"The Illusionist," which opened over the weekend, is French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet's first animated film since his breakthrough "Triplets of Belleville" (you're probably already humming the Oscar-nominated song right now). It's the tender and touching tale of an aging magician (modeled after French comedy master Jacques Tati whose Mr. Hulot character is beloved and legendary), whose abandoned script the film is based on) who befriends a young Scottish girl. Virtually wordless, the movie will take your breath away, not just because of the luscious hand-drawn animation but also because of the movie's raw emotionality. One of the reasons Tati never directed the film himself was because the material was too touchy, since it was his way of dealing with his abandonment of a daughter at a young age.
Over the weekend a few of the Playlisters were talking about how baffled we were that the movie hasn't been picking up better reviews or more press. We were genuinely floored by the film. A couple of weeks ago we got to talk to the director from his home in France, where he let us in on the development process of the film and what it was like creating a young female character that wasn't outwardly "cute."
Could you take us through the gestation of "The Illusionist" and how you came to direct a long lost Jacques Tati script?
Sylvain Chomet: It's a really long story. It's all to do with the script, from Jacques Tati. His daughter, Tati died in 1982 I think, and he wrote the script in the '50s and he never managed to do it because basically it's a story about a magician and he wasn't really good at doing magic tricks and stuff like that. So he couldn't really play the role himself, so he didn't do the script. But his daughter kept it and when asked to get permission to use an extract of "Jour de fête" in "Triplets of Belleville" she obviously saw what we were doing. She saw storyboards and pictures. And she thought that would be a good match, if we could do that ["The Illusionist'] in animation and not to do it in live action. Because she didn't want someone else to play the role of her dad's. So that was it. I had a look at the script in 2003, basically, and then we started to look for someone to team up with and production money. So that's basically it.
So you had always had the idea to have an animated version of Jacques Tati?
Well, everybody knows Jacques Tati as Mr. Hulot. But nobody really knows him the way he was in real life. So you remove all the elements that Mr. Hulot has -- the tie and the hat and those type of things. Underneath that, you don't know who he is, basically. So my idea was to do the film was to turn this script into a film and it wasn't really about Tati himself but obviously managed to cut him into the film, so it feels like Jacques Tati but not Mr. Hulot. So it was, I would say, a brand new film. And it's a very, very different film from the other films he would make. It's got narration, it takes place in different places, which Tati really didn't do in these types of films. So that's where the challenge was -- to have Tati be alive but also to have proper emotion.
What references did you have to create the Jacques Tati character?
Not a lot, actually. There were pictures from his family, like home movies and pictures with him and his wife and children. I tried to find out how Jacques Tati was looking around 1959, he would have been in his mid-50s. When we actually designed the character we designed it from pictures we had of him and he was very different than what you would expect because he was 55 years old and he wasn't smoking the pipe, he was elegant. He was very the contrary of Mr. Hulot because Mr. Hulot doesn't have any age. Mr. Hulot was dying his hair. And also he's very awkward in the way that he dress, but Jacques Tati was a very elegant man. So he was very much the contrary of himself. I think he used Mr. Hulot because he was a very shy person. And that's another reason he didn't do the film as well - it was too close to him.
Can you talk to me about the character of the young girl?
It was a very difficult character, very difficult. Because in drawings it's very easy to draw a monster or people in big ears or when people are ugly it's quite a pleasure to draw them. But when you have to draw a young girl, it can be quite boring. Because there's nothing really you can exaggerate. And this was quite different as well, because she ages as well during the film. You know, she starts as a young girl and goes towards a young woman. And it was quite a long process to draw her, because you really need to start with something. And I looked at pictures of girls and women outside of the main coast in Scotland and I was looking at them and trying to find out what was so specific about them. And I realized they had high cheekbones and green eyes, which was very Irish in a way, so I based my character on that. And then an animator started to animate her and as soon as she started to move she transformed a bit. And then there's a period when we needed her to become a young woman, so we dressed her differently. We had to draw her with different haircuts to see if she would be pretty when she grew older. Because we didn't want her to be pretty at the beginning, we wanted her to be a little bit, almost like a boy. But we still had to try it with a different haircut, to see if she could be pretty when she was older.
