Inside Jeunet's box of tricks

From boyhood puppets to 3D.

by Richard Mowe

Jean-Pierre Jeunet: "I think of a film as being like a toy train."
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: "I think of a film as being like a toy train."

He has a small but perfectly formed body of work (seven films in total) although Jean-Pierre Jeunet is best known to most as the director of [fiilm id=8803]Amelie[/film]. There was also a sortie to Hollywood for Alien: Resurrection. More recently he offered up the satirical comedy about weapons merchants Micmacs.

Jeunet was born in Roanne in the Loire valley. He bought his first camera at the age of 17 and made short films while studying animation. He befriended Marc Caro, a designer and comic book artist who became his long-time collaborator and co-director. Their first live action film was The Bunker Of The Last Gunshots (1981), a short film about soldiers in a bleak futuristic world. He also directed numerous advertisements and music videos.

Jeunet and Caro's first feature film was Delicatessen (1991), a black comedy set in a famine-plagued post-apocalyptic world, in which a block of flats above a delicatessen is ruled by a butcher who kills people in order to feed his tenants. They next made The City Of Lost Children (1995), a dark, multi-layered fantasy film about a mad scientist who kidnaps children in order to steal their dreams, thus preventing him from aging prematurely.

And the success of The City Of Lost Children prompted an invitation to direct the fourth movie in the Alien series - Alien Resurrection (1997). He passed on a Harry Potter … and spent two years working on Life Of Pi before Ang Lee took over. Now he’s back with an adaption of Reif Larsen’s novel about a boy genius, The Young And Prodigious TS Spivet and for the first time working in 3D. He talked to Richard Mowe earlier this year at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris.

Kyle Catlett in The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet
Kyle Catlett in The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet

Richard Mowe: Were you always bit of a dreamer because you had a rather solitary childhood? And was this one of the elements that attracted you to Reif Larsen’s story The Young And Prodigious TS Spivet ?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet: I was an only child in a way. I had a brother who came along much later so he also was an only child because of the gap in our ages. I took refuge in my imagination. I remember around the age of nine I created a puppet theatre and got my parents involved in helping me with the lighting and costumes and they also helped to pay for it all. The next step was when some friends of my parents came around with a Super 8 camera and I remember the sound and vibration of the camera … it was like something out of Monty Python. I thought all I had to do was to buy a camera and become a film director. So when I left school I worked at a telephone company, which gave me the money to buy the basic equipment including the camera, the projector and the screen.

RM: You have never lost that childhood pleasure in making things – and I suppose a film in 3D gave you a new tool?

J-P J: I think of a film as being like a toy train. It was Marc Caro who used to tell me that he thought of cinema as like a game – you have the this big box of tricks and you have to use everything in the box to create a beautiful result – so you use the sets, the costumes and so on but you must not leave anything in the box. This is one of the things I don’t like so much about French cinema – we have tendency to concentrate on actors and dialogue and we don’t care so much about the visual aspect. I love when you use all the elements at your disposal. When you look at people like Fellini, Kurosawa and Sergio Leone - they use everything. I like the cinema of people like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. I am not keen on trying to reproduce reality – for that you should do documentaries.

RM: What were the first films you can recall seeing as a child?

J-P J: Like so many children it was the Disney films – I was taken to see them by my mother. And also Tom and Jerry cartoons. The first Super 8 film I made as a child was an animation and I drew it frame by frame.

RM: What made you think of doing the Spivet story in 3D?

J-P J: It came straight away when I read the book, which is full of sketches on the side of the pages. And that gave me the idea of using 3D because I thought it would be great to see the objects floating as if on air. When they released Avatar in France there was a commercial shown first also in 3D advertising sweets and candies and many people thought that was the best bit! I’m joking but when you see the candies floating before you as a child you want to catch them. It is difficult to think of how to use this process in a feature but with T S Spivet it was so easy.

RM: Did you feel you were a kindred spirit with the writer Reif Larsen when you met?

J-P J: He is probably my son in another life … he is 30 and I am 60 but when I met him for the first time he told me that he felt someone had scratched him on the head when he saw Amélie. It was a film he loved. So we have a common world and it was interesting for me to adapt his book because it was in the English language with a big American landscape and I was able to use 3D. I did feel that it was very much my universe.

