Discussing Persepolis with Writer and Director Marjane Satrapi
by Alex Billington
January 14, 2008
Back in early December I was given the opportunity to meet Persepolis' Iranian writer and director Marjane Satrapi and quickly jumped at the opportunity. Not only had a heard great things about the indie animated film, but I knew it would be a unique opportunity unlike anything else. Leading up to the interview I finally got the chance to watch Persepolis and loved it. To be honest, I really hope it goes on to win the animation Oscar, because it truly deserves it. Not only is it a very powerful political film, but it's funny and animated incredibly. In my interview, Marjane and I discuss everything from politics to abortion to the culture of underground comics to her obsession with art and perfection, and it's a worthwhile read for anyone interested in cinematic art.
In a way, Persepolis is a memoir of Marjane's own life, recalling her experiences growing up in Iran and in Europe. As IMDb describes, Persepolis is a "poignant coming-of-age story of a precocious and outspoken young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution." The film was absolute amazing, and it achieved way more than I expected. When you think of animation you have a particular mindset, this goes well above and beyond that. It was an honor to chat with not only the film's inspiration, but creator, writer, and director.
So I just watched your movie on Monday, and I've got to say I loved it. It was a little bit out of the ordinary, not what I typically think of when going into an animated movie, but in the end I still loved it, it was great.
Marjane: Well you know, I mean people they think that animation is a style. Animation is just a technique. It's like people they think that comics is a style, like comics is a superhero story. Comic is just a narration, and is a medium, you can say any kind of story in comics and you can say of any kind of story in animation. Unfortunately it has been a little bit perverted, like animation is just for kids, etc. In the old days, it was not such a thing, between animation and a movie. I mean, this is a movie that happens that is drawn, like comic is a book that happens that has drawings.
But we have a big problem with drawing in general, for two main reasons. The first reason is that all the people, they draw under the age of 10, and then at the age of 10, it's kind of this natural selection that is made, that only the real artists have the right to continue drawing. So for 99.9% of the people, drawing is something before the age of 10, so it's for children. This is the first thing. The second thing, is that in our educational system, we learn very quickly how to talk to about an author, for example. The poet wanted to say that, the author. But we don't know how to talk about a drawing. What is the value of a drawing? What makes it that one drawing is good and another is not good. So since we don't have the true nature, we don't know how to approach it.
But in the other hand, the first language of the human being has been drawing, before writing, before talking. To go over their fears, they started drawing. So this is this whole paradox. And I'm very happy to hear that, because people go to watch the movie and they say, 'after 10 minutes I forgot it was an animation' and that was exactly what I wanted. Because for me animation is just a technique. It's like saying, well this is a kind of black and white movie. Well, what is a black and white movie? You can say any story in black and white or in color or in Technicolor or I don't know what. This is just a technique.
Can you give us your background, because you started out as a comic book artist, right?
Marjane: My real background was in art studies. At the beginning I was a painter than I was this graphic designer, then I became an illustrator, then I was a comic artist. But for me it's a different way of expression, a different field of art. They're not separated, everything for me is related. It's not like since I make comics I only read comics and since I make movies I will only go out and watch movies. Any kind of artistic expression interests me, it goes from literature to music to sculpture, painting; whatever is extremely inspiring for me becomes a reference also for me. It's not a line drawn between the two.
So how did Persepolis get made and how did it get to this point? How did it go from making the graphic novels to getting into the movie stage?
Marjane: Well, the think is that it happened at one period of my life. I had the possibility of making a movie because they proposed it to me. I could make something without making a compromise. I could make it in France, in Paris with my best friend. I could make an animation in black and white, hand drawn. I had the possibility of doing it. It would've been very stupid to say no to that. And I didn't know where I was putting my feet, because it's not because you're a good cartoonist that you become a good movie-maker. But the thing is that I knew that and being aware of that solved lots of problems. I knew that it was dangerous and I was humble enough.
I was all the time asking question, I didn't know anything. And I learned I should be doing it by doing it. But like everything else that I do. And knowing that, asking yourself the right question, not being scared to work, remake and remake and remake, always remake everything – helps. So at the end we… it's just if you like to tell stories you have a good sense of rhythm, you have a not too bad cinematic culture, you have seen lots of things, it helps also. Then you need a little bit of a talent, but all of that is like 20% of it. And 80% is hard work, you have to work. The more you work, then the more you realize. So, we worked. So this was the way it happened.
Do you think it was important to tell this story from a political standpoint at this time right now?
Marjane: I don't think it is a political standpoint. On the contrary, I think it's extremely humanistic. It's a human point of view. The politic is in the background, because the politic is in the background of everything. Just see today, today every movie that is made about teenagers or about the subject of abortion, for example. You don't have one single movie that says abortion is a good idea, which people they have been fighting for that, to be able to have the abortion. You don't have one single movie that shows that is a possibility. And in all the movies, it's not a good idea and at the end the girl has the baby and it's very nice. Why? Because we are living in a very conservative time. You don't see the politic directly in this movie, but there are politics in this movie.
