Commentary: 'Paris' sizzles, but on studio sets in Prague


Prague "Paris": The more things change these days the more they don't stay the same.

A case in point is the French drama "Paris 36," opening April 3 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics. Although the movie's set in Paris in 1936, writer-director Christophe Barratier wound up building his own City of Light neighborhood elsewhere because the actual Parisian district no longer looks anything like it did in the '30s. Everyone loves Paris when it sizzles, but in this film it's really sizzling on soundstages in Prague!

The Paris neighborhood where the movie takes place is the working-class Faubourg area atop a hill from which there's a view of Paris to one side and the burgeoning suburbs to the other. A key building in the Faubourg is a music hall called the Chansonia, which in the film is taken over by workers who have spent years performing there. They occupy it when it closes in the hopes of producing a hit musical that will enable them to purchase the theater. There are, needless to say, some major obstacles they must deal with, but that shouldn't be discussed here since you don't want to know too much more if you're going to see the film.

"Paris" is based on an original idea by Frank Thomas, Jean-Michel Derenne and Reinhardt Wagner. Its adaptation and dialogue are by Barratier and Julien Rappeneau. It was produced by Jacques Perrin ("Winged Migration") and Nicolas Mauvernay ("The Chorus"). Starring are Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac and Nora Arnezeder.

After enjoying an early look at "Paris" I was happy to have an opportunity recently to focus with Christophe Barratier on the making of the film. When I observed that many filmmakers would love to shoot a movie in Paris and I was surprised that he shot his Paris-set movie in the Czech Republic, Barratier explained, "It's very simple because the action takes place in a neighborhood (that) was a workers' area (in 1936) and is supposed to be very poor and look like a district in the north of Paris. But unfortunately all the districts have been totally renewed and now when you look at the streets in the north of Paris it's absolutely ordinary. There is no more magic."

That's not the case, he added, elsewhere in Paris: "The west side's buildings are the same. But in the north (everything) has been renewed after the War. So I said to my production designer (Jean Rabasse), 'It's maybe an inconvenience, but I think it will be a great opportunity to recreate this Paris with our vision. We will feel free about that because we won't tell a story about this particular district, but it will be the poetical symbolism of what was Paris.' And that's why we wanted to recreate an artificial Paris, but with the roots of reality. What we call poetical realism."

That led, Barratier told me, to his decision to shoot at a studio "with some real buildings built on the set and with 3-D in the background to recreate our vision of Paris. So we can be sure that every building, every sky, every background are decided by us. It was obvious that I needed a lot of space to build my little square of Paris and having the opportunity to have all the stages (to do that). It was impossible in Paris. But it was totally possible in the Czech Republic and that's why we went there. You don't see any streets of Prague in my movie. It's just sets. To tell you the truth, there is only one street of Paris that we used in the movie. It's the stairs at the end when two people are going down very quickly. That's when we see Montmartre.

"The other (streets) are totally built on sets because I wanted to escape from reality. I did not want to be like a documentary about this period, but much more like a (story). That's why for me the light was very important. You know, in France we are very fond of realistic light. It was the New Wave (that) said no artificial lights, just light from natural light. And I think for this movie it would have been a mistake."

Taking this approach was a key reason Barratier brought cinematographer Tom Stern on board. Stern's credits include Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of our Fathers," "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Gran Torino." "When I was searching for a cinematographer I was totally fascinated by what Tom Stern did with 'Million Dollar Baby' or 'Mystic River' or when he was working with (cinematographer) Conrad Hall on 'Road to Perdition,'" Barratier said. "That was exactly the kind of aesthetic I was looking for -- a lot of hard light on the faces, contrast, shadows. We worked a lot with the production designer and Tom Stern to give this particular image to the movie. So this movie is really an evocation (of Paris). It's not a reconstitution."

