'Persepolis' has shot at animated, foreign film Oscars

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"Persepolis" personality: It's not unusual for films to show strength in multiple awards categories, but Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis" is displaying a particularly unique split personality.

On the one hand, "Persepolis" is a wonderful French language film, but on the other hand it's also a first-class animated feature whose distinctive hand-drawn images are mostly in black-and-white. The film is achieving well-deserved recognition from critics and other awards givers on both the foreign-language and animated fronts and has the potential to be a strong Oscar contender in both categories.

In the Golden Globes race, "Persepolis" is a nominee for best foreign-language film. Among its competitors is the outstanding French language drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." That's a face-off that can't be duplicated in the Oscar race, however, because "Persepolis" is France's official entry for Academy Award consideration. Other French language films like "Diving Bell" or the powerful Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose" (for which Marion Cotillard deserves a best actress nom) aren't eligible to compete in Oscar's foreign language category.

Besides having a good shot at a foreign language Oscar nod, "Persepolis" could also surface in the best animated feature competition as the principal competition for the computer animated blockbuster "Ratatouille," which would be a David and Goliath race if ever there was one. Earlier this month, the L.A. Film Critics Assn. voted "Persepolis" the year's best animated film (tied with "Ratatouille") and the New York Film Critics Circle declared it their top animated film. The New York Online Film Critics handed double honors to "Persepolis" -- naming it best animated feature and best foreign film (tied with "The Lives of Others"). The film also received a Broadcast Film Critics Assn. nomination for best animated feature.

Last May "Persepolis" won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and in the fall it enjoyed well received showings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals as well as at the New York Film Festival where it was the Closing Night Film. It begins exclusive engagements in New York and L.A. on Dec. 25 via Sony Pictures Classics.

Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the film's voice cast includes Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux and Simon Abkarian. It was produced by Marc-Antoine Robert and Xavier Rigault and executive produced by Kathleen Kennedy.

"Persepolis" is based on two graphic novels by Satrapi -- "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood" (2003 in the U.S.) and "Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return" (2004 in the U.S.). The film tells the story of a precocious and outspoken 9-year-old Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution and chronicles the young Marjane's struggles at a time when her country was gripped by terror and war. Fearing for her safety, her parents send her as a teenager to school in Austria. I won't spoil anything by going into greater detail here about the story as I hope you'll see it yourself, particularly if you're an Oscar voter.

The film's title is explained in the press notes as coming "from the Persian capital founded in the Sixth Century B.C. by Darius I, later destroyed by Alexander the Great. It's a reminder that there's an old and grand civilization, besieged by waves of invaders but carrying on through millennia, that is much deeper and more complex than the current-day view of Iran as a monoculture of fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism."

Having greatly enjoyed my early look at "Persepolis," I was delighted to be able to focus on it recently with Marjane Satrapi. "From the beginning I never thought it was a good thing to adapt my comics (graphic novels) into a movie," she told me. "It's two different languages (that are really) different narrations. And that is the danger (of adapting a book to the screen), especially when you make a comic (and are) thinking since you have the frame it's sufficient to take the camera and film the frame (showing) one actor to the other and you have a good movie, which is absolutely not true."

Nonetheless, she was persuaded to move ahead with the project: "As usual, I just tried to do my best. Neither Vincent nor I were directors. We tried to figure out how we had to do (things). I think we were not arrogant to think that we knew. If you think that you know, then that is the beginning of trouble. We didn't think that we knew so we tried to figure (things) out and tried to do our best and that is how it became a movie. Vincent and I wrote the script and we wrote and we wrote and we had to (do) lots of research. The project, itself, started like two years ago and took about 21 or 22 months."

In France the first of Satrapi's two "Persepolis" books came out in 2000, she said, "but in America it was in 2003. There were 'Persepolis' 1 and 2 and then I made another book called 'Embroideries' and then I made another one called 'Chicken With Plums.' It's (not a cooking book), it's a love story."

She agreed straight away with my suggestion that it must give her a lot of pleasure to see how well her very personal film is now being received: "Absolutely. You know, we made the movie without making any compromise. I come from the French underground comic scene. I have always worked with independent people. It was a small budget movie. The musician was our friend. Lots of people that we worked with were people that we knew from before. When you make something like that and you try to do your best, then you have the critics with you. But then (to find that) the audience is also with you, that is just amazing. I have the feeling that I have the benediction of the gods or something. It's just incredible.

"You know, it's not the kind of fate I expected in my life. Never. I'm already very happy to be able to do and live for what I love. This is already a lot. So when you have (the acclaim that the film's been receiving), it's like an extra present. It's just bonuses! This is just a dream coming true. And when you make a work like we did (without having had) any audience in mind, we never made any compromises. When it follows and people are satisfied (with) it, it's just incredible because, of course, you don't make a movie for yourself. You do it to be shown, to be seen, so when (acclaim) follows it's just, 'Wow!'"

