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Jean-Pierre Jeunet: "Not interested in realist things"
By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
October 30, 2006 - 12:26 AM PST

"I believe in working hard."

Always a fantasist, Jean-Pierre Jeunet started off in the arthouse cinemas with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, both co-directed and co-conceived with collaborator Marc Caro. He then sidestepped into the mainstream with Alien: Resurrection before finding his true path in the popular and critical successes of Amélie and A Very Long Engagement.

In all his work, great and good alike, Jeunet displays an overwhelming visual cognizance. So it comes as no surprise that after several other names were bandied about, he ended up as the perfect choice to adapt Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, whose main characters are a young boy, a zebra, a hyena and a tiger, all stuck together on a lifeboat.

Jeunet is currently in the Bay Area for several retrospective screenings of his work accompanied by Q&As. On October 30 he will be at Stanford University for a screening of City of Lost Children and on Halloween he will screen his own print of Amélie along with the charming, complimentary short Foutaises, at the Smith Rafael Film Center. He was an honoree at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival, where we talked with him about his career thus far.

Jonathan Marlow: What was your working relationship with Marc Caro?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet: At first we just did one picture together, Le Bunker de la Dernière Rafale (The Bunker of the Last Shot) and also the two shorts [L'Évasion, Le Manège]. One of them is from a comic from Paris, a kind of adaptation, but we made just Le Bunker together. It was a 26-minute short film, like a feature with costumes, everything. The five of us made everything, even the costumes. I edited, and I even did the negative editing. I asked the laboratory to send me the negative so we saved maybe a thousand dollars. I put on some white gloves and I just did it myself. That's the best way to learn. The best school is just to make everything yourself. You do make some mistakes, but I think that the best way to learn is when you make the things yourself. It's a challenge.

Marlow: So you're entirely self-taught. You didn't go to any kind of film school?

Jeunet: No, I worked at a telephone company at 17. You know why? Because my father was working in a telephone company. My destiny was in the cinema; I wanted to make movies since I was nine years old. One day a friend of my parents came home with a Super-8 camera. I was, "Oooh," and I thought, "I'll just work. I'm going to buy a camera and I will be a director." That was my philosophy at the time - if you want to do that, just do it. Buy a camera and make some movies. Especially now, it's easy to find a video camera and a computer and you can make movies. It's not a problem, you know?

Hannah Eaves: Do you still have your old Super-8 films?

Jeunet: I couldn't find them. I looked for them, for a TV show, but I couldn't find them. I don't know where they are. I suppose some people stole them for a collector, you know? Maybe. I'm sure it's not very interesting.

[Jeunet speaks briefly in French with his wife, Liza Sullivan.]

Jeunet: It's reassuring for me, I have someone just in case - I can't say my English is very, very good, but when I made Alien: Resurrection, I didn't speak English at all. To make a very big movie. Can you believe it?

Eaves: Did you work with a translator?

Jeunet: A translator, all the time. It's just like having subtitles, you know? It's very tiring after a while, you're like, "Can you shut up?"

Eaves: When you go back now, as your English improves, does your feeling about the film change?

Jeunet: I understood the story of Alien when I watched the DVD with subtitles. For the first time.

Marlow: The very opening of Delicatessen is clearly very carefully constructed and I wanted to talk a bit about your use of storyboards to construct your films before you actually begin shooting. To what extent did you use storyboards?

Jeunet: I believe in work. I believe in working hard and a storyboard is just a pretext to think beforehand. Because when you are on the set it is too late to think. You have to work, you have to run, you have to watch the time. Beforehand, it's not expensive. Because Caro is a designer, we preferred to put the idea with sketches rather than words because it's more visual, it's more efficient for the crew. It pressures you to think. A storyboard is not made to be respected, to be followed; it can change. If you find another idea at the last moment, it can change. But you have something to believe in, something to follow. Now I have a driver to get to the set and I continue to work, to think - at the last moment, I find another idea. Or an actor can in fact do something. Everything is very prepared, but I like to change. I love to improve. It's a gift when an actor proposes something you'd want.

Eaves: Have you always been able to think in terms of a shot by shot progression like that or was that a learning process when you first started out?

