Urban Cinefile
"I remember entering a break-dancing competition here. I wasn't the best break-dancer, but they knew I was from the United States, so they gave me a trophy! "  -Leonardo DiCaprio remembering his early years in Germany
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



A silent movie in the style of 1920s Hollywood has captured the imagination of both the film biz and audiences. And no wonder: it is a romantic yet bitter sweet story – and unique in today’s movie world. Here is an Insider’s Guide to the making of The Artist.

It was during the making of OSS 117 – Nest of Spies in 2005 that writer/director Michel Hazanavicius first mentioned his dream about making a silent movie to that film’s stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (Michel's wife). “We thought it was wonderful madness; we never imagined such a project could ever be achieved,” Bejo acknowledges.

"silent movie story"

When Hazanavicius finally set to work on his silent movie story, he wrote the roles of George Valentin and Peppy Miller with Dujardin and Bejo in mind, certain they would excel in the format. “Jean is as good in close-ups, with his facial expressions, as he is in long shots, with his body language,” he comments. “Not all actors are good with both; Jean is. He also has a timeless face that can easily be ‘vintage.’ Bérénice has that quality, too. She exudes freshness, positivity, goodness. I thought viewers would easily accept the idea that she would stand out from the crowd and become a big star in Hollywood. George Valentin and Peppy Miller are, in a way, Jean and Bérénice fantasised by me!”

Dujardin knew that the filmmaker had been researching the silent era and watching numerous films, but he had little idea of what to expect when Hazanavicius gave him the screenplay for The Artist. “He handed it to me, slightly feverish: ‘Read this, but don’t laugh, do you think it’s possible? What do you think of it? Would you be ready to do it?’” the actor remembers. “I read it in one sitting. My first thought was that it was really gutsy to have pursued his fantasy all the way. As was the case with each of Michel’s scripts, I thought it was really well written, with everything perfectly in place. Up until then, we’d made comedies where we had a lot of fun with characters and situations. The Artist had comedy and action, yet it was full of emotion. I was touched by all it said about cinema, its history and actors. I loved the premise, the meeting between George Valentin and Peppy Miller, the story of crossed destinies.”

"It’s as if he was only an image, a face on a poster"

Dujardin was moved by the transformation George undergoes as he grapples with the arrival of sound. “At first George doesn’t ask himself a lot of questions. He’s not arrogant, but he’s sure of himself, confident in the charm that he assumes so easily,” the actor remarks. “George is very showy, always acting. It’s as if he was only an image, a face on a poster. Then, little by little, this confidence, this lightness starts to crack. He starts sliding towards the bottom. Luckily, there’s an angel watching over him. At the end he is not a photo but a man -- only a man. I liked this path.”

Bejo is Hazanavicius’s partner and so had the closest view of the story’s development and evolution. She reports that Peppy Miller began life as an incidental character, less central to the story than the dog who is George’s best friend. Remembers Bejo, “Michel told me, ‘There will be a girl who will appear here and there. It will only be a small part but I’d really like you to do it.’ I would joke, ‘Even the dog has a bigger part than me!’ Later, Michel told me, ‘it’s strange when you write: you create characters, a story, but at a given point they become stronger than the hand that writes them.’ The story of this silent movie star became a love story between him and this young extra. From version to version, Peppy Miller gradually became more and more important.”

"that’s how they climb the ladder and become stars"

Bejo found much to admire in the fledgling actress. “I liked Peppy right away; she stimulated me. When you do improv you’re taught never to say no and take everything that is offered to you, accept it and play with it. Peppy applies this rule throughout her life; she has fun with everything. Stars often have that quality. They’re not where they are by coincidence: they have enormous self-confidence, they grab what’s available to them, that’s how they climb the ladder and become stars. But Peppy’s not in any way calculating. She’s a good person, and doesn’t forget where she came from. And she doesn’t forget George.”

