Sunday, January 21, 2007

Persepolis - the book & the movie

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a memoir, in cartoon form, of her experience as a young girl growing up in Iran during the Iranian revolution of 1979 and its aftermath, including the interminable Iran-Iraq war. This is a fascinating book, richly perceptive and illuminating at a number of levels--and often quite moving, too. Satrapi manages to convey a sense of these massive political upheavals and their human consequences while also vividly capturing the perspective of a particular child (from a left-wing middle-class professional family) living through all this history.

(Satrapi later published a second volume--Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return--which follows her life into adolescence. That's worth reading too, though not as remarkable as the first book.)

It appears that Persepolis has been made into a movie--still in cartoon form, but now animated--that Satrapi herself directed (see below). Alas, such adaptations usually turn out to be disappointing at best and dreadful at worst, and that may be true in this case, too. But perhaps not.

Meanwhile, those of you who haven't read the book should rush out and do so. (Here is one review, if you're interested.)

--Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
January 21, 2007
An Animated Adventure, Drawn from Life
By Kristin Hohenadel

PARIS. Marjane Satrapi's life was flashing before her eyes. There she was, a mischievous girl on the streets of Tehran, buying contraband records during the Islamic revolution. Singing the lyrics in her bedroom at the top of her teenage lungs. Fidgeting with her head scarf at the lycée. Mourning the political imprisonment of her uncle. Falling in love for the first time. Saying goodbye to her beloved parents as they sent her, their only child, to find freedom and solace in the West.

“Imagine you see your face everywhere — from the back, from the front, as a girl, adolescent, everywhere,” Ms. Satrapi, 37, said during the making of an animated movie based on her best-selling and critically praised comic-book memoir, “Persepolis.” The original version, in French, includes the voices of the legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother, Catherine Deneuve as her mother and Chiara Mastroianni — the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Ms. Deneuve — as Marjane. An English-language adaptation, which will also include Ms. Deneuve, with Gena Rowlands as the grandmother, is scheduled to be released by Sony Pictures Classics this year.

Ms. Satrapi has drawn herself thousands of times. But she found it initially overwhelming to watch her own vivid gestures animated on computer screens in the skylighted atelier that is the film’s headquarters in the 10th Arrondissement. Eventually, she said, she learned to put emotional distance between herself and her character.

“From the beginning I started to talk about ‘Marjane’ and ‘Marjane’s parents,’ ” she explained, “because you cannot do it otherwise. There are people, for example, drawing my grandmother. My grandmother is dead. Here not only is she moving, but I have to look at her, image by image. If I think, ‘This is my grandmother and my story,’ I would start crying all the time. And it’s not easy for the animators if I start talking about me, me, me. I will make them crazy, and they will be walking on eggshells. They won’t let themselves go.

“When my parents came to the studio, nobody breathed. Imagine you are drawing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and suddenly a big mouse and a big duck walk in.”

Ms. Satrapi’s poignant coming-of-age story is drawn in a simple yet evocative style, which conveys maximum feeling with deceptively naïve images in minimalist black and white. It was first published in 2000 in France, where she has lived in self-imposed exile for 12 years. When the book was released in the United States in 2003, she said, Hollywood executives offered to buy the rights for adaptations that included a “Beverly Hills, 90210”-esque series set in Tehran. An ardent filmgoer who has served as a juror at the Cannes Film Festival, she concluded that making a filmed version of her own story was a bad idea.

“Normally when you make a movie out of a book, it’s never a success,” she said over her morning espresso and cigarettes, wearing all black and her trademark platform heels. But when Marc-Antoine Robert, an acquaintance and fledgling producer, offered to raise money to make the movie in France, Ms. Satrapi agreed under what she presumed were impossible conditions: despite having no filmmaking experience, she wanted to direct the movie herself, in black and white. And she wanted Catherine Deneuve to play her mother.

Ms. Satrapi teamed up with Vincent Paronnaud, a fellow comic book author who has also made a few short films. “We’re like the Coen brothers,” she said of herself and Mr. Paronnaud, who co-wrote and is co-directing the film. “We’re very complementary. I would have made much more of a Bergman movie. But I don’t want something that a couple of intellectuals in Paris and New York will watch and nobody else.”

