Bernard Génin and Stéphane Goudet: You featured Jacques Tati in The Triplets of Belleville. How did you come to adapt his script for The Illusionist?
Sylvain Chomet: I needed movie posters for the wall in the triplets’ apartment. I thought it would be fun to post one from Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). In the movie’s inaugural scene, I replaced the cock perched atop the cyclist’s house and instead used the silhouette of François, the mailman in Tati’s Jour de fête. Initially, it wasn’t meant to be anything more than a passing homage, but then we asked Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff if we could use a whole excerpt from Jour de fête that the triplets would be viewing lying on their bed. She saw the storyboard and some rushes from the movie. That’s when it all started. Sophie made the connection with the screenplay for L’Illusionniste, written by her father, and spoke about it with Didier Brunner, my producer. She really held the project dear to her heart, but she was also against doing it with an actor who would enact the role of her father.
Unfortunately, I never met Sophie, as she was to pass away a couple of months later. I dedicated the movie to her.
Génin/Goudet: How workable was Tati’s script?
Chomet: It was a short story, running about 30 pages. A finely crafted text, without dialogue, very subtle. Tati worked on it between 1958 and 1961 with Jean-Claude Carrière.
Génin/Goudet: Why didn’t he shoot it?
Chomet: Pierdel, the magician Tati enlisted as his prop man from Jour de fête onwards, told me that Tati wasn’t skilled at all in using his hands. This can be easily seen in his movies, as with Mr. Hulot, a character who is nervous about grasping things, since no sooner has he touched them than they are destroyed. Such is the case in Mon Oncle. The character always seems to be unsettled by an inner strife: his mind is quick to issue orders, but his body is slow to respond and execute them. I feel like Tati must have been like that in real life, a man who was just clumsy with anything requiring scrupulous attention. Plus he burnt one of his hands in an accident. So he realized that he would have to entrust the role to an actor. But as a character, the illusionist is too close to his persona, even more so than M. Hulot. In short, he abandoned the project to shoot Playtime.
Génin/Goudet: Could you tell us about the changes you made to the original screenplay?
Chomet: I changed about 30 percent of the script. The illusionist performed his acts with hens; I preferred a nasty, carnivorous rabbit. I also added two other characters, the clown and the ventriloquist. But the main change has to do with the setting. Tati had situated his story between Paris and Prague. I went to Prague, which is a gorgeous, lovely city, but somewhat lacking in magic. My choice went to Edinburgh. Light in that city is magic, constantly changing over the course of a day. One minute it’s raining, the next it’s snowing, then it’s clear, and all of this takes place within the span of 15 minutes. It’s a city in perpetual motion. When you look up to the sky, you feel like the city itself is moving, and very rapidly, as if keeping it up with the fast-moving clouds.
Génin/Goudet: This project is innovative and ambitious. Did you encounter difficulties putting it together?
Chomet: The budget alone must be twice that of Les Triplettes. The movie necessitated 300 people, painstakingly recruited from all over the world. The core team, based in Edinburgh and working over a two-year period, consisted of 80 animation technicians. For minor characters, such as the cabaret dancers, we enlisted the services of other studios in France... The shots are quite long, with a host of minutiae. It was like putting together a very elaborate choreography.
Génin/Goudet: The movie follows a shift from the world of make-believe, in which Alice lives, to the consumer society, which is at once appealing and alienating.
Chomet: At the outset, the illusionist tries to please her by conjuring up a new pair of shoes. At the end, he moves to the other side of the looking glass, and becomes himself a commodity, only good for boosting sales. I think Tati, who has always been sensitive to major changes in society, was aware of this shift. He experienced it through the eyes of Hulot, through the eyes, therefore, of a child in a giant’s body. But his look tended to turn all those who surrounded him into children. As a result, there is hardly any responsible behavior in his movies.
Génin/Goudet: There is some sadness from the feeling that the music hall is on the verge of extinction. A world is about to end.
Chomet: The illusionist is at the end of his career, he gets fewer assignments and is paid less for his services, to such an extent that he has to work in a garage. But at least he has Alice.
Génin/Goudet: Tati tended to privilege, almost exclusively, the long shot. What kind of challenge did it represent for the animation team?
