‘The Artist’ Director, Star Break Their Silence at Wrap Screening

With lots of Oscar buzz behind it, ‘The Artist’ could be the biggest non-talkie in 80 years

Last Updated: November 14, 2011 @ 12:54 PM

The Artist” has been talked up as likely to become the biggest non-talkie in 80 years. So when it came to finding the motivation to make the first major silent film since Garbo spoke, where did French director Michel Hazanavicius get his last big burst of inspiration?

That’s easy: from “Avatar.”

"When he actually really started thinking about it, it was in 2009, during the release of ‘Avatar’ in Paris, and people were lining up in queues all around Paris to see the movie,” leading lady Berenice Bejo recalled after a Wrap-hosted screening at the Landmark Wednesday night. “And Michel was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do this black-and-white silent movie …’”

But when Sharon Waxman — editor-in-chief of TheWrap and moderator for the post-screening Q&A — asked if “The Artist” was created as a counterpoint to the advent of 3D and other technological developments, the director demurred and insisted he thought his movie and James Cameron’s were on the same page, at least in one crucial regard.

“No, because I think it’s a new experience for a lot of people to watch a silent movie, just as I think it’s a new experience to watch ‘Avatar,’ as well," Hazanavicius said. "So, I don’t really think it’s so opposite at all.”

If there’s a triple-crown of film festivals, “The Artist” has won it by being the audience breakout hit of Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto.

It’s certainly the wild card in the Oscar race — not least of all because the Weinstein Company is behind it.

It's also a contender in the contest for the most eccentric film that can cross over to mainstream multiplex this winter.

Whether it’s a curio or this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is anyone’s guess, but the advance buzz brought a full house to TheWrap screening to see how a film with so very little yapping could be prompting so much.

“To watch a silent movie in a theater is a wonderful experience,” the filmmaker said, “because you really have a special role as an audience in a silent movie.”

And not just because of the obvious ways in which mass laughter (or gasps) fill in some of the aural gaps.

"The movie makes room for you, and you have a part in the storytelling process. You imagine a lot, and the story comes to you in a very emotional and sensual way — not intellectual at all. It’s another part of the brain that works” during a silent feature, Hazanavicius said. “And I think I wanted to share that experience — or make it mine as a director.”

As it stands, “The Artist” is a light-footed entertainment, even though the comedy gives way to darker moments.

It’s a little bit “Singin’ in the Rain,” and a little bit “A Star is Born,” as it tells the story of the attraction between dashingly vain silent-movie star George Valentin (Jean Dejuardin), who’s on the outs as talkies come in, and his ingenue discovery (Bejo), who easily makes the transition to a new era in the early ‘30s.

Also co-starring: John Goodman, as a bellowing (at least in pantomime) studio type, and the most adorable dog since the “Thin Man” series.

But at the Wrap Q&A, the director divulged three abandoned concepts for his silent film that would have taken things in very different directions.

Instead of establishing a comic tone with a story set in Hollywood, “It was another option for the script to put the action in Berlin, actually, and to work with the expressionist silent era — and to finish with the arrival of sound and make a parallel with the arrival of Nazism,” Hazanavicius said. “But do you really want to see a silent black-and-white Nazi movie? I thought it would agonize the audience. I was asking too much. So, Hollywood is much more sympathetic than Nazis.” (The industry crowd laughed nervously.) “And also, the real star of this movie is Hollywood, I think.”

Another, even earlier discarded concept: “I just remembered two days ago that one of the first options for the script was to try to adapt ‘The Invisible Man.’ I realized quickly that to try to make ‘The Invisible Man’ with no sound, in a silent way, was really stupid. It was too challenging. You can’t see him, you can’t hear him — it’s probably too much. Or not enough, actually.”

A third abandoned concept survived in the finished film as a dream sequence, in which the fading leading man is startled to find that the world is full of sound, but he still has no voice. It’s the only time in “The Artist,” prior to the climax, that the audience hears any non-musical sound effects.

As you’d expect, financing didn’t come easy for such a radical departure from the last eight decades of conventional wisdom.

Hazanavicius said it helped that his two previous films in France, both comedies, had been successes. He got money from European TV channels, as well as Warner Bros., which signed up in advance to distribute the film in France. He also got his producer to kick in some of his own money when the director insisted that the film had to be made on location in Los Angeles.

“Bucharest was too expensive,” he joked.

In seriousness, he said shooting in and around Hollywood was worth the cost “because of the accuracy. I think some of the shots I prefer in the movie are the shots of the audiences, even though it’s just extras looking at the movies.” (Several scenes were filmed in Downtown L.A. movie palaces.)

He wanted American faces. “They are really genuine, and I think it was very important to have that level of accuracy (for balance), because the way the story is told is not realistic at all,” he added.

Bejo, a gorgeous French actress who is the director’s love interest in real life, chimed in to chide her partner. “You say the real star is Hollywood, and the best shot is the extras,” she said. “How do I take that?”

The ribbing between the filmmaker and his real-life leading lady continued throughout the Q&A.

At one point Bejo answered a query from the audience about whether music was played on the set by saying that the cast actually got hooked on hearing music loudly played while they acted.

“You feel you’re already in a movie,” she said, “and it was so inspiring. But at one point we were playing the music and Michel said, ‘No, you’re too addicted,’ and he stopped it. We were begging for music. But he said, ‘I need to direct you during the scene, too!’ He’d say, ‘Let’s do it again! Again! Again!’”

“You mean on-set,” Hazanavicius interrupted, to considerable tittering.

“We’re French,” Bejo said, half-apologetically — an explanation that became a punchline several times in the discussion (including when the question came up of whether the pair are married, which even they seemed slightly confused about).

One disparity became clear during the Q&A: Every audience loves the dog in the movie … but Hazanavicius, who Bejo described as not a pet person, did not. He expressed some outright jealousy over the attention that “Uggy” is getting.

“I was very surprised that nobody talked about the dog for 30 minutes,” he said, a bit sarcastically, after an audience member finally popped a canine question.

“What I can say is, he’s not an actor, the dog.” The crowd laughed. “No, he’s professional, but he’s not an actor in that he doesn’t feel things. What he wants is to get sausages. When people say to me, ‘This dog is great,’ I really take that as a compliment, because he goes from sausage number one to sausage number two. And when he runs to get the policeman, do you really think he’s thinking about saving his master? I wrote the script!

“You can’t work close by a hot dog truck, because he won’t do nothing for you,” Hazanavicius added. “But if you want to know something about the character of George Valentin, he’s a character who smells sausages. He’s a character who has sausages in his socks.”

Bejo interrupted him. “We said on-set we would never talk about the sausages on promotion. And here you’re revealing the secrets!”

“Because it’s funny,” Hazanavicius said. “And I could sell my mother (for a laugh).” 

Before the screening, Hazanavicius and Bejo also talked to TheWrap's Steve Pond. Here's the video from that interview:

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