Exclusive: The Makers of Persepolis

In 2003, French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi received a lot of acclaim for her serialized autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis about her life growing up in Iran and her return years later to find it to be a very different place. When it came time to turn the four volumes into a movie, she decided to take on the venture herself along with her long-time friend and fellow artist Vincent Paronnaud, creating a stylish black and white animated feature unlike the computer-animated films that tend to be the norm these days. Surprisingly, their first attempt at filmmaking has received almost unanimous praise from critics and at festivals worldwide where it’s won many prizes and audience awards. (Last week, it was nominated for a Golden Globe, but not in the animated category, as one might expect.)

ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! sat down with these fresh new filmmakers when they came to New York to debut the film as the Closing Night film at the New York Film Festival and we quickly learned that they were a pretty cool duo, the type of people you’d want to go out drinking with if given the chance. (Since Marjane acted as interpreter for Vincent, it’s not always clear when one’s answer ends and the other begins, but that’s just typical of how this closely-linked pair work together, so oddly, it did make some sense.)

ComingSoon.net: You’ve mentioned that “Maus” was your introduction to the graphic novel form as a way of telling a story like this, but you were just doing commercial art beforehand or were you doing some form of cartooning?

Marjane Satrapi: Oh, yeah, I was doing lots of things, but nothing was published. Nobody wanted to publish me. I have 20 children things that I made, and I was in a studio with cartoonists, so I started to make it and I found a publisher that was an independent, L’Association, so I presented them the book and then it was published. Then all my children’s books that they were nasty and nobody wanted them, I published them one after the other, because I found that the moment you make a name then you become very interesting. To make up my living, I was doing other stuff. I have a big artistic background, I made art studies, I painted, I did lots of things before. I worked in Iran and I was a press illustrator. I made posters, all sorts of things.

CS: And Vincent, you also came from the world of comic books or were you already working in animation?

Vincent Paronnaud: Just like Marjane, I also come from the underground French comics background but to make my living, I worked also in animation as a storyboarder and as a screenwriter, just to make my living. I had a small knowledge of it but I don’t come from the world of animation. Most certainly, it helped us for the movie, so thank God nothing is useless in the world and it helps you somewhere.

CS: At what point did the two of you start thinking of turning Marjane’s graphic novels into a movie? Was it after the books were published that there was interest in it?

Satrapi: Oh, no, the books were published and there was no idea of making a movie about it, plus I thought always that was the worst idea in the world to make a movie out of that. I was extremely skeptical. The fact was that suddenly if we had a big toy in our hands, they told me, “Oh, you can make the movie you want.” I said I wanted to make it with my best friend, “Okay, okay.” I want it to be in black and white, “Okay,” I want it to be hand-made, “Yeah,” I want to have it in Paris, “Okay.” So you know, all of that was there, and how many times do they propose you things like that in your life? So we said, “Yes,” without knowing what we were saying “yes” to, and we realized afterwards the amount of work that (it would require). We were really unconscious actually when we started, and probably that was the thing that helped us a lot, because when you’re completely naïve and you don’t know where you’re going, you know all the codes that are solid in the eyes of the other, you don’t know any of these things, so you go and you say, “I want to do like that,” and people look at you with big eyes like, “This is impossible.” And you say, “Oh, no, we can do it,” and then they make it happen, but that was a good thing because we were not professional.

Paronnaud: So what looks evident today was not evident at all at the time we started, because people they thought, “Oh, we’ll take the frame of the book and film them one after the other, and then we’ll have a movie,” which is not true.

Satrapi: Also, the language is not the same. It’s too different narrations absolutely. There’s no parenthood between comic books and animation, because animation the way we approached it was that we wanted to make a real movie. It happens that this movie is animated, but it is not animation as you call it, like a fairy tale for kids, etc. We wanted to make a movie. It happens that it’s animation.

