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'The Artist': How a Black-and-White Silent Movie Defied the Odds and Became an Oscar Contender

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Somehow,  Michel Hazanavicius managed to come up with something that even the French thought was loopy. For years, the Parisian writer-director -- an analytical guy who sees filmmaking as what he calls "playing with codes" -- had been captivated by an idea. But financiers got cold feet just hearing about it; the boutique television stations that typically fund sophisticated European films walked away. Even in a nation of cineastes and revival houses -- a country in which a major film movement was once launched by a band of movie critics -- his dream looked to be dead on arrival.

PHOTOS: The Making of 'The Artist'

"I wanted to make one for a long time," the director says about his fascination with doing a black-and-white silent set in the 1920s. His long limbs folded over a table at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, he talks about his heroes like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. "But it's even difficult to convince myself, or to convince anyone else, it is even possible. I found that some producers -- really all of them -- were a little bit cold." It didn't help that the 44-year-old Hazanavicius was known in France for the box-office-friendly, period-conscious OSS 117 spy parodies, in which a kind of Gallic Bond scampers through the 1950s and '60s. "What I needed was a crazy guy," he says.

Enter Thomas Langmann, 40, whom Hazanavicius calls "the craziest producer in France." Langmann, the son of Oscar winner Claude Berri (who directed Manon of the Spring and produced Roman Polanski's Tess), worked a bit with Soderbergh and Coppola as a young man and produced some French smashes in his 30s. Langmann sees producing as a species of gambling. "It was always about betting on directors," he says of the philosophy his father passed down. "I knew if we made a film in black and white and we succeeded, it would be original."

It took director and producer awhile to sync up -- early ideas such as a feature with an invisible protagonist didn't make the cut. "I really wanted to make an entertaining movie," Hazanavicius says, noting that many European silents were tragic romances. "I thought it was unfair to ask people to come to a black-and-white silent movie that was also dark -- it would be too much." But finally the two came up with an idea that worked: a film about a '20s matinee idol who struggles with the advent of talkies.

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The movie that resulted is being talked about as the first silent film with real best-picture Oscar chances since Wings, the 1927 Clara Bow film that arrived soon before the talkies changed the game (it won). The Artist opened in the U.S. on Nov. 25 -- just two screens each in New York and Los Angeles -- but already has banked an impressive $12 million since its release in France in October. More important, the film took the best actor award at Cannes, where it played to rapturous audiences, and it has gone on to seduce judges at festivals around the world and sweep the season's audience awards from Chicago to the Hamptons to San Sebastien.

"It is as wonderful a film as it is modern," says silent-film collector and producer Serge Bromberg, who has seen the movie six times at festivals, "with jaw-dropping cinematography, good acting, wonderful knowledge of classic cinema. And it has the flavor of the old. But it is not a film of the '20s; the pace is not the same, and its constant humor gives it some distance from what a film of the '20s would be."

Hazanavicius was already an admirer of the silent era, but as he wrote, he immersed himself deeply for several months, reading actors' biographies, going to screenings of Murnau and Frank Borzage and early John Ford at Paris' Cinematheque, studying photographs and playing music of  the '20s and early '30s.

STORY: 'The Artist' Star Berenice Bejo to Wear Her 1920s Costumes on Red Carpets

He wanted Jean Dujardin -- a bankable French star known mostly for comic roles -- to play the lead, Valentin. "Of course, I said: 'You're crazy. It's impossible,' " says Dujardin.

Hazanavicius also asked his girlfriend, Berenice Bejo, the Argentina-born French actress who appeared in A Knight's Tale and in his OSS films, to play a studio extra named Peppy, shot into fame by a chance encounter. "I said, 'No way -- no way,' " recalls Bejo, who has two children with the director. "Not with me."

The two eventually were persuaded, and their presence caused a change in the movie itself. The original vision for the film focused on Valentin's isolation. But as Hazanavicius got deeper into the film, Peppy began to seem major, and the movie became a romance.

Dujardin had only ever scratched the era's surface. "I knew only the masterpieces of Keaton and Chaplin," he says. "It was a real discovery for me to find King Vidor's The Crowd," a film about a man lost in the big city of the 1920s that the actor calls "very modern, very touching; it helped me to assemble all the different references."

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As a model for his character, he found Douglas Fairbanks -- the actor who started making films in 1915 and whose career faded as talkies ascended. "In all his films," Dujardin says, "he doesn't ask himself any questions," never straining against the limits of the swashbuckling style required by such films as Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro. "It's pathetic when you know the talkies are coming, but he's also very generous. He's like my character George Valentin: He can be arrogant, but he has integrity. He believes in his art. He fights for it."

(Valentin needs that integrity -- as he spirals downward, it's all he has, besides liquor and an attentive, scene-stealing dog to keep him warm.)

Bejo's research found inspiration in Gloria Swanson -- who, unlike Fairbanks, excelled after the silent era. She fell for Swanson's autobiography, which describes a life very different from the desiccated former star she played in Sunset Boulevard. "She started in the silent period and then went to the talkies and then to TV," Bejo says. "I got a sense of the atmosphere of the period."

