A Chat With Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Having established himself as the cuddly enfant terrible of French art house with 1991’s sumptuously surreal, blackly comic tale of mystery meat and post-apocalyptic high-rise living Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s career took some interesting turns.1995’s phantasmagorical fairytale The City Of Lost Children was a similarly bizarre and inventive outing (co-written and directed, like Delicatessen, with collaborator Marc Caro), but after that film’s relatively poor box office he veered drastically off the Euro-indie reservation, parting ways with Caro and taking the helm of a Hollywood blockbuster – 1997’s Alien: Resurrection chapter four of the sci-fi saga that wouldn’t die.

Returning to France – again without Caro – he then astounded fans with the whimsical and excessively charming Amélie, starring an adorable Audrey Tatou as a young Parisian woman who gets her kicks doing small deeds of anonymous kindness for strangers. Amélie was a huge critical and commercial success, enabling Jeunet to pursue a long-gestating dream project, 2004’s sweeping, albeit slightly less whimsical, slightly less charming, A Very Long Engagement, again with Tatou, this time as a young woman searching for her MIA fiancee in the aftermath of WWI.

Jeunet’s output has been more muted since then with neither underrated comedy Micmacs (2009) nor equally underrated fable The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet making much of an impression on either audiences or critics. But, as he revealed at the 2015 Marrakech International Film Festival, Jeunet has some more surprises up his sleeve – including a long-overdue reunion with Caro.

Hammer to Nail: Your career as a filmmaker really began when you met Marc Caro, are you planning to work with him again?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet: We’re thinking about an exhibition of our work, because we have so many objects. For each film we build so many interesting things, and I keep everything. But that will take two or three years.

Why did you and Caro hit it off creatively?

J-PJ: We were at a festival for animation in 1978 and we started to speak. He was making a small fanzine about animation, so we decided to make a short film, The Escape (L’evasion), a stop-motion like Tim Burton. Right now I’m making another animation film.

A feature?

J-PJ: Oh no, a short film. It’s one minute and forty seconds, but the credits will probably be ten minutes because i recorded thirty actors. All the actors who worked for me, Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz, they all read poetry by Jacques Prévert (screenwriter of Les Enfants du Paradise). I made all the animals in the film with stuff found in nature.

Is it stop-motion?

J-PJ: No because I have a friend who did the animation in Micmacs, he transforms a still photograph in 3D into animation. He’s so good; I couldn’t do that. I took the photographs and he animates them (on Jeunet’s phone are pictures of beetles, frogs and other tiny animals, intricately constructed from found objects). I have sixty of them. I’ll probably just show it on my website, maybe on French TV. I do it for the pleasure (laughs).

Can you talk a little about your experience on Alien: Resurrection, your one and only Hollywood movie and a million miles from animated insects?

J-PJ: Well, it’s interesting, looking back I realize how lucky I was because I had almost complete artistic freedom. That’s very rare. Now for a Hollywood movie they have maybe ten producers standing behind the video screens. I was alone, had nobody on set at all! They respected me, and every idea I came up with they bought it. I don’t want to say it was easy because of course I had a lot of pressure on me with the money. But I had artistic freedom that I’d never have now.

How do you place Alien: Resurrection in your body of work? Do you see it as something of an anomaly?

J-PJ: Yeah, but they hired me for who I am. They loved City Of Lost Children, they told me that. The said, ‘We love your special ideas and we think it’s less risky to take a risk with you.”

If it wasn’t the horrible experience everyone imagines it was for you, why have you not made a movie in Hollywood since then?

J-PJ: I lost confidence in America because I lost so much freedom; that’s the reason I prefer to make my films in France. The last one, [The Young And Prodigious] T. S. Spivet was a co-production between France and Canada to avoid America. But in the end, Gaumont sold the film to Harvey Weinstein and he fucked me. Of course! Because I refused to re-edit the film, he kept the film for two years, then he released it with no advertising, nothing. It was a disaster.

So he buried it because you wouldn’t re-cut it to his specifications?

J-PJ: Exactly. I don’t negotiate with terrorists.

You worked with him on Amélie, didn’t you?

J-PJ: Yes, but this time it was Gaumont who sold the film. I said, ‘Be careful, you know him.’ He saw the film finished and he said, ‘No no, I won’t touch a frame.’ Then of course he brought the pressure. He lies.

So you won’t be working with him again any time soon.

J-PJ: Never.

But you had worked with him even before Amélie.

J-PJ: On Delicatessen. He sent [Marc Caro and I] a list of cuts; he wanted to cut everything on Delicatessen! We were very patient and we said, ‘We have another idea. You cut our names from the credits.’ I was expecting to find my dog’s head cut off on my bed (laughs). This man is…he doesn’t respect the filmmaker.

Delicatessen was yours and Marc Caro’s first feature. Where did the idea for that originate?

J-PJ: We wrote City Of Lost Children before Delicatessen, but it was too expensive. So we were looking for an original idea but cheaper. At the time I was living above a butcher shop and I woke up every morning with the chung, chung noise of the hachoir, the chopper. That was the beginning of the idea. And at the time we wanted to put everything we loved into a film, so there are a lot of references – the pictures of Robert Doisneau (pioneering photojournalist and contemporary of Henri Cartier-Bresson), the cartoons of Tex Avery, Buster Keaton; everything. Everything we loved, it’s in the film.

