From Delicatessen to Amélie, writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has carved a unique path through cinema. He tells us why he always lets his creativity—and his collaborators—be his guide…
Text: James Mottram
Such is the singularly unique nature of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision, it’s hard to imagine him working on scripts with anyone else. Yet swiftly glance at his CV, and you’ll see that this most idiosyncratic of directors has always kept a creative collaborator close at hand. Most famously, he came to prominence with Marc Caro on 1991’s black comedy Delicatessen, having already worked with his co-director on a series of shorts. They reunited for 1995’s The City of Lost Children, working on the screenplay with Gilles Adrien (who had worked on Delicatessen and their early short The Bunker Of The Last Gunshots).
But by this point, Jeunet had already met the man who was to become an even more important significant other: Guillaume Laurant. “When we met, he was living on maybe 100 dollars a week. He was very poor,” recalls Jeunet, when we meet in London’s Soho Hotel. “At the time, he wrote a script just for the pleasure, and he wanted to sell it to me.” While Jeunet didn’t take to it, he did take to its writer. Laurant would assist on The City of Lost Children, writing dialogue, before helping Jeunet on his next film (and first without Caro), 1997’s Alien: Resurrection. “He worked on another ending, because we wrote five endings,” says the director, shuddering at the memory of one of his more troublesome projects.
So how does he compare working with Laurant to his former collaborators? “I have the feeling with Guillaume Laurant, it’s easier than previously with Marc Caro and Gilles Adrien on Delicatessen,” he says, bluntly. “Caro wasn’t a scriptwriter and Gilles Adrien did not have the same talents as Guillaume, who is very fast. Maybe because we are getting older, it’s easier now. For The City of Lost Children, I remember I needed two days to find an idea. Now it’s one hour. Really. I say ‘At two or three, I will have the idea’. It’s a challenge, but it works.”
Since Alien: Resurrection, Laurant has become Jeunet’s sole screenwriter of choice. They co-wrote Jeunet’s 2001 breakout hit Amélie (“he fought for every comma,” says the director) and then adapted Sébastien Japrisot’s novel to make WWI love story A Very Long Engagement (2004). Another adaptation—of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi—was their next project. Jeunet spent two years on it, writing, drawing storyboards, building models, location scouting, but eventually the estimated budget of $85 million was regarded as too high by studio Twentieth Century Fox. “At the end, I was so tired of this project I was happy to leave,” the director says. “Maybe I did the best part—to write and make the storyboards.”
Jeunet admits he works best with another to bounce ideas off. “It’s better to have to a partner, if you are in a good relationship, because it’s like ping-pong. It’s like a competition of ideas.” Do he and Laurant ever argue? “Never, because we are so close. We are never in conflict.” While the writer has worked for other directors, his finest work has always come for Jeunet. “I think he is never better than when he works with me. My universe is very good for him. Luckily, he doesn’t do that for other directors. He keeps this universe for me. Nobody wants to make the kind of bullshit I make—in a good way!”
These days, they work separately, and send each other work via e-mail. “We share the scenes; I write the visual scenes and he writes the dialogue scenes. But if I need someone speaking, I’ll say ‘He says, blahblah-blah’ and I send it to him and he sends it back with the dialogue, and I rewrite the scene.” Even so, Jeunet fully admits the film’s original idea must always come from him. “If Guillaume proposes me something, I’m never interested,” he says. “I need to be at the origin of the script. I need to be the guy who gets the spark.” It’s not too hard to understand; Jeunet spends the longest with the project, from conception to promotion.