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Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amélie, France’s official foreign language Academy entry for 2002, offers some extraordinary insights into the making of the film, from the original casting of Emily Watson to the first time he shot outside a studio (to capture Paris) and the reason he wants to make films that make people dream – and feel happy.

What frame of mind were you in after completing Alien 4 -The Resurrection and what moved you to make Amélie?
I recall that after Alien, I really wanted to return to France and get some friends together to make a "small" film! Because although Alien was an extraordinay adventure, it was also a huge weight to bear, actually, when Fox offered me the picture, I was already working on what was to become Amélie. I had plenty of ideas for scenes, situations, characters, many specific cravings but the trouble was finding the common denominator in all of that. Basically, I couldn't put my finger on what the film was about. That's where things stood when I went to Hollywood. When I came back, I picked my project up where I had left it.

Was it easy, at that point, to figure out what the film would be about?
No, not right away. All the anecdotes I'd been collecting were enough for four or five different films, but not just one! And then, as I mulled over all these ideas, it just dropped down, like a ripe fruit. Like something obvious. The common denominator was this girl, who decides to alter other people's lives. And all of a sudden, it just took off. Guillaume Laurant and I started writing. It was the first day of the World Cup, as I recall. From that point on, it was downhill all the way.

How did you meet Guillaume Laurant?
It's a wonderful cinema story. Back in the Delicatessen days, he was doing this and that. He'd written a screenplay -pretty much for the fun of it, as it was the adaptation of a book he didn't even own the rights to! After seeing Delicatessen, his girlfriend told him: "You should send your script to Caro or Jeunet". When he looked in the phone book, he found two Caros but only one Jeunet. So I was the one he sent it to. I read his screenplay and called him up to tell him I had read it and that's when I heard his really funny answering message. It made me want to meet him and that was that. Our relationship took off from there. He worked on the dialogue for The City of Lost Children. I even had him work on Alien when we were struggling to find an ending. He wrote one, but it didn't end up being the one used in the movie.

How would you say that you complement one another?
Our minds are very similar. But he leans more toward dialogue and I come up with more of the visuals. As far as ideas are concerned, even when the base is mine, our exchanges are like Ping- Pong. Amélie is full of ideas that come straight from him. The street prompter, for instance.

The film has an inventory quality, reminiscent of Prevert's work...
I love lists, I love collections. In fact, I collect collection themes! I used a few of them in the film: Nino collects concrete footprints or abandoned photo booth strips. F or a long time, I had a box where I would keep all these story fragments, all these ideas. I still do, but nowadays, as I am a somewhat rational person, I store all these ideas and lists in my computer. ..

Are these ideas entirely invented and imaginary or do some of them come from your life experience?
Both. The difficulty in making the film was selecting and gathering real life anecdotes and completely imaginary ideas. They couldn't be forced into the story, they had to be in keeping with the characters' personalities.

Presenting the characters in terms or "I like, I don't like" naturally calls to mind your shortfilm, Foutaises...
Yes, I've always done that. I have pages and pages of "I like, I don't like"... Using them is a delicate matter because they have to be very personal and yet they must reach everyone -and for Amélie, a visual quality was an added imperative. But it's a game I have a feel for. ..

What about the incredible television excerpts you placed in the film, where are those from?
The pleasure of seeing an image that transfixes you and leaves you slack-jawed is a collection in itself. A collection of magic instants. In the end, it's akin to the "I like, I don't like" concept. I collect these images in my mind, to a certain extent. I don't record them, as Amélie does. We therefore had to track them down for the film as well as find new ones. Thankfully, we were able to dip into Canal+'s Zapping...

Was your main character always named Amélie?
No, that happened somewhere along the way. I like to have an actor in mind when I write. So we searched for someone and told ourselves: "Hey, this could be Emily Watson's character in Breaking The Waves. That kind of candor and determination. So we started off with her in mind, just for working purposes. And then we asked ourselves: "Why not?" Furthermore, she had said in an interview, that she wanted to work with me. So we wrote the character for her and called her Emily. I then contacted Emily Watson. We met and she liked the script, We had several more meetings in Paris and London. We did readings in French and I realized that she would lose fifty percent of her talent that way, so I rewrote a version that began in England: the heroine grew up there before moving to Montmartre... She was still game. On the first day of pre-production, I get a call at home. It was Emily Watson calling to tell me that she had decided, for personal reasons, not to do the film. She didn't want to leave her home for six months, it was too long. Back to square one! We rewrote the script in order for it to take place entirely in Montmartre. And the name stayed, Except that Emily became Amélie. I began casting in France and one day, as I walked past a poster, I was struck by a pair of dark eyes, a flash of innocence, an unusual demeanor: it was Audrey Tautou on the poster for Vénus Beauté. I set up a meeting. She tried on the part. After ten seconds, I knew she was the one.

