Persepolis directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud showed up at the Toronto Film Festival with their new live-action, magical-realist adaptation of Satrapi’s tragicomic 2004 graphic novel, Chicken With Plums, which had premiered just one week earlier in Venice. Unlike Persepolis, which doesn’t screw with the stylized illustrations of Satrapi’s original work, Chicken With Plums — which is set in fifties Iran and stars Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as a man who loses his will to live — has a much more collaborative texture and tone, and the fact that it involved real actors forced the illustrators, both with very different styles and no formal training as filmmakers, to entrust others with their vision. Despite being a little jet-lagged, the duo hung out with Vulture to discuss their North American premiere, the bro-and-sis nature of their collaborative process, and big-budget romantic comedies.
Chicken With Plums premiered at Venice before it opened here. Were you nervous?
Satrapi: Well, you are always nervous. We’ve worked on it for three years, and that was the first time we saw it with a public — and a big public. Especially in Europe, it’s not like in North America. People there are not gentle. They boo. They whistle.
So people just don’t clap politely?
Satrapi: No! That is what happened when Sofia Coppola showed Marie Antoinette in Cannes. I saw it and they were booing. When you see that, you’re like, Poor her, I don’t want to live through that! We made the movie the best we could but you never know — sometimes, people, they get crazy.
In the production notes it says Chicken With Plums is the second in the trilogy that begins with Persepolis. But it feels so different.
Satrapi: It is completely different. But the goal is to make three movies, one more different than the other, and then through these three movies comes the story of a family in the history of a country. The third one isn’t going to be a graphic novel first, though.
Would you say you give up more control on a live-action film than you do in an animated film?
Satrapi: Yes. With animation you control everything from A to Z, so if there is something that does not please you, you have the time to work on it. With live action, you have to transmit what you think to a team. We were fortunate to be surrounded by people from the beginning who understood what we wanted.
Paronnaud: Also, with live action, if you miss [one day of] shooting then it’s fucked — there is nothing you can do. In animation, you can always come again and redo stuff.
Were there ever any disagreements between you two, making the movie?
Satrapi: Yes. Stupid stuff. Both of us, we are complete idiots. Vincent yesterday said something really cool: You have this image of siblings in the car with their parents going on holiday, and during the eight hours they sing together, they play, they pull each other’s hair, they shout, they cry, one vomits and then the other does, too. They hate each other. And then a second after, they love each other again. That’s how we are.
How did your backgrounds in illustration influence the film?
Satrapi: When you draw, you don’t have any limits; it kind of transforms our brain. Also, we had not [gone to] any cinema school, so we don’t have these techniques. Like when we started the project they were telling us things like, “Voice-over? Nobody does that anymore” and “Cross-dissolve is out.” This notion of “out” and “in,” it depends on what you are saying. You don’t have one way of doing things.
How do you think financial interests affect art and filmmaking?
Satrapi: How many romantic comedies have you seen? You know, with this woman who is above 30 and her goal in life is to marry. First she takes a dog, and at the end [she and a man] are so happy; they hold hands. In these movies, I always see these women looking at this guy, “Does he love me?” And from the second they get married it is so fucking boring. I don’t know who these women are. Why do I never meet any of those? Where are they hiding? Show them to me.
Paronnaud: What was exciting in this project is that we have a main character who is not nice at all and we try to understand why. We kill him after ten minutes, which is a very sad beginning for a movie, and then we use death to talk about life. Structurally, it doesn’t correspond with the sort of films being made today. At the end, we don’t have any positive message. There is no little note of hope, no chance of redemption. He does not say, “Oh, my kids, I love you so much.”
Satrapi: Come on: If all the children of the world were loved by their parents, they would be happy children and happy adults.
Do either of you identify with the main character in the film?
Paronnaud: There is something desperate about him that I can identify with.
Satrapi: I do. When I wrote the book, it was the first time that I could really let myself go. Because as soon as I draw a female character, it’s me. With female characters, there are lots of things I don’t say because I don’t want people to know. I could say those things through a male character.
What kind of things don’t you normally say?
Satrapi: Like the fact that I don’t want to have children. In the world of today, you have to justify it. If you don’t become a mum, my God, your life is fucked up. You have not accomplished your life, and then you have to buy some children from Africa.