Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius

The Oscar-nominated writer-director of The Artist recounts how he knew the silent film would work and shares what it took to get the project off the ground.

Growing up watching films in movie theaters in Paris, Michel Hazanavicius came to treasure the directors of the silent movie era. After dreaming for years of following in their footsteps, the French screenwriter-director has earned worldwide fame with his own silent film The Artist. He started his career in television and also directed commercials before making his first short film in 1997. The Artist received 10 Oscar nods this year, including best picture, director and original screenplay, and earned Hazanavicius the Directors Guild honor for best feature.


Tavis: “The Artist” is up for 10 Academy Awards this year, including three alone for the film’s writer and director, Michel Hazanavicius. Over the weekend he took home the DGA award for the best director for “The Artist -” not bad, when you consider he beat out a couple of guys named Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. From the Weinstein Company, here now some scenes from “The Artist.”

[Preview of “The Artist”]

Tavis: So I leaned over to Michel during that clip and I said to him – his wife plays the lead character in the film – so I said to him, “Your wife is so brilliant in this movie,” and you said?

Michel Hazanavicius: Yeah, she’s brilliant in the movie but she’s brilliant in the real life as well. (Laughter) She’s really brilliant, yeah.

Tavis: That’s not bad.

Hazanavicius: No, that’s really good.

Tavis: That’s a good thing, yeah.

Hazanavicius: Yeah. (Laughter) She’s a really wonderful actress, but she’s a wonderful woman, too. I’m very lucky.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Hazanavicius: Yeah.

Tavis: So how – well, maybe you just answered the question. So how did your wife end up being cast as the lead? How did you pick both of these leads?

Hazanavicius: Actually, they haven’t been cast. I wrote the script with them in mind.

Tavis: Okay.

Hazanavicius: So it’s really – and I wanted to make that movie with them, and they really inspired the characters, so I used them to write the script.

Tavis: What is making this thing so resonate? Before “The Artist” came out, Harvey Weinstein, who you and I were just laughing about off camera – Harvey is a character, we agree on that.

Hazanavicius: Yes. He’s funny.

Tavis: He’s funny, great guy. Harvey was on the program telling me about this before the thing even came out, but what is it that is making this work? He gave you all the credit because he said he wasn’t in it from the beginning. He found out later on and got involved later in the process. So he gave you the credit for it, but what’s making this work?

Hazanavicius: I don’t know. I won’t talk about my work, but for the movie, I think the format is something that can be new for people, and the format is very special, and people really appreciate something different, but it’s a movie, being silent leads to so many room to put your own imagination.

You really take part in the storytelling process, and I think people enjoy that. Also, I think it’s a movie without cynicism and without sarcasm, and it’s a movie about Hollywood and about America, and many people are very happy to see a naïve movie about Hollywood, a kind movie about Hollywood.

So I think maybe that works. Yeah, I think – and maybe, I don’t know, maybe there’s something of it’s a new experiment. Maybe people are afraid of it a little bit. They think, okay, it’s silent, it’s black and white, it’s French – maybe it’s going to be boring? (Laughter) And actually, it’s (unintelligible) I’m sure.

So they come with a negative thing and the movie is entertaining and easy to watch, and so they’re more happy because they have this (unintelligible) at the beginning.

Tavis: What made you think that this would work? I hear the comment a moment ago, it’s French, it’s silent, maybe it’s not going to be good. But what made you think this was going to work, and I ask it specifically because in France and around the world, because of technology and so many other things, our attention span is so short.

Hazanavicius: Yeah.

Tavis: We have very, very finite, very short attention spans. What made you think that a silent film today would work?

Hazanavicius: I would never expect that kind of response of the audience. I thought that maybe – and that’s what I said to the financier and the people I want money from – I told them that maybe in the festival and maybe with the critics it could work.

But I guess I’m the same for every movie. I had a hunch that there was a good movie to make. You never know if a good movie will connect with people, but my point was to make a good movie, and as an audience, I really love silent movies, and silent movies in theaters.

So I was thinking the movie – they stopped to make silent movies in the ’20s, so now if you make a silent movie now, you have the benefit of 80 years of sophistication of narration, the use of music, the acting. So you can make, and I can make a movie that nobody made.

So yeah, that was the point. I’m very happy that – but you never know how people can connect with a – and here, Harvey Weinstein did that wonderful job to connect people with the movie, and how he introduced the movie.