The casting process moved to Los Angeles, where Hazanavicius worked with casting agent Heidi Levitt. John Goodman was approached to play Al Zimmer, the studio chief who walks the line between coddling and corralling his contract stars. The actor liked the script, and a meeting was arranged at his agent’s office. Remembers Hazanavicius, “We talked for a few minutes. Then John said, ‘Okay. I’ve never seen a movie like this and I want to be part of it.’ I said, ‘Okay’ and that was it!”

Another key addition to the cast was James Cromwell, who plays Clifton, George’s trusted and steadfast chauffer. A native of Los Angeles, Cromwell is a child of the movie business; both parents, as well his grandmother and stepmother, worked in the industry. “My father arrived in Hollywood at the advent of the sound era and became a director in the 30s. My mother was DeMille’s leading lady when he first moved into sound pictures,” the actor remarks. Prior to meeting with Hazanavicius, Cromwell reviewed a presentation book the filmmaker had put together that included detailed storyboards. “The book was wonderful. Michel had put a lot of thought into how exactly he would make this movie, and had a very clear vision. To me, the project was too good to pass up, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t.”

"a formality to their relationship"

Cromwell describes the chauffeur as a steady, reassuring presence in George’s life. “Clifton is more than a chauffeur. He’s really George’s right-hand man and he cares for him a lot,” says Cromwell. At the same time, there is a formality to their relationship that is true to the period and true to Clifton’s nature. “Clifton is old-school: gentlemanly, quiet, unobtrusive, sympathetic, handy and dependable.”

Hazanavicius also sought out actress Penelope Ann Miller, who portrayed silent movie actress Edna Purviance in the biopic CHAPLIN with Robert Downey Jr. In CHAPLIN, Miller had played silent scenes recreating portions of Chaplin’s work, and she was intrigued by the notion of acting in a feature-length silent. The period setting also held great appeal to the actress, a lifelong movie buff who is extremely knowledgeable about Hollywood cinema history. She gravitated to the part of Doris, George’s increasingly disaffected wife. “I saw a lot of emotion to work with in Doris,” says Miller. “At the point where we come into the movie, there’s clearly some tension in the marriage. Doris is a proud woman, upright, and it’s very important to her to keep up the appearance of a stable marriage. They’ve grown apart, but deep down, Doris still loves George, and still wants him to adore her. I think she’s suffering as a result of that.”

The Artist was an unusual casting proposition in Los Angeles: a film without dialogue and only a handful of supporting roles, some quite small. Nonetheless, the film attracted an ensemble of accomplished, well-known actors whose faces will be very familiar to American moviegoers. Among them: Missi Pyle, who plays Constance, an actress who is none too pleased when George upstages her; Beth Grant, who plays Peppy’s maid; Ed Lauter, who plays Peppy’s butler; Ken Davitan, who plays a pawnbroker; Joel Murray, who plays a policeman; and Bitsie Tulloch, who plays George’s co-star in a jungle adventure.
Veteran star Malcolm McDowell heard about the production and requested a meeting with Hazanavicius. “I only had a very small part to offer him, almost an extra, and he was delighted!” marvels the filmmaker. “I really had tremendous good fortune with the entire cast.”


The Artist is Hazanavicius’ third film with director of photography Guillaume Schiffman, who shot both OSS comedies. “With Guillaume, it’s more than just collaboration,” Hazanavicius remarks. “We’ve done films together, we’ve done ads together, and we know each other very well. As soon as I had the idea of The Artist, I talked to him about it. I gave him tons of films to watch and he did a lot of professional research about the techniques, cameras and lenses of the time. The idea was the same for all us, on both sides of the camera: do some research; nourish ourselves; understand the rules thoroughly in order to be able to forget them at the end.”

