Interview: Marjane Satrapi on Putting Spice into “Chicken With Plums” and What’s Cooking With “The Eleventh Laureate”

The graphic novelist and "Persepolis" filmmaker discusses making the transition from animation to live-action for her latest and why everything that's good for you has to be at least...
Golshifteh Farahani and Mathieu Almaric in Vincent Parannoud and Marjane Satrapi's Chicken With Plums

After seeing her in animated form in “Persepolis,” the 2007 memoir of growing up during the Islamic Revolution, it’s quite possible that Marjane Satrapi is even more so in person, her eyes flaring with enthusiasm and her arms rarely motionless as she speaks. Perhaps this is why “Chicken With Plums,” her second feature collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud, is as seamless a transition into live-action as could be expected. Once more drawing upon one of Satrapi’s graphic novels for a story about her family, this time, the film is centered on her great uncle Nasser Ali-Khan (played in the film by “The Diving Bell and Butterfly”‘s Mathieu Amalric), a musician whose recently broken violin sets him on an eight-day march towards taking his own life, which in Satrapi and Paronnaud’s style takes on the rhythm of an allegreto as memories of his past loves and his present sorrow flow through his mind, all to the frustration of his wife (Maria de Medeiros) and his two young children who he keeps at a distance.

As Nasser is told by his musical mentor, “You have managed to seize the sigh,” which also could precisely describe Satrapi and Paronnaud’s specialty at striking exactly the right note between the sweet and the sour that life has to offer, the vivid colors of their palette and the vibrant storytelling tempered by the knowledge that for Satrapi it emerges from a painful personal past. While in Los Angeles, the graphic novelist and filmmaker touched on how that perspective on life came about, adapting “Chicken With Plums,” and gave a taste of what to expect from “The Eleventh Laureate,” the third part of her and Paronnaud’s planned film trilogy.

This film is so steeped in a love for other movies, it begs the question how did you first get interested in film?

I always watched lots of films, but really I didn’t plan at all to make movies or become a moviemaker. Never. But it happened that a friend of mine wanted to become a producer and he said, “Oh, we’re going to make an adaptation of ‘Persepolis,’ which I thought was a very bad idea, like why make it? The comics worked perfectly. Even today, I cannot tell you why there is a good reason for making it. At the same time, I thought they’re going to pay you to learn to do something new. Why not take the chance and just give it a try? The worst that will happen is you’re going to make the worst movie in the world, but at least you’ve learned something. From the second you’ve learned something, you cannot say you have lost your time. So I made ‘Persepolis’ and then you know, you make one and it’s really fun to make films and then you want to make another one, then another and another one. This is the way it goes.

With “Chicken With Plums,” you’ve said when you were initially conceiving this as a book, a friend of yours told you, this looks like a movie more than a book, so in adapting it, did you get the hard part out of the way first?

No, it was by coincidence because at the time when I [wrote the book], I didn’t want to make movies, so I told him, “No! You can make a book out of that.” It was just to show him you could make a book out of that. But I think that the story, even the structure that [was] in the book already, it is very cinematographic, so it’s not really a correspondence between these two, but I thought it was a good story to make an adaptation.

One of the things you’re able to do so well in terms of bringing this story to the screen is how you’re able to give your characters full lives, no matter how small a part of the overall story they are. In “Chicken With Plums,” the children may not have a large role in the present of your film, but their future legacy is part of the film’s resounding power. I may have answered my own question, but why is that important to you?

For me, it’s very important not to talk bullshit about human beings. Nowadays in films, you have the bad guys, you have the good guys. The bad guy is always punished for what he does – he always knows the notion of redemption. If you see a guy light up a cigarette, you know that in the 10 coming minutes, he’s going to rape someone or blow up a building. This is the way it is. But the reality of life, I just look at people extremely carefully and nobody is Mr. Perfect.

Nasser-Ali Khan would seem to embody that as a protagonist.

