A director known internationally for his short films and commercials, Jérémy Clapin made his feature directorial debut this year with Netflix animated pic I Lost My Body, though he initially balked at the general notion of venturing into features.
Used to working with total creative freedom, while twisting and pushing animation technology to create fresh work, Clapin had seen the negative experiences his friends had gone through when transitioning to features, and was wary of an industry that produces “a lot of things in the same way, without asking questions each time,” he explains.
Clapin’s attitude shifted upon meeting with producer Marc du Pontavice, about a feature adaptation of Guillaume Laurant’s novel, Happy Hand. A multifaceted story involving a young man and woman falling in love, I Lost My Body excited Clapin, given that it placed most of its focus on a severed hand, which escapes from a lab, with the determination to reconnect with its body. Featuring action sequences in which the hand gets stuck under ice, bounces violently down an escalator, swings from an umbrella through the streets of Paris, and has a close encounter with a trash compactor, this feature would be one unlike any the director had seen before.
“When we talked with Marc, I think we had the same will to give something new in animation, and to not do commercial stuff,” Clapin explains. “Really, we were talking about cinema. So, I felt really free, creatively speaking, not only [with] the script, but also in the way I would be involved into the pipeline.”
For Du Pontavice, as for Clapin, I Lost My Body was only worth making because it was so unique. Having worked on commercially-oriented features in the past, the producer naturally found himself inclined to pick a very odd story to explore, which would subsequently be one he could shepherd without creative interference. “There is no precedent. It doesn’t look like anything else, and it’s not industry compatible. All of that gave us somehow incredible freedom, because we had to invent the storytelling,” Du Pontavice says. “We had to be innovative in the process of producing this.”
For Clapin, the goal was to find “a common area between industry and auteur film,” he says—and in order to make that possible, his producer put together the bulk of the pic’s budget himself. “All of that was to make Jeremy and I able to work together without the traditional constraints of the industry,” Du Pontavice notes. “That could have ended up in nowhere, but I think by doing this, we gave [ourselves] a chance of creating a new path in animation.”
Bringing I Lost My Body to Cannes, where it became the first animated film to win the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, Clapin and Du Pontavice did just that.
DEADLINE: Jérémy, how did you come to direct I Lost My Body?
JÉRÉMY CLAPIN: In 2011, my producer Marc wanted to meet me and present me the book of Guillaume Laurant called Happy Hand. He wanted to make an animated feature film based on this book, and he thought I was maybe the good director to do it.
MARC DU PONTAVICE: I knew Guillaume from another project, and I realized that he was writing novels, which I didn’t know before. He told me about that subject, I got to read the book and was hooked into it, because I felt this concept of the point of view of the hand missing the body, as opposed to the body missing the hand, was generating something very new and potentially extremely emotional. I think it clicks with the idea that a part of us is beyond our control, especially when it comes to memory, and that’s what I felt this story can bring to the audience, an emotional experience that mirrors what we feel very strongly.
The other thing was more to do with the cinematic language. I felt somehow this was almost like an ultimate challenge of cinema that only animation could achieve, which is this weird idea that we had the ambition of having the viewers feeling empathy for a character that has just five fingers to express itself. No eyes, no smiles, no tears, no language. How does cinema convince the audience to feel for that character? All that felt worth trying to make something different.
I did scratch my head a little bit to wonder what director could do this. Then, I saw one short of Jeremy’s called Skhizein, which somehow in terms of the universe, the way he was staging and all of this, made me feel he was the right person to deliver that.
DEADLINE: Could you elaborate on the themes explored in the film? Obviously, one main subject of exploration is a kind of violent separation—both between the hand and his body, and between people.
CLAPIN: It was not so of use, all this thematic material, when I jumped into the project, but I knew it was not only about a physical journey of a hand. This is not about the trip of a hand in Paris; it’s not a touristic trip. I knew there was [within] this something else, something metaphysical, and the hand is a strong symbol. When you shake the hand of someone, you know a lot about the guy you have in front of you. The way you touch the hand can express a lot of things, socially. Also, the hand of a pianist is not the same as the hand of a worker, so it brings a lot of past. There is a lot of past history in the hand. Also, we can say that there is a lot of future in the hand, because we used to read the lines of hands. So, there is all of this meaning in a little piece of body.
When the hand decides to go reach the body through the town, it tells, in a way, this kind of feeling [that] yes, life can be really hard sometimes. Destiny can be hard, and can remove things from you. It can be physical, [like] a hand, but it can be also, for example, a parent’s death. The hand represents this missing part of you, of the past. In fact, the hand belongs to the past in the movie. Naoufel is a character who is stuck in the past, and the story tells how he is going to go through his past to forget, to be able to go to the future, to new horizons. This fantastic element of the hand helps us get involved in this travel into himself.
