In Praise of Bad Taste
An Interview with Persepolis's Marjane Satrapi
dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Along with codirector Vincent Paronnaud, the graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi has made a smart, gorgeous adaptation of her graphic-novel memoirs, Persepolis and Persepolis 2. She was in Seattle recently to talk about Transformers, courting Republican viewers, and the virtues of bad taste.
This is the first movie you've made. How did you decide you wanted to make a film out of your books?
I always thought it was the worst idea in the world to adapt my story into a movie... Then at one point, I had a friend who wanted to become a producer, and he said, oh la la, let's make it. And I said, okay, but I want it animation, black and white, hand-drawn, made in Paris, I want to make it with my best friend, I want Catherine Deneuve, I want this, I want that. And they said okay. And I was like, shit, now I have to do it.
I actually saw your film first when I was in Paris this fall, so I saw it without the English subtitles. My French isn't great, but that let me concentrate on the images. Can you talk about the look you developed for the film?
What we kept from the book was the main characters. We tried to leave them as close as possible to the book, with the difference that—with comic books, if there's a little difference from one frame to the other, it's a big deal. But when you are making animation, you have to make a model. And the model has to move, so you can't have it change abruptly all the time. We couldn't keep it too black and white, because one hour and thirty minutes in black and white is just impossible. If you do that, either you make people blind or you provoke epileptic crises... So it was really necessary to add these levels of grays. We tried to keep it as clean, as subtle as possible. The choice of black and white was a really obvious choice because both Vincent [Paronnaud, her codirector] and I come from the underground comics, in which for economic reasons you always prefer black and white. Printing in color is much more expensive. I love the aesthetic of black and white, whether it's for movies or for photographs, and here it helped us a lot because you have all these different types of narration—it goes from the puppet scene to the scene of the daily life of the family to the scene that's almost realistic—and to give all of that coherence, the black and white helped us a lot.
Yeah, the puppet scene is great. I don't remember whether that was in the book?
No, they were not in the book. It's funny, there are things that are not in the book but I'm convinced that they are, because I've been working on the movie for so long. We had to find a way of saying certain things—you have 16 years in the life of one person, and then you have the political background, which is not really the subject of the movie, it's the human story. But at the same time, we had to find ways to present historical events, so we chose puppets. And all the scenes that happen where she doesn't see them, but she knows about them—the scene of the revolution, or later, when the young guy gets followed by the Guardians of the Revolution—we used silhouettes.
Making 16 years of a life in a movie is tricky. You can actually have like five movies in one, which is a disaster. Most movies that cover a long period of time—I get the feeling that they try to put too much stuff in them. It's really not good, because at the end, you're like, what was that story about? That's why we had to find ways of narrating scenes that keep the dynamism, and it wouldn't be boring, and everything. The subject of the movie—it's really, "this chick from Iran, it's black and white, unsexy subject, no sex, no kidding, nothing"—we had to make it interesting for people.
The Shah as a puppet—it really seems like a child's point of view of history.
Absolutely! Because that is the way a child can imagine it. But at the end, when the puppets reappear, this is not as funny as the beginning. It shows a little bit of the meaninglessness of all these historical events—it's just games, and the puppets are a symbol for that. You shouldn't make a movie where you use all the good ideas in the first 45 minutes, and then in the last 45, you fuck it up. Which is the problem for lots of movies. Over the last few years, we looked at a lot of movies. We knew at least what we shouldn't do. We didn't know what we should do, but knowing already what you should not do is a good thing. I see many movies where the beginning is great, and at the end, the director is like, shit, I have to finish the movie. We worked on the end of the movie at the beginning to be sure that we could finish it in a proper way.
What sort of movies were you looking at?
I watch all sorts of movies. In Paris, the good thing is that there are so many theaters. Any movie you want to watch in your life, you can go out and see it. Each year, at least, you have a Bergman festival, you have an Antonioni festival, you have a John Cassavetes festival. So any time you want to watch a movie, you can do it. As Francois Truffaut says, video is good for seeing a movie for the second time. But I cannot see a movie for the first time on DVD. The theaters, the screen—it's something else. You have the sound coming from five different directions. And you have to watch the movie. You cannot stop it and go pee and come back. You're just there, and you watch the movie. I often go out to see a movie that I know I'll hate, like Transformers. In just one movie, they show that all the black people are stupid, all the women are sluts, all the other people are bad, and here are some Transformers. It's kind of scary, and it makes billions and billions of dollars. When I see a trailer, I sometimes know that I won't like the movie, but that's why I go and watch it, to be able to say why I don't like it. I watch everything.
Where there any specific movies that inspired you when you were making this film?
Oh, lots. One that inspired us a lot was Goodfellas, by Martin Scorsese. Because of the fact that you have this narration—the guy who's telling the story. This is tricky, the narrative thing can be really bad—nyah, nyah, nyah, explaining everything. And in this movie, there isn't so much of that. At the same time, you have a feeling that someone is telling you a story. It's so well made. But also, the movies of F. W. Murnau, because of the use of black and white, all that German expressionism. We also looked to Italian neorealism for the scenes with the family. When you have something hectic, it's very easy to film. The most difficult thing to do in a movie is a family scene. Everybody is sitting still in a living room for three minutes, and in a movie, three minutes is long. How to make it alive?
Of course, when Vincent and I talked between each other, we don't say, "let's make it like this or that," because you have a shared culture, and you don't have to be explicit. But when you're talking to the girl who takes care of all the backgrounds, you have to give her some references. We didn't have any references from animation, because what would we say? People think animation is a style of movie. Animation is just a technique. It's like comics—for years and years people thought comics were for superhero stories. It's just a medium like any other. It can tell a Holocaust story, it can tell a story of Iran... you can tell any story with comics. And it's just the same for animation.
I know there was an English version of the film made—
I made it!
—and it's now being released here in French with subtitles.
Both of the versions are going to be released, but we're also in the running for the Oscar for best foreign movie, so we had to wait. [Ed—Persepolis was eligible for best foreign language film, but after this interview, the nominations were announced, and it didn't make the cut.] After that, we can release the English movie. There are many places in America where people won't watch a subtitled movie. And it's exactly those people that have to watch this kind of movie. Those are the people who voted for George Bush also. So it's important that they see it.
Although the "Eye of the Tiger" scene is really great in a French context.
In the English version it has the same impact! Throughout the procedure of making this movie and afterward with doing the promotion, we talk about defending freedom, etc. etc. But "Eye of the Tiger" is a very kitsch scene. It's in bad taste. But it's necessary not to be scared of bad taste. And it's a comment on this whole culture of "if you want, you can." This is bullshit! Most of the time if you want, you can't. Not everything depends on you. Your surroundings can help you, or they can try to stop you. Most of the time they try to stop you.