It’s just to give the chance to the human being to be themselves, to be not sympathetic, not nice and at the same time to have compassion for him, to understand him, to find him charming and end up loving him and crying for him. Like this guy [Nasser Ali-Khan], he does not like his children at the beginning and he does not like them much more at the end. Today, it’s a taboo subject. But you know, not all the children there are loved by their parents because otherwise all the children should be very happy children that later on will become very happy adults. But you have so many miserable children that later on become miserable adults, something in the equation doesn’t work. Some people they don’t like their kids and so what? This is it. This is life.

The longterm cause and effect of your films doesn’t seem limited to just within the movies since you’re making these films – “Persepolis,” “Chicken With Plums” and the third chapter you’ve announced “The Eleventh Laureate,” which is said to be set between 1900-1960 – as a trilogy. Has it really been the only way you can tell a story as large and sprawling as what’s transpired in Iran through these smaller, individual stories?

It makes me very happy what you say because that is exactly it. Just as I say, it’s the way I consider life. I just take the example of “The Bicycle Thief” by Vittorio De Sica. The story, what does it say? A guy who needs a bicycle to work and then his bicycle is stolen from him and he is really in big trouble. The story itself is just an anecdote, but through this anecdote, you understand the whole social crisis of Italy after the war. So it is always this small thing that tells us more because big things, they’re always vague, they’re always empty, most of the time. What you say, I don’t consider it as a question. I consider it as a compliment and it makes me very happy.

I would hope you would take it that way. What’s also interesting to me is the fact that “Persepolis” was a coming-of-age story and “Chicken With Plums” is about a man in his final days – would you consider making something about the time in your life now?

Absolutely. I’m also very interested to work on other people’s scripts. Right now, I’m working on a project that has nothing to do with the things that I normally do. It’s a genre film. I don’t know if it’s going to be done because from the second they say they will make it until it’s really done, it’s a long gap between the two. But I want to make “The Eleventh Laureate” because I want to finish the story of this one century in a country through the story of one family. “The Eleventh Laureate” is very much about my grandmother who was a very courageous woman, not the one of “Persepolis,” the other one, and she just escaped the house of her father being dressed as a man to marry the man of her life and who became an extremely bad, bitter person. For me, what is important for me to say how the toughness of life makes you become bad. You’re not born bad. You are so many times smashed and smashed and smashed that at the end, you break. That is where you become not a nice person. That is really what is important for me to say in this story, [which] is really about the human psychology. But I am completely open to any sorts of project.

You can tell that just from you making the jump from animation to live-action in this film. Was it more invigorating creatively to have certain things defined for you rather than having a blank canvas? Clearly, you exploit having actors such as Mathieu Amalric and Maria de Medeiros with such naturally pronounced facial features.

My obsession was to have the right actors and that’s why they come from all the nationalities also because for me, they were the right people for the right role. [For Nasser,] you need somebody who has fever and the madness in his eyes. And Mathieu’s eyes are like you’re cutting on paper and you glue them. He has these eyes that don’t exist — nobody else has eyes like that. And he was the perfect right guy for the role. I could not see any other actor. When I called him, I told him, “You are my first, my second, my third, my fourth choice. If you say no, I’m really in big trouble because I don’t have a second choice.” Thank God everybody that I wanted said yes to the project. That makes it very easy.

One last question: There’s a beautiful line in the film, “Smoke is the food of the soul,” which also plays out visually in an elegant way. What was the inspiration?

The smoke is really like life. One moment it’s there and one moment, it’s not there. It gives you pleasure, it’s vain, but at the same time, it’s not vain. And it’s extremely cinematographic. It’s very beautiful to film the smoke, but that was my grandmother who always said “Smoke is the food of the soul.” I know today we should not say that, like the smoke gives you cancer, but whatever is good gives you cancer. Butter gives you cancer, cream gives you cancer, chocolate…whatever is good is bad! And I don’t like vegetables so much. [laughs]

“Chicken With Plums” is now open at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Monica 4-Plex and the Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles before expanding into wider release on September 7th. A full list of theaters can be found here.

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