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Marjane Satrapi Cooks Up A Tasty Chicken With Plums

Marjane Satrapi at the New York press day for "Chicken with Plums."

Marjane Satrapi at the New York press day for “Chicken with Plums.”

Marjane Satrapi

Cooks Up A Tasty Chicken With Plums

by Brad Balfour

Iranian-born director and artist Marjane Satrapi lives in Paris, France, and has never lived in post-revolutionary Persia throughout her adult life. Yet her home country has shaped and influenced her creative work whether it be her written and drawn graphic novels or her feature films.

In 2000, an independent book of bande dessinée (as comics are called in French) was released called Persepolis.

Written and drawn by Satrapi, it was an eye-opening autobiographical story about her childhood in Iran, her family’s escape (and some cases death), her move abroad and the demons faced in herself and the world around her.

Simultaneously tragic, funny, and enlightening, Persepolis garnered acclaim and Satrapi got to direct an animated adaptation in 2007 with artist and co-director Vincent Paronnaud.

Because she gained attention for its unique style and story – it won awards at festivals (including Cannes 2007) and was nominated for an animation Oscar, Satrapi has gone on to write more graphic novels, including Chicken With Plums, a tragic tale based on the life and death of a relative of Satrapi’s.

Now the graphic novel has been transformed into a live action adaptation starring Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros and Golshifteh Farahani with Satrapi and Paronnaud in the director chairs again.

The following Q&A is drawn from a small roundtable with Satrapi and Paronnaud held at the Gramercy Park Hotel just before the release of the film in NYC.

With this shift in technologies, how have you grown since the previous film?

Marjane SatrapiGrowing up is realizing that the more experiences you achieve, the more you understand that you don’t know so much. This wheel of being – trying to make things before I die – it’s not like I have 3000 years ahead of me and I can just go on, it’s a very simple calculation. I’ve calculated that I have about 30 years to live and work, so each project takes me three years, so ten percent of my time.

So 10 projects and I’m gone. In the 10th project I have to make the maximum of what I feel like doing.

I am more aware of my death, like everybody I guess. But I feel happy. It’s very sad that we have to die, of course, but there isn’t anything we can do. It’s better to laugh.

Chicken with Plums

Chicken with Plums

What is it like dealing with an actor compared to telling a story with illustrations?

Marjane Satrapi: Well there are different moments you film, but Mathieu Amalric is a very talented and gifted actor who expresses lots of things even when he’s not doing anything, like in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He’s very expressive and he has this thing in his eyes, this fever. He’s a very gentle person who is really at the service of the film. It was good for him to be on the set, it was like a playground.

He’s somebody who’s actually not scared of playing different roles. He doesn’t say “I’ll look ridiculous, I won’t do that.” When an actor believes in a film, and is committed, and is a great actor like we had the chance to have, then it’s not such a difficult thing to do.

The difference with animation is that in animation you decide what you want, you make the movements in front of the animators and they copy you. You are in control of the project. But when you have actors, they take the story, and when they’re great, they take it much further than what you imagined.

For instance, when you see Maria de Medeiros, who plays his wife, Faringuisse, for us she had a range of sentiment and played a nasty woman, but then we feel compassion for her. She became a bitch at the beginning, but she becomes beautiful, you love her and you want to protect her. You want to shake him and say “Look at this beautiful, incredible wife! Why don’t you want to love her?”

Sometimes as a director, you don’t direct and you just become the viewer of your own film if it goes this way.

Mathieu’s eyes are amazing in this film.

Marjane Satrapi: The eyes are his eyes, but nobody was as close to the book as Mathieu himself. Every morning I would visit him when he was doing the makeup and he would say “Marjane, but the book!” And I would say, “Yes, Mathieu, I know, I wrote the book myself. Forget about it, it’s a work of adaptation, concentrate on your character!”

He doesn’t need anyone to make eyes like that, he’s an extremely talented actor and good person.

Is it a challenge going from drawing a graphic novel to storyboarding a film?

Marjane Satrapi: We must not forget that the book is a book, and it happens that the book is my book, but even if it was someone else’s book, we’d do it the same way. Meaning, it would be an adaptation.

The storyboards and the comics are not the same; the language is not the same. With Persepolis we forgot about the book very quickly.

Was there a sense of myth present in the drawing process?

Marjane Satrapi: Of course, but the only movie maker that knew how to draw…I think Fellini drew well. It’s visual art, so it’s a plus if you know how to draw a very simple thing. Like if you want to show something to your set designer, instead of using 2000 words, you make one sketch and he understands what you’re talking about. It’s a plus.

