Insider P.O.V: Amélie director Jean Pierre Jeunet on creativity and collaboration

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.

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Inside Llewyn Davis: Behind the Music

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The films of the Coen Brother have always had an intimate relationship with music and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is no exception. Here, the film’s star Oscar Isaac and the Coens’ long-standing music producer T-Bone Burnett explain how, in the right hands, movie music can become a character in its own right.

Over the years, the St. Louis-born T-Bone Burnett has become as integral to the Coen Brothers’ family as cinematographer Roger Deakins or costume designer Mary Zophres. He first worked with them on the 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski, assembling a soundtrack—including Dylan’s ‘The Man in Me’—to complement the character of Jeff Bridges’ stoner/bowler The Dude.

Then came O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coens’ 1930s odyssey set in Depression-era Mississippi, which shimmered to the sound of bluegrass music, gospel and country. Burnett produced the soundtrack, a huge hit that won multiple Grammys, including Album of the Year, beating out both Dylan’s Love and Theft and U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  Arriving in the wake of 9/11, Burnett believed it touched a nerve. “The country was in a state of national trauma and there was this relief, this beautiful music.”

After also collaborating on the Coens’ 2004 Ealing Studios remake The Ladykillers, his recruitment for Inside Llewyn Davis was almost a given. “I have been in a constant research mode for 30 years!” he laughs, and no wonder. In the mid-Seventies, he toured with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue. The connections go even deeper for the Coens who, like Dylan, hail from Minnesota and, as Burnett puts it, “were [all] children of Jewish immigrants”.

The difficulty, however, was finding an actor to play the title role. “It was an incredible part and extraordinarily demanding,” says Burnett. “It required that somebody learn to play and sing a 30-minute repertoire of music.” With the Coens wanting to film the songs live, as Burnett notes, “We just went out on a tightrope, without a rope! But as the universe treats the Coen Brothers, the person showed up who could do it.”

That person was Oscar Isaac, the rising star who played Carey Mulligan’s husband in Drive and Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Having strummed guitar since he was 12, he was also reared on the music his father listened to whilst growing up in Florida; Dylan, Cat Stevens and so on. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for 33 years for this role,” says Isaac. “I mean that. In retrospect, I can say everything I’ve done has prepared me for doing this role.

“Usually when you audition, you let it go,” he continues. “When it’s done, I throw away the script and if it happens, it happens. But this time I was like ‘I’m going to assume I got this until someone tells me otherwise!’ I decided, ‘I will keep working on it, as time is limited anyway, and I’ll be devastated one way or the other, so I might as well keep going.’ So I kept learning the music, I kept working on it, and then I got the call a month later from Joel.”

In the interim, the Coens had sent Burnett the tape of Isaac’s audition. “It wasn’t that he was perfect,” he notes. “He just did that song and he told the truth.” In fact, in the script, Llewyn was “a heavier, schlubier, more grizzled” type than the 33 year-old actor. But Isaac was able to make the songs feel real. “And then he played the scene, and he understood the scene. It was just obvious. It was clear he was the guy to do it.”

Inside Llewyn Davis is showing at the London Film Festival on October 15, 17 and 19. It opens in UK cinemas on January 24

MS36SmallRead the full interview in movieScope magazine, Issue 36 (October-December 2013)

Shane Carruth Talks Upstream Colour

Shane Carruth with Amy Seimetz in Upstream Colour

Shane Carruth with Amy Seimetz in Upstream Colour

Eight years after his blistering debut, Primer, writer/director Shane Carruth returns with his follow-up Upstream Colour. Here, the filmmaker tells James Mottram why funding, making and distributing a film outside of the system was such a rewarding experience, despite the long journey to bring it to the screen. 

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