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Exclusive: Marjane Satrapi Talks Chicken with Plums, Not Liking Children, More

Iranian-born French novelist and multi-hyphenate Marjane Satrapi made a well-received transition to filmmaking in 2007 with the animated international hit “Persepolis,” adapted for the screen from several of her own autobiographical works. The live-action “Chicken with Plums” marks her second collaboration with animator Vincent Paronnaud, her co-director on both projects. The film, set in Tehran in the late 1950s, centers on a renowned musician (Mathieu Almaric) who, having lost his taste for life, decides to confine himself to his bedroom and wait for death; deep and wild reveries ensue. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had the chance to speak one-on-one and in person with the effusive, Paris-based, colorfully dressed Satrapi, about her movies, working with actors for the first time, not liking children and how she feels about both the apocalypse and Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete.” The lively conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: So you just flew in from Paris yesterday. How are you enjoying Los Angeles?

Marjane Satrapi: In Boston or someplace you have nasty weather and outdoor terraces with everyboday outside, and here you have the most beautiful weather and [people] go in places to get tanned, and pay for it. Nobody walks in the street! I have been up since 4 a.m. and already swam, and done so much. I’m leaving in two days.

ShockYa: “Persepolis,” your first collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud, won Best Animated Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, along with many other prizes. Were you surprised by all the honorifics?

MS: It was very surprising. From the beginning I was against the idea of making a film because adaptations of books by the author are usually not a good idea. It seemed a fiasco, you can be sure. And at the same time there w as a small Jiminy Cricket in my body that was telling me, “They’re going to give you money to [have] a new experience, you’re going to learn a new thing that people have to go to college for six years to learn. You would be stupid to not accept it!” But I was so convinced that I would make the worst film in the world. I just tried not to [do that].

ShockYa: When you started thinking about adapting “Chicken with Plums,” [did you ever consider making] another animated film?

MS: No, not at all, because I’m not an animator, you know? After “Persepolis,” I never said to myself, “Oh, Marjane, you are the new (Hayao) Miyazaki of Europe, you have the perfect style and can make 50 films in this style!” For me, animation was something that just fit “Persepolis” best. First of all, it was difficult to choose an actor for myself, my mother and my father, my grandmother. Also, I thought that from the moment that you put this special story in a geographical place with some type of human being [a viewer would] say, “Oh, these Middle-Easterners are not like us, this is far away.” But there’s something with the abstraction of the drawings so that anyone can identify with them as real. It was an easier decision to make in imagination. The second story (“Chicken with Plums”) is more of a love story, which by definition is more universal. It has a political background but that is really underneath. And so that was the need of making it 100 percent in the studio, because the story is the story of a man who locks himself in his room. It’s an interior trip that he has with himself, so it was more appropriate to recreate on a set.

ShockYa: I hadn’t read the book, so I experienced the film as its own thing, fresh, and was I guess surprised by some of its stylistic twists and turns.

MS: This is best, because it’s not supposed to be a continuation of the book. It’s an adaptation, so the book should be the book and if you have to have read the book to understand the film then that means it is a failure.

ShockYa: “Persepolis” was based on four of your books, though, and intensely personal. What was the original inspiration for the book “Chicken with Plums,” and was it just the love story element that you felt made it so ripe for cinematic adaptation?

MS: The inspiration (for the book) was seeing a picture of my great-uncle, a handsome man with this beautiful profile (and) lots of melancholy. And I love melancholy! We live in a world where everyone has to be happy, but I love the idea of being nostalgic, depressed and melancholic. It was this black-and-white picture from the 1950s, and it was I think I period in my life when I had a lot of questions about love and life and art and family and the future. And I think that I made the projection of myself on this man. I always say that when I write about myself or any female character, I think I [engage in] unconscious censorship because I know that people are looking at me. There are things that are too personal for me, and there are places that I won’t go. But when it’s a male character I can just be free, because the connection is not made right away. Just for example, right away, in this film the man does not like his children — he doesn’t like them at the beginning and he doesn’t like them at the end. I know it’s a taboo subject today, because everyone is supposed to love their children, but as an equation that does not work because we have lots of miserable children that later on become miserable adults! So somewhere something doesn’t function. I know that if I had children I would not like them because I love too much my freedoom, and I don’t want to give that up for anything. That’s my I don’t have any children. But in real life I cannot say that, because I’m a woman and a woman is supposed to love to become a mother. I don’t want to become a mother! (laughs) It sounds horrible. I cannot say that, but I can put it in the film.

