Of the directors on this year’s Oscar shortlist, Michel Hazanavicius, the Frenchman behind the beguiling film The Artist, is by far the most obscure. But thanks to his dialogue-free, black-and-white homage to silent movies, the veteran filmmaker finds himself at the top of a list that includes mega-auteurs Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and David Fincher, all potential contenders for the golden statuette.
Hazanavicius, who’s best known for helming the clever OSS 117 films, a series of French spy spoofs, has already pocketed the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, and with the Harvey Weinstein promo-machine behind him, should be dripping with hardware by the time awards season comes to a close. But when we spoke to the thoughtful director at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, he was dismissive when talk turned to the Oscars, and far more interested in talking about the painstaking effort it took to get The Artist off the ground, his disdain for the French New Wave, and that first, fateful meeting with Mr. Weinstein himself.
What’s it like watching your film with an audience and knowing they are watching it for the first time. Do you have moments of thinking, “I can’t wait for them to see this part!”.
Oh, yes, always. Especially with comedies, true comedies. When people laugh together at something that you said or did that was funny, that is something very special.
And what about the opposite when they don’t laugh?
Well, what I usually try to do are some screening tests and try to figure out why people don’t think this will be funny and why it didn’t do well. With a screen test, there is a possibility for change. For the last movie, I did some changes, not so much this time. This one, I didn’t really have time to do a screen test.
What were people’s reactions to your idea before the film was made?
In the very beginning, they were not taking it very seriously. They would ask “What are you going to do? What do you want to do?” “Oh, I want to do a silent movie.” “You’re trying to do a silent movie?” “ What about next time, for real life, what are you going to do?” Those were the kind of questions I was getting. And then, with the other two I made in France, things changed and Thomas (the film’s producer) wanted to work with me and I said, “Oh, you really want to make a movie with me? Any movie? Well, if it’s any movie, maybe it should be this one.” He thought I was crazy, but he really wanted to do it with me, he said let’s go for it.
He must be pretty thankful.
Yeah. Someone even bet money on it. Afterwards, he was like, “Now I feel less stupid!” But I think he was sincere, and he’s really proud of the film, and as a producer and what he did, I mean, for everybody who was involved with this film, it was a special experience. Everyone really did a great job.
You’re a French director and this film was shot in Los Angeles. Is it a French movie or a Hollywood movie?
I don’t care. I mean really, I don’t care. It depends on who decides. In France, it’s the nationality of the money that decides whether it is French or not. Many years ago a colleague made a movie with French actors based upon a French book; very well-known actors were in it. It was a classical film, shot in France, with American money, so it was an American movie. And now I’ve shot an entire movie in Los Angeles with an American cast, it is an American story, but it is a French movie; so it can be stupid. With this movie being a silent one, it’s like being in a new universe of language, so for me, given the nationality of the movie and where it was shot, maybe is not so clear after all.
Did you choose Jean Dujardin for this role because of his background as a comedic actor?
No, not necessarily. He is just an actor. He’s made other choices, and people follow him, they really like him. He’s a real classical actor. He’s made some comedies, some other choices. He can do a lot of movies. One movie I made was set in the ‘50s, the other one in the ‘60s In the first one, he was looking like a young Sean Connery, the second one Ben Gazzara, he’s very flexible. But I think what I meant was that in France, thanks to him, we’ll have a level of success. Other parts of the world I don’t know. The thing is here in North America, people could love the movie more than in France because there is something very touching for them to see a foreign guy tell a story. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. But I think so.
Have you been a student of American films your whole life?
I mean the silent movies I watched as a kid because my grandfather would bring my brother and I to a silent movie theatre. That’s what we were watching. But I studied a lot about silent movies. At the very beginning of the writing process, I wanted to understand the rules of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, and what I should do. Now I’m like a specialist.
Did you always want to be a director?
