Interview with Jean-Pierre Jeunet for TS Spivet

June 12th, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

At the recent San Sebastian Film Festival, Matthew Turner spoke to Amélie director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, author Reif Larsen and composer Denis Sanacore for T.S. Spivet (based on Larsen’s book, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet). The film is on general release from 13 June 2014:

Q: The director has accustomed us to little details and this film was an excellent example of this. Why do you believe those details are so important? And secondly, how did you manage the 3D aspect of the film?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (JPJ): Well, it’s just like in football, eveything comes down to detail. In the book by Reif Larsen, there are a lot of drawings that are supposedly by T.S. Spivet. When I saw the book and the illustrations, I thought the way of fitting them all in as 3D from the outset, that’s the way I saw it. The 3D is not there just to make it spectacular, but also for the narration and the poetry, just like I did with Amelie and the special effects. And I wanted to renew and use a lot of fantastic American landscapes and also to shoot in English, that’s why I shot in 3D. Plus, when I was a child, I had a ViewMaster, you know, those red box glasses with little discs, so that you can see 3D images. They were my first steps in cinema. I was eight years old, I would cut and change the order of the images and that’s how I created films that subsequently I recorded and projected and showed my friends. So I already took my first steps in 3D when I was eight years old.

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Q: Is this the first quote-unquote “American” film that you’ve made?

JPJ: No, it’s not my first American film. Prior to this, I did Alien: Resurrection with Winona Ryder and Sigourney Weaver for Twentieth Century Fox. That was a true American film, but this is a false American film, and that’s very important, because obviously it’s an American film but produced in Europe between France and Canada. For me, the most important word in cinema is the word freedom. Here, for example, in Europe, we’ve got freedom, we’ve got the final cut and that’s something which is marvellous. If I exclude Alien: Resurrection, where I had to make some concessions, all of my other films, I’ve never made any concessions, so I am 100% responsible for my films. This makes me feel very proud. So I prefer to make films in this way, because there’s no freedom in Hollywood. Spielberg and Soderbergh complain because in Hollywood everything is formatted, everything is compulsory, so therefore we have to follow the law of benefits and profit and money, let us say the law of Hollywood. And I made an American film but with French freedom at the same time.

Q: Where did you find your marvellous child actor, Kyle Catlett?

JPJ: Well, it was very difficult to find him. We had to see two or three thousand [actors]. We carried out the casting in a dozen American cities and I was desperate and all of a sudden, by the internet, this young, little boy actor – very small, but he had magic in his eyes and I felt he had something special. So I Skyped him and he said, ‘I can cry if I have to cry, plus I can do karate and martial arts and so on, so I’m your T.S. Spivet’. I saw so much conviction in him, that I thought it was quite clear that he had to play the role. I went to New York and we did a test audition and it was formidable. And when you don’t make a mistake when you choose a boy actor, you’ll only achieve very good surprises and so obviously we had to work very hard in the rehearsals so that he could portray the role – I believed there was 10 or 15 or 20 per cent possibilities of going even further and so I discovered that he achieved 60 per cent more than what I expected. He’s a boy actor who has a past that I can’t talk about, it’s very hard, and he’s hyper-positive at the same time. He’s almost like a bright light, he never felt tired, he never complained, he was never negative. I saw him cry once and I thought he was playing the role, I thought it was a joke, but it was because he’d lost, I think, a beetle or something of that nature and I treated him as if he was a true actor, just like Audrey Tautou. I compare him to Audrey Tautou because he’s got the same technical [ability], he’s got the same sense of rhythm, he can cry, he’s got all these abilities, he’s a true actor.

Q: Could you talk about the dual aspect in the script between the use of weapons and science, the context of the film – as a children’s film – and what the production process was like?

JPJ: I don’t know whether I could summarise like Reif Larsen, who’s the author of the book. Everything was in the book. When I talked to [Larsen] the first time, I said, ‘I don’t feel I’ve contributed my personal ideas, because your book is so rich and wealthy, I’ve got to take things out of it, it’s not worthwhile adding anything on to it. Albeit, I did add small details, I adapted it a little bit, I couldn’t resist, I couldn’t hold myself back. For me there are many issues in this book, those dual aspects between poetry and science and also a Canadian scientist, I took an idea because he describes forms through poetry, through his chemical composition, I included this in the film. There’s something that is close to me, which is sincerity, we’ve got a young boy who draws things, sketches at home and he creates, he’s very similar to me and then at a given moment, he’s projected before the media and the front line and he knows what’s expected of him but all of a sudden and he prefers to go home and to keep drawing his sketches. And that’s the definition of cinema, which is Jean Renoir – I make films for the pleasure, for the pleasure of doing so and then I want people to watch them and that’s what I try to teach my students to do, to make the films you want to and enjoy it, just for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

Can you speak about the soundtrack for the film?