Or maybe since you’re more visual, you can imagine how everything will look. But there are plenty of good movie makers that don’t know how to draw. For us, because when we had to re-create a whole world, it was probably a plus.

But it had an effect on how we do things, I don’t know. Maybe on this movie it helped because the framing was very classic [in style]. In other genres of cinema I don’t think, because you have to know the techniques of cinema.

Music also plays a mythic role in this film. What made you feel a passion for music?

Marjane Satrapi: Well you have to have some kind of passion, and why not music? You break your instrument and your heart can be broken, or because your heart is broken your music is not good. If you paint and you break your brush, you break your brush every week. You don’t break a Stradivarius every week, you just go out and buy a new brush and it’s no big deal.

Of course the music plays a big role, and we were lucky to work with a great musician that’s an old friend of Vincent’s [Paronnaud, co-director], Olivier Bernet. They had a rock band for a long time and this boy is extremely talented. They work together and I was listening, the things you like or don’t like.

Since we prepared the movie, we had an animatic before we finished the film so Olivier started composing the music to the animatic. So the music was not completely finished because you finish it on the real images. But we had the maquetes, so we played the music on the stage to put the actors in the mood.

Vincent Paronnaud at the New York press day for "Chicken with Plums."

Vincent Paronnaud at the New York press day for “Chicken with Plums.”

What kind of music did your band play?

Vincent Paronnaud: We come from the south of France. Very underground.

Did you use different musical influences from the North?

Marjane SatrapiPure rock. But they also used in the music some violin and stuff you don’t normally use in rock music.

Smoking has never been so passionately depicted. Are you both smokers?

Marjane Satrapi: Yes.

There’s a different perception of smoking here in the States.

Marjane Satrapi: It’s the fashion now to hate smoking. Like all the problems in the world are solved, no pollution, no shit in water, so now the only problems people have are smoke and smokers. It’s like if you don’t smoke, then you’re not going to die.

The particles that stay in your lungs, carbon monoxide, that comes from cars. Before forbidding smoking we should forbid cars, and then we’ll talk. But both of us are smokers and are proud of it. I don’t want to quit smoking; I’ve been one all my life.

Could you imagine Humphrey Bogart without his cigarette, or Lauren Bacall without hers? I could go on all day. Rita Hayworth without her cigarette? Jennifer Aniston and Zac Efron… Bacall and Aniston, there is no comparison [between them]. Sexually, from an attraction point of view, everything is not on the same level.

Smoke is extremely cinematic. It’s extremely nice to film. It’s also a symbol of life. One second it’s there, the next it’s not. It disappears, it gives you some pleasure, it’s a beautiful thing.

But today, if someone smokes, especially here in the film they have to turn down the light on the cigarette and in the next few minutes he’ll kill a woman, or a child, or blow up a building. The bad guy is coming, he lighting up his cigarette.

I had two grandmothers, both of them smokers, they lived a long time and I had two uncles that were health freaks and they both died in their early 60’s from cancer.

Even in the ’80s everyone was smoking. Bruce Willis could smoke. Today, everyone is like *gasp*! I don’t quite understand.

I think smokers are very sexy the smoke as an object is very beautiful to film and photogenic. It gives you some style. And if you don’t have any style…

Chicken with Plums - The Graphic Novel

Chicken with Plums – The Graphic Novel

The film is very stylized – like the comic. How did you conceptualize it?

Marjane Satrapi: In the film you have many layers. You have one underneath layer with the story in the 1950’s with the coup d’état that happened in Iran and the end of democracy, and the name of the lover is Irane, which is equivalent to naming a character America in an American film. Then you have a very realistic story about the people that are there with no hocus pocus fable things.

Everyone has their good moments, their bad moments, you don’t have a hero, you have a guy that doesn’t like his children at the beginning but then he does at the end. Everybody, each character has ambivalence, like it is in life. You don’t have great or bad people.

Then you have another layer of realism, which is the way you remember your memories. Obviously when you remember, not only does it come in pieces, not chronological, some pieces are very detailed and colorful, and some are just an action, plus, this whole reality is how you remember them, not the reality. Now in all this remembrance, how to make out of this boring story about a man who wants to die, an attractive story?

You have all this work of memory, plus the cinema is a domain where there is no limit to your imagination, plus the fact that none of us come from film school, we just go freestyle. All of these were things we loved and wanted to show in a certain way and it was the result of lots of work.

The big challenge was to be able to make it in the way that it would not look patchwork, the film should be an entity in and of itself.

