Drawing on real life

Sylvain Chomet talks about his live-action feature Attila Marcel.

by Amber Wilkinson

Chomet: I really wanted to do a film which was about music but not to be obviously to be a film where everyone suddenly bursts into song - although there's a couple of scenes like that
Chomet: I really wanted to do a film which was about music but not to be obviously to be a film where everyone suddenly bursts into song - although there's a couple of scenes like that
Sylvain Chomet has made his first full-length foray into live action features with Attila Marcel, after previously contributing a vignette to Paris Je t'Aime. The film considers the nature of memory as its silent protagonist Paul (Guillaume Gouix), steps back in time with the help of his neighbour to try to recall the childhood trauma that left him mute. Whimsy and melancholy blend together to make this a heady but satisfying brew that features terrific performances from a supporting cast including Anne Le Ny and the late Bernadette Lafont. I caught up with Chomet before his film opened the 2013 French Film Festival in Edinburgh to talk about his latest work.

How did it feel for you to be painting with people rather than animation - there seem to be some nods to your previous work given the strong use of colour in the film. How did it feel to be working with live people given that you normally just draw them exactly where you want them.

It's a collaboration at that point. I would say the people I was working with were more influenced by my work than I was. I never did a storyboard or any drawing or anything like that. But the set designer, costume designer and people like that really worked very visually. There was a bit in the script already - the description of the aunts and the apartments - you can't make it too realistic. All of the film, apart from the dream sequence, isn't treated. It's what we actually shot. I didn't work with the colours. For me, the focus was the characters.

Chomet: Although Paul doesn't speak, he has to express a lot of things through the eyes and that's not something you can do in animation.
Chomet: Although Paul doesn't speak, he has to express a lot of things through the eyes and that's not something you can do in animation.
It has the sensibility of a memory. I grew up in the 70s and we all know what photographs from that period look like. For me, the costumes had that slightly retro vibe as if it was almost an old photo you were looking at, even though it's set contemporaneously.

The body of the action takes place nowadays in Paris. The backstory is in the Seventies and early Eighties, which I grew up in, so I also have those memories. At that time it was very visual - the fashion, cars had a style to it. The Seventies was really the last period I would say, in our culture, when people where trying to make things and design things that were very distinctive. We've lost that. Now, everyone has everything, there's not much graphism. There are things you like to draw and things you don't. I would much rather draw a two-seat car than a Fiat Punto or something like that, that doesn't have that character.

The film has a lot of character. Music is very important to your animation and here the music is very interesting. Almost-garde in places.

I work with a musician - music and drawing is very close. You think it's avant garde but it's all 3/4 time, like a waltz. The tango is a waltz, the disco is a waltz, the salsa is a waltz. We used windchimes with Madame Proust because we wanted to have a character who was special when we come into her apartment. Also, her ukelele, which is the most opposite intstrument you can find to the piano.

Where did you start with the kernel of a story. All the characters are very important, so which one did you start with?

I started with the title. When I was working on Triplets Of Belleville 12 years ago, I came back from the studio and I had in my head Attila Marcel - these two names next to each other. It was like a deja vu thing. I knew it was going to be something and I wrote it down. Then a couple of months later, I composed a song Attila Marcel, which was about someone violent, something a bit heavy in the lyrics. I was thinking about different things I wanted to develop. I really wanted to do a film which was about music but not to be obviously to be a film where everyone suddenly bursts into song - although there's a couple of scenes like that. But the music is the central theme of the film. That's what makes all the memories come back. So, I had all that and then I met producer Claudie Ossard on Paris Je t'Aime and I had already a lot of music written - most of them I wrote in North Berwick [in East Lothian], so I was looking out the window at sea and it all came. Then I discovered the ukelele. I discovered ukele in Scotland, which is very funny. Then, when Claudie said, 'OK, let's go.' Then I just started. I couldn't write the dialogue for Paul as there aren't that many but I knew exactly how it was going to be.

So was he always going to be silent?

Yes and I wanted it to be live action. Straight away I wrote the dialogue and I didn't even start at the beginning. I went to a scene and I started to enjoy myself doing the dialogue. Although I never had it in my films, I wrote comic books before and I was writing dialogue for people and some of my comic books are very talkative. I like writing dialogue although I wouldn't be good at a novel because I'm not really good at describing things - for me it comes visually. But the dialogue, I can write - I'd be very happy to write for theatre. I based everything on the dialogue for the characters. For me that was the essential thing.

Was there any opposition to you making a live action movie. Although you did a segment of Paris Je t'Aime you're known for your animation.

Chomet: I've been very influenced by British humour
Chomet: I've been very influenced by British humour
It was obvious for the producer and I that it was going to be live action. It's just because, there's a lot of things you can't do in animation, for example, the main character. Although he doesn't speak, he has to express a lot of things through the eyes and that's not something you can do in animation. It's very difficult to have this very precise way of interpreting feelings through the eyes. And it happened that I met Guillaume Gouix and I thought he had real presence, he's going to be the core of the film. He is going to be a bit like a spectator, everyone fantasises for him. He's the one we believe in the story and we want to know what's going to happen. And that's the way because when you see the rest of the characters around him, you think, Oh my God, what about if I met people like that, what about if I was raised by those kinds of people. Even though he doesn't talk, he's essential.

Did Guillaume find that difficult - not being able to talk?

He didn't show any kind of difficulties but the only thing he said, particularly when you don't have dialogue, you can't lie. If your emotion that you bring through your eyes is wrong, it's obvious. The other problem is, if you have dialogue, you can hear yourself, so you always know if you're good or not. But he didn't have any, so he had to go to me and say, 'Are you sure it was good?' And he was going back home with his girlfriend - who is also in the film as well, she plays his mum and his wife - and he was asking her, do you think it's okay? Because he couldn't hear himself.

The idea of memory is very prevalent in the film - is it a subject that particularly interests you?

Yes, it interests me a lot. I was a child around that period, in the early Eighties, I would be in my 20s but the Seventies was a really strong period for me, so I've got a lot of memories about that. I would say that my family would be a lot more like the Attila Marcel family than the aunts. I have a friend whose background is aristocratic and I was invited for a week to spend some time with him and his family in a castle. And I was really shocked and I was observing, while I stayed there, how they communicate or they don't communicate but they're all very polite, very clever people - a lot of culture but they don't say much about feelings, they hide a lot of things. And it's very much what I tried to do with Paul and his family.

All of your films have a bit of sadness in them? Is that something that you're conscious of as you're creating these things

To be honest, I've been very influenced by British humour. There are not many films from France that make me laugh. What I really like is British television. There are so many. I think Ricky Gervais [as David Brent in The Office] is an amazing character. He's terrible with himself as well. The discomfort and self-despising and it's so human at the same time. It's human tragedy. Stephen Merchant as well - they're really brilliant. Otherwise, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder.

The central characters in your films tend to be quite sweet.

Because the audience have to care for one of the characters as you go through the film. If they are all monsters, it's very difficult. In Italian cinema they have this sense of comic characters who are very lively but also have a lot of distress. Most of the characters are unemployed, very old or very sick. Something about humour has to take you away from your real life.

Do you think you'll do more live action or will it be back to the drawing board?

I would really like to do live action again. And to do something very different. That experience, for me, was to see could I actually make a film and go through that. I really like the result but now I want to do something really different. Something maybe with a camera on the shoulder, much more like documentary. Because I know people are going to expect me somewhere and I like the challenge of doing something different. In France, the critics don't like that. I have plenty of ideas.

Attila Marcel is on general release across the UK now. Watch the trailer below:

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