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Saturday, November 26, 2011

French director pays tribute to Hollywood's classic past with 'The Artist'

BartistBerenice Bejo plays actress Peppy Miller, who ascends to stardom in the new talking pictures, in The Artist." (Peter Iovino)
Leave it to the French to remind us of our Hollywood past.

In the late 1950s and 1960s the New Wave, a group of French filmmakers influenced by classic Hollywood cinema, helped create the idea of auteurs, that directors are the authors of their films.

Because of that, names like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder are as well-known, perhaps better-known, than many stars they put on the silver screen.

Now, French director Michel Hazanavicius has gone to Hollywood to make "The Artist," a film about that crucial time when the movies went from silent to sound.

A French company invading Tinseltown would be noteworthy itself, but more remarkable is that in this age of CGI and special effects, "The Artist" is both black-and-white and silent.

"I think that in some ways part of what this movie is about is a tribute to not only silent films but to classic films like `Citizen Kane,' `Sunset Boulevard' and `Singin' in the Rain,"' says Hazanavicius, 44, known in France for secret-agent spoofs like "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies."

"The Artist" has already drawn rave reviews and film-festival plaudits, and there is plenty of Oscar talk. Its star, Jean Dujardin, won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The handsome 39-year-old Dujardin plays George Valentin, an action star of the silent screen a la Douglas Fairbanks who doesn't think talkies will stick in 1927.

But soon the studios are looking for new faces like Peppy Miller (French actress Berenice Bejo), who has always had a crush on George. Her name says it all and she soon becomes a star in the new sound era. As Peppy's fortunes rise, George's reluctance to change becomes costly, and "The Artist," which starts out like a comedy, surprisingly takes a melodramatic turn.

"The challenge was to have a love story," says Dujardin, who had a translator help with the interview. "A pastiche wouldn't have lasted for an hour
and a half."

But even as the story grows darker, Hazanavicius cleverly includes a tried-and-true staple of Hollywood movies, "the dog" - played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie - as George's constant companion.

"I thought it would be harder than it was," says Dujardin about working with a canine co-star. "He was a well-trained dog. Even before shooting he knew how to do everything. My job was sausage management because once he finished eating, he wouldn't work anymore."

Hazanavicius didn't realize the importance of the dog when he wrote it.
"I thought it was sort of a funny gimmick," he says.

But since, he has come to see the dog as more important, making George more sympathetic.

"A character beloved by a dog is a character that you can trust," he says.

While American audiences may reference "The Thin Man" with mustachioed William Powell and his little white dog, Asta, Hazanavicius didn't know that movie when he was writing the script.

Instead, he was thinking of the comic-book character Tintin and the French movie "Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows)" with Jean Gabin, both of whichhave canine companions.

Since making "The Artist," the writer-director has been finding other such unintentional coincidences in his movie, which cost less than $15 million to make. It was shot at locations all over Los Angeles, and film buffs will recognize familiar places including the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., Mary Pickford's house on Fremont Place and the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. They also shot at Warner Bros., Paramount and Red Studios in Hollywood, where the 1931 fight picture "The Champ" was filmed.

A silent film in a modern age presented a number of unique challenges for Hazanavicius. He had his cinematographer, Guillaume Schiffman, shoot at 22 frames per second instead of the standard 24 to give the film a bit of a 1920s feeling. But the director says he "didn't want to do a fake '20s movie.

"The rhythm of the information that you give to audiences today is much more rapid than it was in the '20s," he says.

Hazanavicius says that in writing the script he had to think about both the past and present, but he
definitely didn't want his actors - who include Americans James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller - to overemote like silent stars.

To get ready, Dujardin watched a number of silent films, including King Vidor's "The Crowd" and F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise." He also watched films of Italian actor Vittorio Gassman "for movement and physicality" and Gene Kelly "for the energy." The actor says he then took it in subconsciously.

"I nourished myself with all these things but kept my own personality," he says. "It was like a fantasy of myself as a 1920s star." But acting wasn't all Dujardin and co-star Bejo, who is Hazanavicius' real-life partner, had to deal with. They both had to learn to tap dance for key parts of "The Artist," and the director had no intention of giving them a break by doing a "Chicago" on them, meaning shooting with dance doubles from the legs down.

"It would be ridiculous to suddenly change the direction and do something modern," he says. "I wanted to do it like the old days. I wanted to see their bodies."

Shooting in Tinseltown was a thrill for Hazanavicius and Dujardin, but on a 35-day shooting schedule they didn't have much time to take it in. As a French star, Dujardin, who has just signed on for the French romantic spy thriller "Mobius," ironically relished his anonymity.

"I could watch the Lakers at a bar and have a beer after shooting," he says.

Hazanavicius says it hit him he was in Hollywood one morning when he was preparing to shoot at Paramount Studios. "It was really cool. I felt really at home."

This is the third film the pair have done together. (They have since done a short for a multi-director film.)

"We have a Bluetooth relationship," Dujardin says. "He says something and I do it. We don't speak a lot. We do our homework and then we talk and have fun on the set with a little tweaking here and there."

Being a non-talking movie, music was an important element to "The Artist." Even before he wrote the script, Hazanavicius was immersing himself in classic Hollywood scores. He even played them on the set during takes.

The score for the film is by Ludovic Bource, who worked with Hazanavicius before.

"It was very difficult to compose the music," says the director. "It had to be very precise because if it wasn't, you would have lost the story."

For example, the key tap-dancing scene was shot to a Cole Porter tune. Bource's replacement number - "Dirty Tap Dancing" - was written to match the rhythm of the scene.

But film buffs will note one key scene uses the music of a famous Hitchcock film, "Vertigo." Hazanavicius had put "Love Scene" by Bernard Herrmann as a temporary holding piece on the soundtrack but found it "so perfect" that he kept it.

"For that scene, I was actually looking for something very different than the rest of the movie," he says.

Herrmann's music is very intense, fitting the moment in "The Artist." Intense is not something Hazanavicius usually does. While there are plenty of comic moments in "The Artist," the director wanted something more dramatic.

"To me, one of the best directors ever is Billy Wilder," he says. "He was able to do `Some Like It Hot' and `Sunset Boulevard.' I think that his ability to make dramas helped his comedies and the reverse is true."

When asked to name some of his other favorites, Hazanavicius starts rattling off a who's who of Hollywood.

"I love directors - maybe more than actors," he smiles. "I even love some bad directors."

Rob Lowman 818-713-3687

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