Looking back at the making of the film, Satrapi noted that her co-writer and director Vincent Paronnaud is "my best friend. We made the script together and then we directed it together. We (would meet) in this cafe that is just by our studio every morning between 6:30 and 11. We were sitting there. Neither of us know how to type so we were writing with pencils (because we could make changes by) rubbing with erasers. That was in Paris. So we were imagining this scene and were like, 'And that happened and, no, this happened -- OK, that will happen.' So we started writing it and every day we would see each other and we would play the scene with ourselves and it made us laugh or we would say, 'This is too long,' etc. That was the way it was made. But, you know, the way Vincent and I work it's very hard to say who does what and who said what because it's just like layers of things. He'd say something, I'd say something. He'd say something, I'd say something. I mean, we are not best friends for nothing! We're like Heckle and Jeckle (the cartoon magpies). We love stupid things. We love to laugh together."

Writing the screenplay kept them busy for about a year. "Actually, we wrote it in like four months," she said. "But then we had to (rewrite) it and you realize there are things that are not good so you have to go through it and make it over and over and over. It was two times (too long), so we had to take off (some scenes). But that is the way that we work. We always put a lot (into the script) at the beginning and then we take off (material later)."

While the film's story is based on Satrapi's own experiences growing up in Iran, she points out that it's appeal is much broader than that: "At the same time that it's based on my personal experiences, it's a very universal theme -- the fact that your surroundings change around you and you as an individual are completely pressed down because all the other reasons are so much bigger than the individual reasons. The fact is that we made this project with a team of a hundred people. So if it was just my own story of Iran, how could all these people relate to it? This is happening, of course, somewhere, but then it goes beyond that. It becomes really a human story that, I think, anybody can relate to. No matter how personal the story is, it's not a documentary about my life. I'm using my own experiences that are human experiences (to tell a story) that I think everybody can understand."

In bringing her story visually to the screen, Satrapi and Paronnaud created a truly unique look for the film. "We tried different things and we wanted to be faithful to the book," she pointed out. "At the same time, we wanted this trembling (visual) line not a completely perfect line. It was impossible to do it with computers so we (turned to) hand drawn animation. That is really the result of lots of research.

"We could make some background and then it didn't fit and we'd change the background and we'd change and we'd change and we'd change. (The use of ) black and white was very much inspired by German expressionism and Italian neo-realism. That (look of the film) was really the result of lots of work. For us, animation has never been a genre. Animation is just a medium. So from the second you don't consider it as a genre, it becomes just a medium in which you can (tell) any kind of story and it can have any kind of look. This was also the aesthetic that we liked and that is where we come from because we come from the (graphic novels' world of) black and white."

Color is used very sparingly in the film and when it appears it tells the viewer we're now in the present rather than in the black and white past. "The color is in the present and it is used just to make (people) understand this notion of flashback," she explained. "That (it's) the story of this woman going into the airport that does not have any ticket to go back. So she sits and she remembers what her whole life (has been). This flashback is in black and white. Since we have so many different kinds of narration in our story, to go from one narration to the other it helped us a lot to (use color to establish action in the present)."

At this point Satrapi had to depart for a radio interview that was part of the whirlwind promotional tour she's undertaken to help launch the film. Her media activities, by the way, will have her talking about "Persepolis" far into the future, including an already scheduled appearance in L.A. at UCLA's Royce Hall next April 16 in conversation with Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 14, 1990's column: "This summer's roster of megabudget movies reflects the home run mentality that has in recent years taken hold in Hollywood.

"The quest for the boxoffice home run is now so predominant that to a great extent Hollywood has lost interest in making much else. Among the industry's major players, the goal is to make high profile event movies regardless of their cost.

"There was a time when the industry prided itself on trying to keep a lid on production costs. Only a few years ago spending huge amounts of money on production was regarded as being risky and worth doing only under truly special circumstances. Today times have changed and films costing two, three or even three and a half times the $20 million production average are routine.

"When the head of one studio was asked recently about talk that his major summer release had cost $50 million to make, he replied privately that it had really only cost about $30 million. Moreover, he added, his competitors were inflating its cost in an effort to make their own very expensive productions appear to be less unusual.

"This summer's release schedules include so many megabudget sequels and originals that it's evident they didn't all get there by accident. It's not a 'Heaven's Gate' situation where something goes wrong during production and a film winds up going way over budget. What this summer illustrates is the industry's belief that it makes better business sense to spend big bucks on potential home run hits than to try to be frugal.

"This can be blamed, at least in part, on the high cost of marketing any movie today. It costs about as much to market a $10 million film as it does to market one costing two or three times that. This is the basis for the argument that there may be less risk in bankrolling the more expensive film because it contains elements -- like a global superstar, a name director, a high profile screenplay or original literary material and major special visual effects -- that will provide a strong hook when it comes time to market the movie. The smaller film without such elements will be more difficult to market, but will face the same high costs for advertising and prints..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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