Have you really experienced cinema until you've dived into the surreal, magical and grotesque world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro? Making only two films together, Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children in 1991 and 1995 respectively, their second feature is getting a newly remastered 4K release. We sat down to talk with them about it.
In the interview on the Blu-ray you mention that there was nothing else like this being made in France at that time. However looking at it now the shooting style you have created feels decidedly French. Do you think that's because of some sort of cultural history or your influence?
Caro: We share a tradition in France with movies from before the war, and even earlier than that because we evolved from George Méliès. Where we make everything in the studio. He would draw his costumes, his sets, and everything. Méliès was the first guy to make a storyboard. We came from this technology of movies. In the beginning of making movies you had these imaginary stories and universes amongst others that were more realistic like documentaries. And we chose which way to go. In these fantasies, everything, the sets, the characters, are really graphic too. We chose some actors because they are very good actors, but also because they are very strange and have different faces. We put that together to appeal to the universe.
Jeunet: There is history throughout, behind me there is an original painting from the production designer. I also have a big collection of work from Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert. You say our films are so French but strangely they are more appreciated abroad. Hollywood asked me to make Alien: Resurrection. We made the opening of Cannes film festival, but it was a flop in France, but in the US and in England they appreciated it more. Because it's ‘fantastique', but in France this isn't the preference.
Caro: But we do have a tradition of ‘fantastique' in France, but it's more French, it's called ‘pataphysics'. We're also the land of the surrealists, with Jean Cocteau being a very big influence for me. Alongside the cinematographer Henri Alekan who did amazing things with light, they made Beauty and the Beast (1946) together. We have this as a tradition, it's very visual. It's very strange to me because the atmosphere of The City of Lost Children was very British. You have the Thames, the brick walls.
Jeunet: One influence for Marc was the London paintings of Gustave Doré.
Caro: But then there's hints of Jules Verne, creating a kind of Victorian universe. Always with a French touch. Maybe that's what makes it international, because we created an imaginary world with imaginary people, but we took what we loved. From painters, music, decorations, sets, costumes, we put all that together to create that universe.
There's obvious comparisons between your work and Terry Gilliam's, clearly as he “presented” Delicatessen for the US market. How did Gilliam come to be a champion of your work?
Caro: We met him during Delicatessen, and like me his background was in comics. He made some cartoons and some reviews, and when we met him it was like meeting a brother. We had a great complicity because we speak about the same things. When I saw his movies, they're a revelation.
Jeunet: There's a timeless aspect to Brazil, which had an influence on Delicatessen.
People would probably call the look of The City Of Lost Children “steampunk” now, was that a term that existed at the time?
Caro: Not really at the time no, there was “retro-futurism” but now steampunk is a genre in and of itself. But when we wrote The City Of Lost Children in 1982, we'd never heard the word. We just made something magical with the influences we had.
How did you come to casting Ron Perlman? In between yourselves and his work with Del Toro he seems to enjoy films that are in languages he doesn't speak.
Caro: We thought of him because we saw him in Guillermo Del Toro's first film, Cronos. We know him very well in France because he was in a film by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, In The Name Of The Rose. But he always wore prosthetics. So when I saw him in Cronos, with his natural face and just immediately that was the guy we wanted.
Jeunet: During the casting we saw a lot of people, Rutger Hauer, Christophe Lambert…
Caro: But we didn't get a response from Ron through his agent, who wasn't interested.
Jeunet: So we went through Jean-Jacques Annaud, and Ron Perlman told us he hadn't heard about this at all, so he fired his agent!
I don't blame him because he's perfect in the role. Was his dialogue always slightly stilted – with the effect of it being he never seems superior or in charge of the children? Or was it adjusted to compensate for any difficulties with language?
Jeunet: Yes he just has a few lines, he worked with a coach and an interpreter. Sometimes it wasn't easy because there were some words in French which are very difficult to say for an American. He has to say “La poubelle pleure” which means “the trash is crying” but he found that very hard to say. But thankfully he only had a few lines.
Caro: The character isn't very verbose, so it didn't matter too much. The character was always like that.
What was the casting process for the children? Were any of them particularly impressive or particularly difficult to work with?
Jeunet: You do have to pay attention when you first do the casting. There's a lot of test shoots, you have to be sure that the child will cope with six months of shooting. Judith Vittet (Miette) was the first child we saw, because she'd already made a film before. But we saw hundreds of girls before thinking maybe we could find someone better but no we came back to our first meeting.
Caro: We put a lot of the movie on the shoulders of a three year old boy.
Jeunet: With a child that young it's a different game. It's like working with a feral animal because they don't understand. So you have to find some games or tricks to get surprises and good reactions. Then when you edit and put it in context it means something else. It's very wasteful though, on the first day of shooting I threw up because I thought “oh my god we're putting the responsibility for a movie costing 90 million francs in the hands of a three year old kid”. If he had said he didn't want to do it any more you can't say to him “you signed a contract!”, he doesn't care.
I did wonder if that was why he was constantly eating. To keep him happy.
Jeunet: He spent one day saying “I am Zorro and I wont do that!”. But very quickly we worked out that we could use a double for a lot of shots which really helped on those days.
How do you feel your work has evolved since you've worked together and did you have any other films planned to do together that haven't happened?
Jeunet: We love that question! We were very lucky to make two films together. It's very rare because we aren't brothers. If you look at the history of cinema, film-making pairs are always brothers. It wasn't always easy to work in a common way, and we went on to make things that were more personal. When I made Amélie, that wasn't something Marc was interested in.
Caro: Yes we put some of our more personal ideas aside because it didn't interest both of us equally. At some point we both had to open that box and we had a lot of things that really mattered to us that we wanted to do. So Jean-Pierre made Amélie, and I tried to make my own projects. Our paths diverging is the normal and right thing.
Jeunet: While Marc was in charge of the artistic direction, I focused on the direction of the film. But now I love artistic direction, and Marc wouldn't want to let me direct the actors. So now we're both happy to do everything.
You can still see the influence of Caro in things like Alien Resurrection, because he did some of the production design, is that right?
Jeunet: Marc did some of the costume design, but he didn't want to stay in LA because he doesn't drive and he hates the sun.
So does that mean you probably won't work together again?
Jeunet: No probably not. Well maybe for a short film or something like that, for example I produced a film for Marc recently, the title is Loop and it'll probably be online in a few months. So if we're doing this kind of collaboration, why not?
Caro: We made a big exhibition with all the props and costumes from our movies, and we worked together to make that.
Jeunet: And to finish off, Delicatessen has also been remastered in 4k so that should be released in a few months. Unfortunately I don't have the right TV to watch it! But the Blu-ray did help me fix my TV screen because it was too bright, and I've spent so much time looking at this remaster that I knew what it was supposed to look like.
Caro: I'm very happy because I just bought a new 4k set up, I just need to get a projector. But I need to make some money for that.
Well it's a good thing those 4K's are coming out, maybe it'll help?
Caro: Yes but we need to sell a lot!
The City Of Lost Children is available on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD now.