Director with a plan and a vision

His particular cinematic style is what makes director Jean-Pierre Jeunet stand outside the two main trends of contemporary French cinema: art house, often stuffy, movies on the one hand and blatantly commercial, and thoroughly mindless, films on the other. Jeunet lies somewhere in between, striking a balance between commercial success while retaining his own personal vision. The five big films he has undersigned so far – «Delicatessen,» «The City of Lost Children» (both in collaboration with Marc Caro), «Alien: Resurrection,» «Amelie» (the biggest commercial success in the history of French cinema) and most recently, «A Very Long Engagement» – reveal how the 51-year-old filmmaker has, over the course of his career, created a unique cinematic universe. «A Very Long Engagement,» Jeunet’s second collaboration with Audrey Tautou after «Amelie,» is a film that combines the brutality of World War I with romantic love in an expensive production funded for the most part by American studio capital. Nevertheless, Jeunet said at our meeting in London, he has succeeded in making the film he wanted, with all the small details that so characterize him. How difficult was it to strike a balance between the violence of war and the romantic story you wanted to relate? That was the first thing I was worried about and it caused me no small amount of fear. I was responsible for a huge project and I didn’t want to make, on the one hand, a violent film such as «Saving Private Ryan» and risk losing the audience who wanted the drama, while, on the other, if I missed the power of the war scenes, I would be terribly embarrassed because this is a World War I film. I didn’t want to avoid violence, but it was very difficult to find the middle ground. I came up with the answer while watching «Black Hawk Down» with my wife. In one scene, where a soldier loses two fingers, my wife got up and left the room. Previously, when we were watching «Gladiator» for the third time, she sat through all the violent scenes. I asked her how come. She answered that the violence had been more suggestive and the camera did not focus on the blood. And that’s what I did. I avoided showing, for example, someone’s guts, and did a very tight editing of the violent scenes. I could have made a purely violent war film. I have a special interest in the World War I era. But who would want to watch a film like that and who would fund it? Does your artistic style of cinema allow for improvisation, or is everything strictly planned from the outset? I believe in hard work, because if you haven’t worked on your ideas enough, they will never come across while shooting. That’s why I always shoot scenes according to a very strict storyboard and do the first shoots with a small video camera. However, I never turn down my actors when they have good ideas. They are a gift and when they don’t stray from the spirit of the film, I adopt them. Is this attention to preparation the reason you constructed an exact replica of the trenches and shot the detailed scenes there first? We had to in order to overcome a string of technical problems. We spent seven weeks in the trenches and we could literally have become stuck in the mud. Have you seen the documentary «Lost in La Mancha» on the endless disasters faced by Terry Gilliam on a film shoot? It is really easy to get into such a mess, especially on a set that’s all mud and water. I had planned the exact camera takes beforehand (if I had used a crane, it would have sunk in the mud) and the position of the explosions, without once going over the budget – that’s very important to me, both because I want to continue having the producers’ trust and because it’s how I was brought up… «A Very Long Engagement» is the first film you have made which is based on a novel. In the past 14 years, it’s been the only novel I’ve wanted to bring to the screen. It was well suited to my own mentality and fitted my style. I stuck to the story in the novel very closely, though I was also able to add some ideas of my own. Are there any other novels you would consider making into films? I can’t really say. I read a lot and I find it very hard to locate material in which I could fit in. It may sound a bit elitist, but I seldom find a story interesting unless I am involved in creating it from the outset. I absolutely have to know every last detail. For «Alien: Resurrection,» I created a whole new environment in a spaceship. I could do this because I was involved from the very beginning. I could never, for example, have directed «Erin Brockovich.» It is just too realistic for me. What is the aesthetic style of your latest film? It is a lot more classical than «Amelie.» I had the films of David Lean, such as «Ryan’s Daughter,» and those of Sergio Leone – whom I consider my mentor – in mind. As far as the color is concerned, I opted for sepia because it is quite an old story and a film looks a bit fake when there’s too much color. Of course, I went in search of albums with old photographs, especially for the Paris scenes, which in the film are a combination of digital effects, sketches and photographs of modern-day Paris. In the war scenes, there is nothing that is not a reference to an old photograph. In that part especially, I wanted nothing left to the imagination. I wanted a true re-enaction. Why is World War I of such great interest to you? Ever since I was a teenager, I used to read about it all the time, and when I went on excursion to the battlefields I felt as if I had been there at the time. Actually, when we built the trench set and I climbed in, I thought to myself: «My God, I have lived through this before.» It’s not that I believe in reincarnation or anything like that, but I have really come to the idea that maybe I lived and died back then… Ever since you did «Delicatessen,» you have diverged from the typical French style of cinema, which is very much based on dialogue. How did you develop your own style? My inspiration is a marriage of everything I like. Cartoons, comics, dance, films by Leone, Kubrick, a bit of everything. You put it all in the mixer and… bzzzzz, you get inspired… This interview was translated from the Greek text.

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