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Belleveille Rendez-vous - Sylvain Chomet Q&A (Part one)



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. What led you first to comic strips then to cartoon films?
A.
When I was small, I loved comic books like Tintin and Pif Gadget. I started to draw very young. My parents say I asked for a pencil at the age of two, so I could draw our TV set that had an ornament of Juanita Banana, from the Henri Salvador hit, sitting on top of it.
Then, whenever anyone said, ‘what would you like to do later?’, I always replied, ‘draw comics’.
After graduating from high school, I was trained as a stylist at the school of applied arts. I soon realised I’d taken a wrong turn. Luckily for me, Pichard, the man who drew Paulette, was there. He recommended I apply to join the school at Angouleme, which had just been started.
I sketched out a strip and this got me into the school. I stayed there for three years and met both Hubert Chevillard and Nicholas de Crecy. I wrote a script called The Bridge in Mud for Hubert (published by Glenat), who is a great draughtsman. He has gone into animation as well now.
I remember a gorilla he animated, which was really impressive. His kindness and friendship led me to Didier Brunner, the producer of Belleville Rendez-vous. I also wrote scripts for Nicolas de Crecy’s Leon-la-Came.
Nicolas did the backgrounds for The Old Lady and the Pigeons. When I graduated from Angouleme, I needed to find a way to earn my living. At the time, I felt that animation was somehow too technical for me. I decided to go to England to become an illustrator. I arrived knowing no one and was advised to show my drawings to people who worked in animation studios.
People were much nicer to me than they had been in France. I was told not to worry, no one becomes an animator overnight, animation is learnt in stages.
I passed a test and was set to work. I found myself working with some great people. I went to festivals and discovered fantastic films. One day, at the Annecy Festival, I saw Nick Park’s short, Creature Comforts, which has plasticine animals explaining what life is like in a zoo.
The voices are in point of fact real voices of people talking about their homes. The film is a masterpiece. It made me want to make one of my own. I met Didier Brunner, of Les Amateurs, who wanted to produce quality animation. I pitched The Old Lady and the Pigeons to him. From the day I gave him the synopsis to the day the film was finished, ten years went by.

Q. Ten years!
A.
It was a long and complicated business. At first, no French TV station would back us. We raised some money from the French National Film Centre, but not enough to finish the whole film. We decided to start anyway.
I went to work with one assistant and with Nicholas de Crecy designing the backgrounds. We shot the first part at Folimage Studios in Valence, animating scene by scene in chronological order till we had a four-minute sequence. We showed these opening scenes all over the place, but no one would give us money.
After a while, I left for Canada, totally disheartened, determined to make a new start. I worked on commercials until Didier Brunner managed to get Colin Rose, of the BBC, interested. Thanks to Colin, we were able to raise funding from other TV stations and so got a Franco-Canadian co-production going.

Q. The Old Lady and the Pigeon was a huge success and won many prizes. How did you raise funding for a feature?
A.
Belleville Rendez-vous was five years in development, which is an improvement on The Old Lady… It was finished in half the time, though it’s three times longer. At first, Didier Brunner, who had just had a hit with Kirikou and the Witch, suggested I make a feature in three parts, using the Old Lady as main character.
I wasn’t so sure, because by the end of the movie, she’s crazy as hell and I also didn’t like the idea of recycling a character. I thought about using triplet sisters. The first would be the Old Lady with the Pigeons, the second would live in the suburbs of Paris and love cycling, the third would run a roadside motel in the St Lawrence wilderness of Quebec.
The second part was called The Old Lady and the Bicycles and the third Old Lady and the Ouaouarons which is Quebec dialogue for frog. When I started to develop the second section, I realised I had enough material to make a whole picture.
Didier accepted this, but it meant raising more money, to make up for the missing third, as the Old Lady and the Pigeons was no longer part of the project. So I went ahead and developed my story, using the frog idea from what had been going to be the third part.
I kept the French title, Les Triplettes de Belleville, that later became Belleville Rendez-vous for the English version. Then, it turned out I had to change the design of Cmapion’s grandmother from the original ‘Old Lady’ when the Canadian co-producer of my short asked for an astronomical amount of money in exchange for letting us re-use the character.
And so Madame Souza was born, a Portuguese lady with a club-foot. She brought us a great deal more than the original Old Lady would have done. We kept the title when the three music-hall singers appeared in our tale.

Q. How would you describe your style?
A.
It’s based on mine and character-acting. I’m more influenced by live camerawork than by animation. By Jacques Tati, of course, but also by all those silent movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton… Timing is crucial too. That’s why I love Louis de Funes, and all those British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson.
I also like Richard Williams’ animation and Tex Avery. In comic strips, Goossens is a master of timing.

Q. In The Old Lady and the Pigeon and in Belleville Rendez-vous, the interiors are humble but welcoming, they are reminiscent of France in the 1950s and 1960s. The exteriors are evocative of Paris. Why are you attached to this atmosphere and the characters that go with it?
A.
Because I come from a humble background, not a smart one. I remember going to see an old lady who lived next door to one of my aunts and finding her small flat that smelled of polish where every object, however insignificant, was shown at its best. I could never direct a story set in a world of rich people. My inspiration comes from my own experience.

Q. What is so fascinating about railway landscapes, about bridges and the Tour de France?
A.
I’m more interested in the people one sees during the Tour de France than in the race itself. I remember watching in fascination as guys would throw pens and caps by the handful all along the way. And, as I grew up in the suburbs, trains were a part of my life. Suburban trains are a constant reminder that tomorrow you are going to have to get up and go to work. When I was a student, I’d look at old photographs, and try to picture the scenes behind them. I remember a picture of a bridge with an engine driving along above a small town below.

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