For over fifteen years, artist Joann Sfar has been writing and drawing comics and cartoons in his native France, and in 2005, his work was translated into English and published in the United States by First Second Books and Pantheon, his graphic novels “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Little Vampire” receiving quite a bit of acclaim over here.
The success of his graphic novel work has allowed Sfar to transition into filmmaking with Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a fantasy musical that stars Eric Emosnino as the popular French singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, whose controversial relationships with the likes of sexy starlet Brigitte Bardot (a revelatory performance in the film by Laetitia Casta) kept him in the public eye throughout his life. The fantasy part of the film comes in the form of Gainsbourg’s nameless alter-ego, a creature that acts as his conscience referred to as “The Mug,” a caricature of Gainsbourg’s own noggin that’s portrayed by creature performer Doug Jones, who took on similar duties in the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Fans of Michel Gondry certainly will see a kindred spirit in Sfar’s film, as well as appreciate Sfar’s connections to Guillermo del Toro, not just due to Doug Jones’ presence but also because Sfar used del Toro’s Spain-based special FX team DDT, who have worked on most of the visionary filmmakers’ films. (Both filmmakers also use their art background to sketch or paint their ideas in ever-present notebooks before they’re translated onto the screen.)
ComingSoon.net sat down with the French artist a few weeks back to talk about his innovative directorial debut, which won two prestigious Csar Awards earlier this year, as well as an acting award for Elmosnino at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve been writing and drawing graphic novels for many years…
Joann Sfar: Oh, yes, for more than twenty years.
CS: Had you always wanted to direct films? How did you end up doing this story as a film?
Sfar: No, I love to do storytelling, and I have to say that I don’t care about the medium. I love to make drawings, and they came to visit me to make a movie, and I thought I wanted to do something with music, because it would help me to learn the difference between a graphic novel and a movie, because music implies a pattern, a rhythm, that would help me. I mentioned the fact that I wanted to work on “Gainsbourg” and they said, “You want to do a biopic?” I said that I’d love it to be more of a musical, more than something about making a show, like a beautiful woman, guy with an attitude, clich about love stories in Paris and so on, and even pretending the guy comes from my imagination. I started to write the story as a comic book. I wrote in a sketchbook with water colors ’cause I had no clue how to write a movie script and I still don’t know, but it’s been twenty years and people say I don’t know how to make a comic book so… (laughs) It’s about learning. And then, we found ourselves working and very surprised that the Gainsbourg family said “Yes” to the project and granted us the rights of the music, and then it started.
CS: I was curious how you got in touch with them? Was that something the producers were involved with before you decided to make the movie?
Sfar: Yeah, getting in touch with them was easy, but having them say “yes” maybe it came because the movie was a fantasy movie and they loved this idea, and they loved this idea of the movie being a tribute more than something historically accurate. I think they were interested in that, the idea of a tribute from one graphic artist to a musical artist.
CS: Did you show them the water colors you had done with the ideas for the movie?
Sfar: Yes, that’s how they decided to do the project.
CS: How did you go about finding the actor to play Gainsbourg, because Eric’s done a few things but he’s not very well known over here.
Sfar: He’s big on stage and he doesn’t care about movies, and he did not care about Gainsbourg, he didn’t even like his songs, so he took the whole thing in a very light way. He was not heavy on that, and it was wonderful to work with him because we had a lot of time to do rehearsal for the singing moments, for the playing moments. We worked as if it were a stage comedy.
CS: He goes through a pretty big chunk of Gainsbourg’s life, so when you approached it, were you able to shoot in any kind of order or were you jumping around between eras.
Sfar: No, we had no order because of the production schedule. It was always extremely tricky, and it may have been the most difficult thing for him to turn from a young man to an old man all the time. More than prosthetics or hairdressing, it’s a matter of acting, the way he walks, the way he behaves. It was one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie. Also, the girl who plays his mother is like 34 years old, and there’s a moment where the DDT people, the crew from Guillermo del Toro, they put her in heavy make-up and we pretended she’s 80 at the moment, and I love that kind of thing. At the beginning of the movie, you see her young and it’s very funny that we put heavy make-up on her character.
CS: Having only seen the movie once, I don’t think I realized that, because so much happens that if I saw the movie again, I might notice it, but the way it transitions through his life is very fluid and smooth.
Sfar: We were so happy to have the DDT crew with us. I’ve been using them for everything I could do. I love make-up and all that process.
CS: You knew Gainsbourg’s music already and I assume you knew a lot about his life.
CS: Did you have to do any other kind of research or did you just make things up as you went along?
