Jean-Pierre Jeunet became a name on the international film scene with Delicatessen, a highly visual, darkly funny adventure made with filmmaking partner Marc Caro. Jeunet and Caro also collaborated on The City of Lost Children before Jeunet struck out on his own to helm Alien: Resurrection for 20th Century Fox. Back on the homefront, Jeunet made the smash sensation Amelie, making Audrey Tautou a star in the process, and reteamed with her for A Very Long Engagement. Now, Jeunet returns to dark comedy with Micmacs, a whimsical tale of sweet revenge against weapons manufacturers. In town to accompany Micmacs as it opened the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, Jeunet sat down with me at the Clift Hotel to discuss the film and his career.
Groucho: I want to talk a little bit about war in you films. I think it was your first feature, Le Bunker, yes—
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Yes.
Groucho: Was about war, and—
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: A Very Long Engagement.
G: Yes, A Very Long Engagement and, of course, the new film.
J-PJ: Not war. Weapons-dealers. It’s not the same thing.
J-PJ: It’s essentially the same thing, but—
G: What I wanted to ask about it is it almost seems like war could be treated as the opposite of what you do. Your films are about the joy of creation.
G: And that is your profession, your art. Whereas war is hateful destruction. That’s something Gilliam dealt with in Baron Munchausen.
G: Do you think that’s part of the appeal for you of dealing with, peripherally, war in your films?
J-PJ: No, it’s just because I needed different elements to build the story. And I didn’t want to lose time for this film. So I opened my box, and I saw I would like to have weird people, a band of weird people, a story of revenge, and war revenge, because we need bad people. And it was my preoccupation. But I was concerned about that, because I said, “Is it possible to make a funny story—about cinema, in fact—for the fun, like you said, and a very serious issue?” And I thought, “Yes, okay,” but during the process of interviews, I thought maybe I could make a very serious film, not a comedy. But it was too late.
G: (Laughs.) Right. Can you talk a little bit about the development of your style? I know that something that’s very important to you—it’s a little technical—is the use of the short lens, and the effect that you get from that. How did you happen upon your style?
J-PJ: I don’t know. Little by little, you do that, and after a while, you don’t ask you[rself]. I will say, I would like now to change, to make something fresh. And when I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I was jealous because for this film, I wanted to have a light camera, to make something by hand[held]. But with the same style: with short lens, same position of camera but like a viewfinder. Because when I take the viewfinder, and I say, “Okay, this is the position of camera,” now I will say, “Rolling.” Because it will be the camera. And it’s very soon. It’s a little bit too early if you want to have the quality, because Slumdog Millionaire, it was fresh, but in the big screen, it’s not beautiful. On TV, it’s perfect. But in the big screen—but in a few years, it will be the case, you know.
G: Are you attached to film or is digital okay?
J-PJ: No! No, I continue to use the film, because right now my [color] timer…he said, ‘No it’s too early for the video. I spend all the time to correct the defects, and’—but I don’t care: immediately the film is transferred in video, in digital. Forget the film. When you see a laboratory today, it’s over. Definitely, yeah. It’s the First World War.
G: You’ve described Micmacs as a slapstick cartoon.
G: I’m curious about the influence of not only animation, which I know is important to you, but also maybe mime and clowning and silent film comedy.
G: What’s your background with those?
J-PJ: I remember when I was a kid, we had one channel on the French TV, in black-and-white, every Sunday afternoon it was “Story without Speaking”…and it was slapstick. With Harold Lloyd, with Buster Keaton, everybody. But we didn’t know the names at this time. Maybe they put the title; they put—[breaks into whistling the theme tune]. I remember by heart the music, you know? It was a pleasure. I was in another room; immediately when I heard [whistles the tune], I ran to see the slapstick, yeah. And they were—I would like to make a kind of biopic about Buster Keaton one day.
G: Oh yeah.
J-PJ: Yeah, interesting life.
G: Absolutely. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you work so well with Dominique Pinon.
G: He has this particular skill for the—
J-PJ: Yes, exactly. Yes yes yes yes. And he was perfect for the cannon man. Especially for this scene I thought about Buster Keaton. It’s a kind of, you know—Buster Keaton could make that.
G: What about music videos and commercials: did they influence your style at all? It seems like you’ve definitely influenced where they’ve gone.
J-PJ: Uhh, no, I don’t watch video music now. I suppose I am too old. And commercials, definitely they steal my ideas. But not the opposite.
G: Right, right.
J-PJ: And sometimes in France, it’s a reproach. Some critics told me—Amélie, for example—it’s just a commercial. And I said, “Why not?” Because in terms of—not technique, but style, sometimes you have more interesting things in commercials than in features. And if my film makes you think about commercials, why not? Just in terms of style—not story, because of course for a commercial, it’s not interesting; it’s a question just [of] sell[ing] something: soap or something, you know. But in terms of style, sometimes it’s interesting. And they’ve told me so many times—yesterday, I had an appointment in an agency in San Francisco. And some people told me, “Every day we heard something about Amélie. ‘We want the style of Amélie! We want Amélie!’ you know?
