After telling two deeply personal stories in the first two films she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud — “Persepolis” and “Chicken with Plums” — Marjane Satrapi had to wrap her head around two things before deciding to direct “The Voices.” The first was asking herself if she could direct something she didn’t actually write herself and the second, after reading Michael R. Perry’s Black List-approved pitch black comic thriller about a psychologically tormented shipping factory worker named Jerry, was in her words, figuring out “If I was a serial killer in packing and shipping, how would I do it?”
The answer to the latter involves plenty of tupperware, which goes a long way towards explaining why Satrapi accepted the challenge of finally bringing her wild imagination to a world she didn’t build from the ground up, particularly one as dark and diseased as the recesses of Jerry’s mind. No fan of horror films, Satrapi may be as squeamish as Jerry is about his horrific behavior, and yet she strides confidently into “The Voices”’ lurid milieu to find both the bleak humor and heart in the story of a man who means to do well by others in spite of his worst impulses.
With a game leading man in Ryan Reynolds and an equally versatile supporting cast that includes Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as Jerry’s officemates, the film marks Satrapi’s English-language debut, but demonstrates how she’s mastered a barbed and beautiful language all her own. Set in the fictional industrial town of Milton, Satrapi envisions the economically depressed Midwestern burgh as a place where nights are bathed in the same light as Edward Hopper’s moody paintings and days are more like Murakami’s confectionary creations, a combination to mirror Jerry’s schizophrenic inclinations, throwing in company parties with conga lines and profane talking pets as his closest confidantes to add to the surreality. It’s rare to call an intuitive study of mental illness a delight, but in fact Satrapi proves once again she can pull off the previously unimaginable and shortly before the film’s release, she spoke about how she got into the proper mindset for “The Voices,” how she achieved the film’s wicked special effects practically, what storage says about Jerry and her rarely-seen third feature that helped her to break out of her own box.
Was it liberating to adapt something you hadn’t actually written yourself?
It was extremely exciting because it’s not something I ever thought I would do in my life because I’m French. In France, everybody wants to write his or her own script and I have my stories. But my words are limited to myself and when a project like this is given to me, it is another work that adds to my own work, so it just makes my words bigger. I would never sit by my desk and say, “Okay, I’m going to write this story about a crazy guy who speaks to his dog and his cat and he goes and kills chicks.” I would never write something like that. That is really not my domain, but then it comes to me and I have to dive into this world and imagine how to show it, so it was extremely enriching and liberating.
You’ve said before signing on for the film, you performed the whole thing for yourself, acting out all the characters and everything. How does that process actually help?
Actually, I lock myself in my bathroom and I don’t know why it’s my bathroom, but I guess it’s because no one watches me and I have to play the film a couple of times for myself just to [get] the rhythm of the film, [figuring out] is a scene too long, too short? Is it necessary? This is the way that I can actually create my vision of the film, by playing it over and over. I make all the voices, and thank God nobody sees it. Once I have done that and I have a clear vision of what I want to do, then I share this vision with others and hopefully they want to do the same thing and make a good film. This is what happened with Ryan [Reynolds]. You can have the best film director and the best actor in the world. If they don’t want to make the same film, the results will not be good. The most important thing is that all of us want to make exactly the same film and Ryan and I really wanted to do exactly the same film, so after that, it was easy.
What’s brilliant and you may not realize until after you see the credits is that Ryan actually voices all of his pets, so they really are all a part of him. Did you actually record him doing those voices before filming so he could act off of them on the set?
We actually did a session when he was making all the cat and dog [voices], but you know, the cat is almost never in the same room as Ryan and [with] the dog, you can say “sit” and the dog “sits,” but the cat never listens to you. The cat tells you “fuck you” and it will never do what you want. So what happened is [in] the place where the cat was supposed to sit, we had an actor sitting and answering to Ryan, but then after his scene, Ryan would play it again as the animal and between the different takes, we would choose what we liked the most. But the voices were made before, and we used some actors on the set also in order so the sightline was right.
From what I’ve heard, you made a concerted effort to have as many of the effects be as practical as possible, even when they required very elaborate setups such as when Jerry’s victims starts storing his victims’ heads in his fridge and they come back to life. Is that a challenge you embrace or do you find it tedious?
I love it! The more difficult it is, the more I like it. I always have a problem with the budget and the days of shooting, but thank God my editor on all my films — Stéphane Roche — is also the director of my second unit because I’m really not patient. I almost wanted to drug the cat because I was like, “Come on! Get him some sleeping pills so he will calm down” But of course we cannot do this. [Stéphane’s] much more patient. He would shoot the cat for hours and hours and maybe we’ll have these two minutes that we’ll need. Another way of doing it is to lock the camera, you do green screen and you put them together and it plays perfectly fine. But then you need to have a great editor who really finds the momentum to make all of that work.
