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Buzz is growing over a silent film

France's 'The Artist,' opening this week, harks back to a time before movies had sound. It's a gamble, but modern crowds are responding.

November 21, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

Hazanavicius, who got his start directing for television and commercials, drew his own storyboards, determining how he would unfold his narrative with no dialogue: Peppy, in the throes of a crush, secretly tries on George's coat; George, in extreme close-up, screams at a horrible sound; a Jack Russell terrier drops to the floor and plays dead at a fingerpoint "gunshot."

To evoke the look of silent films, the director and his cinematographer, Guillaume Schiffman, adopted the format's traditional squarer frame shape and had special lenses crafted to duplicate the gauziness of vintage black-and-white film. They shot the movie at 22 frames per second, instead of the standard 24, to lend his cast's movements the slightly sped-up look of silent movie actors. (Chaplin did not actually move faster than the rest of us; silent-era movies were often shot at 18 or 16 frames per second, and seen on current, faster projectors appear accelerated.)

Hazanavicius filmed with modern cameras, but he had the vintage, hand-cranked variety on set so his cast could hear the same whir that their 1920s counterparts did. He also played music as his actors worked — Franz Waxman's "Sunset Boulevard" score for a dramatic revelation, Cole Porter for a pivotal tap dance scene. (The score actually used in the film is by Ludovic Bource, who was inspired by classic Hollywood composers like Waxman and Max Steiner.)

For the actors, the silent filmmaking process was not as different as it might seem. They spoke improvised dialogue in both French and English. "Without the dialogues, you focus on the characters and the story," Bejo said. "It's actually very easy."

Hazanavicius said the absence of speech involves viewers more.

"What I love about silent film [is] the fact that you as an audience, you do the dialogues, you do the voices, you imagine things, the sound of the street; that makes you really take part in the storytelling process," he said.

"A lot of people think it's very cerebral or intellectual to go see a silent movie," he added. "It's the exact opposite. It's much more sensual — sensual because it's not the same part of the brain [that] works. Usually you have the dialogues, and it says to you things, but it's information. Here it's very different. You have images and you have music and it's all about feeling and sensation."

Dujardin won best actor at Cannes, and the movie opened in October in France. It has grossed $12 million, besting such Hollywood releases as "Real Steel" and "The Three Musketeers."

To find an audience in the U.S., the movie will need an awards pedigree, which looks increasingly likely according to off-the-record comments from those in the highly competitive world of awards strategy. "The Artist" may be catnip for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members like to reward underdogs, like 2009 best picture winner "Slumdog Millionaire," and feel-good stories like last year's winner, "The King's Speech," also a Weinstein Co. release.

Weinstein plans to open the movie in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expand to 100 or 150 screens by Christmas. His marketing strategy, he said, is supplication.

"There's no marketing in the world other than praying," Weinstein said. "It'll be interesting to see just how far and adventurous the American public and, for that matter, the worldwide public is willing to be."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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