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Michel Hazanavicius is not the easiest name to say, but it’s one of those hard ones that you should really take the time to learn… and fast. After all, Hazanavicius wrote and directed The Artist, the black-and-white silent movie that has, against all odds, become one of the most serious contenders — and the biggest crowd-pleaser — of this awards season. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the 44-year-old Frenchman — who is strikingly tall and handsome, and whom I mistook for a movie star when I first saw him at the Telluride Film Festival in September — could wind up with not only a couple of Academy Award nominations but even a statuette or two come Oscar night.
Over the past two months since I first saw The Artist in Telluride — it premiered in May at Cannes, where The Weinstein Company quickly picked it up — I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Hazanavicius on numerous occasions, often about our shared love of classic (and silent) movies. We videotaped one of those conversations several weeks ago, and though the noise in the room coupled with Hazanavicius’s quiet speaking voice force you to listen a little harder than most interviews, I think that its content (including periodic cameos by The Artist star/prankster Jean Dujardin — see 3:11, 3:35, and especially 3:47) merits the effort. You can decide for yourself by checking it out at the top of this post!
As we discuss…
Hazanavicius fell in love with movies as a kid, but his journey to becoming a filmmaker himself was slow and incremental. He worked as an intern on a film set, then penned gags French comedies, then wrote and directed some shorts, and then, in a typically funny and mischevious move, put together a film using clips from well-known Hollywood productions, only dubbed with outrageous French dialogue, which became a viral Internet sensation in France and helped to put him on the map. His highest profile films, prior to The Artist, were OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), two installments in a French film franchise built around a James Bond-like character, only comedic. The star of the films, who was already on-board before Hazanvicius, was the French TV star — who would soon become a huge French movie star, as well — Dujardin. Dujardin was a big fan of Hazanavicius’s viral film, and the two quiet but funny compatriots became fast friends.
It was after the first but before the second OSS film that it first occurred to Hazanavicius that he’d like to make a black-and-white silent movie. It was an idea that would have seemed crazy to most people, but not to him — “I don’t judge other people and I don’t judge myself” — even though he knew that seeing the idea through “was going to be very difficult” and require creative freedom and partners who were just as eccentric and fearless as himself. He reached out to a producer who was a fan of his work and had previously told him that he would make “any movie” with him, called his bluff, and was very gratified to find that he had meant what he said. Two months later, he had written a full “scenario” — not a “script,” since it is, after all, a silent movie — and began putting the various pieces of the production together.
Hazanavicius says he wrote The Artist with two people in mind from the start: Berenice Bejo, his lovely wife, for the female lead, and Dujardin for the male lead. And while he knew that Bejo would agree to do it, he says he was never sure that Dujardin would, too. “Berenice is an actress — people know her in France, but she’s not a big star,” he explains. “But Jean is a very huge star in France — he’s really like George Clooney.” Fortunately, both actors signed up for the project, in spite — or perhaps because — of the unique challenges that it would involve, including: having to act in a style that neither had ever employed before (and that precious few other actors had employed over the past 80-plus years), learning to tapdance at a professional level (body doubles were out of the question since Hazanavicius insisted that full-body shots be used), and shooting the film in just 35 days (on Hollywood studio backlots far from their homes).
The Weinstein Company’s strategy to help The Artist overcome modern moviegoers’ inherent bias against black-and-white and silent movies has been to show the film at virtually every film festival that will have it prior to its November 23 release date — including those in Cannes (where Dujardin won best actor), Telluride, Toronto, New York, San Sebastian (where it won the audience award), Hamptons (where it won another audience award), Chicago (where it won another audience award), Savannah, etc. — and let the public run its publicity campaign for them. Thus far, the plan seems to be working, as audience after audience walks into Hazanavicius’s film with low expectations, only to leave it having been blown away and raring to tell others to check it out.
Heading into November, things are certainly looking up for The Artist — and for the artist. As Hazanavicius says, “It’s a really nice story.”
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