Chomet: Tati made movies like the picture framer he was, drawing on his music hall experience. He had a keen eye for the line of escape, like painters. He privileged the stage as a space for devising sketches, which was doubtless tied to the fact that he had no formal training in filmmaking. He placed the camera level with his line of sight, stood still and registered the movements inside the shot. Unlike with other movies, when viewing Tati’s, your neck is constantly moving. They keep you on the lookout.
I also very much liked the fact that feet were always visible in Tati’s movies, even though the drawing of feet for animation purposes is a tangled business. But the main challenge consisted in shooting short scenes, about a minute and a half long, with a still frame and only one character, the kind of stuff you only see in old Disney movies such as The Jungle Book.
Mainstream productions embrace the Anglo-Saxon cult of efficiency, making roller-coaster movies where you steer viewers toward predetermined high points and emotions. You don’t allow the viewers to err in their musings, remake the movie according to their whims or pause to reflect on it. Yet children are fond of movies that unfold slowly, like these fabulous contemporary Miyazaki films, but they can’t focus when it’s fast-paced and action-packed. The question posed by these movies, where everything must go fast, is this: Do we really want a generation of viewers unable to concentrate on anything?
Génin/Goudet: Tati’s decline is indicated, in the movie, by his selling out to advertising. You did some advertising work after Les Triplettes de Belleville. Do you see advertising as a sign of decadence sealing the ultimate victory of consumerism?
Chomet: One thing I know is that I couldn’t do it as a full-time job. You know, I went through the whole gamut of this advertisement business. In the UK, I enjoyed working with a small team, with resourceful, innovative people. The sector is quite lucrative, there, and you can quickly make small animation movies that will usually keep you busy for a couple of years. But in Canada, I had some rather demeaning experiences with clients who were full of contempt… After the Playtime fiasco, Tati agreed to direct a couple of ads, just to get by.
Génin/Goudet: To what extent did you identify with the hero?
Chomet: In the last scene, where Tati is seen departing in the train, you will notice a little volcano that is located right where I used to live. There were many aspects of this script that were deeply personal. I don’t think you can create a convincing work if you haven’t lived the experiences it tries to capture. Myself, I have a 17-year-old [daughter] Alice. During the shooting she turned, in the span of six months, from a shy little girl to a clumsy, almost masculine teen; and then to a full-grown woman. That was quite a stunner. She became another person, and one must adjust, relationally, to this transformation. If, two years ago, I had met my daughter as she looks today, I wouldn’t have recognized her.
Génin/Goudet: There is a shift from the vanishing world of the music hall to the incipient culture represented by rock ‘n’ roll. Is there an echo of the current situation, with cinema supplanted by video games and new technologies?
Chomet: Definitely. Of course I thought about the advent of 3D, video gaming and Internet, the last symbols of a generational change, but these are deeply inscribed in the same logic of mindless consumption.
3D is a wonder-working tool... But making 3D pictures cannot constitute an end in itself. These composite images are often lacking in some human dimension, a necessary flaw whenever humans are involved. But without 3D the last scene of the movie, that upward shot whereby the world is turned into a merry-go-round, would have been hard, if not impossible to achieve. For me the debate on whether 3D will consign 2D to oblivion is an obtuse one. It’s irrelevant.
I don’t think Tati would have been against the new technologies. He shot Jour de fête in Technicolor and Playtime in 70 mm. He wanted to use video for Confusion. Were he still living today, Tati would have doubtless made a 3D.
Excerpted from an article published in Positif. Reprinted with permission of Positif. Translation by El Hadji Moustapha Diop.
Bernard Génin is the author of Émile Cohl, the Inventor of the Animated Film (2008). Stéphane Goudet is a film critic who has served as director of Le Méliès à Montreuil since 2002. He has written books on Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and written frequently for Positif.
Jacques Tati is one of France’s most beloved comedians (and the screenwriter/”star” of Sylvain Chomet’s animated The Illusionist), and his work continues to influence and inspire an impressively broad range of artists across disciplines. This film, rich in clips and interviews, outlines his uniquely European career arc, including the tragic folly of his epic-in-scale masterpiece Playtime.