Michel Hazanavicius had never been nominated for an Oscar. In fact, he has never been to the Academy Awards. But he’s making up for that in a big way this year as director-writer-editor of the much acclaimed black-and-white silent film The Artist, the awards-season darling that has become a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar among its 10 nominations overall — including for Hazanavicius specifically Best Director, Original Screenplay and Editing. He made his first feature Mes amis in 1999 but since then has focused on his James Bond spoofs: the 2006 international comedy hit OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies and its 2009 sequel, OSS 117: Lost In Rio. Both starred Jean Dujardin and Hazanavicius’ wife Bérénice Bejo, who also headline and are Oscar-nommed for The Artist. Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond sat down with Hazanavicius to talk about his film, which has taken the world by storm since its May debut at Cannes. That’s where The Weinstein Company acquired it and sent it along its awards-season way.
AWARDSLINE: Why did you want to do a black-and-white silent film? Nobody has really had that idea in about 80 years.
HAZANAVICIUS: I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to do it. You know these movies; it is a very special experience to watch a silent movie with other people. I really like the way the story is told in a silent movie. As an audience you take part in the storytelling process. In a way I did a sort of crook thing. I cheated. I have the benefit of 80 years of sophistication, of narration, and I took the old movies and I did a modern one with the oldest ones.
AWARDSLINE: So you actually watched quite a few, you had quite a few inspirations to begin with. What was one of them you patterned this after?
HAZANAVICIUS: I watched a few from many countries but I chose the four or five final years of the American silent era. City Girl, Sunrise, the Frank Borzage movies, the John Ford movies, Four Sons for example. The Crowd from King Vidor. Chaplin of course. The Von Sternberg movies, Underworld and Docks Of New York.
AWARDSLINE: What’s the big challenge in doing this film now?
HAZANAVICIUS: It was in the writing. I had to feel that I would be able to shoot the sequence without asking actors to be doing pantomime. I wanted them to act as they do usually. I have to find the good images to tell the story, but it has to be done with images. That had to be figured during the writing process.
AWARDSLINE: It must be difficult to work with a partially American crew in Hollywood since you are French.
HAZANAVICIUS: Being French is not an issue for me. I am French by coincidence. I didn’t choose to be French and really I don’t care. When I work, before being French, I am the director. For instance I don’t talk to the costume designer as an American, I talk to him as a costume designer. I’ve made movies in Brazil, Morocco, France and all over the world. And it’s the same. Hollywood is not especially American anyway. Hollywood is worldwide, it belongs to everybody. So I felt really legitimate. I did some research, read a lot of books, watched movies and looked at photos so I think I knew the subject pretty well. I was able to communicate to an American crew, but first and foremost a crew.
AWARDSLINE: The film has a universal theme.
HAZANAVICIUS: I really think there is something beautiful with the silent format. I think the directors, when they made the movies back in the ’20s, they didn’t have an option to do talking movies, they were just doing movies and it was a new type of a universal language and I think it is very touching when you see the silent movie because it has no language so it’s just images and music. It’s like paintings and all music. It’s really a language with emotions and feelings and it’s deeper than talking movies, I think.
AWARDSLINE: What are the influences on the film?
HAZANAVICIUS: Actually not many people would know the silent era and it is not something I calculated. I think my film is a homage to the classical Hollywood movies. Music is really important in the silent process and there was no music in the silent era, but we chose to be reverent to the classical Hollywood composers so it goes from ’40s and ’50s until Vertigo. I gave my cinematographer 12 movies to watch and analyze the texture of what I wanted. But at the end of the day I told him we have to forget everything and tell our own story. I really can borrow mood from movies of the ’40s. For instance, in the sequence when you discover the sound test, you can go to the very beginning of Citizen Kane in the screening room. It’s a strong backlight. And I wanted that. I wanted the character of George to refuse the sound at the moment and he goes from the light to the darkness. I needed that strong black-and-white light and shadow, so I didn’t want it to be just from the silent era. I wanted it to be from all the classic movies.
AWARDSLINE: And the black and white is stunning.
HAZANAVICIUS: It’s so beautiful. For the actors they are magnified, it’s especially great. And I think the aspect ratio of 1:33 it’s wonderful for the actors. You really see their bodies. When you do a close-up in 1:33, it takes the space of the whole frame. It’s really spectacular.
AWARDSLINE: Can you talk about the scene where you bring sound into the film while the actor stays silent?
HAZANAVICIUS: Actually it was an option for the entire script. In the beginning it was an option to tell the story of a silent actor and little by little the sound is coming to life, but he stays silent. I thought it was interesting, but the problem is if you make a promise in the first 15 minutes of the movie and say “OK, you are going to see a silent movie,” little by little you’re cheating. And that’s disappointing because you’re not doing a silent movie. So that was a bad option. But I liked the initial idea so I kept it and put it in just one sequence. I thought it was very funny that something that was so normal like a glass or object; just doing this natural sound can be very shocking. You are completely shocked when you see it because it is not the film’s convention, but it means something. I thought it was funny.
(Hazanavicius photo: Getty Images)