A Very Long Engagement director Jean-Pierre Jeunet first gained international attention with his feature debut Delicatessen, co-directed with Marc Caro. However, he’d been making award-winning short films for more than a decade and many of their fantasy themes would resurface in his subsequent features. Jeunet is a maverick talent even in his native France, and his films’ fabulous commercial appeal has elevated him into his country’s mainstream. He was an offbeat choice to direct Alien: Resurrection and surprised the executives at Fox when he made bringing a number of his regular collaborators to the studio a condition of his contract.Jeunet continued to cut his own trail when he opted out of Hollywood in favor of making a tiny personal project in his Montmarte neighborhood in Paris. That film, Amelie, went on to become the biggest-grossing French film in history. It also effectively gave him carte blanche on future projects and the backing to do Engagement, an epic romance set during the First World War that recently opened in America.Below the Line: A Very Long Engagement looks like a class reunion when you scroll down the credit list.Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Yes, I like to work with the same people all the time. There are quite a few people in the crew that have worked on all the features and even some of the shorts. I brought a lot of them to Hollywood for Alien as well. It is, I think, more a family reunion than a school reunion. Of course you establish a kind of short hand in the way you communicate and that’s nice, but not really the main reason I like it. Because of the familiarity you can push harder; be more demanding with them. You create an environment that lets people do the best they can do.BTL: The new film is very different from Amelie—not simply in tone, but you’ve gone from favoring one end of the color spectrum to the opposite end.Jeunet: Yes, that’s all true but I can’t really say that it was calculated in any sort of conscious way. I had wanted to make the book for 10 years—since it was published—but it’s obviously expensive and French producers are very nervous about spending $30 million. Jacques Becker, who made a very good film of one of the author’s other novels, also wanted to do it but he could never get the financing. For me Amelie changed everything. So, what I’m saying is that it’s something that I wanted to do earlier but had to put off until I had a big success.BTL: The two films in a way are both reinventions of Paris.Jeunet: I think I know what you mean. For Amelie I worked very hard to create a fake Paris, a Paris that represented someone’s state of mind. It was, in a way, like a Jacques Tati film. A Very Long Engagement—at least for those parts that take place in Paris—you are trying to show the way the city was 80 or 90 years ago. It is more subtle. I would say that of all the films I looked at, Godfather II had the greatest influence on how we chose to make it look.BTL: Did you storyboard the film?Jeunet: Yes, of course. I don’t always do an extensive storyboard but you have to do it for very complicated things like what occurs in the trenches. But for some scenes I find that all I want to do is maybe one idea for a particular shot. It helps me visualize things more than perhaps my cameraman or production designer.BTL: You mentioned Godfather II as influential. I imagine all films that depict trench warfare have a certain debt to Paths of Glory and before that Croix de Bois (Wooden Crosses, from 1930).Jeunet: I hadn’t thought of Croix de Bois for some time. I remember that the stuff that was shot in the studio seemed quite artificial. Most of the references that are made with [cinematographer] Bruno [Delbonnel] are about art. I look at a lot of paintings and select 10 or 12 that I feel will be a good start for conversation. There’s a very good Brazilian artist that lives in my neighborhood named Xavier Machado and I gave Bruno one of his pieces and said this is Mathilde’s bedroom.BTL: So these paintings are springboards to discuss color, lighting and composition.Jeunet: Exactly. It’s a starting point. We agree to the references and then there is total trust. Bruno is one of my oldest friends. We both worked at an animation studio back in 1974 and I was his PA on a short film he directed. I think because we were so close I was extremely nervous about using him on Amelie when I lost Darius [Konji] to Hollywood. But after three days of looking at his dailies I was relieved and he’s still my best friend.BTL: Do you have the same sort of working relationship with your production designer Aline Bonett?.Jeunet: Again we’ve worked together a long time. She did the props of Delicatessen and I must say that she has impeccable taste. I trust her completely and at the same time I’m always just a little bit nervous because she doesn’t like to sketch. So references are very important. You know, another picture that was very influential was Ryan’s Daughter. A lot of the filming was done in Brittany and the landscape was very similar to the Irish locations where David Lean shot; I love that picture. I think that was very helpful for Aline and also for my costume designer Madeleine Fontaine. Making a film is a very long process and you’re constantly refining what it is that you want on the screen. I read recently that Picasso did something like 150 sketches before he finally drew Guernica and I thought that’s what I do, too.BTL: Do you spend a lot of time in the editing room? Is that another place to refine?Jeunet: Well refining, yes. But Herve [Schneid] works all the way through the picture. And he’s very fast. He showed me the first rough cut of the film the day after we completed filming. Then, of course, we spent months working out individual scenes but I’ve found that we don’t do a lot of work on the structure or moving around scenes. Really what’s so great is that he can keep up with the filming and I can see right away that I need to shoot something else for the trenches to make the scene work. So sharks could eat me and someone could come in and complete the film without a lot of problem. I should also mention that something that we haven’t done a lot in France is test screenings and on this film we did four. It was very helpful in so far as we can ask what don’t you understand and go back into the editing room and fix it.BTL: A lot of international filmmakers say they’re mystified by the test screening process. Are there other American conventions that aren’t common in Europe?Jeunet: Well, the way most films deal with sound is very different. The whole concept of sound design simply isn’t in our culture and that’s also true in Italy and Germany. I’m not sure I was ever one of those people who said I must do a film in Hollywood before I die. But really making Alien was a wonderful experience because it gave me the opportunity to see another way of making movies and to incorporate ways of doing things that were helpful in my process when I returned to France. Very little importance is given to production sound in Europe. By convention sound and voices are added during postproduction but now I insist that we have an excellent guide track and that’s a tremendous asset when you’re mixing the release version.
Written by Len Klady