The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius Talks Silent Movies and Old School Hollywood

The silent film era lives again in The Artist, a loving (and entirely silent) homage to the grand Hollywood productions of the '20s. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film follows the changing fortunes of two white-hot movie stars, silent screen legend George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who deservedly won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival) and rising starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). While Peppy's career takes off with the arrival of sound, George finds his prospects drying up. The movie blends dozens of silent film genres -- Chaplinesque comedy, grand melodrama and even a Rin Tin Tin rescue sequence -- into a totally enjoyable whole. No wonder The Artist has emerged as a leading Oscar contender: It's an unabashed, but entirely genuine celebration of old-school movie magic. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius talked to us about the process of making his passion project and why he chose to shoot a black-and-white movie on color film.

TWoP: Your movie really does bring the silent era back to life in a very vivid way. How did you accomplish that?
Michel Hazanavicius: "I was conscious of two things -- first, the silent film format, and then the fact that it's a period movie. So the format fits the period and I tried to recreate the period with the locations and costumes we used, as well as the way we shot the movie. The idea was to find a balance between what could be modern, but also keep what I respected from that era. For example, the movie has no nudity and no violence and the general mood gives you a flavor of the '20s. I tried to recreate that older style of black and white images, too. I tried to make sense in every image. Everything about the film is very old-fashioned and that contributes to capturing the flavor of those classic silent movies."

TWoP: You even found a way to recreate a classic Rin Tin Tin scene by filming a tracking shot following the main character's dog as he runs along the sidewalk.
Hazanavicius: "Those dogs run very fast and you have to be following them exactly at their speed. I don't know how they did it back then. I guess they'd film it in a studio lot with perfect ground to be able to roll smoothly on. But it still wouldn't have been perfect. When you do a movie, there are things that happen that you can't control, but if it fits the film, you'll take it. That scene was one of those moments."

TWoP: Did you use any '20s era film cameras or other period technology to make the movie?
Hazanavicius: "The guys at Panavision wanted to help and so they recreated some '20s lenses to capture the distortion in the frame that was present at that time. I used those a few times in the movie. But mostly we used new technologies because it's faster and easier. I had to shoot the movie in 35 days, so I didn't have time to learn how to use an old camera. And we don't have any more of the nitrate film they used to shoot on then as well. But we do have great tools now; it's easier to make films today than it was back then. So I would have been foolish, I think, to try to use the old cameras. I did use a noisy camera -- the camera made a whirring sound during shooting. To be perfectly honest, those kinds of cameras are cheaper to rent. But I also played a lot of music on set so we barely heard the sound of the camera. And we shot on color film, rather than black-and-white, and converted the images to black-and-white later. We did a lot of tests with black-and-white film, but color proved to be the better option in terms of recreating the kinds of images I wanted."

TWoP: Jean Dujardin does an excellent job distilling an amalgam of silent film stars -- Chaplin, Fairbanks, Valentino -- into this one character. How did he prepare for the role?
Hazanavicius: "When you speak of silent movies, everyone thinks of Charlie Chaplin first. And Chaplin was a genius, but he played a clown onscreen. I took the opposite tack -- I wrote the script with a powerful man at the very beginning, but then the arc of the character has him becoming a kind of tramp at the end of the movie, like Chaplin. I showed Jean silent films like Sunrise and The Crowd and he understood quickly that he could act very naturally. I tried to tell the story with images and that way I didn't have to ask the actors to pantomime. I wanted them to act as naturally as possible."

TWoP: Did Bérénice Bejo watch the same movies to prepare for her role?
Hazanavicius: Bernice is my wife, so she immersed herself in the period and silent movies at the same time I did. She read all the books I read and saw all the movies I saw; she was particularly enthralled by Joan Crawford, Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich. At one point, I told her to stop watching other movies and forget everything and just focus on this film. I said 'The character has been written for you and it's best to be you. Take her make her yours.' And that's what she did."

TWoP: Do you hope the film revives an interest in silent movies amongst contemporary audiences?
Hazanavicius: "I wouldn't say that I don't care about that, but I'm not a teacher and that's not my goal. I want to entertain people -- it's a privilege to bring some joy and entertainment to audiences. I'm not here to teach things to them. But what I do know is that if they go back to the masterpieces of the silent era, they'll find great pleasure for sure. There are so many great movies, and so many great American movies from that time particularly."

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