every tool. I love to play with everything. For me, a film is like Meccano and I want to use everything in the box: the costumes, the casting, the dialogue, everything… I don’t want to keep something in the bottom of the box.