Denis Sanacore (DS): Well, Jean-Pierre called me up in February 2012 and the producer, Suzanne Girard called me to ask me to contribute some work for Jean-Pierre, because he’d listened to my work on MySpace, for example. I like acoustic guitar very much, so there was a finger style, finger picking, accompanied by a violin and Jean-Pierre already knew that aspect of my music. And I brought along some other songs to the producer and I met Jean-Pierre and he gave me the storyboard and the script and he asked me to compose music, promising – well, I couldn’t really promise anything, but I composed thirty different pieces of work and Jean-Pierre chose them and then he edited them with the images.

JPJ: At the beginning, during pre-production, I said it would be very good if it were a Canadian musician and I didn’t feel like working with Canadian musicians who do music for Hollywood, that’s not my style, I never use orchestrated music with violins and so on. I think on the internet. On the internet, I think I listened to 500 Canadian composers, all of them! I found one who said, ‘Let’s compose music – I compose music and plus I can also change the wheels and tyres on cars at the same time, I can do both things’. And so, when I found him, I said, ‘Well, this is very good’. And we came to an agreement, I said, ‘Well, I can’t promise you anything, but if you compose thirty different pieces, we’ll see’ and therefore, I provisionally edited the film, so that I could be sure, with the 3D and at a given moment, I knew that it was going to work at the end of the day. But he wrote thirty pieces of work, using his talent. The songs, when you hear them, immediately, they stick to your mind, all night long, you can’t get them off your mind.

Q: Reif, were you satisfied with the adaptation of your novel? Did you participate in the script at all?

Reif Larsen (RL): It was a sort of a dream experience for me. When I first wrote the book, I gave my agents five directors who I said, ‘I would love to any of these five’ and actually Jean-Pierre was one of the five directors. I’m not just saying that – it was true!

JPL: You told me the first!

RL: The first director! My first choice. But nothing happened at that point and a couple of years went by slowly and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this book will never be made into a movie’. And then out of the blue, completely out of the blue, I was making coffee one morning in my underwear and I got this email from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and I thought it was a joke, I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke on me, but no, it was real and two days later, we were sitting across from each other in New York City and he was telling me all his favourite parts of the book, the little details that he loved. And he kept saying, ‘Remember when the boy is on the train and he sees the girl? You will see that on the screen!’ And I felt a little bit like I was on drugs or something, I couldn’t believe that this would actually happen. But we got on very well, I think, and we share a lot of similar aesthetics, there’s a lot in common. And Jean-Pierre was a big influence on me – I saw Delicatessen, Amelie and this influenced my work, so in a way, he was inside the book already and maybe this is what he recognised when he wanted to choose the book. But I was involved a little bit, I didn’t really want to be involved too much, because I believe that if you write the story, you’re too close to it – these characters are too much yours to know how to do the adaptation. I’m fascinated with how adaptation works but I think for this story, I wouldn’t be a good person to [do it]. So I was glad to give it to Jean-Pierre and he trusted me enough to show me the script and I gave little comments but nothing major, because I really believe that any story, in order to work, needs a vision behind it and for this movie, it was my child initially and then I gave him to Jean-Pierre.

Q: Who else was on that list of five directors?

RL: Jean-Pierre, Tim Burton, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro. That’s good, right? Any one of those would be good. And Capra, but he’s [dead].

Q: How did you direct the actors? It must have been a challenge, because it’s an imaginative story and you’ve got to make up these characters which aren’t really realistic.

JPJ: Well, all directors probably say the same thing. It all depends on the casting. Helena Bonham Carter, I thought of her directly when I read the book. I had already seen her in Fight Club and she, at that time, said she’d love to work with me. And I don’t know why, when I read the book, I saw her and I got in touch with her and she said, ‘I fell in love with your script’ and that’s how easy it was. She accepted immediately. And then there was a casting and it was marvellous to discover [other] actors who are unknown in France, from Toronto, English or from Quebec, so the casting was excellent, each of the actors are fantastic, even the smaller roles, but the casting, I’m always there and I test audition everyone. And I think that’s the only way to not make a mistake at the end of the day. And vis-a-vis directing on set, yes, there’s a very interesting story here and that’s that the role of Jibsen, Judy Davis, a lot of actors received the script, they said yes, they said no and then the American agents, the biggest liars on the planet, made us believe that they’d loved the script, but they hadn’t even read it. And finally I sent it to Kathy Bates and for two months the agent was saying yes, that she loved it, but she hadn’t even read it. At the end of the day we decided to write to her, she had heard talk about it, she read it and said, ‘I love it, I want to play the role’ and quite happily she came along. And then she realised she had cancer and instead of making the film, she had to be operated on and that’s probably saved her life. So therefore, Judy Davis came from Australia at the last minute to play that role. She arrived on a Friday night and we shot the next Monday morning, so that’s how the directing process was: ‘Be yourself but make me laugh’. And that’s what she did.