It says in the credits ‘Presented by Terry Gilliam.’ What’s the story there?

J-PJ: Yeah, he was also the distributor of City Of Lost Children. I did a long interview with him, so we know each other – I don’t want to say we’re friends, but he came to my set for Alien: Resurrection and he said, ‘You think you’re okay now. Wait for the editing.’ But it was okay. When Fox asked me to make the director’s cut I said, ‘No, this is my cut. I’m proud of it.”

The success of Delicatessen allowed you to make City Of Lost Children. Did it turn out to be the movie you originally envisioned?

J-PJ: Yeah. It was very expensive, but after you have success you have the opportunity to make something expensive. It was the same after Amélie with A Very Long Engagement. You jump on it because you know you only have a minute to do this. In a way it’s not so good because – how can I say this? – if you stay prudent, if you make something cheap it’s less risky. City Of Lost Children, during the release, it was not a disaster but it was not good because it was expensive. Little by little it became a cut movie, and now they release it on Blu-ray in the US and France they can probably get back the money.

You made a pilot for Amazon with Diego Luna, Casanova –

J-PJ: Yes. It is beautiful. The DP is nominated for something, I don’t know. We made something a little bit like Dangerous Liaisons and Barry Lyndon, those were our references. Beautiful. I don’t know what happened… No, actually I do. They asked the show runner to write six episodes to see if they want to make another season. Amazon [don’t] make a season, they make a pilot. And now we know we need to see more than one episode to decide if we want to see a series.

Would you like to work in TV?

J-PJ: No, no. The pilot was okay for me because they gave me ten million dollars, so it was big, and I had twenty-two days to shoot. I can’t shoot in nine days. Nine days and three million, it’s not for me. No thank you (laughs).

You followed up City Of Lost Children with Amélie –

J-PJ: That was after Alien: Resurrection.

Of course. But your next independent project was Amélie, a huge change in direction for you – still slightly surreal but nowhere near as surreal as City Of Lost Children or Delicatessen. It was also the first feature you’d done without Marc Caro.

J-PJ: The films I did with Marc Caro, we had to have a common world. And Amélie was absolutely not the cup of tea of Marc Caro. After City Of Lost Children we needed to separate, we both needed to make something more personal. We are not brothers like the Coens, and we are not lovers! We did an interview in San Francisco and they were very disappointed that we were not lovers (laughs).

In what sense was Amélie personal for you?

It’s drawn from my experiences, my stories, my anecdotes, my collection of memories and souvenirs. It’s less fantastique and more poetic. It’s reality but with something different, because I don’t like the real realism. For me as a director that’s not interesting to do.

Given that it was drawn from your personal memories and anecdotes, did its enormous success come as a surprise?

J-PJ: Of course! When i was writing it I was thinking, Who wants to see this bullshit? But you never know. At the end of the filming we could feel something special, something in the air, a buzz. And I saw everything; I had a premonition. After Delicatessen, I visited the set of Hook, Steven Spielberg’s movie. I don’t want to say I heard a voice because I don’t believe in that bullshit, but I had the feeling: You will make a film in Hollywood one day. Boom! Are you crazy!? And when they called me for Alien: Resurrection, I thought, I was right.

Audiences connected with Amélie on a very rare level level; it really touched people’s lives. How did that feel?

J-PJ: It’s the dream of any director, of any creator. It made a lot of people very jealous (laughs). It’s difficult to understand, but there is something about generosity; Amélie doesn’t want anything in return for the things she does for people and I think that’s one of its secrets. It speaks about the small pleasures of life, and it probably came out at the perfect time. It was directly after September 11 in the USA. Maybe today it would not be such a success, you never know.

How much of its success do you put down to Audrey Tatou?

J-PJ: Well, at first I wanted Emily Watson, but at the last minute she dropped out for personal reasons. Then I found Audrey Tatou, and that was no coincidence; it was written; it was fate.

Emily Watson is a wonderful actress, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Audrey Tatou in the role.

J-PJ: I can. It would have been different, she would have been more, how do you say, like Bridgett Jones. Audrey gave something so fresh. You can see her screen test on the DVD. After five seconds, I knew. I knew! I told her, ‘Where did you come from!?’ I didn’t have to help her performance, it was just there. If some times we discussed something, she was always right.

After that, A Very Long Engagement was another change of direction.

J-PJ: That was on my mind for a long time.

Were you a fan of Sébastien Japrisot’s novel?

J-PJ: I read it maybe before I did Delicatessen but of course i couldn’t get the rights, they were very expensive and in the USA at Warners or something. No, David Putnam had the rights. So, because of the success of Amélie, I called Warners and I said, ‘Final cut?’ They said, ‘Okay.’ I said, ‘With Audrey?’ They said, ‘Why not.’ I thought, Where is the trap? But they gave me total freedom and a lot of money.

And, again, it turned out as the film you wanted to make?

J-PJ: Yeah, of course. Because I had a feeling that I died in another life in the First World War. I’ve met a lot of people who have had the same feeling. When I was in the trench, the first day on set, I put on a helmet and I thought, Oh my god, I know it.

Are you working on another feature right now?

J-PJ: Yes. I’m working on something a little bit like Amélie but about sex.

Wow. Anything else you can tell us about that? Do you have a title yet?

J-PJ: No because it’s too early. We’re on the diving board ready to jump in. But I write every day. Well, I think. It’s a little bit early to write.

– Simon Braund

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