(indieWIRE/ 11.02.01) -- If "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" started a new trend -- the foreign film that even mainstream America can't resist -- this year's prime contestant to follow its lead is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie." But this subtitled sensation will not hook its fans with swordplay, epic romance, or masked bandits. There's not an action sequence in sight or even a bona fide movie star. The film that has broken all French box office records is a fairytale about a Parisian waitress (Audrey Tautou) who messes with her quirky co-workers and neighbors' lives in the hope of making them sweeter -- or a bit more bitter, if her target deserves it.
Those who cringe at this description need not fear a saccharin heart-warmer. The film is the brainchild of the director responsible for the darkly comic "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children." While Monsieur Jeunet is no longer collaborating with his partner in crime, Marc Caro, the twisted humor, idiosyncratic details, and technical aplomb of the earlier work remain, along with the strange faces of the team's familiar cast. indieWIRE's Andrea Meyer spoke with Jeunet about new partnerships, generosity, and movies that change people's lives.
indieWIRE: Compared to your earlier work, "Amélie" is much lighter and more positive. Why did you suddenly get the urge to make a romantic comedy?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Maybe that's because I am in love (laughs). In fact I began to work on this film before I fell in love. When I worked with Marc Caro, it was impossible to put personal emotions into the films, because we are not brothers, we are not lovers, we are not very close. I kept my own ideas for myself, and after "The City of Lost Children," we wanted to make different films. For a long time I've had a kind of collection of memories, stories, anecdotes, and I wanted to make a film with this collection. I spent maybe four months [working on it], and then they called me to make "Alien." And when I came back, I worked on it again and it was very difficult. Then one day, I don't know why, I just thought, "Oh my God, this is the story: this woman helping other people." And before, that was just one small story in a collection of other stories.
iW: So you didn't wake up one day and say, "I want to make a happy movie."
Jeunet: That was the concept: to make a positive story. Amelie is pretty sad, pretty alone, pretty introverted, but she still has to stay positive all of the time. This was the first note. We wanted to get a smile from the audience, and this was the case, but we did not expect such success. It was just a very small film, and it was risky because I knew I was going to talk about generosity and it's a risk, because today it is more fashionable to speak about violence.
iW: Why did you want to explore generosity?
Jeunet: Why? Because this story is about a woman who helps people in secret. You know Paul Auster? He did a story, I think it's in "Leviathan," about a woman who sees a guy who has bad taste and she gives him a gift in secret. It's a very nice tie, and one week after, a very nice shirt, and the taste of the guy changes little by little. I love this story. And I saw another film in France, a very old film: a woman receives ten dollars each day and she doesn't know from who. And I love this kind of story.
iW: In all of your films (besides "Alien"), there's this idea of people's secret lives and the crazy schemes they come up with to get what they want, like the elaborate ways Aurore tries to kill herself in "Delicatessen" and the kids in "The City of Lost Children" using a cat and a mouse to break into a safe. What's the fascination there?
Jeunet: I don't know. I think this film is a little bit different. It's also talking about destiny, but not this kind of chain of events. I tried to avoid that. I remember one scene I cut a lot because I did not want to repeat myself, the scene where they make love and the objects are moving. I am not very proud about that, because it's too "Delicatessen." But I do the same thing in my own life. When I give a gift, for example, I put arrows on the floor: You have to open the refrigerator. Inside you have an artichoke. Inside you have a paper [saying] you have to turn on the TV. I am on TV. I explain that you have to open a book, etc. I love this.
iW: Have you done that kind of thing since you were a child?
Jeunet: I suppose. When I was a child, I was escaping from my family with imagination. And it continues, but now they pay me for it. A lot of people lose the spirit of childhood. Every child has a lot of imagination and you lose it little by little. I don't know why, but I kept it.
iW: Maybe you just cultivate it in your work. I was astounded, for example, with the incredible details in the film, like the characters' likes and dislikes. You have this amazing ability to hone in on very personal and specific details.
Jeunet: It's exactly the thing I do in my life. I do some lists every day: new things I hate, things I love. I know it by heart, this game. If you say, "I love peanuts," it is not interesting. You have to find the feeling. And I've wanted for a long time to use this game to present characters in a feature, and I did. But that's my own list. I distributed it [among] the characters. I chose the best one for each character, to define the characters, like I love to put my hands in the sacks of grains: Amelie.
iW: I was thinking about "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children." While they are dark, they also have happy endings for the characters who deserve them. So, in that sense, maybe you've been sentimental and optimistic all along?
Jeunet: For us, "The City of Lost Children" wasn't dark. It was like a fairytale, and in a fairytale everything is dark: the little children, the dark forest, they are lost. But it is so good to be afraid when you are a kid. And when I saw it again last year, I thought, "Oh yes, it is dark." For the first time I felt it was dark.
iW: Maybe the reason people consider those films dark has to do with the stylistic vision you created with Marc Caro. How do you think that's changed since you took a break from working together?
