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Having never written a silent film, ‘The Artist’ creator Michel Hazanavicius immersed himself in the genre to gain an understanding of what did and didn’t work. “At the very beginning I watched movies from all over: America, Germany, Russia, France, England. I observed that as soon as the story starts to grow unclear — too many new developments, too many characters — you lose interest,” he says.
“Very soon I focused on the last four or five years of the silent era, especially in America. I think those were the best movies, and also the ones that aged best. The way the stories are told in American silents isn’t so different than the way the stories are told today.” Along with watching films, the director read cinema histories as well as memoirs and biographies of silent era directors, producers and stars. He looked at photographs and other archival materials and listened to music of the period.
He drew inspiration from the work and lives of such stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. “Research is very important,” he comments. “Not so much to be strictly realistic — that’s not what I’m after — but as a springboard for the imagination. The research fed the story, the context, the characters. The more research you have done, the more you can play with it all.”
Unfolding during a four year period, 1927-1931, ‘The Artist’ introduces its titular character, the action-adventure hero George Valentin, at the peak of his popularity. Fans flock to see George in films tailored to his dashing persona: exotic tales in which he triumphs over evil with wit, panache and the aid of his devoted sidekick, a Jack Russell terrier with impeccable timing.
When sound arrives, George resists the upstart format (as did Chaplin, among others). He stakes his career on his belief that the talkies will remain a novelty, and sets out to prove that he can succeed on his own terms, as an artist of the silent cinema.
Though ‘The Artist’ is set over 80 years ago, George’s circumstances, and the powerful emotions attached, are as current as ever. Says Hazanavicius, “To me, it’s interesting to think of George’s story in terms of a human being in a transition period. The world is always moving, and you might be looking in another direction.
One day, the world says to you, ‘you’re part of the past.’ It can happen in your own office, in your factory, in your relationship. It’s a feeling any person can understand.” But before he begins his descent from Hollywood heights, George meets the energetic young actress Peppy Miller.
The famous actor and the effervescent unknown are irresistibly drawn to one another, but are kept apart by chance and circumstance, unable to give voice to their feelings. It’s a classic scenario of star-crossed romance, intense yet chaste. “It’s an old-fashioned vision of love, very pure, and it also holds with the form of silent movies,” comments Hazanavicius. “Some of the masterpieces of silent cinema are simple love stories. They inspired me to take the film in a direction that was lighter, more optimistic and joyful.”
By the time he finished writing, Hazanavicius felt confident that he had constructed a story that could sustain a silent format. Hazanavicius believed ‘The Artist’ — steeped in Hollywood cinema history, sensibility and technique — had to be shot in Los Angeles.
And a Franco-American production in Los Angeles would mirror yet another aspect of silent movie history: many of the most renowned directors of the American silent cinema were native Europeans, including Charlie Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg and Victor Sjöström.
To Hazanavicius’s delight, Langmann agreed the film belonged in Los Angeles. “If Thomas had said to me, ‘Okay, we’ll make the film but we’ll shoot it in the Ukraine!, I would have gone to the Ukraine to shoot it,” the filmmaker remarks. “Thomas did everything within his power to allow us to shoot ‘The Artist’ where it should be shot, where the action took place.”
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