It was Mr. Paronnaud who pushed her to dramatize emotional and violent sequences that she had insinuated in the book. “Vincent is good at knowing where the camera should go, how to cut to give scenes rhythm,” Ms. Satrapi said. “People were thinking, if you just film the frames of the book, you have a movie. If you just film the book, it would be extremely boring.” She and Mr. Paronnaud picked their moments and condensed the book into a 90-minute film, told as a flashback.

“In no way did we want to betray the book, but we had to make choices,” Mr. Paronnaud said. “The idea was to keep the spirit and energy of the book and to try and find a way to interpret it differently on film.”

Ms. Satrapi said she wrote “Persepolis” as an answer to the relentless and loaded question of what it means to be Iranian. But her book’s success has meant that she has both gently educated those in the West — “Persepolis” is taught in 118 colleges in the United States, including West Point, according to Pantheon, its publisher — and taken part in a larger conversation about the book’s global resonances.

“Little by little, as the book got translated in other languages, people were saying, ‘This is my story too,’ ” she said. “Suddenly I said to myself, ‘This is a universal story.’ I want to show that all dictatorships, no matter if it’s Chile, if it’s the Cultural Revolution in China or Communist Poland, it’s the same schematic. Here in the West we judge them because we are so used to democracy, believing that if we have something, it is because we deserve it, because we chose it. Political changes turn your life completely upside down, not because you are crazy but because you don’t have any way out.”

The executive producer of “Persepolis” is Kathleen Kennedy, a veteran Hollywood producer who approached Ms. Satrapi after the film was in production, asking to buy the rights. Ms. Satrapi declined to sell but welcomed her involvement. Ms. Kennedy found an American distributor, providing an infusion of cash while leaving Ms. Satrapi in creative control, a rare occurrence for a black-and-white animated film in progress from a pair of first-time directors.

“Persepolis” is a rarity in France: an animated feature that was entirely produced here, rather than being farmed out to Asian animators. The filmmakers favored an artisanal approach that includes hand-tracing the images on paper, an art long lost to computer animation software.

“It’s not that they do lesser work in Asia, but it’s complicated to communicate with people 10,000 kilometers away,” said Marc Jousset, the film’s art and technical director, who assembled the animation team. “Marjane is here every day. She implicates herself in every decision. And even if she had never done an animation sequence, she has given us courses in things like how the head scarf is worn at home versus on the street in Iran, things that are important for the rigor of the story.”

Mr. Jousset said it took a few months to find the right style of animation. Characters are depicted in black and white, as they are in the comic book, while the settings are richly shaded in grays that lend them a painterly quality. “The narration had to be somewhat somber and restrained, and I saw a lot of animators with too cartoonish of a style,” Mr. Jousset said. “It’s an animated film, but we wanted it to be rather realistic, as if it was being filmed live.”

The voices were recorded before the animators began work, with Ms. Satrapi coaching the actors one on one. (Aghast at the prospect of bossing Ms. Deneuve around, she said, she downed three cognacs before directing the actress, who turned out to be “funny and intelligent and a big smoker.”) Ms. Satrapi allowed herself to be recorded while acting out the physical gestures for each scene, to give the animation team a physical reference.

“We could do any number of movements to coordinate with the words,” said Christian Desmares, the chief animator, “but Marjane wanted to really personalize each character, to use precise Iranian gestures. And we don’t know how to do that.”

Ms. Satrapi interjected: “I play all the roles. Even the dog.”

It took an adjustment, she added, to transform herself from a solo artist into the co-leader of a 90-member filmmaking team, though she has gotten some practice in group dynamics by lecturing regularly in Europe and the United States.

“I realized I had a talent I didn’t know,” she said. “In France people will tell you everything is impossible. I have the enthusiasm of an American. I tell people: ‘Rah, yes! We’re going to make a great movie.’ And it pays; you can see their reaction. And suddenly you realize they have ideas that you didn’t have. It is hard for me, for my ego, to say this: For me, the movie is better than the book.”