ShockYa: You’re married, so do you and your husband still get questions from friends and other family about having children?

MS: My husband and I have been married for 17 years, and one or two times when there was massive reproduction around us — when, like, all our friends after 30 started reproducing — we were like, “Maybe we should.” But there is a garden next to our house with a playground, and we would go there, watch [all the kids] for half a hour, and then we went, “No.” We were cured.

ShockYa: What was it like working with actors on set for the first time, something you didn’t have to do with “Persepolis”?

MS: I had luck. I didn’t have any divas that had unreal requests. Everybody was in love with the project, but I was in love with all of them. When I was thinking about actors, they were my first choice — each of them. I really loved all of the actors. I am not very much of a psychological person, but I think with good actors it is sufficient to them to just know what you want. We talked a lot about (some) things that are not really in the film — family stories, jokes, and things — more to create an atmosphere and a kind of flair. Once they get into this atmosphere, since they’re great actors, then they can do whatever. Then if something doesn’t quite fit you can ask them to do it a little bit more or a little bit less, but you just have to put a word after “more.” I’m a person who likes to talk, but also since I write I don’t have difficulty with words. If I want to use a word I use the specific word. …It became something easy and natural. I don’t say that out of vanity, like, “Oh, it was easy!” But I think I was very well surrounded, and I have the capacity of putting words on what I want, and the combination of these two things worked.

ShockYa: This is perhaps more than a bit broad, but how do you feel the types of films you’re making — and maybe want to make in the future — fit within the world today, geopolitically, where there seems to be, as evidenced by the Arab Spring and many other factors, a yearning for human freedom and greater global engagement on many issues?

MS: They fit here, but it is [tough and different] than before. Well, take Ernst Lubitsch for example. Lubitsch comes from Germany to America, creates this set, takes James Stewart or Gary Cooper, who are supposed to be Polish or Czech, and makes an American film with American actors but (of) extremely deep, Eastern or middle-European spirit. And that works. America doesn’t have a problem that exists many other places. The power of American cinema is that they don’t only talk about the American story and people. That is what cinema was supposed to be — something without borders, where you have stories and go wherever you go, and you make stories and from the second you believe in the story you move forward. I’m not against capitalism because human nature is like that. But before it was like people made a movie and if they invested 100 and got 103 (on their return) then they were very happy. Today everybody wants to put in 100 and make 10,000, and this is why they make all these remakes and make things (simply) to make sure that there is lots of money being re-generated. Film in America — thank goodness you have the Coen brothers and lots of independent films that made, that’s great. But I’ve been asked to do (silly) remakes (of) things that are already done so well. You cannot make a remake of a masterpiece, like, of Fellini’s “8½.” It should be forbidden! The industry of cinema in France is called the seventh art. It’s considered first an art, and then you have an industry behind it. But I see the Hollywood of today and compare it to what I know of before, when a producer would read a script and say, “I want to see this, and maybe if I want to see it then 1,000 other people will too.” Today it is, “Oh, I have seen it, so I want to re-see it again.” This is a very big difference.

ShockYa: You say you’ve been asked to do remakes. Coming from both the literary world and a very different cultural background, how do you think you’re perceived now as a filmmaker?

MS: In the beginning I was specialist of children, because I drew myself as child. Then I was a specialist of all the Muslim people in the world, even though I don’t know anything about them. Then they wanted me to make some kind of chick flick, one of these things where girls have all these handbags, you know? I don’t know where they come from. Lately, I have been proposed a script that I think is fun and very far away from where I come from. If it is made, it is going to be a huge artistic and intellectual challenge for me. …But I don’t have any condescension about genres. I saw this film called “Machete,” from Robert Rodriguez. I love this film! I felt so cool watching it — as cool as Machete himself. It’s a genre film, and it’s so well-made that I love it. Although maybe I don’t like films of the apocalypse. Why are there so many of these?

ShockYa: Well, humans are the only creatures that have a greater cognition of their own mortality, so I think we obsess over it.

MS: But let’s keep it cool! If the apocalypse happens on the day that I die that will be my own personal apocalypse, and that will be enough for me.

Written by: Brent Simon

Marjane Satrapi Chicken with Plums

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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