To make a film about Hollywood, Langmann reasoned, you had to shoot there. By now he'd drawn some funding from French station Canal+ and invested considerably from his own company, La Petite Reine. But the costs of coming to America -- and surrendering French government subsidies -- raised the stakes substantially. (The film's eventual budget came close to $20 million.)

STORY: 'The Artist': The Not-So-Silent Entry

Shooting at the Paramount and Warner Bros. lots -- as well as locations like the beautifully lit center court of downtown L.A.'s 1893 Bradbury Building, known to film buffs for its role in Blade Runner -- inspired the crew over the 35-day shoot. (Dujardin was put up in an old house in the Hollywood Hills -- he thinks to amplify his isolation for his slide in the movie's second act.) "Hollywood, in my opinion, is the big star of the movie," says Hazanavicius.

Also crucial to re-creating the era onscreen was the work of costume designer Mark Bridges, who worked on all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, including Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. Some of his vision for The Artist came from the MGM documentary 1925 Studio Tour. "You could see what the carpenters, what the plasterers wore," he says. "Even those guys in their bib overalls had a necktie. And a lot of hats, either for warmth or bad hair days."

Surprisingly, director of photography Guillaume Schiffman shot the film in color because today's black and white is too sharp, not grainy enough. He used unusual filters to diffuse the whites and mute the blacks slightly -- and as the film went on, with its main character losing some of his sheen, the light got grayer.

Although Hazanavicius deliberately had chosen very expressive actors -- Americans John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller round out the cast -- they found the limitations were difficult at first. For Bejo, working without lines threw her off. (The actors improvised in English while onscreen, to give their mouths something to do, mixed with a few of the "lines" shown to the audience on intertitles.) But she eventually found a way to inhabit the role. "If it was a talking movie, she would have been the same -- would have moved the same way, winked the same way, danced the same way," she says. "The challenge was to try to focus on the body language, but the rest of it was finding a way of being an American actress. I think of American actors -- they take up a lot of space, they talk really loud, they talk with their hands. So I had to find that, since being a French actor, everything is more petite."

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To keep communing with the past, the director kept the music of the era -- George Gershwin, Cole Porter -- in constant rotation while they shot, and he brought cast and crew to see films at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, and to the Nuart for its revival of Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (a morality tale about the corrupting influence of the city Murnau made for Fox in 1927) . The director applied some of what he learned: Murnau, for instance, had instructed his protagonist from Sunrise to wear heavy, weighted shoes on set after he fell on hard times; Hazanavicius did something similar when he dressed his fallen star in suits slightly too big for him. "He's not as perfect as he was in the first act," he says.

Hazanavicius credits the world's fascination with Hollywood for the film's international appeal, but the enormous enthusiasm of Harvey Weinstein is the reason it has exploded out of the gates during the festival season into the awards race. Weinstein, who had enjoyed the OSS films, had heard about the movie from Langmann and in March flew to Paris, where he saw the film alone in a screening room. Weinstein was not ambiguous in his praise. The Artist, he says now, "treasures the American cinema I love. It's an inspiration, everything about the movie -- where they shot the movie, the way they used American cast and crew. It's just a love letter to American cinema."

Langmann was impressed with Weinstein's urge to pull the trigger without any associates along to vet the decision. It was still months before Cannes -- it was not even assured at this point that the film would be released in France -- but by the time of the festival, the deal to distribute in the U.S., the U.K. and other regions was done.

The film ends with a tap dance that required more work than anything else in the film. "I think 95 percent of the preparation was for the tap dancing," Hazanavicius says. Bejo recalls her practice with both pleasure and exasperation: "Five months, every day."

The film was shot in as close to real sequence as possible -- in part to give the actors time to learn to tap dance, and partly so they would travel the same journey as George and Peppy before arriving at the climactic scene. "The dance is all about their characters," Hazanavicius says. "If it's just a performance, it's not interesting."

Bejo's attitude toward the conclusion captures some of the quality that makes her character -- and the film -- so winning. "I kept telling myself: 'Just smile, look at each other, enjoy the moment. The happier you are, the less people will look at your feet. Just act, don't try to be good -- your feet will follow.' "

 

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ON LOCATION IN LOS ANGELES: Several historic buildings make cameos in the film.

  • Ebell Theatre | 743 S. Lucerne Blvd.
    The hall where Judy Garland was discovered in 1934 became the film's Kinograph office.
  • Orpheum Theatre | 842 S. Broadway
    The premiere was shot in the 1926 venue.
  • Los Angeles Theatre | 615 S. Broadway
    Peppy's film plays where Chaplin's City Lights premiered in 1931.
  • Bradbury Building | 304 S. Broadway
    Peppy meets George on a Blade Runner stairway.
  • Mary Pickford Residence | 56 Fremont Place
    Peppy lives in star's Hancock Park house.

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INSPIRATION FROM THE '20s: The actors drew upon some of the silent era's biggest players for their characters

  • Berenice Bejo read actress Gloria Swanson's biography while researching her role. "To me, she represents the American way of life," she says.
  • John Goodman plays a cigar-chomping studio boss resembling Cecil B. DeMille.
  • "He is like Douglas Fairbanks, with a Gene Kelly smile," says Jean Dujardin of the model for the character Valentin. "And me -- I wasn't born in the '20s, so this was a fantasy of myself as a star."