The Director of 'The Artist' on How to Make a Modern Silent Film

This joyful, raved-about work shows that old movie mediums can live on

levin_the artist still 615.jpg

The Weinstein Co.

Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist serves as a powerful counterargument to the idea that movies as we once knew them have died in the digital age. Celluloid might be headed toward extinction, but if The Artist's facsimile of silent cinema is any indication, there were always be a place for movies that are shot on film stock, or at least those that closely mimic its look and feel.

This much-hyped experimental film, which arrives in New York and L.A. theaters Friday alongside a swell of Oscar buzz, offers a near-perfect encapsulation of what makes silent cinema endure. It apes the expressionistic creativity afforded by the silent form with sleek lighting schemes, dramatic close-ups, and meticulously developed informational visual cues.

Hazanavicius, the French director best known for his work helming the revival of the OSS 117 spy series, develops a simple, classical narrative that harkens back to the earliest days of cinema. Set in Hollywood, the film follows silent matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he gives young chorus girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) her break—and then watches helplessly while her star eclipses his, and films with sound become ascendant.

Recommended Reading

Still, Peppy loves and cares for George, never forgetting her debt to him.

Here, Hazanavicius speaks about the challenges of making a 21st century silent picture, and the great improbability that said film would be at the center of the Oscar conversation.

What is it about the silent form that resonates in 2011?

The format allows you so many things. The way it works, how the audience participates in the storytelling process, you put your own imagination in the movie. For every single person, that makes the movie very intimate, because there's so much of yourself [in it]. It's a great experience. It's a very different experience. It's a sensual experience.

How does the silent form ask more of the audience?

The less you do, the more the audience does. I'll give you an example, which is really one of the first lessons of cinema you can have. In M, the Fritz Lang movie, you see the [killer], he grabs a young girl in the city, and he goes with her into a kind of garden. The young girl drops a balloon and the camera follows the balloon. You don't see any kind of violence. We just follow the balloon.

If you ask people after the screening, "What did he do to the young girl," everyone will say what [seems] worst [to] himself. … Because everyone does the job [of filling in the blanks].

What effect does that sort of abstraction have on the overall experience?

[Audiences] know real life is not black and white. So they recreate the color. They recreate the sound of the city, for example, the sound of the cars. Nothing is false, because you do it. You do it not very precisely. You just imagine it and you accept it. So you put so much of yourself [that] at the end of the movie, the movie is yours for real.

You stick to the characters. You stick to the story. I think you're much more involved in the storytelling process. It looks like it's very intellectual and you have to do a lot of work, but it's not. You do it very naturally. You have to remember that these movies were made for people much less educated than we are. For common people, it was a very popular medium.

Did your directorial approach differ here?

The point that's radically different is how you conceive of things, because you have to tell the story with images. And you have to create the images that tell the story, and you have to make things easy for all the people. For the actors, for example, you can't ask them to mime things. They have to be natural. That's what they do. You can't ask them to ape the code of acting of the '20s. So you have to write the images that will tell the story using the actors in normal situations.

The most challenging part for me was the writing process, because I had to be sure that I was able to tell the story. In a way, you have a lot of limitations because you don't have access to too much complex story, because you don't have dialogue. In another way it's very freeing, because it allows you to use imagination that usually you don't use and you wouldn't dare use. The fact is, it's so unrealistic, to show people that talk and you can't hear them [and] they're in black and white. You don't ape reality, you create a show that is a show and knows it's a show.

How do you successfully tell such an earnest story without irony or condescension?

To me, it was very difficult, because the movies I'd done before, the OSS [films] were very ironic and very sarcastic. For this one, the strength of the format is actually to allow you to do nice things. It works with that format. It can work.

But if you put irony in it, you kill everything, you ruin everything. I tried not to be ironic, and to respect the characters and respect the story. I want it to be entertaining and funny, but I tried to be funny without irony. Looking at the good silent movies that I watched, the ones who aged the best were the melodramas and the romances, so that's what I wanted to do.

What about working the comedy into the mix?

I put some entertaining and funny things in it because that's my way to be polite. [If] I ask people to come and see a black-and-white, silent, French movie, I can try to entertain them a little bit.

Have you thought at all about how amazing it is that directing a silent movie in 2011 has made you an Oscar frontrunner?

When you're a director, the Oscar is something that you don't even dream of. I could say that I'm honored to be part of the discussion, but I think I would be [minimizing] the reality. It's not even that. It's more than surprising, [especially] when you're not American, which is my case. I'm not union. I don't live here.

I really tried to make an American movie, [in that] the story is very American. I tried to find a sense of the American spirit, really. It's unbelievable, actually. That doesn't exist, a foreign director doing a foreign movie going to the Oscars. It's Mr. Smith Goes to the Oscars.