Where, in your opinion, lies her greatest quality?
She is a real pleasure to work with. Not only is she perfect for the part, but she is also a true character actress, which is quite rare in France. In addition to that, she has an acute sense of cinematography and pacing, And she's only 23!

Did the rest of the casting proceed as smoothly? For instance, were you quickly drawn to Mathieu Kassovitz for the part of the "Prince Charming"?
Yes, pretty quickly. ..There aren't hundreds of romantic leads in France. Not only is he an incredibly charming, remarkable actor, but he also possesses an amazing asset: the camera loves him. He and I get along very well and what’s more he is a very good director, which prompts us to have great discussions about films.

This is the first time that you shot outside a studio. Why?
Because sooner or later, I needed to get out of there! And the story was right for it, I wanted Paris to be there, at the heart of the picture. But, like Kurosawa, I believe that "every shot should be like a painting", I cannot help but be "aesthetic", I searched in Parisian imagery for everything that appeals to me, stuff one finds in Tardi's comic strips. He and I are drawn to the same things: elevated metro trains, certain monuments, staircases, burrstone buildings. All my location scouting was done in that vein. Then, we cleared the streets of all cars, cleaned the graffiti off the walls, replaced posters with more colorful ones, etc. Let's just say I tried to exert as much control as I could upon the city's aesthetic quality. And working with digital post-production was great because we were able to make rectifications all the way to the last moment, to the final frame.

Did shooting on location change the way you work?
No, not fundamentally, In any case, what I can now say is that I definitely don't like it! (laughs) I can't get accustomed to the idea that I can't control everything. On location, there's always a car parked in the wrong place, a guy who pops into the frame or makes noise nearby. Something always goes wrong. All of that drives me crazy! Time is money. And in order not to waste time, I prepare extensively. So losing an hour or two because of unforeseen elements is not in the least bit amusing to me, not in the least bit!

This is the first time you work with Bruno Delbonnel as director of photography, rather than Darius Khondji...
Darius was unavailable. Bruno is my oldest pal, we've known each other for 25 years. When we shot Delicatessen, he hadn't yet made it to camera operator, so he missed out on all three films. But in the meantime, I've shot ads and clips with him. So as soon as I found out that Darius couldn't do it, I seized the opportunity to hire Bruno. I was a bit tense. he is my best friend so if things hadn't gone well, this would have placed us in a delicate situation! But it turned out above and beyond my greatest hopes.

Yann Tiersen composed the music . . .
I had something else in mind and then one day a production assistant drove me somewhere and put on a CD I didn't know, which I found absolutely superb. It was a piece by Yann Tiersen. By that evening, I owned all his records! I met him and right away, we got along very well. Over the course of two weeks, he composed nineteen pieces for us! In addition to that, he allowed us to take anything we wanted from his other records. The hard part was making a selection, because all his tracks worked with the film's images!

On the set, you said Amélie is a film "that makes people happy". What moves you to want to make people happy today?
It might have something to do with a personal evolution. By the age of forty seven, there are things one learns to live with. And one doesn't necessarily want the same things as before. The City of Lost Children is a rather dark film, much darker than people imagine. To us, it was a kind of fairy tale, not unlike Tom Thumb. But when I watch it again today, I realize just how dark it is. That might also have been due to Caro's presence, as his imaginary realm is darker than mine, I don't know. I was commissioned to direct Alien. It was an action film, hardcore and violent. All this to say that I've never made a truly positive film. And this was of interest to me. To build rather than destroy presents me with an interesting challenge. At this stage in my life, in my career, I wanted to make a lighthearted film, a film that makes people dream, that gives them pleasure.

Published December 13, 2001

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Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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