A small, surreal bit of France descended upon SXSW this year: filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose earlier films include Delicatessen, Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. Jeunet was in Austin to present his latest film, Micmacs (aka Micmacs a tire-larigot -- read our review here), a comedy about a man who survives a gunshot wound and has to start life fresh with a new set of people ... and as in many Jeunet films, all these people are all charmingly eccentric, and some quite surreal antics result. You can read my review of the comedy from SXSW -- let's just say that I liked it so much that although I saw the movie at a press screening before I interviewed Jeunet, I then went to the Paramount that night and watched it again. Micmacs opens on Friday in limited release, and I haven't decided whether I'll see it a third time when it reaches Austin. (Probably.)
I was pleased to be able to sit down with Jeunet for a few minutes during SXSW to talk about Micmacs and some of his other films. We were accompanied by a translator -- the interview was in English, but occasionally Jeunet needed a colloquial phrase or slang explained to him. This was a difficult interview to transcribe because he was so funny, I kept giggling, making it difficult to hear him on the audio recording. I hope his humor translates to the written word. Special thanks to Debbie Cerda for taking the above photo on the SXSW red carpet that night. If you ever plan to visit Montmartre, especially the cafe where Amelie was shot, study this photo carefully before you go. You'll find out why in the following interview.
Cinematical: Please tell us how to translate the title -- translation websites couldn't give me an answer.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: It's difficult, even in French. "Micmacs" -- in England, they say, "Shenanigans." But "a tire-larigot," it's a very old French expression. Forget it, it's not part of the American title.
Cinematical: Your titles do seem to get shorter as they travel over here -- I liked the whole French title for Amelie [Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain] and was sorry that got cut.
Jeunet: The first title was Amelie of Montmartre, and by the end -- Amelie. I try as much as possible to keep the poster the same. But for Amelie, the French poster was a little bit dark. And for Micmacs, it's very interesting. For the US poster, they kept the French poster, but behind it they put interesting faces -- original, funny faces for every character, and it's much better.
Cinematical: Dominique Pinon has been in all your films. Do you write roles specifically with him in mind?
Jeunet: This time, yes. For Amelie, I was very shy about approaching him, because I thought I had nothing very interesting for him. But he said, no, I would like to play this Joseph guy, and he was amazing.
It's just a superstition that I can't make a film without him. All the time, I think, what to do for Dominique, you know, and it's a game to push him into a dangerous situation. This time, we threw him in the Seine.
Cinematical: I loved the nod to Delicatessen in Micmacs. What made you decide to sneak that in there?
Jeunet: The first time it was a different joke, and we needed a videogame there -- I won't explain why. It was a Wii, but they said no for commercial reasons. At the last moment, I had to find another idea. And I wanted to have Amelie -- with two babies, crying, Mathieu Kassovitz on the couch with a beer, watching a football game, you know? And Audrey Tautou said, "No, because I'm shooting Coco Chanel [Coco Before Chanel]." So at the last moment, we changed.
Cinematical: Have you made any other references to your other movies in Micmacs?
Jeunet: No, but I make a couple of references to older movies: Mission Impossible, Buster Keaton, Pixar films -- I put everything I love in this one.
Cinematical: Why did you choose The Big Sleep to show in the film's opening?
Jeunet: Because I wanted to make a joke with the end, at the beginning of the film -- also, it was perfect in terms of music. And it gave us the idea to use the Max Steiner music for the whole film.
When we heard the music from the clip, we thought, oh, this works perfectly for the action scenes. And then we opened the catalog of Max Steiner, because he worked on so many films, it's crazy. And we were very lucky, because we found some very good recordings he made back in the 1970s, in stereo.
It worked so well, it was strange. Sometimes we would use 40 seconds of music while we were editing, and it would work perfectly, we had nothing to cut. It was like a miracle.
Cinematical: One of the movie's themes seems to be how we're affected by movies whether we're watching them or imitating them or making them ourselves.
Jeunet: Yes, because when you make movies, in fact, you don't have a real life. Vacations? No. So all my references are coming from books or other films, much more than real life. Except the small details are from real life. You are in the line in the supermarket, every time the other line goes faster than you are. I love to notice all these stupid things, and I put that in my films. You know, I put the poster of the film [Micmacs] in the film.
Cinematical: The billboards! I remember seeing that.
Jeunet: There are five. You will have to find them all. You will have to buy the DVD.
I made this film for fun, because I was starving to make a film. Because I lost two years working on Life of Pi. It was a great project, and it was a huge pleasure to write the script -- but it was too expensive. Now Ang Lee is supposed to make the film. Good luck, Mr. Ang Lee.
Cinematical: Do you think movies do affect most of our lives?
Jeunet: For Amelie, I received so many letters. It changed the lives of so many people. You know there is a cafe from Amelie in Montmartre [Cafe des Deux Moulins] and now it's 10 years after, all the time people still take pictures. All the time, it's crazy! And they never invite me. And they never pay for coffee for me, can you believe it? I am sitting down at the cafe, I am sitting very close to the poster -- there's a poster there [from Amelie]. And some Japanese girl tries to take a picture, I am used to [he ducks and scrunches down in the chair].
Cinematical: Wait, you have to hide, so they can take a picture of the poster?
Jeunet: One day I am there with Jodie Foster, and they asked us to push over so they could take a photo of the poster. Sometimes I try to say, "You know, I am the author of Amelie." They don't believe me. At Cafe des Deux Moulins they sell 1,012 creme brulees per week, and they never invite me, can you believe it?
Cinematical: Are you there often?
Jeunet: I live right by the cafe. But they have repainted it, it is like an 80s cafe, it's ugly. They had repainted it in pink. But then no one wanted to come inside. One week later, they repainted it again.
Cinematical: What would you like to work on next?
Jeunet: Ideally, I would like to make an adaptation. But I don't want to make a film just to make a film. I need to be in love with the subject. And it is difficult -- I was very pissed off because I would have wanted to make The Lovely Bones.
Cinematical: I wonder if you've read A Confederacy of Dunces.
Jeunet: Everybody speaks about this book, and I couldn't read it. I don't know why, but I had to leave after 50 pages. But a lot of people have said that, "Oh, you have to make this movie."
Cinematical: Well, I thought I would be the first. I was wrong. Is there a type of film you haven't made yet that you would like to make, some day?
Jeunet: I would like to come back to a more emotional film. Because this one was funny, but it was for kids, that kind of slapstick. Now and I would like to go back -- when I mean go back, I think about Amelie, maybe with more emotion. And to shoot faster with a light camera, maybe.