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A Very Long Engagement - Jean-Pierre Jeunet Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. How did you first become interested in doing a film about the First World War?
A.
I have absolutely no idea why, but I make the same joke all the time that I think I died in another life during the First World War. Maybe it’s not a joke. Who knows? I met a guy in San Francisco who told me he had exactly the same feeling. Maybe we died together in the same trench.
I knew something, when I went in a trench for the first time and I climbed up the ladder to see the no man’s land. It’s a pretty strange feeling. But I have no explanation, I don’t know, it’s just for the First World War not the Second World War.
When I was a teenager I read everything about the First World War, every book. I wasted a lot of holidays because they gave me nightmares, even today it’s very difficult to read some of that stuff.

Q. Is the First World War still considered something of a taboo subject in France?
A:
For a long time it was a kind of taboo. And even today the war is a kind of fashion in France. My explanation for that is that maybe because we are going to lose the last survivors in the next few years, because they are very old now – between 100 and 110.
It was in a magazine that 20 people were still alive from the war, and that was two years ago. It’s like we don’t want it to be too late, everybody wants to read something about their great grandfathers. It’s very close to our lives.
And we had a very bad picture about the First World War. It was stock footage, and they walked too fast because they shot at 16 frames per second at this time. It looked a little bit comic, like in a Chaplin movie. And also the commemoration on November 11, with old people and the flags and berets, it was a little bit tacky. And that was it, it was the First World War.
But now we understand it was a very difficult war and the life was so tough, and it was young people who died for just arms sellers. It was not a war against an ideology like the Second World War. It was a war for nothing. We lost one million and a half people, it was huge.

Q. What do you think of the political wrangling over film’s nationality?
A:
It’s just a question of commercial competition, it’s not very interesting. For everybody in France, especially for the politicians from the right to the left, for everybody from the technicians to the actors, for everybody it’s a French film. Except for Gaumont, UGC and Pathé. Why? Because they don’t want to share the cake with Warner.
It’s new competition, that’s all. They tried to sue them, to get rid of Warner out of France. It’s a shame. We are in a capitalist world, and money interests are very important. They are ready to kill the French cinema over that, and I think it’s a shame. But with luck I think we are going to find a solution.
But that’s what they tried to do, I’m very upset with them. They earned so much money with Amélie. Especially UGC. They are incompetent. It’s not my fault if they are not able to make good films.

Q. So do you see any parallels with some of the military chiefs in the film?
A:
Yeah, maybe, the death penalty next time.

Q. And how did you come to work with Jodie Foster?
A:
I have to say it’s not Jodie Foster, it’s a CGI Jodie Foster! My first meeting with Jodie Foster was in the cafe from Amélie, Le Cafe de Moulin.
We had a meeting and after the meeting we were waiting for a taxi outside. A band of young guys arrived to take a picture of the cafe. We were just there, and the girls looked for ‘Amélie ’, then they saw Jodie and me, and took a picture asking me to step out of the frame.
She was in Paris to do the dubbing for Panic Room, because she’s completely fluent in French, absolutely no accent, she’s perfect. It’s something she learned at school.
She explained that she would love to work in French, with me if possible. I explained that it was too late, that I was working with Audrey on Very Long Engagement, but I invited her to be a guest star if she wanted.
She read the script and told me that she would prefer to act a bigger role. She chose Elodie Gordes and, of course, she was welcome. She was perfect, absolutely not the star she was simple, easy. Normal.
And she is not on the poster because she knows Hollywood and could imagine the marketing saying ‘Jodie Foster in A Very Long Engagement!’. She signed a contract to avoid that.

Q. It says in the production notes that you occasionally like to spring surprises, so did you ever spring surprises on the cast during the shoot?
A:
Don’t believe the production notes. I believe in preparation, that’s the reason I make a storyboard. I don’t want to compare myself with Picasso, but he made 150 sketches for the painting Guernica. So it’s no secret, if you want work you have to prepare.
On the other hand, with the actors I’m very happy if someone proposes something different at the last moment. It’s a gift for a director, and some actors are very good at it.
For example, Jean-Claude Dreyfus. Or Albert Dupontel, who plays Celestin Poux the guy with the bike. He made a one man show before, he’s very good, and I pushed him on each take to find something. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but I tried. But with Audrey we didn’t play with this kind of stuff because she loves that with other directors, but on this film she said she was respectful of my dialogue so she doesn’t want to improvise on this. But on Amélie, for example, the hypochondriac woman loved to improvise.

