Golshifteh Farahani and Mathieu Amalric in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s
Chicken with Plums.
Photo byPatricia Khan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In 2007, filmmaking team Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud earned global acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature for Persepolis, based on Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name. Their follow-up, the live-action Chicken with Plums, has received a similar level of critical acclaim since premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year. It’s currently playing in New York and it opens in Los Angeles on Friday, August 31st. The second part of a planned trilogy which includes Persepolis, Chicken with Plums is set in Tehran in 1958 and it continues Satrapi’s and Paronnaud’s interests in exploring the history of Iran in the last century as told through personal, fact-meets-fiction stories based on the lives of Satrapi and members of her family. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays Nasser Ali Khan, the greatest violinist in the world. When his violin is broken and no worthy replacement is to be found, Khan decides to lie in bed and give himself over to the Angel of Death. What unfolds is a stream-of-consciousness love story and a meditation on creativity and greatness told through dreams, hallucinations, and memories. I recently sat down with Marjane Satrapi in Los Angeles to talk about the film.

Jackson Truax: Chicken with Plums is then second part of a planned trilogy. How early did you know that Persepolis was going to be the first part of this trilogy, and how did you find the unique way in which the three films would interact with each other?

Marjane Satrapi: I didn’t know. The [ideas], they come. I made Persepolis. Then, at the time, I was having this story [Chicken with Plums] that was happening in the fifties. There’s another story that I really like that happens in the twenties. So it was really to recreate the history of a country. But through the eyes of one family… So, it came as an accident, just by working.

JT: Chicken with Plums isn’t a film as much about death, but rather an exploration of love and life and creativity and what pushes someone to be the world’s best at something. That said, the film opens with a character saying he wants to die and lying down waiting for death to come, and the journey unfolds from there. What made you feel comfortable taking that risk, going to such a dark place so early, and knowing the audience would stay with you?

MS: If I wanted to be sure that it would work, I should have killed him at the end of the film. But I said to myself…“It’s not so much about death. But death is part of life.” In the culture of today, you’re young, and then you’re not there anymore. You don’t even get old. Because you get plastic surgery… So you’re young. And then you disappear… Whether you want it or not, we are going to die. So it’s dark, yes. But is there anything I can do against it? If there was a formula, if I could drink some potion and I would never die, I would. But it’s not possible. So I said to myself, “If we talk about that from the beginning, then his death will not be the major point.” Now let’s celebrate his life. Let’s celebrate his art. Let’s celebrate his sentiment, his feelings, his history.

JT: Chicken with Plums is remarkably beautiful and touching. It feels like a very personal story, based on members of your extended family, but not based on you personally as Persepolis was. Is Chicken with Plums as personal a film for you? Did you feel as connected to the narrative as you were making it?

MS: Much more. Because when I write a story about myself, whether I want to or not, I will censor it. Because it’s me. And there are things I don’t want people to know about me. Even if I do it unconsciously, there are places that I won’t go. I will go until a certain level. But then there are things that become very personal. When I wrote this story, even when I wrote [the comic it’s based on], since the character is a male character…nobody will think it’s me. And it’s a story happening in the late fifties. I wasn’t even born… I think there is no story in which I talk so much about me as in this story. I can tell you, I really feel lots of connection with the main character. I am really unbearable. I’m a real asshole, like him. At the same time, I am very charming. He’s both. He’s very charming. But he’s a pain in the ass.

JT: In looking at what Chicken with Plums says about creativity and striving to become to greatest in the world at something, do you see yourself manifest in the character’s struggle in that regard?

MS: Creativity…I always say to the students when they say, “How do you know you have to do that?” At the time when I started [writing graphic novels], it was a question of death or life. When I don’t draw… I really cannot breathe. Physically I cannot breathe. Physically I cannot walk. Physically I have big problems if I don’t do it. So if you want to know if it’s for you or not, you have to ask yourself the question, “Can you survive without it or can’t you?” If you can survive without it, you might also do something else. But if you can’t, this is it. Of course, I don’t think you necessarily need to suffer to create. But at the same time, like when I’m very happy…when I wake up one morning and the sun is shining, it never occurs to me to go be in my studio and work. I go. I have drinks with my friends. I walk into town. I go shopping. These are the things that I do when I’m happy… When I make something, there should be something a little sour in me.

