Michel Hazanavicius' retro gamble pays off with major Oscar haul

Director flirts with film history in ‘The Artist’

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

With hindsight, successful ideas always look brilliant, but that doesn’t mean everyone involved viewed them as such from the outset. That’s especially true in the world of film finance, where producers are loathe to gamble with people’s money, and the best approach is usually the one that worked last time.

So when French director Michel Hazanavicius was trying to get his pet project “The Artist” — a black-and-white tribute to the silent films of the 1920s — off the ground, he encountered plenty of skeptics.

“If you’re not in the center of the marketplace, if you’re a little bit in the suburbs, they are scared,” Hazanavicius tells The Japan Times. Even after the project was green-lighted by producer Thomas Langmann, the director recalls how “I always told him that he was stupid to put his own money into the project — but in a nice way.”

After the film’s success at this year’s Oscars — where it took the awards for best picture, actor and director — the film’s producer may be saying, “who’s stupid now?”

“He’s very happy,” Hazanavicius says of Langmann. “We didn’t make this movie to earn money; actually, we were expecting to lose money! But it’s not just about money, it’s about saying that even a movie like this, from an industry point of view, can be something good.”

An Oscar win for a silent film was greeted with surprise; no silent film had won an Oscar since William Wellman’s “Wings” nabbed one at the very first Academy Awards ceremony back in 1929. Indeed, silent films faded within the next few years, and have rarely been attempted since. Yet in music, we constantly see the styles of yesteryear resurrected; the neo-burlesque movement has also been raiding the early 20th-century for inspiration. It’s a wonder that modern cinema hadn’t previously flirted with the ’20s.

“I’m not sure,” muses Hazanavicius. “Because it’s certainly the same with painting. The history of painting is made by artists who respond to artists from another era. Picasso and Velázquez, there’s 2½ centuries between them. But maybe cinema is not so much an art form; it’s entertainment, and more dependent on the fashion. It has to be in the mood of the time. And it costs money. You don’t need millions of euros to make a record or painting. With so much money involved, people won’t take much risk.”

Hazanavicius is known in France for a couple of parody films of the Gallic 007 series, “OSS 117″, which hilariously send up the genre tropes of these films from the ’50s and ’60s. (And “The Artist” ‘s leading man, Jean Dujardin, starred in both.) It was natural to expect a similar take on the ’20s in “The Artist,” but Hazanavicius has gone less for satire and more for loving homage.

“I tried not being ironic or sarcastic for a change. This is a big difference for me. I just really loved that format, the silent movie, which allows you to try some sequences — poetic or emotional — that normally you don’t have in a movie. So I didn’t want to waste that opportunity.” He described the late-era silent movies as “remarkable, kind of a universal language, like painting or music can be.”

The crazy thing about “The Artist” is that if you glimpsed a more beat-up print of it on TV late some night, you’d probably think it was a film from the ’20s — that’s how well Hazanavicius nails the look and spirit of the period. But the director sees some clear differences as well: “This is a type of movie that didn’t exist before. I have the benefit of 80 years of sophistication in the narrative, in the use of music. (The film does have a score.) It’s also a modern acting style.”

The director realizes people might not grasp that at first; “I think, for many people, the acting of the silent movies is the great clowns, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the slapstick. This is a very specific style.” But he points to Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise” or Charles Farrell in “7th Heaven” as examples of the more naturalistic silent-movie stye that attracted him. “If you look at them, they don’t have the codes of acting of the ’20s, they have the qualities of now,” he says. “This is a modern naturalism.”

Instead, to heighten the period feel, the director found a subtle approach: “I shot the movie at 22 frames a second, about 10 percent faster than usual, and this small acceleration gives it the flavor of the ’20s, because the way we think of the ’20s on film is very fast.”

His other main stylistic liberty, and certainly a surprise to anyone who sees the film, was that he actually shot it in color. “The problem is that when you are working with black-and-white stock, you don’t have all the sensibilities of film that you need,” Hazanavicius explains. “When you want to shoot in the dark or with a very light exposure, you can work like this in color, and then pass it into black and white in postproduction. We made a lot of tests and the best results were doing this. And also now with digital color mixing, you can find that kind of image that they used to have in the ’20s.

“The film was full of nitrate in the ’20s, and we don’t use nitrate any more (for good reason, it was highly combustible), but with the nitrate you had this glowing white and all the nuances of gray. We talk about black and white, but I was always studying the grays, because it’s the gray that makes up the centrality of the image. So I could get that softness and nuance with the color stock, but not in black and white.” A close inspection of the film also reveals that very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white imagery is reserved for the characters’ high points, when all is going well, while the grays tend to predominate during the lows.

Hazanavicius grew up a film buff, but, he noted: “My parents were not in the industry, and when you don’t have any connections with that world, you think it’s not for you. It looks really far away and inaccessible.” It took years of work on TV comedy, in commercials, as a screenwriter, before he was able to start directing, and even then, his first film (“Mes Amis”) was a flop. His Oscar, which he earned by beating out some of the most acclaimed directors in the biz — Scorsese, Malick, Allen, Payne — must seem like a vindication.

The director takes it with a bit of sang-froid, though: “The way I look at it, I think you don’t deserve or not deserve such things; it’s just something that life gives to you. Life and Harvey Weinstein. (Grins.) To have an Oscar gives me great joy and I think some confidence. But I know that some people can be afraid, because maybe they worry they have to be as good with their next one. I know that my next movie won’t win an Oscar and that’s fine.”

“The Artist” opens April 7 in cinemas nationwide. Read Giovanni Fazio’s review on today’s Re: Film page.