RM: Did you have to change many parts of the original story?

J-P J: It was so packed with ideas that there was no need to change or add much, but the ending in the book was a bit messy so we simplified it for the film. The construction of the narrative was a bit different too but I kept the voice-over because when you love a book the best way to stay loyal to it is to use lines from the book and the best way to do that is with a voiceover.

RM: How many children did you see for the title role of the boy – hundreds?

J-P J: No, thousands! But the one we chose, Kyle Catlett, was very keen, said he spoke five languages including Russian and Chinese and was a martial arts champion. So I flew to New York and did some tests and he was amazing. He had had a bit of strange upbringing, which I cannot really talk about but he was incredible. He never got tired and was always positive. He was only nine-years-old and I had to remember that but I talked to him as if he was Audrey Tautou. I think he is going to be a great actor – and he is already. In a strange way the character is a kind of distant American cousin of Amélie. It was a bit of a nightmare because he had also signed for a television series and we had to juggle schedules and often he was not there but we had to shoot anyway. Of course, you cannot tell when you see the film.

RM: There was a bit of a problem with Harvey Weinstein, your American distributor who wanted to change things – and not for the first time?

J-P J: Yes, he wanted to re-edit some of the film but I resisted because I had the final cut. It is a bit like an artist who is told by a gallery that they are going to give the painting to a framer to change a colour because it has too much red. I would be wary about working in the States because of that. Freedom is an important thing. I have made seven films and even on Alien Resurrection I had the freedom. I had to fight and struggle a bit but in the end I won out. And, of course, on all my French films I have had complete freedom, which feels so good. We have by law the final cut. That was why this film was a French and Canadian co-production to avoid the Americans.

RM: Actor Dominique Pinon appears in all your films, and this one was no exception.

J-P J: I feel my films would not be complete without him and this time he was lucky because he was appearing on stage in Paris at the time but he managed to give us two days of shooting. I had Rob Perlman waiting in the wings if he had not been able to do it.

RM: Is there a crisis of too many French films trying to find a diminishing public?

J-P J: I vote in the César awards, the French Oscars, and in the box of films sent to professionals every year there are at least 15 or 20 titles that I have never heard of. So yes, there are probably too many films going in to production – and some are not really ready to go. We don’t have enough screens to show them on – you only have three days to prove you are successful and then you disappear to a smaller screen if you don’t make the numbers. And then you are dead. It is a very harsh world.

RM: Although you have embraced new technology your films still have a hand-made feel to them. Is that a difficult balance to strike?

J-P J: Sometimes in France they reproach me for the retro aspect of some of my films but people do not understand that I have been using new technology from the start. We were the first to use digital mixing on The City Of Lost Children and Spivet is the first big 3D movie in France. I love gadgets. I had the storyboard on my Iphone! I storyboard all my films. It is a way of working hard. Picasso made something like 150 sketches for Guernica. I believe in working but I am not Picasso! I can’t really draw very well. And I can’t speak English although I am improving. When I made Alien: Resurrection I could barely speak any English – can you imagine – for a big Hollywood movie? I was offered one of the Harry Potters at one point but I didn’t want to do it, partly because the tone already had been set and everything was already on the table and I was not keen on working with teenagers. I prefer working with children. I had just come off working on A Very Long Engagement and was very tired. But may be I should have done it because I then spent two years working on Life Of Pi before Ang Lee took it on. It was hard in some ways to give it up and the producers had loved the script. But it would have cost 85 million dollars and they wanted to spend only 60 million. When Ang Lee came on board he managed to have a budget of 150 million dollars with Taiwanese investment and it looked amazing. I think our adaptation was better – it was more personal whereas his one was more a copy and paste adaptation of the book.

RM: Have you had time to think about your next film?

J-P J: I am starting to think about where I go next. This one was hard because it was only half the success at the French box office that we had anticipated. I think the public in France were suspicious about a French director working in English! The same thing happened with Guillaume Canet and Blood Ties. I have had some propositions from Working Title in the UK and I am considering them along with a personal project. We’ll see …


The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet is on release from today (13 June 2014).

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