The head in the fridge, for example, yeah, you could make it on the green screen, but I’d be annoyed, the actors aren’t playing off of anyone and the [director of photography] is bored. It’s fun for no one. So I preferred the actress to really be in the fridge, we shoot her, they come out, [we] reconstruct [the fridge] and we shoot it again. We did a double pass, then we glued the two pieces together and here it works. The cinema should be magical. If there’s no magic, then it’s not fun. But to find the magic trick, you have to use your brain and this is the procedure I really like the most — when I don’t know how to do it, then I find a solution and the minute I have a solution, it’s like a scientist has discovered something new. It’s extremely exciting.
Your director of photography Maxime Alexandre is well-versed in horror films such as “High Tension” and “The Crazies.” Was that a reason why you wanted to work with him on this?
No, it was really not that because I saw lots of [directors of photography]. I don’t like horror films so much. I cut the noise because I can’t watch it otherwise. I get too scared. But [Maxime] has this special thing with the lights that I found extremely beautiful, so I wanted to meet him. Maxime and I are actually exactly the same age and there are people you connect right away with and it’s not because they’ve done a horror film that they only know how to do that. The most important thing for a great [director of photography] is to make a great light and great movement of the camera and this is what I need. So we had a great collaboration and hopefully all my other films, I want to make with him because he’s the [director of photography] I need.
How did the film’s color scheme come about?
I always make the palette of color for each film because I need a film to have a color identity. This is very important to me. But then we’re talking about the fantastic world of Jerry, so I had to find a color that said yes, this is the fantastic world of Jerry, but at the same time [it could be] the reality. For example, bright pink [was a strong choice that] could be Jerry’s vision, but if you see it in a pragmatic way, you say this is a factory somewhere in Michigan and everybody has left, so the director of human resources says let’s put everyone in pink dresses so they maybe they will not leave this small town, then we don’t have to close the factory. You have to be able to justify [the colors] in the most pragmatic, logical way. So it’s really a line between what is fantastic and what isn’t and I really tried to choose colors based on that. Also, I really love these colors. My first job in my life, I was a painter, so of course, I have a very strong relationship with the frame, the color and the light and as you work on something, you come up with these colors. This is what I think is beautiful. And I needed the film to be beautiful. Many, many times, I have walked out of a great film, saying to myself, “oh the film is great, but it’s so ugly.” I don’t like ugly films. [laughs]
I recall at the Toronto Film Festival, you mentioned a book called “Interior of the Modern Cowboy” for the production design.
Yes, absolutely. We were reading this book called “Interior of the Modern Cowboy” and this house [that Jerry has] looks like it’s comfortable, but at the same time, everything is nailed into the wall. His bed is glued to the wall. Everything is constructed into the wall, which to me was very close to the state of mind of Jerry because he’s stuck in his mind. His house looks comfortable, but everything is nailed [down] and he cannot change the place of things. There’s nothing he can actually move. There’s also a little bit of bad taste, but in a beautiful way, so it’s a very weird mixture. The production designer [Udo Kramer] and I were very much inspired by that and [generally] I look at lots of photography books when I want to make a film because they give you a good idea of what you want to do.
In between this film and “Chicken with Plums,” you actually shot a scrappy comedy called “Gang of the Jotas” in which you starred as a woman seemingly on the run from the mob. Did you need that change of pace as a storyteller, where there was less focus on big stylistic flourishes?
People put people in boxes, so after [“Chicken with Plums” and “Persepolis”] I was this woman who was making films about her nostalgia for Iran. That’s basically who I was [in other people’s eyes]. And this was not only other people. I think I locked myself in this box. I really needed to do something to emancipate myself from that. So I had to go on this trip and I hate to go on trips because I get so bored. After three days, we’ve seen all the museums, [so I say,] “Okay, let’s go back home. I need to work. I have to do something.” And everybody else wanted to go on a 10-day trip and I said, “Okay, but then we’ll make a film.” And this film [“Gang of the Jotas”] really made me free of lots of things I had in my mind. After doing that, it was like I washed my brain with it and I saw something I didn’t do before, so it was extremely important for me to make it. It’s a really small movie, but I really needed to do it and it was fun to do it. I liked to be that killer woman.
“The Voices” opens in limited release on February 6th. A full list of theaters can be found here. It will also be available on VOD.