Q: Just a while back, Hollywood paid tribute to French cinema with The Invention of Hugo. French cinema also paid tribute to American film with The Artist, then Woody Allen shoots Midnight in Paris, then you make this film, which is super-American coming from France. Could you tell us, what’s this recent love story between French and American cinema?

JPJ: Well, it’s a love-hate relationship at the same time, just like I said before. [Don’t get me wrong], my wife’s American and I love the U.S., to go to San Francisco and I like the American people, but U.S. cinema requires profit and it’s a prisoner of its own industry. The Americans say this, not only me. And I claim freedom, I think we’ve got to do artist / auteur-type films. When a gallery exhibits paintings, the gallery owner can’t say to the painter, ‘Change this here, paint it blue, don’t paint it white’, but in cinema it does occur. And for us, for the French, that can’t be tolerated, so therefore you see that there are two different cultures here. This doesn’t mean that the Americans can’t make excellent films, of course, but it’s much more difficult, you’ve got to fight and fight. It’s a big struggle, I’ve been in Hollywood, I know what it’s about, so that’s why, if I can continue to work in France, that’s what I prefer to do. This doesn’t mean I don’t adore American films. The great Americans, Scorsese and so on and so forth, I love them. Recently, I reread Renoir’s biography – in the 30s and 40s, he said that there’s always going to be somebody that knows better than you what the audience is going to like and I got the impression that in the 1930s, he was already talking about my films, so therefore, this has always been the case.

Q: Reif, how did you choose the name for the character? Tecumseh Sparrow – why such an Indian name? Tecumseh was a famous Cherokee chief and the middle name of a famous Yankee general.

RL: Who was named for the Cherokee chief, yes. Well, I love names that are initials, like T.S. because always, if you say, ‘My name is T.S. or B.J. or D.D, there’s a story there, there’s an untold story, because the two initials always stand for something. So I like names that have stories behind them. T.S. of course is an echo of T.S. Eliot, who is one of my favourite writers, but Tecumseh Sparrow is an interesting name, it’s about the contradictions that are what the West is about. You know, the American West, on the one hand is about map-makers, cartographers, scientists, it’s about the “conquest” of the Indians, it’s about cowboys, all these things – it’s a real playground of the imagination. There’s what actually happened in the West and then there’s what we believe happened in the West. The genre of the Western was only created after the West was already closed, in some ways. The frontier theory, Turner’s thesis, which is that the frontier is where America was made, but the frontier is already gone. This is the first real American idea and it was a nostalgic idea, it was already told after the fact, so there’s something about the West that is nostalgic, we can’t help thinking about the West without moaning that it’s gone. So I wanted to capture that in that name: Tecumseh – he was this Indian figure who tried to unite all the tribes together and failed and was shot, so there’s history in that name, which was important.

Q: How did you come up with the character of T.S. Spivet?

RL: Writing a novel is always complicated, it’s not like you snap your fingers and go, ‘Ah, I know what I’ll write’. For me, a lot of the time, I have to write and as I write, I learn about the story. But for this book, I was struggling with this character who was dealing with his past on a ranch, so it’s the same kind of thing, it’s this nostalgia for the west. Originally, when I first wrote this book, T.S. was 45 years old and he was drunk and actually living in a prison in Paris and sort of narrating his past from the prison. And I wrote about ten pages of this and it was really bad, total shit, so I had to [mimes screwing it up into a ball and throwing it away]. Part of being a writer is knowing when what you write is really bad. So I threw that out and I said, ‘No, he’s not 45, he’s not drunk and he’s not in a prison, he’s 12, he’s still on the ranch and he’s struggling with his father, who’s very different than him’. And once I made that decision, I found the voice of T.S., I was immediately inside the character of T.S. And what I love about this movie is that it also gets inside his head, you feel his struggle and you feel his sense of wonder and also his grief for his brother. And I think that’s what carries the book and it’s also what carries the movie.

Q: Jean-Pierre, what projects do you have in your head now?

JPJ: I’ve got a problem, which is that I never know what film I’m going to make next. I need to see what’s going to happen with this one first. Obviously, if you’re successful now, later on you can be much more ambitious, but if that isn’t the case, perhaps we will have to review my potential for my next film. And it’s very difficult for me to find a subject matter, because in ideal terms, I want a good story, good characters, emotion, humour, interesting graphic aspects and to be original and it’s very difficult to find those five elements. And I think in this film, those five elements do exist. I need to love everything I do, but I also need to feel I like it and I also need to fall in love with the subject as I write. And then my films are seen throughout the world and I’ve got to promote things and this is four years of my life, so it’s very important for me to like it. So unfortunately I can’t answer you, I don’t know what I’m going to do after this film.

TS SPIVET IS ON GENERAL RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM 13 JUNE 2014

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