JT: In one of the bonus features of the Persepolis DVD, you said that you have no idea what Vincent did and what you did in making the movie, because there was so much overlap throughout the process. Is that the same feeling you have with making Chicken with Plums?

MS: Yeah, it’s the same. Because we prepare things so much in advance. We write the script together. There are so many things that we do in advance together. Of course, when we are on the set, he will work more with the camera and I will work more with the actors. But what he does, we have already discussed it. And what I do, we have already discussed it. So it’s extremely difficult to know who said what and when and how. It’s really the work of the both of us.

JT: But by the time you got on-set there was a clear division of labor?

MS: Yes. Because otherwise it became really painful for everyone. Because I’d say something to the actor. And then the second director comes and says something else. That won’t work. Especially since we had forty-six days of shooting. We didn’t have any big studio behind us who would give us extra money if we didn’t finish the shooting. Then you have to be pragmatic and go towards efficiency. So, for example, if I were to give some direction of acting and Vincent didn’t like it, he would say that to me. Or if he framed a shot and I didn’t like it, I would say it to him. But nobody ever knew.

JT: When you have an actor who is as central to a film as Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is to Chicken with Plums, that performance needs to be spectacular in order for the movie to work. What was your collaboration with him, and what did he bring to the filmmaking process that was unique?

MS: He’s a great actor. I really needed somebody with a fever in the eyes… His eyes are unreal… They can be very gentle but completely mad. He has this fire. He has this passion. He has the fever. And then, since he’s a very good actor, it was not very important to talk so much about what he had to do. He’s a very committed person. The first day, he told me, “I’m your soldier. No matter what you tell me, I will do it.” But just be precise. And that was it. When we talked, it was not so much about acting itself… I would tell him jokes. I would tell him things about life. We would have discussions that in appearance had nothing to do with the film itself. But it did. Because then you enter in a kind of atmosphere… He was so committed. You have to have a great actor. And he is one.

JT: The whole ensemble is a really world-class group of actors, including Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Maria De Medeiros (Pulp Fiction) and Jamel Debbouze (Days of Glory). Having not directed actors in Persepolis, was it a daunting thing to take on? Or was it easy when you have this cast of actors and they’re this good?

MS: I fell in love with my actors, really… Thank God, all of the people I had, they are not like divas at all. I had a friendly, cool relationship with all of them… And each of them is chosen, because I think they are the best for the role. It’s not because they’re a name. Most of the time they are famous because they’re great actors. It’s not Paris Hilton who is famous because she’s famous. It’s a famous actor who is famous because he’s great at acting… For me, it was very smooth and very natural. I was very amazed that the same person can give you the same feeling five times in a row. It can have the same intensity.

JT: Chicken with Plums is very non-linear and stream-of-consciousness. There’s a really beautiful emotional build-up throughout the film that crescendos with an incredibly engaging and bittersweet third act. How did you decide how to unfold the story in that way, first in the graphic novel and then in the film?

MS: When I write the book, I say something, and then right after, I immediately want to make a joke about it. Like, “His father, he’s going to say something about this, and then the child farts.” And then something else happens. I think this is a necessity. Because if you want to make a drama…you cannot have drama over drama. After awhile, the viewer of the film, he doesn’t care anymore. So I construct it and deconstruct it. I become a friend with the viewer of the film. The ten last minutes, when I really serve the drama…then I can ask him to believe in the drama. Because otherwise, you [ask], “Does she really believe in this thing?” No, I don’t really believe in this thing. But in the end, I believe that you can die because of love. In this moment, the viewer accepts that.

JT: You’ve talked about wanting certain things in your films to be abstract, because when something’s more abstract it can feel more universal. In an entire film overall or certain scenes, how do you navigate how abstract something can feel, while still keeping it rooted in the reality of the narrative?