Hazanavicius had storyboarded the entire screenplay for The Artist, and during pre-production he and Schiffman spent countless hours looking at these blueprints and discussing their options. In a black and white silent movie, lighting and color scale become critical tools of the storytelling, Schiffman points out. “Because there’s no dialogue, light has to tell you something, the shadows have to tell you something. Michel told me how he envisaged the story, how he was going to play with the blacks and whites, shadow and light, and a lot of grays. What is fascinating about Michel is that he never loses sight of the story he wants to tell. You can’t produce only beautiful images and lose the audience in the process.

The goal isn’t to make the audience go ‘Wow!’ at each shot but to captivate them and, in this case, to move them.”

"a rare creative opportunity"

Schiffman describes the film as a rare creative opportunity. “A black and white movie; 1.33 format; 20s and 30s style: it’s a dream come true for a cinematographer. What a pleasure to revisit this moment of cinema history, particularly today, when we are moving towards digital supremacy.” As pre-production got underway in Los Angeles, news of The Artist spread quickly in the film community. 

The black and white style and period setting offered interesting and unusual work for all the industry’s trades: set design, costume design, hair and makeup, camera, electric, etc. Hazanavicius was delighted to find himself surrounded by some of best and most experienced professionals in Los Angeles, all of them eager to contribute. “Everyone got very excited,” the filmmaker smiles. “I think people appreciated the fact that this was a movie about their profession. People from the camera department offered to make special lenses, old projectors were pulled out of closets … it was very special.”

One of the earliest hires was production designer Laurence Bennett, who has worked extensively with writer/director Paul Haggis on films including the Oscar-winning CRASH. Hazanavicius notes that he had very specific elements he wanted to incorporate into the film’s design, responsibilities that Bennett took on. “The Artist is about the fall of an actor, so I was always looking for locations with stairs. I wanted the actors to go down, and down, and down, sequence after sequence,” says Hazanavicius. “It’s the same with mirrors; it’s the idea of representation because George is an actor. There are always many George Valentins in the frame. Larry brought his own sensibility to the production design, while achieving all the very precise effects I asked him to create. He did a great job.”

"Music is an indispensable part of silent film storytelling"

Music is an indispensable part of silent film storytelling, serving variously as emphasis and counterpoint to the actions and emotions onscreen. For this critical element, Hazanavicius turned to his longtime collaborator Ludovic Bource, who has scored all the director’s films since his feature debut, 1998’s Mes Amies. Like the other collaborators working on the film, Bource did his homework, listening to scores by legendary Hollywood composers such as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Bernard Hermann; music written by Chaplin for his films; and the 19th Century composers whose work was the foundation of Steiner, et al. With that knowledge absorbed, Bource was then free to write the score that would help tell the story of The Artist. 

He began working on the score before production began, coming up with melodies and themes based on the screenplay and storyboards. Once production began, Hazanavicius sent him rushes on a regular basis. “I immersed myself in the rushes as they came in, and in the performances of Bérénice and Jean,” Bource remembers. “Watching these magnificent images as they arrived was very inspiring. The hardest thing, particularly with Jean’s character George, was to respect the combination of comedy and emotion. As a result, rather than pastiche or spoof, we worked - a bit like Chaplin - along the lines of a light sophistication. And for the tap dance sequence, I wrote music that was essentially big band/jazz, which was a pleasure.”

Work continued on the film’s music during the editing process, when Bource worked with Hazanavicius to refine the music and match it to the final scenes. Bource recorded the score in Brussels with the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra. Says Bource, “I recorded with 80 musicians: 50 string players, 4 French horns, 4 trombones, 5 percussionists who ran around all over the place, a harpist, 10 technicians, 5 orchestrators, 3 mixers – it was sublime. I was lucky enough to get marvellous people. They told me it had been a long time since they had felt this way while recording the music for a film. It was very moving and gratifying.”

Published February 2, 2012

Email this article

The Artist


Written & directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) enjoys his fame, he sparks with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young actress and dancer. George helps to give her a break with a reluctant Kinetone Studios boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman). As his career dims with the arrival of talkies, her star rises.

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020