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It was during the making of ‘OSS 117 – Nest of Spies’ in 2005 that Michel Hazanavicius first mentioned his dream about making a silent movie to that film’s stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. A dream which eventually won him glory at this year’s Academy Awards.
“We thought it was wonderful madness; we never imagined such a project could ever be achieved,” Bejo acknowledges. 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 fantasized 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.” 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.”
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!”
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