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Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis Q&A

  Raised in Tehran by a progressive family involved in communist and socialist movements in Iran, Marjane Satrapi first left the country when she was 15. Sent by her parents to Vienna, in order to flee the Iranian regime of the time, she returned after her school years to attend college in Tehran, where she studied visual communication. Later after moving to Strasbourg in France, and then Paris – where she now lives – Satrapi penned a series of award-winning autobiographical graphic novels describing her childhood in Iran. It led to the animated film Persepolis, which she co-wrote and directed with Vincent Paronnaud. The film played in competition in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, tying for the Jury prize with Silent Light.

Q: You co-wrote and directed with Vincent Paronnaud on this. How was that?

A: It was great. We were sharing the same studio, and we were laughing together, having a nice time together – we knew each other very well. So when I wanted to make this movie, I said, ‘Do you want to make the movie together?’ And he said, ‘Yes!’ We started working together – he’s a great artist. He has lots of talent. And this is really the movie that we made…though it’s extremely difficult to say who made what. Both of us made everything. He would say something. I would say something. And it was the result of lots of research and discussions we had together.

Q: Did Vincent have any animation or film experience?

A: No, he made one short movie before that. But it was a five-minute movie, and has nothing to do with what we did. I didn’t want to work him because of some technical competence – because he didn’t have any! It was for his experience and talent that I wanted to work with him. It’s a great deal to work with him – I really enjoyed it.

Q: How did you find the process of directing animators?

A: I always thought directing an animated movie would see me go there two times a week, yell at everybody and then they do the work and I become rich and famous! Well, this is bullshit. It doesn’t happen. If you want quality, what happens is that you have to be there before everybody. The whole time, people working with you have questions. You have to be there to answer to them. So that means the time you have for doing your own work as a director is when everybody else is gone. That means late at night and during the weekends – so that was how it was.

Q: How did you approach directing the animation?

A: The voices of the actors were taped before. So first of all, the animators had something to listen to, so it would give some indication…but then also, each character I played them in front of the animator. And they filmed it, so they had a reference how the character should move.

Q: Where was the studio based? Paris?

A: Yes, we created a studio – it stayed for two years and then it disappeared. Purely for this project. It was called ‘Perseprod’. We rented this huge place, in the very centre of Paris, in the Tenth District. And a team of one hundred people came there. So then we started to make the movie – at the beginning, we tried to keep it clean but by the end, the office looked like a gypsy camp! My studio has always been like a gypsy camp. I always work in the middle of lots of crap! Things were hanging everywhere, people were making tea and coffee right by where they worked…it was a whole mess. And then we finished it, and the studio disappeared with us.

Q: So you don’t hold any ambitions then to run an animation company?

A: No, I’m not a very good financing person. To be the director of an animation company is not for me! I don’t even know how much money I have in my bank account. I never have opened one single envelope from the bank – they freak me out! I always say to myself, ‘If I don’t have any more money, they will call me, or my card will not work anymore!’

Q: Why was it done in French?

A: It was not possible to do it otherwise. Imagine you have one hundred French people working with you…they have to listen to the voices to make the animation. Imagine, they’re speaking Persian. First of all, it will be very difficult for them to make the lips synch. And they won’t understand what they’re talking about. Technically, it’s just very impossible to do it. To find one hundred Persian-speaking animators based in France!

Q: How difficult was it to get Catherine Deneuve to voice a character? Were you nervous?

A: Very easy. I knew that she liked me. I knew from other sources. We sent her the script and she liked it. It was not very difficult. And she was a true professional…I was very scared of Deneuve. I was drinking cognac after cognac beforehand to stay calm. But then you have to also be a professional. She’s there to play and role and you are there to direct her.

Q: And why did you choose Deneuve’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni?

A: Actually, I didn’t chose her. She chose us. This role that she has is very difficult. She has to do the narration, and then be an adolescent and then an adult. It’s a lot of roles she has. And she was in the house of her mother, and saw the script – she was already familiar with the book, so she called me. She’s a very shy person – I don’t know how that happened – but she asked if she could try out.

Q: How did you decide what events to take from your graphic novels for the film?

A: I didn’t decide to put them in the script. It just happened this way. It was a situation where I had the possibility of making the movie and I could do it the way I wanted. So I just took the chance of making it. But it was not a big wish of mine to make the movie – it just happened.

Q: How did it come about then?

A: A friend of mine, who wanted to become the producer, and I, we just started working on it, but very seriously. Then the budget was there, and so we started it. But I never had a plan of making the movie. If I hadn’t had this friend who wanted to become the producer, probably I would never have made it. Making a movie was not the next step…as an artist, I had the possibility of doing something else, but it was not for me, not the next step. I don’t think making a movie is more exciting than making comics.