We had a great set designer, we watched movies, did documentation, photos, but it’s a synthesis of all of that. The research you do at the beginning, the result is not always exactly related to that.

What was in casting Golshifteh Farahani who played Irane?

Marjane Satrapi: She’s well known in Iran, but she cannot live there anymore, she lives in France. The reason she was taken isn’t because her name was Irane, it was that when you’re young and you fall in love, you don’t fall in love wondering if she’s intellectual and if you’re going to have good discussions. When you’re young and fall in love you look at someone and *gasp* you’re in love. This is the love of youth.

We needed a girl that when you see her, you’d be like “wow.” And it was this one. She has something of wild beauty that is difficult to describe, but she has this innocence in her face and you see her and everyone’s in awe of her.

We needed somebody with this face that you don’t know where it comes from. She has made nearly 25 films when she was in Iran, but she played in one American film with Leonardo DiCaprio…

Is that why she was banned?

Marjane Satrapi: She played in that film, Body of Lies, and they asked her, “why do you play in an American movie?” She could not work there anymore, and that was it. If you make a problem, then you go.

I’m not making Iranian cinema or am part of the Iranian cinematic movement because, simply, I do not work in Iran. I left Iran when I was very young, I studied outside. All of my career, my life was outside Iran. I’m Iranian but I’m French.

If someone makes a film about Spartacus like Ridley Scott, it does not make him a Roman. This is a French film. If you want to talk about the film makers in Iran, I don’t know any of them personally.

You might be helping them…

Marjane Satrapi: I don’t think I can help anything. The government of my country does not like me. If I say to the government “please free these people,” they will say, “you are a woman who is a hooker in our eyes, why would we listen to you?” I am considered an enemy

Any approach I make to an Iranian film maker will only make their situation worse. This is why I choose to be far away from them.

What is the symbolism of the chicken with plums?

Marjane SatrapiBut I can tell you exactly. It is a food that comes from the region I was born in, near the Caspian Sea. When men in my family went to eat the plums, they would say they were eating Sophia Loren because they were round and juicy and sweat. Everyone called the plums the Sophia Loren.

The title is very important because a film that is a melodrama. If you call it The Life of Nasser-Ali Khan, The Musician it becomes too obvious. It’s more fun. But it’s more than that. There’s a moment in this film, the only relationship he has with the real world, which is his wife, is through the food.

Then there’s a moment in the film when he has a dilemma, he can sit down and eat and not die, but he decides not to eat. But this is a man that loses his pleasures one by one. And what is the last pleasure we can lose? Eating.

You can live without making love. You’re miserable, but you survive. But without eating it’s impossible to survive. Also, this is a moment where you dive into his past. It’s an important moment that looks like nothing, but it’s the turning point.

Do you make chicken with plums?

Marjane Satrapi: Yes, but I swear to god, I don’t lie, I love that food but I didn’t use to make it very often. But after making this film, everybody says “make me chicken with plums so we can see if it’s really tasty.” So I have to make chicken with plums for everyone.

You have mentioned your love for the late great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and Rashomon  his seminal film of a crime described by several from very different perspectives. This film uses a similar narrative strategy. Were you influenced by other filmmakers?

Marjane Satrapi: A point of view is only interesting if we all have different point of views, otherwise we have to make Superman and he’s very nice and it’s not the same kind of movie. To come back to Kurosawa, I’m obsessive. With Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, that is the film I have seen the most in my life. 360 times, at least.

At the age of 10, I became obsessed with this film, and every day I came back from school I watched it. Every day, without exaggeration. Kurosawa is a master. I don’t need to tell you that.

You won’t do a remake.

Marjane Satrapi: There are things you can’t remake. You can’t remake Citizen Kane, you don’t remake  or other Fellini, it’s not possible. They’re already very nice.

Do you like other comics – ones that influence you?

Marjane Satrapi: I love American cartoonists. Vincent is much better than me at talking about comics. What is your favorite?

Vincent Paronnaud: My comics. Well, and [Robert] Crumb.

Marjane Satrapi:[I love] Charles Burns. My next project will probably be, if everything goes well, an American film.

To be shot here?

Marjane Satrapi: I’m not going to shoot it here, but the script is American. it’s not my script. It’s a story of a psychopath, The Voices. We have to see if people are going to do it.

It must be fun working for someone else for the first time.

Marjane Satrapi: Yes, but I told you, I only have 10 projects. I have to try whatever I can try in this short time.

Photo Credits:
#1 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2011. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#4 © 2011. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 19, 2012.

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