Oscar-nominated filmmaker and award-winning author Marjane Satrapi has never been one to withhold her opinions. In her latest film, Chicken with Plums, Satrapi explores one family’s struggle with the complexities of marriage, offspring, and adaptation in a rapidly changing world. Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) loses the love of his life before starting a family with a wife (played by Maria de Medeiros, aka, Fabienne from Pulp Fiction) he resents, by having two children who disappoint, Cyrus and Lili. Satrapi and her longtime creative partner, Vincent Paronnaud, co-wrote and directed the film adaptation of her most recent graphic novel, employing their signature illustrative, fantastical style that has won them acclaim worldwide. We sat down with Satrapi before the US release of Chicken with Plums to discuss animation versus live-action filmmaking, the creative influences of Tony Danza and Who’s the Boss, and the upcoming presidential election.
You moved from an entirely animated, graphic style to live-action with this film, but it retained some graphic elements. What did you have to consider when you were writing the screenplay before you started filming? What did you learn after you started filming that was different about making a live-action film versus an animated film?
The procedure is almost the same. You have to write the script, you have to think about framing, about rhythm. The main difference is that animation is a very long procedure. You have the time, the leisure, the pleasure of changing stuff if it doesn’t work because it’s long. On a real feature like ours, we had 46 days for shooting, and we didn’t have a big studio.
Forty-six days, wow.
Yes. No big studio to give us any more money. We couldn’t say, “We need another five days to shoot.” Forty-six days and that’s it. This film, it’s like a puzzle; it’s not like there’s a scene you can miss.
The second difference is the addition of actors. Normally, when I make an animated movie, I play in front of the animators who are looking right at me, so I have the control of what exactly is in my brain. But when an actor comes, they take away the story and sometimes even transcend it. Sometimes you’re amazed, and you become the viewer yourself because they push it much further than what was in your imagination. That is a great moment, as a director — when you are sitting in your chair, you’ve given some direction, and the actor just goes and explodes everything.
In the film, when one character gets called out on her excesses as an adult, she says, “Life. If only you knew what I think of life.” What do you think this film says about your perspective on life?
Life is extremely miserable, extremely hard, and full of suffering. You have to count the moments that you’re really miserable and the moments that you’re really happy, and you’ll know what it is. It’s hard and it’s miserable, and we cannot take it too seriously because then it would be even worse than what it is. We have to have humor. We cannot forget the notion of pleasure or the complexity of the human being. Understanding these things makes life a little bit smoother because it makes us more tolerant towards one another. Our complexity comes from our imperfection.
[The main character] gives up life, and we don’t have the right to give up our life. We don’t have the right to just fuck it up. We don’t have the right to give away the notion of pleasure for no reason in the world. This is what I think about life. This is why I always do exactly what I feel like doing. The length of life does not interest me so much, because having this narrow, very long life? I’d prefer to have it wide and short rather than long and narrow; it’s either go one way or the other way. You cannot have both.
Right. Related to what you were saying about how people can be very nasty, you show this couple that at one point was supposed to be in love. I thought that it was a very realistic portrayal of how terrible ordinary people can be to one another. They’re not murderers, but they say very cruel things—
And each of them has their reasons. What I like in this film is that the main character, he’s really not nice, but at the end you love him because you understand how broken he was. And at the beginning, you’re like, “Who is this bitch? Shut up, lady!” But then this lady becomes this really beautiful, cute woman, and you’re like, “Come on, Nassir! She has loved you all her life! She’s great!” But there’s all this missed love; we are all horrible to each other. That’s why I don’t like films where you have these nice guys — the good guys — because life is complicated. Human beings are complicated. There is nothing that is finished in life; just because somebody is nasty now, doesn’t mean he’s going to be nasty for the rest of his life.
When the film flashes to Cyrus’s future, it’s a pretty grim look at American life — from morbid obesity and bad dancing to the tacky decor in his house, and his gritted, feigned enthusiasm. Is that a common satirical take on American culture in France?
No. The American dream sold it to us this way — the house, the dog, the big car. This is the American dream. You’re middle class, you come home, your wife serves you food. It’s been sold all over the world through sitcoms, through posters.
So all over the world, not just here.
Yeah! I think even Americans see it this way. The American people have something great — the self-distance and the humor about themselves. I think if we had done that in another country, they would have sent a terrorist attack or something. It makes the Americans laugh because they know themselves what has been the image of the American way of life. You have a house in the suburbs, three dogs, three kids, and the nice wife, but you’re still unhappy because the psychology of the human being is not taken into account. You can have all of that and be very miserable. Americans make so much fun of themselves, so if they have the right to do it, why don’t we have the right to do it? I’m very happy with the American reaction because it makes them laugh; they enjoy it.