Q: Did you not think it was the logical step, once the idea was suggested to you?

A: No! If it’s a logical step, that means the comic comes before the film, and that means the film is a better medium than the comics – if it’s a logical step.

Q: Did you not think it would help you reach a wider audience?

A: It’s not a way I think about working. I never think about how many people I will reach. I just want to make honest work, where I can enjoy myself, tell stories and do it the best way I can. Of course, the public is important to me. But I want the public to understand what I do. I’ve made murals in my life, I’ve written articles, I’ve done press illustrations, I’ve made things for fashion magazines…and this was a time that I could make the movie, so I made it. There was nothing calculated in it. This is not the ‘next step’ – if you talk about steps, then the next step comes after the first step. You cannot say it otherwise. It’s not a progression. Not at all. Not at all. This is part of a large creation that I made, but it’s not that making a movie is a progress – not at all. I could’ve started with the movie and then made comics.

Q: So you see them as different stories?

A: No, it is the same story. The film is not a comic book. I have a camera and I have film. It’s based on the same material, and based on the same character, but out of this first material we made a completely different narration that has nothing to do with this first one. So since the story is the same, of course you can say it’s the same story. But at the same time, the books and the movie and very, very different. It’s two different narrations from the same story.

Q: How much is based on your life in the film?

A: It’s the story of a life but it’s not my life story. Of course, it’s not a documentary about my life. It’s based on my experiences, but you should never forget the part of storytelling in the story. It’s not just, ‘This is how my life was’. Of course, when you make a story you have to emphasise some stuff. You have to create a story. Then in each scenario, you always have to have a direct line. You can’t just go in any direction. So the turning point in this movie is the exile – with somebody who is extremely nostalgic about where they came from. The whole story is about someone who goes into an airport and cannot go back to her country. So she sits in the airport and remembers what she’s gone through. This is the turning point. It means that everything can’t be there – it’s just a one-and-a-half hour movie.

Q: So you wouldn’t consider this an autobiography?

A: No, I don’t like that term. An autobiography is a book that people write to solve the problems with people around them. With their family and friends – they don’t dare to say things to them, so they decide to write in revenge! That is not what I did. It’s based on my experiences, and I use myself as the protagonist to be able to talk about the world around me. It’s a very subjective point of view. I didn’t want it to become a movie with the pretensions to become this lesson of history, of politics, of sociology. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a politician. I’m not a historian. I’m one person. If you start with one person, this one person is very universal. If you want to make a history lesson, or politics, there is nothing less universal than these things. Tolstoy used to say ‘If you want to talk to the world, write about your village.’ This is the way it is.

Q: So if this was a Hollywood movie, it would say ‘Inspired by a true story’?

A: Yes, but I don’t like this whole idea. The truth should be found in the magazine, the newspaper, and on TV and radio. That is beauty of information. But not with fiction – that is a story and that’s it. What I am looking for is to ask the question, not to give the answer. I’m trying to show a certain aspect of reality. I’m not in the search for what is the truth and what is not the truth. Just to give you an example, in the movie you see this bomb that explodes in the neighbourhood and it kills the neighbour. This story has actually happened, but it didn’t happen when I was 12. It happened when I was 18. Of course, that happened, and the feeling I had from it…but it didn’t happen at the time when I was describing it. So at the same time it’s not true, but at the same time it is the truth.

Q: I like the scene where the main character is into Iron Maiden. Were you?

A: Oh, yes! I was very much into Iron Maiden – I’m not anymore!

Q: Do you think westerners will be surprised by this revelation?

A: Westerners are surprised by lots of things. Such as we’re human beings just like them. But it’s a good surprise, at the same time.

Q: How long is it since you were in Iran? And do you wish you could go back?

A: Eight years. It’s a question of distance. I have the life that I want. I live where I want. I do the work I want. And if I complain, then what do the rest of the people do? As a human being, you have to have a little bit of distance.

Q: Do you know if this has been seen in Iran?

A: They told me that there are DVDs. One guy has been filming it with his mobile phone! I have been told, but I don’t know more than that.

Q: What about the books?

A: Well, I don’t go back…of course my friends say, ‘Oh, they love you!’ But these are my friends – they wouldn’t say anything to the contrary.

Q: What has been the reaction in America?

A: People have been very nice. My books, the place in the world where they sold the most was in America. So I’m used to the American audiences. There are many normal Americans – they’re not ignorant, dumb people.

Q: Would you prefer that this is not seen as a political film?

A: I think that people who see the politics need to find an answer – and they want to give me a responsibility that I don’t have to have. I’m not a politician. But I cannot stop people thinking what they want.

Persepolis is released on 25th April, for more information on the film please visit the website - www.persepolismovie.co.uk
Author: Graeme Clark.


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