MS: I’m sick of this world in which the Middle Easterners are [stereotyped]… In my life, having traveled a lot, having lived with all sorts of people, I realize that there are so many things that we have in common… Basically, human beings react the same way… For you to believe in my story, I have to situate it in a place. To make the shopkeeper sell opium, it has to be in Iran. If it’s Paris, then he will sell cognac. He will not sell opium. So you have to believe in this. So I place it in somewhere. At the same time, my goal is that somebody who sees this story, he could tell himself, “Oh, this story could have happened in Chicago, or in Paris, or in Munich, or wherever.” If I succeeded in that, than I think I have succeeded.

JT: With Persepolis, you said you wanted the film to go against stereotypes of Iran and of Iranians. Was that something you tried consciously to do with Chicken with Plums, and did you go about that differently with a narrative that feels less political?

MS: I see old journalists, not your age, but old journalists, that tell me, “The Iran that you are describing, we don’t know it.” I say, “Yes, you do. You know it. You knew it. But you forgot… You decided that we were just beards and nuclear weapons and veils.” Everyone has forgotten our poetry and our philosophy. Everything else is forgotten. The thing that is cogent for me, is that it’s extremely important to say, without wanting to be entered into a political manifest, is that in this country, for which you have so many prejudices, a man died because of love of a woman. This is possible also in this country. This is not the advantage of some Western culture. People fall in love everywhere.

JT: Where did your sense for the overall look of the film come from? Was it research of Tehran in that time period? Was it stories you heard growing up? Or your desire to give the film a more fable-istic feel?

MS: It’s a little bit of all of that… When you lie down and you remember your life, it’s never in a chorological way… You have pieces of things that come together, like you dream. There are some things that you remember that are very colorful, all the details are there. There are some things you remember, it’s completely blank. You don’t remember anything but the action… Then the big challenge was to put all of that together in the way that it does not look like a patchwork. So we had to work a lot on the transitions.

JT: Looking at the kaleidoscopic nature of the film’s visuals, there are references to Fellini, Bergman, Melies, along with sitcoms among other things. How did you decide that was the palate you wanted to use to tell this story?

MS: I don’t do it consciously. I don’t say, “Now I’m going to think about Michael Powell. And now I’m going to think about Bergman.” These are things that you see. In Persona by Bergman, you have these two people who are standing face-to-face in front of the camera and they talk to each other. In the moment that I’m doing it, I’m not thinking “I’m celebrating Bergman.” But that is a scene that I have seen that of course has influenced me. I would be a big liar to say, “Everything that is in the film, I have invented it.” Cinema has been invented already. All the movement of the camera, everything, it’s there… With everything that exists, is it possible to find your own language for telling your own story? That’s the most important thing. But the influences, they’re there. I’m a person that watches lots of movies. And I never watched them in an intellectual way. I’m never watching a movie saying, “I’m a director. How did he frame this?” But there are things that stay in me. Of course, whether I want them to or not, they jump out.

JT: Chicken with Plums is such an emotionally evocative film. Once people see it, is there anything in particular you’re hoping audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?

MS: I hope that the movie will talk for itself… I just wanted to make a beautiful love story. For me, a beautiful love story is a love story with a sad ending. Otherwise, they marry. Then they have the house in the suburbs with three dogs and two cars. This is the life of everyone. It’s not Romeo and Juliet. If Romeo and Juliet would have survived, it’s only because they could have gotten married.

2 Responses to ““Persepolis” filmmaker Marjane Satrapi on her second film “Chicken with Plums””

  1. And it IS a beautiful love story, no doubt about that! Saw this a few months ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, and loved it. It is absolutely kaleidoscopic and evocative, and I look forward to own it on blu-ray. Amalric is wonderful, as he was in DIVING BELL, and I count myself as a fan of PERSEPOLIS. Superb interview, Jackson, and a real feather in your cap!

  2. Sam, thanks so much for the kudos. I certainly agree with everything you said about the movie. It’s truly one of my favorites of the year so far. And yes, this interview was certainly a real feather in my cap, a highlight indeed.

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