Jeunet: It's so good to make personal movies. For this story, I needed an explosion of colors, something very bright and happy. It worked with the story. And that's the reason I wanted to make a fake Paris, a very nice Paris, like in my head when I was twenty and I arrived in Paris for the first time. I wanted to avoid the bad things: traffic jams, dog shit on the street, the rain. I wanted to make a film like this: a fake Paris, a Paris of dreams. And we did a lot of work for it, even in [post-production]. We changed the sky when it was white. I hate white skies, and we changed it. I prefer clouds. When it's blue, it's pretty cool, like in L.A. every day. But I prefer clouds.
iW: And you chose to shoot in Montmartre, a neighborhood that a lot of filmmakers have chosen as the backdrop for their films. Were you thinking of other films when you made this one?
Jeunet: I thought about Francois Truffaut's "400 Blows." You can see a reference in this film, because the same actress who plays the mother of Jean-Pierre Leaud in "400 Blows," Claire Maurier, is the owner of the cafe. And you have a lot of pigeons. There is an amazing shot of pigeons in "400 Blows" when the two kids are running on the street, and I did that in this film.
iW: You worked with a new DP on this film.
Jeunet: Yes, because Darius Khondji [the DP of "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children"] is a big star now, and he told me, "I am not enough motivated to do this film." Bruno Delbonnel is my old best friend, but when we began to make features, he wasn't a DP yet, and he was very sad because he missed two, three of our films. I worked with him on commercials, but it's not the same thing. This film was a good opportunity, but I was worried, because imagine if [the footage] wasn't good. It could break [up our friendship]. I was so relieved when I saw the first dailies of the film.
iW: You collaborated on the screenplay again with Guillaume Laurant. What was that like?
Jeunet: I met Guillaume just before "The City of Lost Children." He did some small dialogues on "The City," and this guy is so easy. He's so fast. I love to work with him. And I love to play pool with him. He's so fast. He writes a scene in one hour and if it's not very good, you have another draft in twenty minutes. He's amazing.
iW: So you came to him with all your stories and your idea of the girl who connects them all?
Jeunet: Yes, yes, I found the concept and we had a meeting to find the story, to find a skeleton. We had a meeting just to define what we have to do this week, and by the end of the meeting, we'd found everything. It was amazing. I had never seen that before.
iW: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
Jeunet: It's always one year, but you don't do just a script. I did some commercials at the same time. You give the script to friends and receive their impressions, and when four or five people talk about a [particular] problem, then you know you have a problem. And at this time you begin a second draft with two or three big changes. For example, in the first draft the old man didn't exist. It was a kid. Can you believe it? I don't like in a movie when you have a sick kid. It's so easy. The old man in this film is okay, because it is not sad. It's just symbolic.
iW: This movie has been incredibly successful at the box office in France.
Jeunet: And everywhere. In Germany and England
iW: Can you tell me how much?
Jeunet: No, I can't, because in France we don't care about money. We only care about the audience. We have done eight million people in France. "Titanic" I think did eleven million in France, for a reference. This year we are number one. We will be number one in two weeks. Number one. Gladiators, dinosaurs, are behind. . .
iW: Why do you think it's been so successful?
Jeunet: Because it's about generosity. It's a positive story, but I didn't expect a success like this. For me, after "Alien," it was just a small French film and very risky, because generosity could become tacky very quickly. But let me explain the success: It had four hundred and fifty good reviews and only six bad ones, and after awhile it became a social event. Everybody wanted to use the title, and the life of the neighborhood changed. The owner of the cafe Les Deux Moulins wanted to sell the cafe, and now he doesn't. He does interviews everyday. The train for tourists visits the café [and says]: "They shot 'Amelie'" Amazing.
iW: What did the bad reviews say?
Jeunet: We hate success in France. Four months after, we had two bad critics but especially one. It was amazing: I am a fascist; it is a fascist movie. But that's France. It's normal. We were invited by Jacques Chirac, the President of the Republic. He told me "that's the best evening in my life." Can you believe it? I saw his wife, and I understood why (laughs).
iW: You have turned your Amelie, Audrey Tautou, into a star. She was an interesting choice, because in your past films you have all these people with funny faces.
Jeunet: She is funny. She has a funny face, but on the other hand, she's very nice. It's exactly the mix I love. I saw her in a poster and I saw the big eyes. Some people ask me if it is a special effect because she has such big pupils. They're huge. It's amazing. And she was perfect. I did some tests and she was immediately perfect. She will be a star, believe me. And I told her, "France will be too small for you very quickly. You have to learn English." And now she is hired by Stephen Frears.
iW: Would you like to work with her again?
Jeunet: Yes, I would like. She is perfect. She has a greatness of timing. She has a grace; she's inventive. Everything is easy for her. It's not, "we have to think." It's. . . just do it.