Sfar: Yes, I’ve been writing the whole script out of many, many, many interviews he gave. I took the quotes from the interview and I built the script with that, although he was a drunk and he was a liar, so I never wanted to know if what he said was true or if it was lies. If he said something, it was meaningful to me, and I do the story this way. So it’s a tale from a drunk but he really said the things that are in the movie.
CS: It’s all from his viewpoint whether it’s the truth or not.
CS: Where did “The Mug” come from, the character played by Doug Jones that appears throughout the movie?
Sfar: It was even before “Gainsbourg.” If I was to make a movie, I wanted a puppet in the movie. I’m a huge fan of Roger Corman and Terrence Fischer and those kinds of movies and I’m a huge fan of horror movies and I wanted a creature. Whenever I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I said, “Okay, I want to meet those people and I want to work with them,” and then we started to work and we’ve done something that hasn’t been done since the Ufa (ie UFA or Universum Film AG) movie. For instance, during the shot of the creature, we’ve been moving the light on a dolly in order to have moving shadows, and I love to do those kinds of things, and we tried to have everything occur on stage, very few things on CGI and post-production. For instance, when there’s fire, it’s real fire. We loved that. Stuntmen in France, they’re nothing like the ones in the States. They don’t want to be professional and they love danger, so everything you do with them is something you have to be a true believer. (Laughs)
CS: So that wasn’t Doug Jones on fire then?
Sfar: It was not Doug. It was a stuntman but Doug was there to rehearse to make him walk like him, and there had been rehearsals of Doug showing him, but there is one shot where it’s Doug, there is a close-up of his prosthetic moving and another close-up of the make-up burning, and we mixed the both of them to pretend the close-up is on fire, and then whenever you see the body moving, it is a stuntman with the same wardrobe with protection, but he can’t have a lot of protection because he’s very thin, so we knew the limit was 35 seconds, so everything had to be ready. We didn’t even have a fireman, because no fireman would have wanted to help out in this, but there were many stuntmen and then we cut at 35 seconds and we knew the thing could only be shot three times because a stuntman cannot do more than three times being on fire, for some reason. So we had three cameras and the whole crew and we had the surprise where the cameras were too close because they were almost burning.
CS: But what about the sets, because they were very elaborate as well.
Sfar: Actually, it was very dangerous. We had material to put water everywhere to be sure that it would not be on fire, and we have other material to put fire. You expected some things to be on fire and some things not to be on fire, so we were very happy when we had this in the box. (laughs)
CS: How did you develop that creature? Was that something you had drawn out and sketched specifically for this?
Sfar: Yes, a wonderful collaboration with David Mart and Montse Rib from DDT Barcelona. I do drawings of what I want and then they show me all the means to make either a hand puppet or a CGI creature and then we decided we wanted Doug, we wanted a performer. Then, what to do with the face? (points to his lower jaw) This will be his real face and then this will be prosthetic with a long nose and 17 motors in the face and two people controlling the features. It was heavily motorized so he had so many motors in his head, he could not hear us, and he couldn’t see. He could only see through the nostrils. There’s a story with Doug that he arrived every day at 4:00 in the morning for getting his make-up done because it’s five hours of make-up so no one ever saw his face except me. People don’t know his face, and especially my kids. I explained to them that this is a real person and you could see his face through the nostrils and one day, Doug was in his wardrobe and he was sleeping like that and found my boy putting pound cake in the nostrils, and I said, “But what are you doing?” and he tells me, “I’m feeding him!” (laughs)
CS: Doug is very dedicated. I was on the set of “Hellboy” and he did all his interviews while dressed up as the Angel of Death with the full wings and everything.
Sfar: He’s unbelievable.
CS: What about some of the rest of the cast? Laetitia Casta was amazing. Brigitte Bardot is such an iconic figure so to have someone who really personifies here is pretty amazing. Where did you find her?
Sfar: She’s unbelievable. Well, first of all, I loved her even before that movie and it was hard to convince everybody that she could do it because it’s a danger for an actress to say “I am Brigitte Bardot.” Her career is at stake, to pretend she’s Brigitte Bardot, and then we had a wonderful meeting because I wanted her to dance on the piano, and I was silly enough to hire a dance teacher. Then she asked me for a drink, Laetitia, and she told me, “Basically, you need me to give the audience a hard-on.” And I said, “Well, Laetitia, that’s basically what I wish.” “Okay, then fire the dance teacher and let’s start to work.” She said, “It’s about a girl who wants to give her man a dance and forget the fact that she’s Brigitte Bardot. It’s a nice moment. She doesn’t need to be the best dancer on earth. It needs to be a tender moment.” And then we figured out what we wanted to know was “What does Brigitte Bardot” say when she wakes up in the morning? And she says, “Are there croissants?” It’s what you expect from a night with Brigitte Bardot in the morning, and we had fun. We tried to do it in a funny way.
