Marjane Satrapi is best known for Persepolis, the best-selling graphic novel about growing up during the Iranian Revolution that she later adapted into an Oscar-nominated animated film with Vincent Paronnaud. The Paris-based Iranian director’s new film Chicken with Plums, another collaboration with Paronnaud based on her book of the same name, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in New York and Los Angeles August 17.
Satrapi’s first foray into live-action filmmaking, Chicken with Plums stars Mathieu Amalric as an Iranian musician who lays down to die after his prized instrument is destroyed, reflecting on his life and a long lost love in a series of stylized flashbacks inspired by everything from sitcom parody to Italian melodrama and the films of Georges Méliès.
Satrapi says that when she went to look for financing for Chicken with Plums, people asked her why she wasn’t making another animated film.
“I made Persepolis in animation because I thought it should be made in animation,” she says. It was based on her family, meaning it would be impossible for her to cast. And while it was based in the tumultuous Iran of her childhood, she wanted to make a more universal film. “Human beings have a lot of problems identifying themselves with other human beings who don’t resemble them exactly,” she says. “But there’s something about drawing that means that anyone can identify to a drawing. I mean people can identify themselves with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.”
She wanted to make Chicken with Plums as a live-action film because she wanted to work with actors, to shoot a movie that wasn’t as labor-intensive and time-consuming as animation, to try something new. But more than anything, she says, the story she wanted to tell demanded it.
The film is set in a dreamy, stylized Tehran of the 1950s, which Satrapi and the filmmakers constructed at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. “I couldn’t shoot in Teheran, and there is no other place that looks like it,” Satrapi says. “People said what about Istanbul? But the money you would have to spend just to take away all the satellite dishes from your image, it’s better to construct a set.”
She says that creating the world of the film from the ground up allowed the filmmakers to build a more layered story. “On one level, it’s a nostalgic story about the moment that Iran changed because of the American-British coup d’état and all the hopes and dreams went away,” Satrapi says. “Then you have the extremely realistic story about a man who is depressed and thinking back on his life. The way that you remember your life, it’s never linear. You have flashes of different moments of your life, and the flashes aren’t equal, they have different styles. Some have a lot of people and a lot of color. Some memories are just black and white and gray and there’s just one person.”
To recreate those disparate memories, the filmmakers built sets, made large scale paintings that were as backdrops, incorporated drawings and told their story with stylistic and genre-hopping abandon.
“I loved the idea of creating a whole world and saying welcome to the imaginary world of Marjane Satrapi,” she says. “Either you play or you won’t. If you want to play, then you have a beautiful story. Thank God none of us came from the cinema school, so we don’t know what you can do and what you’re not supposed to do. If you don’t put any limits on your imagination, then you can go freestyle. I did whatever I thought would be cool to do. The challenge is that it should not look like a patchwork, it really has to have unity, that you go from one style of narration to another without feeling that you are jumping around.”
To create a seamless whole from so many distinctive parts, the filmmakers enlisted the help of editor Stephane Roche, who did the painstaking work of creating the animatic for Persepolis. “In animation, you construct little by little,” Satrapi says. “It’s very precise, because you can’t animate for 45 minutes and then cut 15 minutes of it, because that means hundreds and thousands of hours and the work of lots of people. Since one second of animation requires 12 drawings, each second of animation costs thousands of dollars.”
Roche used the same kind of storyboarding technique for Chicken with Plums, pre-editing a version of the movie to make sure that it would work.
“This movie is made like a puzzle,” Satrapi says. “We needed to know if the rhythm of the movie would work, if the transitions would work, so we made an animatic just to be sure that this whole puzzle glued together. We only had 46 days of shooting, and it was also my first live action movie and I wasn’t sure of myself, so you have to make sure at least you have a basis you can lean on.”
Satrapi is one of those multi-hyphenate creatives whose ever evolving career seems the result of some brilliantly conceived master plan. But she insists that she has always felt her way along by staying true to her instincts and following her own restless sense of creative exploration.
“I had two major activities as a child,” she says. “I was trying to put on shows with kids in my street or I was drawing. Actually what I’m doing now is exactly what I was doing then. Either I’m drawing or I’m gathering people for a common project. The only difference is that now they are paying me for that.”
After studying art in Iran and later in France, where she said she got to “experience things I didn’t get to experience in my own culture, like drawing nudes,” she wrote and illustrated a couple of children’s books but couldn’t find anyone to publish them. Depressed, she half-heartedly looked for some kind of a day job, then realized she “couldn’t do anything else.”
So she joined a group of male graphic novelists in an inexpensive shared studio space who encouraged her to tell her story of growing up during the Iranian revolution in graphic novel form. “For me comics were really for monks, depressed people who were really obsessional,” she says. “I realized there was a part of me that was a monk and that was very obsessional, but it was a coincidence. I never have any plan for my life, like ‘Oh I’m gonna do that because it’s gonna be good for my career.’ But the second I started drawing, I felt better. For me drawing is a question of death and life. Every day I draw, I write, I do something.”
Satrapi says that she learned a lot from working in a room full of artists, and to this day she shares a studio.
