Some directors come to filmmaking with a laser-like focus and sense of predetermination. Others, like French-born Vincent Paronnaud, drift in from other mediums, almost like visiting maestro professors. A key figure in underground comic books (he’s also drawn under the alias of Winshluss) who along with friend and partner Cizo co-created Monsieur Ferraille, the emblematic character of influential magazine “Ferraille Illustré,” Paronnaud made a number of short films before co-directing the striking “Persepolis,” which nabbed the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Animation prize in 2008. Adapted with Marjane Satrapi from her series of autobiographical graphic novels, the movie charts the story of a young girl who comes of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Paronnaud and Satrapi’s latest collaboration, “Chicken With Plums,” finds them exploring live action for the first time, in the melancholic story of a renowned musician (Mathieu Almaric) who loses the taste for life and decides to lie in his bed and wait to die. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had the chance to speak to Paronnaud one-on-one — well, one-on-two, with the generous assistance of a translator — about his work with Satrapi and the challenges of live action filmmaking. The conversation is excerpted below.
ShockYa: You’ve called animation a “monastic experience,” and film is by its nature much more collaborative. Is that part of your interest in the medium?
Vincent Paronnaud: I have always worked with people in animation, although it is true it is a very monastic job. But the only thing that is monastic is the process of animation for especially comic books. But with most animation there really is a lot of people. I have an occupation with which I’ve worked with other people. So [this film] wasn’t the first time working with other people (in a creative capacity).
ShockYa: Well certainly working with actors on a live action film was different and new for you and Marjane. How was that?
VP: It was an amazing experience, that whole process. In all the work that I’ve done before, very little has had to do working with actors. So I had a few clichés in my mind about actors — that they are going to cry and scream and probably throw tantrums and play divas or something like that. But what I loved about the people is that they [were] such professionals — Maria De Medeiros and Mathieu Almaric and Isabella Rossellini — and so you understand quickly why they are at the level that they’re at. So I’m sorry that I had those thoughts about the actors before working with them. (laughs) They really had a sensibility where they understood what we would wanted to do, so it was an extraordinary experience.
ShockYa: Marjane has talked some about the animation in “Persepolis” helping to distance her from the autobiographical elements of that movie. Was it always a given that “Chicken With Plums” was going to be a live action adventure, or did you ever discuss making another animated film?
VP: “Chicken With Plums” was emotionally much less taxing, because it’s more like a fable, even if there are things coming from her family and things that she knows. When we worked together on the script for “Persepolis,” I really realized it was a very delicate subject. I felt like we were walking on eggs, to always be careful. So we both felt we needed something that was lighter, [and] that’s why we went in the direction that we did with “Chicken With Plums,” for a bit of fantasy. I found it a bit weird, because you’re talking about the death of a man, but it was still more an artistic work that we were doing.
ShockYa: The press notes mention you worked up animatics for the entire film before shooting. Was that for your peace of mind, Marjane’s peace of mind, or both? Because that’s quite different than how animatics are typically used.
VP: Well, we were very conscious of our weaknesses, since it was the first time we were shooting something like that. And it’s more like in the style of an old-school movie — a style of movies that you had in the 1950s, where you don’t have digital cameras or anything, and the framing is very set. That (use of animatics) definitely helped us, so that we could anticipate a lot of things in the movie. It’s not that we were attached to only work in that way, but it worked for this project, because it has a lot of references — winks and nods to older movies — so to really thought it out and have the camera in a certain position [was important].
ShockYa: Absolutely — I’m thinking in particular of the movie’s sitcom sequence, which is such a blast of unexpected fresh air, almost out of left field. What were the conversations like with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne about how to construct those elements, and indulge in these little tonal experiments that the film does?
VP: So with Christophe it was easy because he already has the culture that goes with [those] sorts of concepts. He’s not specialized in one kind of movie, and he doesn’t just like one kind. If you talk to him about either (F.W.) Murnau or a sitcom, he already gets it. We really spoke the same language. So even if we seem very talented, it’s because of the fact that we work with people like that that we manage to do this kind of movie. If we were just by ourselves, we would be, well, fucked. (laughs)
ShockYa: The collaborative process with Marjane — how do you feel that changed from “Persepolis” to “Chicken With Plums,” if at all?
VP: So the whole process, at least in the beginning, is the same. We were writing the script together, and that was the same. We anticipate a lot of things, but because of my background in animation on “Persepolis” there were a lot of things that I took upon myself to do, because Marjane was newer at that. So for our second project, we were more equal in a way, because it was a new thing for both of us. That’s one more reason I was so grateful that we were surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and got it, basically. So we found our roles kind of naturally. Because I am a little more technical, I worked on framing and stuff like that, and Marjane worked a bit more with the actors and stuff like that. It’s much shorter, of course, to shoot a live action movie than an animated movie, so we were more constrained by time. You have to be really well prepared and also be good friends, because there is stress from the lack of time.
ShockYa: “Chicken With Plums” incorporates a bit of fantasy or magical realism, and certainly some absurdism. Does your own taste in movies conform more to one genre, or is that reflective of a broad palette?
VP: No, no, I like a different genres — just good movies, really. Everything from (Francois) Truffaut to (George) Romero. Just like in music, too. To only like one genre is for small people, I think.
ShockYa: Is collaboration with Marjane something you’d like to continue, or do you ever see yourself making a feature film on your own?
VP: It was not a big career move that either of us really made, so neither of us have specific plans. That’s the way the movie just happened. But I don’t know for the future. I do have [ideas], because I was doing animation and other stuff before I met her, so there might be something that I will do separately. We’ll see.
Written by: Brent Simon