For me, these are neo-conservative movies that go with the religious culture, being against liberalism, to condemn women that make abortion. This is very political without showing it. I show honestly, the politic that is in the background, because you have to situate your story somewhere. And at the same time I make it in animation, because the drawing is more abstract and it can be anywhere and it can be anyone, because of this abstraction.
What I love about Persepolis is that the story has the human characteristics and that that is still being told at this time with everything going on the Middle East, it's such a great thing to see.
Marjane: Well yes, but we started the movie 3 and a half years ago and that was not a question of Iran at this time. Of course I am the fruit of the time I an living in. But you know, Deer Hunter that was a movie that was made just after the Vietnam War and it was very well at the time it was made. The good thing about this movie is that 30 years after you can watch this movie and it has not taken one wrinkle, because it's a good movie. I mean, it belongs to this time, but it's not a leaflet that you read and you throw away. Political movies are always like that, like this statement. I'm not making a statement because I'm not giving any answer, I'm just asking questions, like they do in Deer Hunter. It's just, the guy is like, what would you do? He's not saying, this is good, this is not good, he's showing a situation. That is what I tried to do. And I hope that in 20 years, out of this political context, I think this movie is still going to be a good movie. Because before being in its time, we tried to make an artistic project.
I'm not a politician because I'm an artist. Politicians have a very easy answer for a very complicated question. I have a very complicated question for what you consider very easy situations. So this is just the contrary.
You touched on this briefly, but in that whole realm, can you explain why you chose to go with black and white?
Marjane: Well, you know, [Vincent Paronnaud] and I, both of us, we come from underground comics, in which for economical reason, you work in black and white. Because printing in black and white costs less than in color. So this is something we're used to. Plus that is an aesthetical point of view, because I really love the aesthetic of black and white, whether it be for movies or for photos or whatever, I like that. So it was an obvious choice. I'm not a black and white freak, but you know…
And also in this movie, because of all this different kind of narration that we have. Some scenes that don't seem realistic, the meeting with God and Carl Marx, and the normal family scene, etc. Not only the animation, but the black and white, helped us to go from one narration to the other one and keeping a coherence from the beginning to the end. So what was a minus was considered something not as easy at the beginning, at the end became a plus, it became a big help to us.
I noticed there were a couple of really prominent mentions of cinema and movies. You had Bruce Lee in the beginning and then Godzilla and I thought I saw Terminator.
Marjane: Yes I know, but these are not what I think are the best things that they had made. Like the music, 'Eye of the Tiger', I don't think that Survivor is the best music band in the whole world, but these are very specific of a time. It situates you in a time, it situates you in one culture at one period of time. So there are things also that are known everywhere around the world. I mean, Bruce Lee anywhere, everybody knows him. From Africa to Asia to America, everybody knows him. Godzilla is the same thing. 'Eye of the Tiger' everybody knows it. So it helps you to situate the action. You have the feeling of when it has happened with having to push the thing on it. And that's just the references of pop culture and this is a pop movie in a way.
Since this is a memoir of your own childhood…
Marjane: It's not so much of a memoir, I always say that. This is a perversity of the reality show that all of us we want to have the reality. I base myself on my own experience. It's not a documentary about my life. I have based myself on that, and then you should never forget the part of the storytelling – of course I have never met God and Carl Marx in the sky, for example. But you know, the part of storytelling is very important.
I was also going to ask, how strictly does it follow your own life story?
Marjane: That is my own experiences and it's based on that, and what is true and what is not true? Who cares! I'm not here to say this is the story of my life and give me the money because I am this nice girl. I say this is a story of this girl who called Marjane and I have never pretended the contrary of that. We're not making an interview on 60 Minutes about me. This is just based on my own experiences and then what is true and what is not true and what I did and what I did not, this is own my own secret, of course I will not say it to you. It's like asking a chef give me the recipe of your food. Of course I won't give it to you, then you will go out and make the same thing about your childhood in Denver. And that will be the end of my business, I won't do it!
Can you talk about the process of converting your graphic novel to film and how that went?
Marjane: Well, what we did is we actually read the book, and we forgot about the book. We just took the character. And then knowing that there are two completely different narrations, we just took elements of that and we made it into the movie. That's why, the book and the movie, they're very similar and at the same time they're extremely different, and that's the whole paradox of the thing. Because it's not the same language, it's not the same narration; you cannot approach it the same way. The comic is like the story board for a movie. The story board is part of the procedure of making a movie. The comic is an achievement in itself – it's two different things. The relationship with the media is not the same thing. When you read the comic, you as a reader are very active, because unlike literature where you have to imagine everything, here you have the frame and you have the images. When you are watching a movie in the theater you are completely passive. And then you have the soundtrack, you have the music, you have the movement, you have the whole thing, so they're not the same at all. They are like a false cousin. So, we were aware of that.
