Sure, the Best Picture Oscar-nominee “The Artist” is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film. But its filmmaker, Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter and co-editor Michel Hazanavicius, is more than happy to make up for the words you won’t hear while watching it.
“I’ve never talked so much about a movie and ironically, it’s a silent movie,” Hazanavicius told me with a laugh in a recent interview. “But that’s also very exciting — talking a lot about it is a clue that means people really enjoyed the movie. There’s been really good energy around it.”
For the French director’s first American filmmaking venture, getting “The Artist” made as a silent, black-and-white film was a victory within itself (it’s hard enough to get a color film with sound make, much less the opposite). But the constant celebration of it — including Best Picture honors from the Producers Guild of America, the Critics Choice Movie Awards and the British Academy of Film and Television — to his win of the coveted Director Guild of America award — is something Hazanavicius could never have imagined.
And in the midst of all of that, the film is marching into Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony with 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin and Best Supporting Actress for Berenice Bejo, who off-screen is Hazanavicius’ wife.
“It’s just incredible. When you’re French, coming from a non-English language country, you don’t even dream about Oscar recognition or nominations,” Hazanavicius said, humbly. “It’s just beyond the dream. It’s something very, very special and unique. It’s the highest recognition any filmmaker could dream of.”
Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s Hollywood, “The Artist” follows the paths of two performers: George Valentin (Dujardin), a charismatic leading man of the silent era whose career rapidly fades as he refuses to believe that talkies are the wave of the future; and Peppy Miller (Bejo), a rising starlet in talkies who got her break in the movie business after a fluke encounter with George.
Staying true to the film’s roots, Hazanavicius filmed “The Artist” entirely in Los Angeles and Hollywood to capture the ambience of the era. The irony was, the director didn’t know whether the French-financed production would ever be seen by American audiences, much less people who vote on awards. Fortunately for Hazanavicius, innovative film executive and noted risk-taker Harvey Weinstein picked up the film for distribution through The Weinstein Co.
“When we were making the movie, winning awards for it wasn’t the point at all. We didn’t even have an American distributor,” Hazanavicius recalled. “We didn’t know if it would be seen here or not, or even if the crew who worked on it would see it. So you can about imagine how we felt when (Weinstein picked it up). This has been once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
There are several underlying themes in “The Artist,” and among the most prominent is the dilemma of change and how two different artists handle it. Oddly enough, Hazanavicius said, he didn’t deliberately write the script because of his own resistance to change (as in the case of George) or acceptance of it (as in the case of Peppy). The idea for the film, he said, came with his attraction to the silent movie format, and such storylines — such as the themes of change — emerged through the characters.
“When I started to write the story, a lot of the themes came by themselves — and I don’t know exactly from where,” Hazanavicius said. “The fact that I made a special movie with an old-fashioned style — even if it’s a mix between with modern and old-fashioned things — must mean I feel both ways about change. In a way I’m resisting, but in a way adapting myself to the times.”
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Like Martin Scorsese did with his ode to the history of cinema with “Hugo,” Hazanavicius feels in some sort of way he made “The Artist” to remind himself that the world of film is facing a rapid transition. For the record, the director said he shot “The Artist” on film — in color — before it was converted to black-and-white (he said such a conversion brings out a nuance of gray impossible to achieve on black-and-white stock).
“I think we are at the very beginning of high changes, not only in terms of digital film, but in the way the movies will be screened, whether they’ll be screened on phones, on computers — on everything,” Hazanavicius observed. “Before we jump in that new direction, maybe you have to look back at your roots and check yourself. You need to know who you are and why you do this job. Before I adapt completely, I wanted to see where I came from.”
Not Exactly An Art Film Hazanavicius said perhaps one of the greatest benefits from all of the awards season exposure is that moviegoers are coming to discover just how accessible “The Artist” is to a mass audience. True, it’s black-and-white and silent, which could lead people to pigeonhole it as an “art film” (an assumption made easier given the film’s title); but at the same time, the film at its heart is a love story enhanced by drama and comedy that concentrates as much on the humor as it does the heartbreak.
Plus, it has an adorable canine co-star known simply in the movie as “The Dog,” played by Uggie.
Hazanavicius noted that there’s nothing wrong with making an art film (after all, who doesn’t want to craft the very best piece of work possible?), but at the same time, he added, you can’t alienate the people in the theater seats.
“To me the recognition of the audience is part of the filmmaking process. When you make a movie, it’s for them,” said Hazanavicius. “There’s always been a struggle with filmmakers between art and industry, and you have to find a balance. I thought ‘The Artist’ was a perfect way to find a good balance. The artistic challenge is obvious because the film is black-and-white and its silent, but I did my best to make the movie accessible and easy to watch. I really don’t want to make elitist movies. I really try hard to work for the audience. Audiences are smart. They get everything.”
Well, they get almost everything. Since there appears to be room for merchandising now that the film is a success, I asked Hazanavicius about the chances of some cool movie merchandise being produced. Could a stuffed Uggie plush be in our future?
“We should do that,” Hazanavicius said with a laugh. “I will mention it to Harvey Weinstein.”