Paronnaud: At the beginning, when we started the project, people they were very skeptical, so from the beginning, there was this combat to say to people, “This is what we want,” because we had to explode all the codes of animation that existed…

Satrapi: Plus we didn’t have any reference in animation with people who are animators, so we couldn’t say “Make Miyazaki or Disney or Tex Avery,” not that we don’t like that, but it wouldn’t serve our story. Because you have a story to tell, you need a style that has to correspond, so we were very vague. At the beginning, we knew what we didn’t want but we didn’t know at all what we wanted, so there’s a big difference between the two of them.

CS: I thought it was interesting that while the style looks like the art from the graphic novel, you took visual references from other sources, not just fine art but also the world of comics, like there’s one visual that’s obviously Münch and then another shot that looked like Peter Bagge.

Satrapi: Absolutely. All of what you say is true, like for example, just to take the example of Münch, we were just talking it before here, the image, it was a question of timing because at the beginning you can see a shot of Münch for a longer time, but then it was too big and too obvious and we wanted things that were subtle, so we changed the timing so the black is much longer and then the Münch thing, you see it if you want, and if you don’t want to see it, you don’t see it. Our work of course is based on references, because we’re articulate and cultivated, but a work is good if you don’t know the references and can work anyway. And if you know the references then even better, but to say that we don’t have any references is not true neither, because of course, we wear the fruit of whatever we love and we made, etc. etc.

Paronnaud: You know, animation gives you a sort of freedom because you can just draw no matter what you want, this is for sure, but we reduced the freedom of doing this stuff, because we wanted to have a heavy camera. We didn’t want to shoot in all the directions, because the purpose of our movie was not a show of how technically it would be great. You have this story to tell and the way you do it, it has to correspond with the story. We’re not here to prove what we can do, it’s to serve a story. Our references were lots of old movies from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘50s, even ‘70s, and I come back to this heavy camera, because the way it was filmed, we can say it was made in an old-fashioned way also, because now they have all these things from up, from down, they turn it, and they have all those technical approval and we didn’t want to do that.

CS: Since you’re both artists, how did you collaborate on the art style used for the movie? Marjane already had her own art style as well as her story, so what did Vincent bring in terms of his own art background or was he more of the cinematographer in that sense?

Satrapi: Well, the thing is, to start with, on the human side, because that is the basis of everything, there’s lots of affection and friendship and respect and lots of trust between each other, that was the basis, because if you don’t have that, you cannot collaborate. I always say that we’re like the Coen Brothers except that we’re the Paronnaud-Satrapi Brother and Sister, this is like that. We knew each other very well, and it was a question of trust. What is similar between us is that we have very big egos, but our ego is placed in the right place, that means when we make a project, it’s not a question of who is right. We want to make a nice movie, so no matter if the idea is great and from which of it comes, if the idea destroys the rhythm of the movie or doesn’t serve the rhythm of the movie, it’s fine, we just throw it away. Also, that helped us since we came from the underground comics, working a lot for nothing, and throwing out the things, we were used to it, so that was not a big deal for us. And then, on a more technical thing, of course, Vincent would talk with some people, I would talk with other people, so we kept seeing that you could separate it, but in reality, to start with the script, everything was in the script, so whatever we did, every time we did something, that was a discussion between the two of us. It was like layers of he said something, I said something, over and over and over, and at the end, it’s extremely difficult to say who said what, because it has been a mutual discussion between the both of us. We cannot separate like “he did that” because we did everything together.

CS: But when you were storyboarding the script, you didn’t split up the duties, like say, “I’ll draw that scene, you draw that scene?”

Satrapi: No, because we discussed everything, like for example, he made some storyboards because technically he was better, but we were discussing it. He would show me the thing and when I was creating the character, I would show him the thing, so all of that is discussion, so it’s not like “I created the character and he made that” or for example when we take the actors, maybe I for example was more present there, but it is not true, but you cannot have two people talking with people, you have only one voice, but before going to that, we’d have played the scenes ourselves, so we know exactly what we want. So one person is the speaker in the name of the both of us, so that’s the way it works.