Yes, yes My brother, he is an actor, and he wanted to be an actor, and very quickly, I mean I thought the boss was the director, but really it is the actor. I didn’t understand why it would be the actor. I remember thinking this when I was eight, and I still think that, but you know my family doesn’t work in this industry, and so, I wanted to be a director but I never dared to say it, never to be assumed because I thought it may have been too pretentious, too presumptuous to put it out there. My parents were actually immigrants in France.
What country were they from?
Eastern Europe. Jewish, from Eastern Europe. So, for us, for me—France is my country—but for my parents, it’s their country more or less, so they don’t want to make waves. Be quiet, don’t speak too loud. They live a quiet life and that was their philosophy and with that being at home.
Did you grow up watching any of the French New Wave?
Yes, but, I don’t know why. I mean, there are some great movies in the French New Wave, but they are also a bit snobbish. Everyone is talking about the French New Wave, but in Italy, and even in L.A., there was real realism, which is what the French New Wave aspired to be. They are some great movies, but I’m not like a lover of the genre. I do think they have great movies, but also the way that they influence the other generations after them is a complete catastrophe. There are a lot of French directors that grew up after that and now want to re-produce what the others did. Now everywhere in the world, people think of the French cinema in this way and if you don’t do it, you don’t do “French cinema.” You’re French, but you don’t do French cinema. They can’t easily identify you, and therefore can’t sell your movie. You have to explain yourself.
Tell me about your first meeting with Harvey Weinstein.
My first meeting with Harvey was in Paris. He saw the movie just before Cannes, and I have a friend of mine who worked on the movie in post-production who led Harvey to see it, and Harvey was alone in the theatre. It was this small, chic, screening room in this hotel in Paris. Harvey was happy to see it, I knew he was happy. Later, I was home with my wife and the kids, cooking, and suddenly the phone rings and it’s the producer telling me Harvey really loved it, he really enjoyed the movie, and he’s going to talk you. I don’t know why, but at this moment the connection was awful and while talking to Harvey, all I hear is this rumble of weak signals and of Harvey going “Hi! It was wonderful!” in between bad connections, and then he said “Tarantino!”
Yeah, Tarantino. I mean, I really don’t know what he said, but he goes on, and so this was our first time meeting. and I really wanted to say something but, I mean, I speak English more easily because I am here, but when you spend your whole day in France or speaking French, and with French people around you, it can be difficult. So, in the end we agreed to have a drink and then I met him at The Ritz hotel, we had a drink and he said he really loved the movie, he fell in love with it. He said some very nice things about the movie and the fact is he bought it, and really does the job well. He really didn’t change a thing about it, not a frame.
Were you worried that he might?
Yeah, I mean I heard the same stories about how things go with Weinstein just like everybody else, and my friend, the same French director, said be careful. But, really, he is a very nice guy, and this is the truth. He was really nice to meet, he does an excellent job, and I really feel like I’m in good hands. And I mean its Harvey Weinstein. That’s something. And you know they used our poster and trailer. They trust the movie and I trust him.
Are you now looking forward to Oscar season? Because you know Harvey is going to be all over that.
Yeah, I know that. Everybody I know speaks about that, but I don’t feel very comfortable with it because you know, it’s a trap. If you take it very seriously, you are stupid because first, I don’t want to be disappointed. Second, I don’t want to sound ridiculous, going around talking about the award season, and then you are not nominated.
Everyone is saying that you will be nominated though!
I know, I know.
You’ve read all the hype?
I’ve read it, but honestly I don’t believe it, and here is my philosophy: I don’t believe what other people say about me. This is a rule of life. I don’t believe it, good or bad, really it depends on you. On the other hand, if I win the Oscar, it will be one of the most powerful moments of my career, and there is nothing more gratifying than this award. This is the award. To be nominated, whether we win or lose, we’ve won. But really, I don’t want to believe anything in a serious way. It’s too far from me, from my life. I live in Paris. If I can answer that question in a normal way: "Yeah, maybe I’ll go to the Oscars this year.”