Was the film a reaction at all to your experience on "Tale of Despereaux?"
No, it's got nothing to do with it. It happened that it was a project that we were doing parallel to "Despereaux." But I didn't get along with the producer on "Tale of Desepereaux" because I wasn't sharing their ideas, their view of the film, it wasn't what I wanted to do with it. So that left me focused on "The Illusionist." But it wasn't a reaction. I was very interested in doing a film in 3D actually. But I suppose they thought the script was bad and when a script is bad and when you have the producer [Gary Ross] trying to tell you how to direct when you can't really save bad script, bad directing, you better leave the project. So that's what happened.
So do you still want to do a movie in 3D?
Oh yes, yes. I always wanted to. Whether it is live action, whether it is in 3D. Some people think I have a problem with 3D but I don't. It's just not the same kind of animation. It's closer to puppets or stop motion than it is to drawn animation. So it's another kind of animation that I feel I can control and make films with. "The Illusionist" is actually a mix, halfway between hand drawn animation and live action. It's almost like a mini live action film, according to the light and the way you can make different texts. Hand drawn animation takes much longer to do things and you can't really change a lot of things - once it's drawn, it's set. But yes, yes, I was really interested in the "Despereaux" project because the original book was really good and I really liked it. And I thought it would be a nice, interesting atmosphere to do with it. So basically I designed characters and everything. But I decided not to carry on. To be honest I haven't seen the final film but the characters I've seen are very close to the ones I designed, so...
Was it always your decision to make "The Illusionist" a kind of silent film?
For this kind of film, especially, the script, you've said, is Jacques Tati's work is wordless. It was just a provocation of that. It wasn't really something I intended to do. If I do live action, there would be a lot of dialogue. I used to work in comic books and I used to write a lot of dialogue, so I really liked to do that. It just happened that, for "The Illusionist," I felt that it was better not to understand what was going on. Since it's basically a story between the two characters is about them understanding each other because they don't speak the same language and aren't from the same generation. So I thought that maybe it's easier if you don't have too much words.
You talk about doing live action - you did a section of "Paris Je T'aime." Are you working on a live action feature?
I would really, really love to do live action. Because yes, I had an experience on "Paris Je T'aime" and I really loved it. As you know, coming from animation, it was something completely different and I worried that it would be too technical but actually it's pretty easy if you have attention to detail, which is basically what animation teaches you, to be very attentive to what's happening in the film. It's something I would really like to do, yeah. I have a lot of ideas for films in live action. Obviously they would be a bit different than directors actually have been doing live action. They would probably be more like the films of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Jeunet, people who come from animation. But what's nice about it is that it takes three months and after three months, you have a film. In animation, it's really long. We had two children on this project. You know, it's funny, I was watching the "Production Babies" at Pixar on the last "Toy Story" and they had, maybe 100 persons made. They are breeding like rabbits. But on this project, most of the babies are ours.
You mentioned Pixar. What's your take on the current state of animation?
It's great. It's really exciting. If it isn't just 3D animation and there can be other ways to express animation - hand drawn, stop motion, cut-out. That's nice. If it just all becomes 3D, then that would be bad, because obviously you would lose some very nice animation. But I've been very interested by what's happening in 3D animation, especially in the last Pixar movies. I really liked "WALL-E." I think it's a great film, and "Up" as well. They are coming to an age, which is nice. Because they really give their films to directors, they really have a feeling of being directed properly and there are some great direction ideas in that. It's really great. It's gone over the period where they've experimenting, because they've gone over trying to get things right, and now they can do whatever they want. Now they have to move onto something else - make the films more interesting with the story and atmosphere. And not just to show how, oh look, we can have these toys moving, isn't that fantastic? Everybody understands that now. It's not a novelty. Now they have to show what they can do with it, which is nice. It will be a very interesting period.
What is your next feature going to be?
I don't know yet. I don't think I'm going to do it in 2D. As I told you, it takes too much time, just really, really long. So it'll either be a 3D movie or a live action. It depends. There's a lot of projects going on right now. I'll have to make a choice at one point, so we'll see what comes first. But definitely it'll be 3D or live action.