CS: I love that section of the movie and I really love the actresses you got to act opposite Eric, and again, besides Yolande Moreau, it wasn’t a cast I was very familiar with.
Sfar: No, many of them come from the stage theater, some of them come from the fashion world because they’re very beautiful girls, and I love when actors are not that famous. The movie star was Serge Gainsbourg so I was allowed to have almost unknown people to do the part. I’m new to that business so I had no pressure of “I’m your friend, take me in your movie,” and I could take the people I loved, so most of them came from the stage.
CS: You mentioned “Pan’s Labyrinth” before but what are some of your other film influences?
Sfar: It would be all the horror movies in the world with a special tribute to the old Universal movies and also the English Hammer movies which were a huge influence to me, and all the Roger Corman movie and also the Ufa movies–Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and so on–and then all the funny Italian cinema like Dino Risi and Federico Fellini, things that make me kind of alive. Should I mention recent movies? I don’t know. I love “The Social Network,” I love “True Blood,” which is a TV show, and I’m a huge fan of comic books overall. I’m a huge fan of the “Invincible” comic book, which is even better than “Walking Dead” in my perception, and I love “Walking Dead.”
CS: Since you’re such a fan, have you thought about directing a horror movie yourself?
Sfar: I would love to, I would love to do a horror movie, I would love to do a superhero movie. When you see “X-Men: First Class,” it’s exactly the kind of superhero movie I expect, and I love horror movies, but I have to solve something. I can’t understand why I still prefer a Terrence Fischer movie to some vampire movie people try to sell us today. Although “Let Me In” might be wonderful, I still prefer Terrence Fischer, so is it that I’m old-fashioned? Is it that I’m romantic or just I love horror movies to be plain and simple? I have a problem when it’s too smart. I love Wes Craven in “Hills Have Eyes” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” I’m not sure I like “Scream” – it’s too smart for me. What I love in Roger Corman is that he has little money and he wants maximum effect and he does wonderful filmmaking, and I kind of love that.
CS: You’re also a musician so I have to ask you about the music in this? When you’re approaching Gainsbourg’s music, you need to figure out a suitable way of recreating it, so how did you decide whether to have his songs covered by bands or use the original music?
Sfar: Yeah, it would be through storytelling. We’re using the songs that are the most useful, not always the one I prefer, but some that were really useful for the script, and every time, we tried to bring a live experience to the audience. Obviously, French people have the records of Gainsbourg and we didn’t want to provide them with something they already have at home, so it was like bringing live performance. As for my personal taste, I go for songwriters. I’ve got a huge passion for Hank Williams, Jimmy Roberts, Woody Guthrie, and if it comes to France, it would be George Brassens, who was kind of a French Woody Guthrie. I love songwriters. Johnny Cash. I even love Hank Williams the 3rd.
CS: Yeah, but everybody loves Johnny Cash. I don’t think I met a single person who doesn’t like Johnny Cash, no matter where you come from. You mentioned a lot of American influences. Gainsbourg was a huge French icon but he wasn’t as well known in the States. People here may know “Bonnie and Clyde” but not much more, so what would you like them to take away from this movie?
Sfar: I’ve got no clue, but he was a huge fan of American music. Many of his influences come from the Tin Pan Alley. He had a huge love for Gershwin and for Irving Berlin and this kind of songwriters. He always was referring to America, but you’re right, he’s not famous in the States.
CS: I know you recently did an animated movie based on one of your comic books. Is that a direction you’re going to continue going in?
Sfar: Yeah, I’d love to, but it’s really slow. We’re working now on a “Little Vampire” movie with John Carls, the guy who made “Rango” and who made “Where the Wild Things Are,” he’s my producer, and we’re finishing to write the script and beginning production so we hope this movie will happen. It will be a CGI movie but in the way “Rango” is CGI. You’re not meant to know there’s a computer behind the characters, and we’re working on that these days.
CS: Do you think “The Rabbi’s Cat” will come out here sometime soon?
Sfar: Yeah, I hope so. It’s a very low budget 2D animated movie, but I think it’s a nice move. It explains that maybe there’s no God, so it’s a good message to send the kids. (laughs)
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens exclusive in New York City at the Film Forum on Wednesday, August 31, before expanding to other cities.