Q. How easy was it to cast the smaller roles, because they are filled by such distinct actors? Or did you rely on using some of the people you have worked with before?
A:
I try to avoid employing the same cast that we had on Amélie as much as possible. Dominique Pinon, each time he sees a light as you open the door, okay he’s there. But I love so much the actors from the 40s, like in Marcel Carné’s movies, interesting faces of character actors, able to play something other than what they are in their real life. It’s pretty rare in France, pretty difficult to find them now. That’s the reason I hire the same actors sometimes. I think the best actors are in this film.
Now the family is much bigger, because I’ve hired new faces like Albert Dupontel and a lot of people. I made tests with everybody. That’s the secret. Even with Dominique Pinon who I know by heart. The only exception was Jodie Foster. That’s very useful because you have a precise idea in your head of exactly what you are going to make.
And it’s very easy to shoot, you can adjust and find new ideas at the last moment, but making tests is the secret, even for the smallest character. I made some tests with one guy who has one line. I saw maybe 30 or 40 people to choose the best one.

Q. Were there any differences in scale for you?
A:
It wasn’t a problem, I was very curious to see that.

Q. So you enjoyed it?
A.
It was pretty fun, but I love everything. It’s true. Even on Alien Resurrection it was a big film, but I worked with a few people in corridors and that was it. For the first time I had extras. It’s just a logistic problem, I love everything – even logistical problems.

Q. Did you feel any additional pressure on you?
A:
No. I’m used to dealing with lots of money on productions because I’ve made a lot of commercials before. And I’m very conservative with money. I’m from the generation after the Second World War, I am 51, and my parents always said I had to eat up all the dinner on my plate so I am very respectful about other people’s money. It’s good for me, because they trust me enough to give me the money for the next film. That’s very useful.
And as for feeling pressure following Amélie , I knew by heart – as Audrey did – that it was a once in a lifetime thing. We know it couldn’t happen twice. This is a normal film, some people are going to love it, some are going to hate it. That’s normal. There’s no pressure – the pressure comes now.

Q. The film helps reminds us of the human stories during the war?
A:
These were our great grandfathers, it was very close. We have a lot of publications in France about it, and everything is a bestseller. I don’t know if it’s the case in England. But a German journalist told me it’s the same in Germany. It’s like the fashion now.

Q. Were you confident that these two stars would have such a strong chemistry?
A:
It’s a question of feeling, it’s impossible to explain but maybe that’s the reason they pay me a lot – to know that. It’s my job, I can’t explain it.

Q. What is that special something that Audrey evidently has - and which makes her so attractive to work with for you?
A:
With Audrey, it’s very easy to work. In fact, we are not very close in real life. Everything I know about her I learned reading interviews. She doesn’t speak a lot, we are pretty discreet, but we are very similar. It’s not necessarily to speak a lot on the set. We work together and it’s simple and that’s it.
For me, she is the perfect actress because now we know she is able to make everything. Drama and light comedy like in Amélie , that’s pretty rare. On the other hand she’s very technical which is very useful for me. She has a great sense of timing, she knows the camera, she’s very special. And she has a face like an elf. She’s the perfect actress.
I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word ‘trilogy’, just in case. Who know, one day, maybe?

Q. So do you have a special shorthand with each other on set? Tautou: We just need to look at each other and we can understand.
Jeunet: We feel the same things.
Tautou: We always agree about takes. And if we don’t agree on something special, there’s always a moment when one of us realises that the other was right.
Jeunet: Sometimes you can be tired and make a mistake. But I listened to her because I remembered on Amélie I made one or two mistakes, and she told me so. I didn’t believe her but in the editing room I understood she was right. Now I listen to her.
Tautou: Sometimes it’s the opposite too.

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