DEADLINE: What inspired the film’s unique combination of tonal and genre elements? On one hand, you have a lot of warmth and love, with many moments of beauty between characters Naoufel and Gabrielle. On the other, you have a cinematic language of horror, involving a disembodied hand dripping blood, and fighting off rats with a cigarette lighter. And then, of course, there’s a profound sense of tragedy, as well.
CLAPIN: The concept allowed me to go very strong on this kind of mix, to be very contrasted between emotions, because the film is dealing with different scales of life. We talk about destiny, and we talk about a little, anecdotic piece of body. So, how can I jump from this scale to this scale? It’s with a different genre, in fact. When the actions of the hand are really fast and it’s like a [survival] journey, and when we jump into Naoufel and Gabrielle’ timeline, it’s more that time is not going at the same speed. We are in the human speed, like something between the hand and destiny. The film has to navigate between all these kinds of scales, so I have to show different tension, different vocabulary.
DEADLINE: How did you want the world of I Lost My Body to look and feel? How was it brought to life?
CLAPIN: I knew the film would take place in the ’90s, because I like to think that at this time, we were not choosing electronic things. It was more material things you had to manipulate.
I wanted something realistic with [the] drawing style, and I allowed some accidents in my lines. I wanted something [where] we can feel the human working on it, so it was going to be very pictorial, sometimes. This is not like a clean line we used to have in cartoons, or most of the films you can see in animation, in fact. I wanted something very brutal, very fragile, in a way, and also, I wanted to be able to use cinematography—shadow, light. So, I needed to have a strong world behind this. That’s why we decided to do it in CG, to make the characters really exist, so we can feel the geometry is real behind the drawing. There is a reality, something you can touch, something that gives more power, for example, to the hand. So, the hand can really exist, because the volume is real. It’s real CG. Even when we draw this in CG, it brings reality to the proposition.
DU PONTAVICE: I think one of the bold things of [this] film, in Western animation—at least for feature film—is to try and use animation technique to tell an adult story, but really somehow a trivial story of day-to-day-life, which Western animation doesn’t do, usually. In order to achieve this, we had somehow to borrow some of the cinematic language of live-action. The play of the camera is very strong, because the way Jérémy uses camera is very close to live-action. But moreover, the choice of CGI was quite important because it helps when you’re actually animating really morphological characters, as opposed to cartoony characters.
CG is very helpful in that sense because the models are credible, and it was very important that the audience fairly quickly forget that this is animation. The idea is throughout the experience of the film, they should feel almost as if they were real actors, and only CG could provide that experience. But finishing it in 2D and redrawing it in 2D allowed Jeremy to also be more pictorial, to be more graphic, and to have some sort of more poetic end result.
DEADLINE: What was your approach to animating all of the complex action sequences involving the hand?
CLAPIN: We had to work a lot on the action sequences of the hand, on the animatic. So, the animatic was really precise. Also, one of my concerns was, during all the film, to give another situation for the hand, to not repeat myself. Because when you want to put the hand in danger, most of the time, you put the hand at the edge [of a surface]. When we wrote, each time we finished, the hand was on the edge of something, so we could not do that. That’s why we had to be really inventive, in which context we put the danger. So, there is fire, there is water. There are several things—several kinds of touch, several kinds of sensations. It’s all about what the hand can feel when it’s on ice, when there is fire; We had to use a sense of reality, also, in the action sequences.
DEADLINE: What was it like to see I Lost My Body make history at Cannes, while also earning two top prizes at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival?
CLAPIN: I felt really proud to be in Cannes, and it was really good to see that the film was judged not on the technique. Everyone was talking about the film—about the characters, the acting, the dialogue, the purpose—and not the technique. So, Cannes was really enjoyable for that, because it’s like animation is not so desired in Cannes.
In a way, my passion for animation was born in Annecy. I discovered the festival more than 20 years ago, and there wasn’t internet, so it was the only event for me to see a different short filmmaker with a different approach, a different kind of writing process. When I went to my first Annecy, I decided to make animation. All my short films were selected, and I have a really strong history in Annecy, so when we went there with the film, it was [hugely emotional].
DU PONTAVICE: Cannes was a great experience, because one of the things that is so specific in the cinema industry, and specifically in Cannes, is you come from being completely ignored, in a few days, to being completely exposed. Having made that incredible bet on that film and taking that challenge, it was also great for me, because a lot of the industry tends to be somehow a bit cynical, in its way of talking about cinema. But what it’s shown, for me, [is] the appetite for something different.
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