There were a lot of moments in the movie where I thought the visuals or the style of what happened in the scenes came before the story (in the filmmaking process), and I'm assuming that wasn't exactly the case?
But is that something… There are just so many great visual scenes—
Marjane: Yes, but we thought a lot about it. Both Vincent and I are visual artists, so of course we work these things a lot, and that's why… This movie cost $8 million, you can imagine it's not a big deal. The thing is that with Vincent and I, coming from the underground, and being good drawers, whatever we needed that you couldn't have, we filled up the holes by ourselves. We just made the storyboard, we created all the characters, everything we did ourselves, because we are used to working a lot. We are looking for quality. It's not because they pay me more that I will make a better work. I like to do a nice work, otherwise I don't like to do it at all.
For me, these people, 'yea, I have a camera, I will make that, and I will call myself an artist.' If you're an artist the first thing is to have a professional dignity – try to do your best. If you don't try to do your best, then you can just go out and sell cars and it's better. This conviction for me, art is beautiful, and I want it to be sublime. I want to be sublime when I do the thing. I have to have the satisfaction myself. If I don't do that, why do that at all? If it's just a question of money and all of that, I better go and sell stocks, it could bring me much more money.
I worked the same way when I was working in underground comics. I always did the best I could, it was not a question of money. Either I had to do that or I would have died. I didn't have so much choice. I tried to, I tried to do other jobs. I was good at nothing. I was hired once in my life. They kicked me out after 40 minutes.
Marjane: Yea, 40 minutes! I asked them to pay for 40 minutes and they refused. Nasty people.
Haha. So would you say your true calling is comics and graphics?
Marjane: It's just a question of considering art as art. We have to do the best we can, in visual art or whatever. It's not only the idea, it's also the handicraft side of it – it's to be able to make it. You have to be creative with your hands, this is very important for me. It's not just, yea I will make this… That's why I didn't make even one compromise on this movie. Anytime any person say 'oh, nah nah' and I was like, 'ok, then I don't make it anymore.' I'm not dying of making the movie. Either I make the movie I want, or I don't make it at all! At the end it paid.
I'm obsessed at the quality. I'm so obsessed you know… The last months of making the movie, me, myself – I touched up more than 8000 frames one-by-one, taking the small dust off of it. Which on a 35mm copy you never see, but the imperfection of the 35mm plus the imperfection of the movie it makes it too much. So they were saying, nobody can see it. And I was like, I can see it! And this is enough. If I can see it, I just can't do it. So the last months before the thing, I slept one hour per night.
Well it really paid off.
Marjane: Yea! I'm obsessed! This is it, I'm an obsessional part. And I think in art, if you are not obsessional, then you should not do it. If you just want to make, [motions with hands] you know, then go do something else! I can cut my vein for something to look beautiful. And I never worked better. No matter what they give me, that it would be something…
I remember one year ago, Jordan magazine called me and said, yea we want an illustration. And I said, I don't have time. And they told me, even something quick. And I said listen, the day that I will make something quick, maybe I can make it quickly, but the result should be there. Maybe I can not have the result after 10 days, it comes or it doesn't it. The day that I just make something quick just to put the signature on this thing I will commit suicide or I will stop doing what I do. And I'm not able to do that. If I do, it, I will try to do my best or I will not do it at all. And I call that, it's being professional, this is not more than that. You have to be professional.
Speaking of success, what has your reaction been to how well this has been perceived?
Marjane: I was very happy, because when I imagine you make your work… First movie, black and white, animation, un-sexy subject, it goes to the Cannes Film Festival official selection, gets a Special Jury Prize, goes to all the festival, gets prize, blah blah blah. Nominated for the Independent Spirit Award. You know, I'm like, this is great! At the same time, I have worked so much and done so much promotion, that I have not understood really what has happened.
Well I guess you'll see eventually in time because it's not even out in theaters yet, really.
Marjane: Well, the good thing, when they have prizes at these things, it's not so much that I have this something that I will say 'wow, this is cool.' This is cool 24 hours after, then you get used to it. Especially that most of the awards are really ugly. I don't know why they make it bigger… Anyway!
The thing is that the award just helped me next time that I will make another project. All the awards I have in my life, it's the same thing. Instead of losing my time to say to people I know what I'm doing, if I can not lose my time talking to people and concentrate on my own work, this is the best. So it helped me just to save some time. And to concentrate on my own work, this is the only thing I ask. Just let me do my work and I try to do my best. And I'm not this very artistic thing that only elite people will see. I made comics because I love popular arts. I like that everybody can watch, etc. This has always been my thing. So the movie that I make I don't think that it's because it's intelligent that only an elite can see. Of course, the more you are international the more you'll understand things, but if you don't know anything, you'll understand some other stuff.
Thank you to Marjane Satrapi and everyone at Sony Pictures Classics for the opportunity to interview one of the most creative and artistically inclined individuals working in film. Be sure to check out Persepolis in the theaters in your local town when and/or if it plays there!