Who: Joann Sfar is a Paris-based cartoonist and filmmaker who wrote and directed 2010′s [Serge] Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, based on his own graphic novel about the noted French musician. Before gaining fame though, Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in the 1928 Paris to Russian Jewish emigrant parents, and the film addresses the effect of childhood antisemitism on his adult psyche. Eric Elmosnino evokes Gainsbourg, with the surreal twist of being paired onscreen with his mischievous alter-ego, La Gueule, played in puppet-form by Doug Jones. Elmosnino was honored as Best Actor for his role as Gainsbourg at the 2011 Cesar Awards, while Sfar accepted the award for Best New Film. Yet prior to the U.S. release of this film, it was perhaps comic book readers who were the Americans most familiar with Sfar, thanks to his part in creating over 150 comics. He recently adapted another of his graphic novels, The Rabbi’s Cat into an animated feature film co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux, and released in France. He is currently adapting his children’s book, Little Vampire Goes To School into an English-language 3D animated feature. Sfar was recently in New York City, and spent a day at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue to talk about different aspects of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life — ahead of its U.S. premiere at New’s York’s Film Forum on August 31st.
On the city of Paris as its own distinct character in the film
I was on a plane, and I saw Midnight in Paris from Woody Allen, which was shot nine months after my movie. And it was very funny, because I think we have between 12 and 15 locations in common in the two movies. And of course, it’s shot in a very different way. First of all, we may have the same references, which would be An American in Paris and that kind of movie. And then, I think from an instinctive point of view, I’ve picked all the places that tourists like in Paris. And I was pretty interested in that idea. Stick to cliche, and try to build something with them. Like for instance, when they are at Gainsbourg’s place with Brigitte Bardot, from the window you could see all the monuments in the same window — that we’ve made a matte painting with the Eiffel Tower and the Arch De Triumph. Even Chinese people will notice it’s fake, and I love this idea. And for instance, when they kiss on the bank of the Seine River, we’d been shooting on location, but we’d added 300 kilograms of light in order for the audience to believe this was a set. I love the idea of everything looking fake.
On the Russian aspects of Serge Gainsbourg’s character
The idea is Gainsbourg would dream to be Don Draper, but he’s a Russian Jew. And that makes him acceptable as a character, because he would love to be the macho type, but he’s so much more fragile and so much more gentle. He would love to be a bad person. And it makes him very appealing in my perception. And you’re right about the Russian beat of the movie and of the character, because Serge Gainsbourg is never depressed. He’s either laughing or crying, and this would be very Russian in what I recall from my grandfather, who came from Ukraine. Depression is something which is so not what you expect from a Russian character. You expect him to have a strong soul.
On a scene where Gainsbourg teaches music to young Holocaust survivors
This is a true story. The point is, in order to please Gainsbourg’s family, I said the movie is filled with crap and it’s a tale, and so on. But it’s not entirely true. Here is how I worked: I’ve been using all the interviews from Serge Gainsbourg and everything he said fills the script. There must not be even one sentence in the script that does not come from him, which does not mean it is true. He’s been talking a lot. Sometimes he was drunk, he said many things about his youth, and I use this for the script. And as for the moment with the mandolin, it’s a true moment. Just after World War II, he was looking for a job. And he was a music teacher in an institution that would gather all the kids from Russia whose parents did not come back from the death camps. It was kind of experimental teaching method like montessori, or those kind of things. And he found himself being a teacher there, and it was the first audience he’s been playing for. So what I show in the movie — what I tried to show — he starts to teach music, and then it turns into just trying to make them laugh, just trying to get something fun and tender from them. And then, he allows himself to be happy for a brief moment, and then he stops. He becomes straight again. And this truly occurred, and one old lady came to see me after a screening, and she claimed to have been one of the children in that school. And she told me, “Well, you know, he was there. You’re right. But he spent more time in nightclubs, and was not always that nice.” He wanted that job because he wanted money. It was not out of making good action, but he was somehow changed by this experience. You cannot work during two years with those kids without being changed. The drawings you see on the wall during that scene, they were given by the institution to us, so they are the real drawings of the kids. And even by seeing the drawings, or reading the poems, my whole crew burst in tears. So, I cannot imagine Gainsbourg working there during two years and not feeling anything. He pretended to be a crocodile, but my guess is he was more tender.
On Gainsbourg’s puppet alter-ego, La Gueule (“The Mug”)
I love puppets. I have a passion for horror movies, and especially Terence Fisher and Roger Corman’s movies. And even before it was about Gainsbourg, I met the crew from Pan’s Labyrinth, and I told them, “Guys, I want to work with you.” And as soon as I had a project, I put a puppet in the project. The movie could have been on any other subject, I would have put a puppet. And then I was lucky enough to work with Doug Jones and the DDT people from Barcelona, and we had a lot of fun. And we have done things that haven’t been done since the UFA movies. For instance, when the creature was shot, we put the light on a dolly and we moved the dolly during the shot, so the light was moving during the shot, so that the shadows were moving. And it was very funny to use old-fashioned special effects with that creature. Like, everything that occurs, you could have seen on the set. There are very, very few CGI effects. And even when there is fire, even when there are special colors, we try to obtain everything on set.