Cyrus’s daughter is so obese, she doesn’t know she’s 9 months pregnant. Have you ever seen the show I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant?
I don’t know it.
It’s sad in that it focuses on people who lack the education and resources to understand or prepare for pregnancy, or who are so obese they don’t notice a full-term pregnancy. I was wondering if you’d seen it, and because you work with autobiographical material, your thoughts on this push right now in the United States for reality content because it’s so popular and cheap to produce.
If you are fat and fifteen years old, you can’t know that you’re pregnant, especially if you have no sexual health education.
“Don’t touch each other.”
Exactly. You have an adolescent full of hormones, that is like “Sex, sex, sex, sex” in his head, and you tell him, “Don’t fuck” and he says “Okay, I won’t.” Believing that they won’t do it? I have seen things like this in my life. If you weigh 500 pounds, how would you notice?
I believe the line was, “Would you notice 9 pounds in 400 pounds of meat?” So, the visual style for those scenes with adult Cyrus were very distinct, initially with a tin-eye, diorama perspective and then moving to an old American sitcom style.
We grew up with American sitcoms. They are spread all around the world.
What are your favorite American sitcoms?
Something that was an inspiration for this film was a show that I don’t know the title of in English. It was about this guy who was serving this woman. His name was Tony something and he was like “Mademoiselle,”–
Who’s the Boss?
Yes! That was it.
Exactly. In Who’s the Boss, everything is beige and brown, but we wanted to make it more pop-colored. That was a source of inspiration as much as Fellini. The good thing about Vincent [Paronnaud] is that he’s like me. We are not afraid of the vulgar and bad taste. It becomes good taste if you know how to use bad taste.
When Nasser Ali initially commits to die, it seems like he’s being melodramatic, but once we seen all the pain he’s suffered throughout his life, it makes more sense. That scene where his teacher has the children boo him, it made me laugh because it was so terrible –
It is terrible.
But I was wondering if that came from anything in your own life?
My mother had another uncle, a teacher, who like many teachers was always right. This guy was always telling this story about how when he and his older brother were children, he was applauded and his brother was booed because he was a better student. Even at six years old I was looking at him like, “What an asshole!” How can something like that happen to you and you can view it as an act of glory? It became an obsession for me that someone could be like that — so proud of that, fifty or sixty years after.
So it stuck with you.
All of the things that stuck with me are in here; like the child on the trip that sings the whole way, that was me.
That’s something you did?
Yes, the mother of my father was in the car with us and she didn’t like it. You know, the wives don’t like the mothers of their husbands. And I sang for eighteen hours because when my father drove, he felt that if the car took eighteen hours. It never crossed his mind that we could stop to eat or pee. If it took eighteen hours, we drove eighteen hours. So I was in the car, singing the whole way, and as a result of that my grandmother never traveled with us again. And my mother always told me, “Because of your eighteen hours of singing, we never have to travel with her again.”
So she was grateful.
Very much so.
I was wondering, since we’re in DC, if you’re following the American presidential election.
Absolutely, and I am one hundred percent with President Obama. I know he’s received a lot of criticism, but I cannot understand how people can be against a social health system. These are two things, education and health, that should be free for everyone. This is the basis of a free and civilized society; I like that he did that. And I think there was so much damage before he took power that four years is not enough to make what he had to do. I like this man. I think he’s a good president, and I really, truly, deeply hope that he will be reelected.
Also, because I think America is still the first power of the world – although in 25 years it will be the Chinese – I think that the decision that America makes changes the course for the rest of the world. I think the election should be opened up to the rest of the world, because the decision of the American president concerns all of us. I do not like the Republicans. They have an extremely archaic view of the world.
Eight years ago I was in America during the election with [John] Kerry against George Bush. I was with my husband and we went to the John Kerry shop and we bought all the stuff: the flags, the hats, the whole shit. We were walking around the streets of Boston and people were staring at us. We didn’t understand because Boston is supposed to be the Kerry town, what is happening? We went all through America because I was making a book tour, and people were looking at us strangely. Until the last day, when I took a careful look at the flag and realized it was for Japanese Americans for Kerry. Obviously, I don’t look Japanese, and my husband is Swedish and doesn’t look Japanese either. This time if I won’t buy the Japanese Americans for Obama flag. I hope he wins. I really love him. I think he’s really cool.
I was wondering, if he asked you to write a political ad, what would it look like? What if he asked you to create an attack ad?
I think if he asked me, I would make an ad about how the history of the human being is about life, death, murder, war. Life is too short, and we can’t make it shorter. So I will do everything in my power to make sure war never happens in this world again. No war has ever solved any problem. That is what I would write for him.