Jeunet: I think there are not two good positions for the camera, there is only one, the best one. I didn't invent that. But it is the case that you have to find the best position. It's pretty easy for me to imagine visually, the film, for myself. It's not a problem. The most difficult part is to find a good story, to write a story - but to visualize is not a big problem for me. It's not necessarily classical, like, a "master," then a "close-up." I don't do that, except for comedy scenes, classical comedy scenes. Sometimes when people are talking, of course.

Marlow: On all of your films you have many, many more set-ups [brief shots that require their own environment] than any other filmmaker. They're not basic set-ups, either. They're very involved and very complicated.

Jeunet: Because I make a storyboard, and it's not just a master, then a close-up and a close-up, I'll use a different frontal view. I love the short lens. When you use a short lens, you have to make and light everything behind [the action]. When you make the storyboard, it's easy to be too complicated, too expensive. Sometimes you try to find another idea and, when you make a decision on the set, you always have to think about narration, artistic point of view, technical problems and money problems and then go very quickly. You have to make the tough decision. I love that. I love technical problems and I love to be involved in everything.

Marlow: Can you talk through what your process is for a given film, with, say, City of Lost Children? How do you start, at what point do you start bringing the actors into the process, at what point you go into actual production, and where in that you do the storyboarding?

Jeunet: I think that The City of Lost Children is the worst example because I think I made some big mistakes. I understood, back when I was preparing Alien - it was in Los Angeles and I was at Chateau Marmont. I re-watched the film and I was so ashamed. I saw every defect, every fault. I was completely depressed and I made a list of the ten commandments I have to pay attention to, to do that and to do that and to do that. Ten things. And I put it in my storyboard for Alien. It was a good lesson to me.

Eaves: What kinds of things were they?

Jeunet: I don't remember now. I don't want to say! The first mistake - we wanted to make a film with beautiful sets. With a harbor, a big boat, a big ship and maybe a kid and an adult, a big guy. You have to have a good story first. You can find the mood and the set after, but first you have to have a good story. It was a mistake, because after the mood and the spirit, we said, "Okay, now we need a story!" Mistake. That is the reason why there is not enough there emotionally. It's cold. It's beautiful, but...

Marlow: I think you said elsewhere that you had been working on the idea of Amélie for 25 years or thereabouts. Would you have made the film if you hadn't had the experience in Los Angeles on Alien: Resurrection?

Jeunet: In fact, I started to write Amélie before Alien. I was writing Amélie when they called me. I said, "I don't want to make Alien, I want to make Amélie." But, you know, I couldn't refuse. It was funny, at the meeting, I said, "Why do you want to hire me? You have some good people!" I said exactly what they wanted to hear. When you try to sell yourself, it's not good when you say, "No, no, I don't want to." Then they really want you. I thought, "Oh my god, they're going to hire me!" I hated myself. I couldn't tell the pilot on the airplane to go back! I wanted to. But after a while I was happy to make it, a Hollywood movie. It was fun. I thought, "If I refuse, every day I'm going to see my reflection in the mirror when I shave and I'm going to think, 'You refused Alien.'" No, no way.

Marlow: The experience working on that film was quite a bit different from everything you'd done before and pretty much everything you've done since. Walter Hill was a producer, Sigourney Weaver was a co-producer...

Jeunet: No, she was not. It's on the credits, I know. Don't believe American credits. Never.

Marlow: Well, this is an opportunity to correct them.

Jeunet: At the end, she asked the studio, "Oh, I did a good job. I'd like to be on as a producer." The studio said, "Oh, you have to talk with Jean-Pierre." What can I do? I said, "Okay, she's a producer." On Alien, I had two surprises. I thought I would have to fight for the artistic direction, but in any case, I wouldn't have any problems in terms of money because it's Hollywood. It was exactly opposite. I had complete freedom, in terms of artistic direction, but I had to fight stronger every day because they couldn't accept it; they had to pay attention to the budget. It's a science fiction movie. It [the budget] can explode. It was a surprise for me. Everything is so expensive in the US. So expensive for one special effect, you know? We made A Very Long Engagement for 36 million euros. In the States, it would be two or three times that.

next >>>

"I believe in working hard."
"I wanted to make something very positive."
"I love visual movies and I don't care if it's American or French."

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Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow

Hannah Eaves is an Australian-born writer and filmmaker currently based in the Bay Area. Her writing can also be found in Intersection magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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