Paronnaud: The message of the movie is that we’re actually standing up for the freedom and the cooperation of (each other), but we did it in our own work, because we understood each other. Basically, we’re not the same people, we don’t come from the same background, etc. etc. and though this collaboration works very well, the freedom that we’re all the time standing for, this freedom we gave it to ourselves also. Like the scene of “Eye of the Tiger” is a very vulgar scene in a way, it’s very kitsch, but at the same time, we gave ourselves this possibility to put that there, because we didn’t want to be like the snobby people, we wanted to make something of very good taste. If you want to put something kitsch because we think it’s funny and it makes us laugh, who cares if we do it? We applied to what we’re standing for to our own way of working also.

CS: Americans will probably love that scene, though.

Satrapi: Oh, yes.

Paronnaud: You’re right, because the basis of what we always thought is that if you amuse yourself doing things, if you make it honestly and without a certain audience in mind, the viewer feels that. People are not stupid and it’s something about instinct that you feel this stuff, but we did the movie the way we wanted and that is what comes out of the movie. People feel that we didn’t have a certain audience in mind or we were going to do that. We just did it the way we thought it was the best to do it, and people feel that, so that’s probably why we’ve had good results. To be able to please everybody, you either have to be crazy or drunk or otherwise, it’s impossible.

CS: As far as adapting the material from the graphic novels, how did you go about deciding what to keep and what to change for the movie, like the ending?

Satrapi: Well, you know, to start with, our script was two times longer than what it was, and that is the way we work. We put lots of information (into it). Since this is not a narrative language, we also had to add scenes that absolutely do not exist in the book at all, because it’s a question of rhythm. Then you start storyboarding it, and you look at it and you say, “We’re giving the same information two times” so then our way of working is that we make it too much and then we cut it to the essentials of the subject, so it takes a long time.

CS: Did you actually animate a lot of stuff that ended up being cut from the movie?

Satrapi: No, we made the boards and then we made something called “animatics,” that means you put all the storyboards together simulating some of the movements. So you have the vision of the movie, but then, it’s a big difference between this vision and when the work is actually animated. Also, that is something else that we made in our work is that we always left everything open. We just made corrections until the last day.

CS: You talked about making a movie for everybody. There’s a lot of dark stuff in the movie due to the nature of the story and there’s a lot of humor as well, so was it hard mixing the two things to balance them?

Satrapi: Well, this is a question of work and a question of freedom. The movie looks like life, because in life, you don’t have total happiness, but you don’t have total sadness either. Life is a question of that. For us, for Vincent and I, we’re not so much looking for a style, because if you look for a style, you find death at the end, you kill the story. If you look for life than you have your style, you find it, so we were looking for life, so the film looks like real life.

Paronnaud: From the beginning, we had to think about putting some anecdotic scenes, because if you just go like in a big event, than you don’t have a movie. It becomes a real movie, it moves you because you also have these scenes that don’t mean anything and they’re not useful in reality, but without these scenes, you don’t have a movie. You have just a series, a patchwork of events, one after another, of the scenes that are the most important to put.

Satrapi: To complete what Vincent said, it’s extremely easy to make a movie with scenes of war that are very gigantic. The difficult thing is that when you have a family in a living room sitting, how do you make that become interesting? That is the biggest challenge actually.

CS: Would you consider doing another movie together which wasn’t based on a story you haven’t done as a graphic novel first, just one done straight as a movie?

Satrapi: We want to make other movies together. We enjoy very much working together, and we’re not going to make animation anymore because animation sucks.

CS: So you’ll just work on the script together and then try to make the movie in a different way?

Satrapi: Yes, we do everything together. For three years, we worked together and we didn’t even argue once, so why not continue? And we have lots of fun working because he’s just completely crazy… he makes me laugh so much, like he says something and then he sees that it makes me laugh and then he makes it bigger and bigger and bigger, so it’s a joy to work with this guys. It’s not just like work. I have the best moments of my life when I’m working with him.

CS: This was a very personal story for Marjane, but as someone who spent just as much time making this movie, what would like people to get out of the movie, Vincent?

Paronnaud: Well, the same thing that it did to me when I read the book, that things are much more complex than people think. It’s not as easy to understand the complexities. Our duty, what we’re doing, is to ask the questions. We don’t give the answer or make statements. This work has to be done by the people. I would trust people and their brain to go and find the answers themselves.

Source: Edward Douglas