“I can’t work at home because I find all the reasons not to work,” she says. “My clothes were always washed and ironed but I didn’t do anything else. In reality I’m a very lazy person. I’m so lazy that I can’t work a little bit, so I work like crazy. Working with other people gives you a lot of motivation. I learned a lot of things by watching other artists. From one I learned how to concentrate. I watched how people draw. Thank God I’m not really a jealous kind of person. If someone else can do something, I’m not like ‘Fuck, why can they do that?’ I look at what they’re doing and if it’s something interesting, then maybe there’s something for me to take from that.”
She met Parronaud in the studio and they clashed at first: “I hated him because he never talks, and I thought he was the biggest asshole in the world. And he thought I was the craziest person in the world,” she says. But they soon became close friends and successful collaborators. (They are now working on separate projects. “We are not the Rolling Stones,” Satrapi says. “Maybe we will work together another time but for now we each have our own inspirations.”)
Satapi says that when she has a project in the works, she gets up early despite not being a morning person to work. “When I was making Chicken with Plums, although I love meat and I am absolutely not a vegetarian, I would never eat meat at lunch because it would make me sleepy,” she says. “I would wake up at a certain hour and exercise, like a soldier at west point.”
But she admits there was a learning curve in her transition from solitary artist to co-captain of a giant filmmaking ship.
“You have to collaborate, and everybody has an idea and at the beginning I thought that it was very painful because I wanted to be the chief of everything,” she says. “But then there is a dynamic that is created and I get transported by the energy of everybody else who is a part of that, so it’s really exciting.”
If Satrapi insists that she never meant to become a film director, she admits she is a lifelong cinephile who claims that every day after school from the age of 11 to 12 1/2, she watched Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. “It was a 3 ½ hour movie, and believe me it’s not an easy movie to watch,” she says. “But every time I saw it I saw something new that I didn’t see before.”
While she claims also be an accidental cartoonist, she was nevertheless happily enjoying her work as one when a fledgling producer asked her if she’d like to make Persepolis into a film. “I thought that was the shittiest idea in the world,” she says. “I had made a book, I worked four years on it and it worked perfectly, it was translated into 50 languages, why turn it into a movie? What was the reason? There was no reason.”
She claims that she did everything possible to make sure it wouldn’t happen, insisting that the animation be hand drawn in black and white, that Catherine Deneuve would do the voice of her mother, that she wanted a studio in the center of Paris not in the suburbs where it would be cheaper. And when the producer found backers willing to grant all her conditions, she says, “I thought in the bottom of my heart that it was the worst idea in the world.”
But she also thought it would be foolish to turn down a chance to learn how to do something new on someone else’s dime. Now, she says: “Making a movie is the most fun thing in the world to do. Making a movie is comparable to taking hard drugs. There is a moment when you get high and it’s so fucking cool, nothing is comparable to that. That is the moment you’re making the movie. Then it’s finished, and you go down, like any hard drug. And at the moment you’re like ‘Never ever in my whole life will I touch this shit again.’ But then you become normal again and what do you remember? The moment that you got high. And then you start over. It’s really addictive.”
After finishing Chicken with Plums, Marjane went to Spain on vacation with friends and decided to shoot a DIY road movie, writing the script as she went along, acting, doing costumes, make-up, lighting and everything else on the fly.
“I get bored very easily on vacation,” she says. “I relax for three days, then I need to do something. When you make two big movies like Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, you become like a CEO of a company, because your role as a director is to solve the problems of everyone. And there are moments when you forget why you wanted to do what you did. So I needed to be wild and free, to go with a small camera and my friends and be my own producer and just do exactly what I want to do the way I wanted to do it. When you hear a director say ‘If only I had a small camera I would do this and this and this,’ well, today small cameras exist. The reason they don’t do it is because they think, ‘People are going to think I am a clown.’ I don’t mind if I am a clown.”
Satrapi found a French distributor for the movie and is currently writing a new script, as well as devoting time to paint in anticipation of a Paris gallery exhibition in January.
“When I make books I always ask myself: ‘Will the reader understand exactly what I want to say?’” she says. “When I make a film I always ask myself the question: ‘Will the viewer understand exactly what I have to say?’ Because obviously I don’t write books for myself or make movies for myself, either. When I make a painting I never ask myself this question.”
“I wanted to make popular art with the conviction that it’s possible to make nice art that is available for everyone,” she continues. “That’s why I made comics and that is why I make cinema, because it is popular art. But now that I have done that, I can go back to my paintings. I don’t have to ask myself the questions that I ask myself in my other work.”
For Satrapi, maintaining equilibrium means having the freedom to toggle between solitary work and collaboration.
“When I’m making a movie I feel like making my paintings and when I’m alone making my paintings, I feel like making movies,” she says. “I always say when you make artistic work, you don’t have the security of a normal job like if you were an insurance agent or whatever. I don’t have a salary every month, I don’t have retirement, there are moments that I make lots of money and there are moments that I don’t make any money at all. So if I don’t have the security of work, at least I have to have the freedom to do whatever I want.”