French actor Jean Dujardin stars as movie star George Valentin, a dashing leading man and industry veteran. He bumps into aspiring actress/current extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) during a photo-op, a chance meeting that ignites the emotional core of the movie. As she slowly rises up the ranks, George is faced with the advent of the talkie. Refusing to give in to the "fad" of sync sound, he quits and goes off on his own. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller is thriving and on her way to becoming a top-billed star. When George's ambitious directorial endeavor fails to find an audience, his world begins to fall apart.
Screening at the New York Film Festival, the director and some of his cast (Dujardin, Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Beth Grant) along with producer Thomas Langmann did a short question-and-answer following the movie. We've recapped the discussion below, where Bejo divulges us with her lengthy preparations, Hazanavicius speaks candidly about influences, and Dujardin reveals an odd choice of a film that he used to research his role.
Michel Hazanavicius Wanted To Share The Black & White Movie Experience With A New Generation.
"I wanted to do something larger than an homage to the silent era, I wanted to evocate all the old, classical Hollywood movies. That's why there's so many references to 'Citizen Kane,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' a lot movies from the '20s to the '50s. I wasn't married to staying in the period, like in the scene where he first hears sound, there's a light that was used not in the '20s but in the '50s," Hazanavicius explained. "What I really wanted to do was tell my own story, if something helps me to tell it, I'll use it. I really wanted to do a mainstream movie in black and white. You see a lot of experimental ones like that, it's no problem, but I didn't want to do that. My daughter asked me once if the world was black and white when I was born. So they really don't know…But I wanted to show that experience. It's very special and very specific to those movies that are now gone, nobody watches silent movies anymore."
Bérénice Bejo Did Extensive Research; Jean Dujardin Watched "Lassie."
In preparation for their roles, the actors did their fair share of studies. Bejo dug deep and analyzed some of the first female stars. "It was important for me to find a way to be an American actress -- which I'm not, I'm an Argentine and live in France -- so I watched a lot of Janet Gaynor and early Joanne Crawford," she explained. "She had this adorable thing that man and woman could both relate to, and you wanted her to become a star. There's also Marlene Dietrich, she has something very special. Every time the actress came into frame she had something very animal and intense without even doing anything. The way she moves, winks… I would just google her and watch her wink and wink and wink...[laughs]"
As for leading man Dujardin, he pried into his childhood. "I watched 'Lassie,' he stated conclusively, to which the audience erupted in laughter. "It's me too, though. It's instinctive. I like to keep my pleasure on set, always. Like a child."
Michel Hazanavicius Readily Admits To Stealing Scenes From The Classics.
The look and handling of "The Artist" owes a lot to that particular early period in Hollywood filmmaking, so it's no surprise that certain scenes in the film are heavily inspired by moments in famous movies. However, Hazanavicius doesn't hide his sources. Miller describes a moment between George Valentin and her character/his wife Doris, which bares a striking similarity to the breakfast table montage in "Citizen Kane." Right as she calls it brilliant, the filmmaker cuts her off, "It is, yes. You should really thank Orson Welles for that."
His sincerity garnered quite a few laughs, and he continued, explaining why it was okay to do. "I acted like a crook, I stole things that nobody uses anymore and put them in this modern silent movie…and I think that's good! I'm not sure if there will be a lot of silent movies after this and if that will be okay or not. But for one movie, it's okay."
Like Most Bigger Budget Black And White Films, It Was Shot In Color.
Similar to Joel and Ethan Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There" and Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," "The Artist" was shot in a color stock and later changed to black and white after the fact. "We used color stock because it was easier, we did a lot of tests and the best images were with the color stock put to black and white in post." So there must be a color cut of the film somewhere, but don't think it will ever see the light of day.
"I kept in mind that the movie would be in black and white, but we shot in color. So you'd see on set, purple dresses with yellow hats… that was not so nice… so we have a color print but I won't use it. I hope we never will!" Hazanavicius exclaimed.
Berenice Bejo Wanted To Give Audiences A Gift With The Dancing Sequences.
A successful love letter to a type of movie long gone, "The Artist" is consistently tugging at the heart and making you feel all warm and gooey inside. But nothing really tops its dancing sequences, an exuberant display of joy that sweetens the journey these characters take. Of course, it came with a price. "We were not tap dancers, so we worked for six months almost every day. It was a lot of fun at the beginning and then it started to get boring, and then fun again...," Bejo said, displaying the back-and-forth emotions with a finger. "I love being in the audience and watching an actor doing something they didn't already know, I feel like they gave me a gift. You never see the work of an actor, but when you see them doing something they've learnt, it's always a lot of fun for an audience. So we really wanted to give you something special like that."
And that make that treat even more special, Hazanavicius had a demanding approach to filming. "Michel wanted to film it as one shot as opposed to showing legs dancing, then cutting to see our faces…so it was a big challenge. The only thing he said is that we needed to smile, because if you smile, people are going to watch your face and not your feet," Dujardin said. "I was thrilled to dance, I love dancing. I'd love to do it again, Tonight. With my wife," he added to laughter.
"The Artist" opens on November 23rd.