G: Mm-hm, right. (Laughs.)
J-PJ: If I could have one dollar for each time they say Amélie—
G: You’d be a rich man.
J-PJ: Yes, yes.
G: I’m curious about your use of test shoots with actors. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
J-PJ: It’s very important, yeah, It’s the best way to avoid mistakes. Because if you chose the best actor, after the work is done, to direct an actor doesn’t make sense. You have to help him, of course. But if he’s bad, you want to give the quality, or you want to give the talent to the actor. And if you make the right choice, it’s perfect. After, it’s just a play; it’s just a pleasure.
G: Do you remember anything specific about your test shoot with Dany Boon that told you, “This is gonna work out”?
J-PJ: I knew him by heart, because I followed him—
G: His career.
J-PJ: Yeah, yeah. He used to [do] stand…up, or one-man show. I saw everything. And when I offered him the character, he said, “No.” Because he knew I wrote it for another guy [Ed.: Jamel Debbouze]. And I made a trap, because I said, “Okay, let’s play together, just for the pleasure, you know…the story. And we had the pleasure to work together. And I love this guy; he’s a real friend, who for now is a new friend, yeah. I visited him in his new feature he’s shooting right now. But I don’t like that because everybody says, “You are different. You are very picky on the stage.” For me, it doesn’t make sense, because I do my job, and that’s it. But when I see another shooting, I understand, because I wanted to say, “But you don’t see it. You know, you have to—you have to—
G: (Laughs.) Backseat driving, we call it.
G: So how did working in Hollywood change your career, and what will it take to get another Hollywood project off the ground?
J-PJ: It didn’t change my life, except I met my wife (laughs) during Alien: Ressurection. She is from the Bay Area, from San Mateo. But no, it was a great experience. I learned to listen to people. Because when they made some test screenings, sometimes they had interesting propositions. You know, for Alien, they hired a retired editor—he made Star Wars, this guy, I don’t remember the name—and he was inside the theater to watch the film. They didn’t tell us, of course. But someone recognized him. And of course he has a distance, because he doesn’t know anything. It’s so easy for him to do some propositions. Sometimes it was [a] great proposition; we learned a lot. The first reaction is “Oh, why do they want to cut that?! Okay, let’s try. Oh, it’s not bad!” you know? And sometimes it’s stupid. But we’d say, “It’s stupid,” and they’d say, “Yes, it’s just a young guy, a trainee, he made this proposition, but you tried. Okay, we are going to say it doesn’t work.” You need to be strong, because you need a tough energy to convince people, to speak with people. But I got the freedom at the end, though. I read a lot of times it was a nightmare because some people would like [if] it was a nightmare. Because that’s the idea we have about Hollywood. But it wasn’t the case. I was ready to work one more time for 20th Century Fox, for Life of Pi, yeah. Same studio, same people.
J-PJ: Now do you have a sense of where you might end up on your next project?
G: Yes, I would like to make another adaptation, like A Very Long Engagement. I don’t feel ready to write another personal story. And I want to change now, because I need something more serious, more adult, and I need a good story. I am looking for a good book. In fact, I found a good book, an amazing book. But it’s written by an American scriptwriter, in Hollywood, and I don’t know if I can have the rights. I heard he would like to make the adaptation himself. I hope I am going to meet him tomorrow or [day] after tomorrow.
G: Interesting. You’ve said before there’s only one right position for the camera.
J-PJ: Yes, the best! The best position.
G: For any given moment. Now that could mean less angles to shoot, or less coverage, right? But more setups, I guess, right?
J-PJ: That’s the reason my shooting [is] long, because—if you have—when I see the technique of Ridley Scott—he’s a very good director; I am very respectful for him—but he uses three cameras at the same time. And he does a scene in one setup. But at the end, of course, you have long lens, because if you don’t have long lens, you see the other camera. And that’s the reason I love so much short lens. I prefer to use just one camera. When I have two cameras, I am sad because I don’t know where to put the second one. And it’s not so good. Sometimes I do, but of course for explosions or this kind of stuff.
G: I’m almost out of time, but I wanted to ask: you are committed to fantasy, even in films that are more serious. You said that you’re not interested in realist things, much, right?
J-PJ: Yes. As a director.
G: I wonder if you’ve been approached by Hollywood for superhero movies, because they always seem to be looking for—
J-PJ: Not now, because I told them— talked to my agent—I am not interested even as a spectator. For me, it’s too much stupid. I can’t. Now as a superhero, it’s finished for me. I’m too old. I need something minimum-clever. I don’t want to say it’s clever, but it’s my own preoccupation, my own thoughts.
G: But you are interested in 3-D, ’cause that could be something out of the box of toys.
J-PJ: Yes! Yes yes yes yes. Yeah, yes yes. It’s very interesting. Avatar was very important in terms of aesthetic and technique because he used CGI, motion capture, and 3-D at the same time. And it’s very interesting. The film is the film, but the technique is amazing, yeah.
G: Well, I’m out of time, but thanks for talking to me. I’ve enjoyed your films.
J-PJ: Okay. Thank you.