On why he titled Gainsbourg’s life as heroic
In France, it was Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, and of course there may be an ironic side on that title, because the whole question is, “What remains of French heroes?” You know, I’ve been traveling a lot with the movie, and everywhere I go people talk to me about Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, and ask me how they are. And I’m kind of concerned with the fact that my country was not able to create new heroes, or new whatever you expect, for the last maybe 20 years. And I still think we have a lot of talent in France, but we experience a real trouble to produce them — outside from our frontiers. I think French people don’t like to be European, so they don’t want to do European movies. They still want to do French cinema, and they don’t like the French tradition of cinema, so they refer to American writing. But they cannot perform American scriptwriting. It’s such a different way of writing. So we have many issues, and it includes me. It’s very difficult to perform scriptwriting when you’re French, because you are poisoned by literature. So, you need to let go.
On why the film leaves out the scandalous Lemon Incest duet with daughter, Charlotte
Because it was clearly not my subject. Gainsbourg’s relationship to his daughter is such a heavy subject, and especially the first six months we worked on that movie, Charlotte was meant to play the part of her father. So the basic project was to have Charlotte playing Serge, and we had been working together during six months. And after six months of work, she woke up one morning and she told me, “It’s too painful.” She does not want that. Clearly she wanted that to kind of kill the dragon, and it was too difficult, so there was no question to address this kind of subject here. Of course, there never was anything incestuous in Gainsbourg. He could have killed his mother just to please the audience. It was just about getting the interest and finding provocation. But, my perception is he clearly managed to have his daughter in love with him, and no one can name the damage it can do to someone. She’s a wonderful actress, but I understood she is still not able to hear her father’s music. It’s too painful. But this was not my subject. My subject was this young boy who gets a yellow star when he’s nine years old. Then, he learns he’s a Jew. He didn’t know before. And when he’s more than fifty, he gathers Jamaican musicians and he played with the national anthem, and he pisses off everybody. And I was a fool, because I guess the most interesting moment in the movie is the moment with Brigitte Bardot. Assuming the fact they only last three months in his life, I made them short. But I feel I should have made a two-hour movie with Laetitia Casta.
On the reactions of ex-lovers Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot
When I wrote my story, I wrote through watercolors, and it was totally pornographical and extremely provocative. And everybody told me, “You’ve got no chance the Gainsbourg family will give you the right of the music. They always refuse every project.” And they loved the project. They say, “You do your movie.” But since the beginning, Jane Birkin told me, “You have to do this movie, because Serge would be happy, but I will be sad, so I will not see your movie.” And this she said from the beginning, because she told me, “This is too painful for me to see Serge on screen, to see all the women. So do your movie, but I don’t want to hear about that.”
Bardot has been wonderful with us during the whole shooting. She had Laetitia Casta on the phone very often. And she claimed to tell her sexual secrets, which Laetitia did not want to share with me, about who Serge was and how it was. And then the movie was released, and we didn’t hear about her. And then six months after, we hear there will be a biopic about her. And then she takes her microphone, and she says no living comedian can play her, and every movie about her must be crap. And people ask about the Gainsbourg movie, and she pretend she never heard about the project. But she was wonderful with us during the whole shooting. And working with Laetitia is something wonderful, because she has a terrible temper, and so do I, and this can be very creative in the process. Because clearly she was endangering herself playing Bardot. It’s very dangerous when you are a comedian pretending you are Brigitte Bardot, like regarding to who Bardot is for French people. And there’s a moment when she’s meant to dance on the piano, which I was silly, I hired a dance teacher. And we tried to perform during two or three weeks. And then she called me for a drink. We go out, we take a drink and she tells me, “Basically, what you expect from me is you want me to give the audience a hard on.” I say, “Well, Laetitia, I wouldn’t have put it this way, but as you mention it, yes.” [She says,] “OK. Then, please start by firing the dance teacher, and we may work.” Then she told me, “What we want to show is not that she is the best dancer in the universe. We want to show that in her privacy, she wants to give a dance to her lover. Then, she don’t have to dance well. She just has to be tender or nice.” And then it was wonderful, because I figure out what I want to know is what occurs when you spend a night with Brigitte Bardot, and what does she say in the morning? And then thanks to Laetitia, in my perception the best line from the movie is “Are there croissants?” Because it’s what you expect when you visit Paris. And then we had fun. And I have to say it was the same thing with Eric Elmosnino. He say, “I don’t want the burden of playing a museum character, or someone who gets out from real history. Let’s pretend we invented Serge Gainsbourg, and lets play with it.” And then it became very light and a very pleasing experience, because we were not playing him. We were paying tribute, and we were having fun. And it’s in that perception I wanted them to sing the song. Not because they are good singers, but because it’s a good tune to bring emotion. And assuming the fact all the audience has the recordings at home, we wanted to give them a live experience.