Tavis: You’re 44.

Hazanavicius: Yeah.

Tavis: So you’re a young guy. How did you get exposed to, turned on by, what makes a guy your age want to embrace an era that ended before he was ever born?

Hazanavicius: I don’t know. People make movie about the Roman Empire, even if they’re (unintelligible).

Tavis: Fair enough. (Laughter)

Hazanavicius: I don’t know. I think it’s the – it was very scenogenic, shootable. I don’t know, something – I was really attracted by the format, so the idea was to – and when I was speaking about that desire to make a silent movie, everybody asked me “Why, why, why?”

My point was how – how to make a silent movie, but they asked me why you want to make a silent movie. So I tried to answer that question in the story, and I said if it’s the story of a silent movie actor, people will accept maybe more easily to have a silent movie if the movie is silent itself. So it had to be in the ’20s.

It was a way for me to put all my love for Hollywood and all my love for the classical movies from Hollywood.

Tavis: For those who have not seen it, why don’t you describe what the storyline is here?

Hazanavicius: The story is about this big star, male actor, silent actor here in Hollywood, and the talkies are coming and he’s going to fall. At the same time, at the beginning he meets a young ingénue lady who is an extra at the beginning, and she will become an actress and then she will become a star, and the stories, the story of, they are crossed destiny. Yeah, more or less that’s the –

Tavis: There are a couple of moments, a couple of beats in the film, where we really do hear sound, we hear talk.

Hazanavicius: Yeah.

Tavis: I don’t want to give it away, but how did you decide that those were the places that that sound needed to come through?

Hazanavicius: Well, in the movie, the antagonist is the sound, so for the first noisy sequence, because it’s not talking, it just sound (unintelligible) I wanted to present the antagonist. So I needed the sound, and I decided to put it here because I wanted it to come early in the narration because I wanted to say to people, it’s not – there won’t be any big surprise. It’s a very classical story.

It’s not the story that counts so much, it’s the way to tell it. How the story is told is more important for me than the story itself. I thought it was funny and cool to surprise people with some very simple things, like, yeah, because the convention of the movie is to be silent, and then you have sound and it’s really shocking. (Laughter) It’s really shocking, and it’s so normal, what we hear.

Tavis: How difficult was the undertaking? So you get this brilliant idea – I want to come in a moment to ask you how you got the money for it – but you get a brilliant idea. Once you get the money you are into the filming. How much more difficult, if at all, was pulling this off than you had originally imagined, or was it relatively easy? Not easy, but you know, easier?

Hazanavicius: There’s no “easy” movie to make.

Tavis: Yeah, there’s no easy movie to make. Yeah, that’s why I said “easier.”

Hazanavicius: Yeah, no, and there’s no easy (unintelligible). (Laughter) The beginning was not easy. The beginning was tough, because the first thing is I had to convince myself that it was doable, and before I was 100 percent convinced, nothing moved.

When I really wanted to make that movie, then things began to put together. But it was – the first producers I met, they smiled, but not the good smile, not the “yes” smile; the “no” smile.

Then I met the producer the last time and when we were together things began to be easy. He promised me that he will do it and he did it, and the gap of money, he put his own money to fill it. So he has been a great (unintelligible).

Tavis: I was about to ask you how difficult it was to sell this, number one, and what are your investors saying now, number two?

Hazanavicius: Yeah. (Laughter) The investors are very happy.

Tavis: Yes.

Hazanavicius: Yeah, and they’re really – (laughter) and they’re right to take the credit and say, “We believed it,” and that’s right. The other one, the one who say no, they’re not so happy for us. (Laughter) The meetings were very funny. Some of them, yeah, because when you come in the office of someone who is supposed to finance movies and you start to tell them, “Okay, so black and white, silent movie,” and you see the look of the guy, okay, you know he’s losing his time now, because you know he’s going to say no, and we start to laugh.

We have some good moments. In a way it was sad, because we knew it was lost, but sometimes it’s so sad that you start to laugh.

Tavis: Michel Hazanavicius is the writer and the director of the film “The Artist.” He’s already won the DGA award for best director. We will see what happens on Academy night, and so to that end, good luck, sir.

Hazanavicius: Thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

Hazanavicius: Thank you very much.

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Last modified: February 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm