It is a noisy Wednesday in a hotel lobby, and I’m straining to hear Michel Hazanavicius.
The soft-spoken French filmmaker sat down with PW a scant couple weeks before a wave of critics’ awards and audience acclaim launched The Artist—his loving ode to films of the 1920’s, complete with black-and-white cinematography and nary a word of spoken dialogue—into the presumptive front-runner spot in this year’s Oscar race.
But on this particular morning, we’re both just laughing over my struggle to get an audible sound recording from the director of a silent movie.
PW: So what drew you to taking such a huge leap backward in cinema history?
MH: It is a very special format. It doesn’t work the same way as talking movies. The way you enter in the story, the way the story is told, and your participation in the movie is very different. People think it’s intellectual to go see silent movies, but it is the exact opposite. Language is intellectual. Here it is about using images and music to create emotion. So it’s sensual. It’s sensorial. Movies in the 20s were made for people who were much less sophisticated than we are now. It’s not intellectual at all.
PW: Since the film is so purposefully trying to evoke the feeling of a bygone era, I was disappointed that I got stuck watching The Artist projected digitally.
MH: Well, to project movies in digital I think is good, because what you see is exactly what I have done. When screening in film—especially with black and white, because now you don’t have the real black and white bath, it’s color film stock and you pull off the color—from reel to reel, one reel can be a little bit blue, one can be a little bit yellow and after two weeks of screening the quality is not the same. With a digital screening, even after four weeks you still see exactly the work I have done. So actually I like it for projection.
PW: Your film chronicles a seismic shift within the cinema industry upon the invention of sound, and right now we seem to be facing a similar situation with the emergence of 3-D and digital delivery platforms.
MH: For the story, yes there is a parallel. But why people are touched by and enjoy the film, I think is a little bit deeper than that. I think it is about a man facing a transition period. His world is changing. Before, in the 19th century, during a lifetime the world did not change so much. When you were 20 and when you were dying, it was the same world. But now during a lifetime the world is changing so much. I think this is something we all have to face one day or another.
[A large female hotel guest rudely interrupts our conversation, belligerently asking where she can go buy a cup of coffee.]
MH: I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t work here. (Laughs.)
PW: I’m leaving that in the interview. In any case, how much easier was it to shoot a film without having to record any dialogue?
MH: Sound engineers are the people that nobody likes on the crew. You have the feeling that you lose your time with them. They are the black sheep.
PW: Yeah, I did location sound recording on a couple of sets back in college.
MH: So you know why everybody was happy not to have sound! It made things very simple for a lot of people. For example, for the dog trainer it was a benediction. He could speak to the dog during the take. Also, we could have locations near airports and construction works. I played a lot of music on the set. That’s something you can’t do when you record the dialogue. Actors love that.
PW: There are so many classic cinema references in the film, not limited to the 1920s. You’re calling out Citizen Kane, Vertigo and especially A Star Is Born.
MH: Actually, I’m not even sure I have seen A Star Is Born.
PW: Not even the one with Barbara Streisand?
MH: Maybe I’ve seen it when I was a kid, but I don’t really remember it. That kind of story has been told so many times. It is iconic, in a way. I don’t really remember A Star Is Born. But I should see it now?
PW: Not the Streisand version. Watch the one with Judy Garland.
"Twice Born" is one too many