On the value of having his actors sing Gainsbourg’s songs, rather than dubbing them
Only one song was original, which was je t’aime (moi non plus). We’ve been keeping the original recording for this one. And we have had our actors talking in voice-overs, because I wanted the ghost of Serge and Jane to meet them. And all the other songs will be original recordings. Some of them were live recordings when we wanted the character to be fragile, such as Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line when he’s at Sun Records and he wanted to sing his first song. But most of the songs were recorded either live during the first take, and then we make other takes and we have this first recording as a model, or in studio and the actors make playback. And they claim it to be very helpful for them to understand what it is to be a singer, in order to act like a singer. And at every musical moment, we did our best to have the best musician possible. And this was not difficult, because French musician was kind of quarreling to play that movie. And also, for the reggae moment, we had the keyboard man for Marley. And I’m very happy with what they gave us.
On why Gainsbourg’s reggae version of La Marseillaise caused anger in France
The country has changed so much. People pretended they were pissed off because he used the national anthem, and he change it to reggae rhythm. The truth is, I think they hated the idea of an old Jew and, as Gainsbourg used to name them, negroes playing the national anthem. And French people became totally mad. There was a kind of civil war between the person who loved the song, and the person who wanted to kill Gainsbourg, and the person claimed he was raising anti-Semitism. And the Bob Marley musicians were totally tricked in that story, because they never understood that they would do something that would be provocative, because Gainsbourg has tricked them. He says, “This is a French war song. Come on.” And I have to say, this would be my only deception about the movie. In France, the movie was a huge success, but it was a mainstream family hit. I mean, even children went to see my movie. And I couldn’t find one person who was shocked by the movie, or shocked that he played with the national anthem. I mean, the country has really changed a lot. Because I remember those days, and even my father was shocked.
On French critical response to the Jewish themes of the film — and to his own Judaism
I think it was very nice. French people have a passion for Jews, which is strange. I wouldn’t call it antisemitism, because it’s nothing like that. It’s a huge passion you cannot explain. And it is filled with two kinds of guilt. On one side there is the guilt of the Second World War, and on the other side there is the guilt of Algerian war — which they solve by pretending that Israeli people are Nazis. And it makes it kind of difficult to be a Jewish person sometimes in France, because every time something comes up about Israel, they expect you to have something intelligent to say — as if you were not allowed not to care. So you are meant to have an opinion if you are a Jew. But it’s funny, and I guess people understood the stuff and they found he had a great punk attitude. But the story is true about him wanting to be the first one wanting to get his yellow star. And when the cop give him the star and say, “Why are you in such a hurry to get that star?,” he says “But sir, it’s not mine. It’s yours.” And I love this behavior.
On Gainsbourg’s signature habit of smoking lots of cigarettes
What Humphrey Bogart called them — his “coffin nails.” I don’t smoke myself, but I have to say I don’t feel comfortable with the prohibition stuff. The whole movie maybe is about freedom in a way. And I love him being a spoiled brat. You know, he’s been drinking his whole life, because he was shy, and he couldn’t show himself in public without being drunk. And he’s been smoking, because he assumed his face was ugly, but his hands were beautiful. So he thought it would be a nice idea to have his hands always moving around his face. That’s what he said. I’m not sure he wanted self-destruction. He’s just a character who was not able to change or to learn or to temper his behavior. But my guess is that he was a happy person. He had from life what he asked to do. When he dated Brigitte Bardot, the first thing he did was to write a letter to his father and say, “I am dating Brigitte Bardot,” as if he had a medal of French citizenship.
On his upcoming animated and live-action films
I’m currently finishing the script of Little Vampire, which will be an animated movie. And my producer is John Carls, who made Rango last year, and who made Where The Wild Things Are two years ago. And I’m very lucky to have him, because when I refer to the difficult burden of scriptwriting for a French person, this is wonderful. Because this is the first time I have a script doctor — the guy who says, “No.” The problem in America is filmmakers are not free, because the studios are too powerful. But in France, it’s the contrary. When you’re making a movie in France, you’re totally free, and this is not good either. Everybody claims you are an artist. I don’t know about being an artist, but I don’t know the answer to any question, and I’m very happy to have someone who says, “No.” And my next live-action movie will be shot next spring in France. I finished the writing, and it’s a comedy about slaves. It’s in the 18th Century. It’s a French guy who owns a slavery company, and he feels guilty about that, because he has very modern ideas. And so his wife suggests he should sell the company, but he says, “Come on, this is not an individual action that will change things.” So it’s about left-wing people, basically. The way you’re generous when the TV is on, and the way you never do anything. And I love this idea. I don’t know if you have this in America, generous left-wing people who never do anything. Because we invented them.