When I referred to having seen a few shots of the Eiffel Tower in the film and, therefore, knew he'd shot at least a bit of the movie in Paris, he surprised me by revealing, "No. The Eiffel Tower is there in 3-D. It's not the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. It's like Hitchcock (once said), if for example you set a movie in the Netherlands, the action will take place with some tulip gardens and the body will be discovered in a windmill (because those are things the public associates with Holland). Of course, if the action takes place in Paris we had to see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and Sacre-Coeur."

Moreover, the Eiffel Tower then and now isn't quite the same: "The Eiffel Tower in the '30s was not looking exactly the same that she is now. It was a little bit different. Not the general form, but the details were really different. So we worked a lot on that."

Asked how he came to make the film, Barratier replied, "It was an inspiration from songs. Frank Thomas, a composer and lyricist (who is) very famous in France, came to visit me some years ago. He had written these little -- when I say 'little' it's because they were very delightful, you know, modest but very delightful -- melodies about characters (from) this period. The songs were really delightful and I loved the melodies. And suddenly it inspired me -- this neighborhood, this popular area, the bad guy, the little girl, the little boy playing the accordion. (They were) really Parisian figures and Parisian characters.

"And step by step I took the inspiration in the lyrics of the songs to build my characters. So for me it was important to connect the songs into the dramaturgy. It was not a musical where suddenly you have a pause in the action and we sing something and we come back to the action. No. I wanted the song to be integrated in the action and the lyrics to say something that also connect the story going around."

The film takes place in 1936 which was a particularly interesting time politically not only in France, he said, "and more than that, I think, in Europe and in the world. For example, in France in '36 we are living like all the world in a period of crisis and unemployment and suddenly a prime minister can with some revolutionary (ideas can), for example, offer to all the employees of the country two weeks of paid vacation. That was a little bit naive, but it was a revolution. When I see the pictures (from) the '30s and I see these workers of Paris who were smiling because they had a great hope in the future, I can find some similarities with what's happened recently in America when I saw people with very big smiles thanks to the election of Barack Obama and we are living in a period of crisis."

The movie, he emphasized, "doesn't give historical lessons, but just one point was impossible to avoid -- that during (the period when) the French were dreaming they didn't see that on our frontiers in Germany and Italy and Spain (there were) rising the big dangers of world war. The irony is that in '36 the French were dreaming about (going to vacation at) the seaside and four years (later) they saw a little bit of the seaside, but they (also) saw the German army at the Champs-Elysees."

How long did it take him to write the screenplay? "More or less two years," Barratier replied. "I began in the summer of 2004 and we shot in 2007. It was six months to write the first draft (and have) enough to show to the producers, to the studio, etc. After they said, 'Okay, let's produce,' I had written for one year. I was writing, of course, (until just) before shooting because you try always to improve some things. It's not so much like in America. In France I write my own scenes. I have a co-writer, but I'm really (in charge as the writer-director). It's not like in America where sometimes you have a lot of authors who are writing a script, but they're not credited. In France it's impossible (for that to happen). You are always credited when you write a story."

As for how he worked with his actors, he explained, "In this particular movie we had to record the songs in the studio before (going) on stage so we did afternoons of songs and while I was conducting those sessions it was in anticipation of the acting direction. So for me I considered that like a rehearsal. I like everything to be very prepared because if I'm really prepared all the lines of dialogue have been very polished, all the body language has been discussed with the actors prior to shooting and because we have worked so much on stage the day of shooting we can have another inspiration.

"I believe in inspiration, but I don't believe in improvisation and that's why I'm rather directive when I shoot a scene. But, obviously, when it doesn't work or when I felt, for example, that one sequence (should not) be 12 different shots but just one shot, those are things I can decide because I've worked a lot before."

Looking back at his biggest challenges in production, Barratier recalled, "My challenge was that it is considered a super production because (it) cost 28 million Euros or, more or less, $35 million, but it was very important for me to never give the audience (the feeling) that there was a lot of money on the screen. My challenge was that they were so moved and interested in the characters and charmed by the music that they would forget there was a lot of money in the production."

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