‘Micmacs’ Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the End of His ‘Life of Pi’

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The mind of Jean-Paul Jeunet is a factory of ideas. His films burst with visual flare, often at an overwhelming pace. In his darkly whimsical fairy tales, from the surreal dystopia of Delicatessen and the disturbing extravaganza of City of Lost Children to the captivating big-heartedness of Amélie, Jeunet has proved himself a true visionary. On a drizzly February afternoon at the Soho Hotel in London, Jeunet could barely contain himself when we mentioned the abundance of rats in the surrounding area. “And not just the ones with whiskers,” he snickered. The dark underbelly of life at street level, and often the level below street level, is once again the focus of Jeunet’s lens with his new film Micmacs, about a recovering gunshot victim who is adopted by a motley crew of secondhand arms dealers to seek revenge on the corporation who put a stray bullet in his head many years ago. We spoke to the filmmaker about his representations of Paris, why he turned down Harry Potter and his struggle with bringing Life of Pi to the big screen.

How do you view the competition these days? I absolutely love Disney and Pixar. The way I work is that I have thousands of gags and small bits of dialogue just ready to roll out at anytime. And when that box is full I know I’m ready to make my next film.

Just prior to making Micmacs, your name was attached to the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Life of Pi. What happened? After I finished work on A Very Long Engagement, Warner offered me the fifth Harry Potter movie but I turned it down because I couldn’t see how I could fit it into my schedule, or how I could make the film my own. The Potter world already exists, the sets are already there, the costumes are there and the actors know exactly how to play their parts. So it didn’t really excite me. Taking on the Alien world was different. They chose me because they wanted me to bring my personal touch to the film, to create a kind of hybrid with my own world. And to be honest, stories about warlocks, magic wands and flying brooms and such, where absolutely everything is possible, doesn’t interest me much. I said no, even though my agent told me that if I did Harry Potter, I’d obviously be covered for the rest of my life!

What happened with The Life of Pi? I worked on it for two years because a few years back I’d read the book by Yann Martel. It begins in India and sets out on the high seas to tell the story, after a terrible shipwreck, of the confrontation on a lifeboat between two lone passengers, a young boy and a tiger. Initially I thought it couldn’t be adapted. Too rich, too detailed, with the sea, a child, a tiger, all being incompatible elements. And then Fox, whom I had done Alien for asked me to adapt it, and it was too beautiful a premise to let it pass me by. So I reread the book with a view to adapting it, and accepted their offer on the condition that they let me write the script. I managed to get out a script that everyone liked. I even had models of the Pi boat and the tiger made, like you do for an animated film, and with my camcorder I took 3500 shooting script photos edited together on iPhoto. So as of today we have both a photo storyboard and a hand-drawn storyboard! We then started location scouting in India and to me, there was no doubt the film was going to get made. Then the numbers rolled in and the budget was in excess of 85 million dollars. All that for an Indian kid with a tiger on a boat. It didn’t make sense, so we thought of every way we could to get the budget down to 60 million and still couldn’t find a solution, until one of the heads of Fox said to me, “Produce it yourself!” It was totally absurd. And then suddenly, I didn’t hear from them anymore, until the day producer Gil Netter told me they were thinking over new solutions. But for me, I’d been on the project two years and I didn’t want to spend my whole life on it. I needed to shoot right away so I started on Micmacs which I’d already had in my mind. Four months later I had a finished script.

What was the principal idea for Micmacs? I wanted to make a comedy and not an intellectual piece. And what could be more different from arms manufacturers than secondhand dealers acting like a gang of scavengers and joining forces against those businessmen of death. A real David and Goliath tale. I wanted to face off the arms sellers with a gang of characters similar to the toys in Toy Story. Another big influence on Micmacs was Mission: Impossible, as I’m a unconditional fan of the series, and also of Sergio Leone movies. I think I paid homage to both.

How did you come up with the title? It’s actually the name of the secondhand dealers’ cave. I do wonder a little how it’ll be translated in other countries!

Do you think that Micmacs is a bit like Delicatessen meets Amélie, your two most famous works? Of course, but not deliberately. It’s a slapstick movie essentially. And I think it could definitely have been made in 3-D had we had the budget. Also I love playing with the French language, although I think I actually lose 15% of literal meaning due to translation. I try to put a poetic perspective in all my films, using a very particular French dialogue.

What was the most unusual research you did for Micmacs? I visited a weapon factory in Belgium, because in France, that just wasn’t possible. I met some really nice people, technicians who talk so passionately about their factory it could be a chocolate shop, only when the new caramel they’ve just invented hits its target, it makes a tank heat up to 4500°! All the dialogue in the film that referred to the weapons industry is authentic, for example, “We don’t work for the Attack Department, we work for the Defence Department.” That’s a marvellous justification to keep your conscience clean! Except that their “products” are sold, and at the end of the chain, they cause suffering, mourning, death.

Your leading actor is Danny Boon who seems born to play Bazil. That’s exactly right, like with Audrey Tautou and Amelie. It’s a lucky twist of fate that we got Danny.

And you’ve since worked again with Audrey? Yes, Chanel asked me to direct their new ad for Chanel n°5 with Audrey Tautou. I’m a lucky guy.

Is it true that with Micmacs, you tried to show a traditional Paris that coexists with today’s Paris and its contemporary architecture. By now in my life I’ve covered most of the traditional Paris I love–the bridge, the pillars, the metro, etc. So I wanted to mix in certain elements of today’s Paris, so I’d take a magnificent building from the 1930s and film where it meets up with the new Line T3 tramway, or I’d shoot the skylight at Galeries Lafayette with a department of lycra sports clothes or the Musée d’Orsay with a contemporary coffee shop.

You left your last project because of budget concerns. Are you worried of running into that problem again? We made Micmacs for 25 million Euros, which although huge for a French film, was still a push. Micmacs wasn’t supposed to be expensive, it’s just a story about secondhand dealers that happens in the present! So what’s going to happen the day I want to make a science fiction movie?