By Matt Singer
[Photos: Left, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi; below, “Persepolis,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
When the first of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” graphic novels debuted in 2003, it was perhaps the biggest and most acclaimed crossover success of the medium since Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust allegory “Maus” in 1992. Yet it’s the film adaptation of Satrapi’s memoir of her formative years during the Islamic revolution in Iran that may be without precedent. Already vetted by the film festivals in Toronto, New York and Cannes (where it won a special jury prize), “Persepolis” is coming to theaters this month riding a wave of best animated film honors from around the world, though France’s decision to select the film as its national entry into the foreign-language film category at this year’s Oscars proves it’s no mere toon.
However, when I spoke with Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, a fellow member of the French art comics scene who shares an art studio and a co-writing and co-directing credit on the film with Satrapi, they were less proud of the accolades than of the work itself. Instead, the duo were particularly happy with the fact that they had stuck to their independent roots, especially considering that before Satrapi set out to make the film herself, she had fielded offers from producers pitching a live-action version starring Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez. “Coming from the underground, we never wanted to make compromises,” Satrapi said. “We got into comics to have the freedom to do exactly what we wanted.” Anyone who has seen the film knows the pair made the right decision.
As cartoonists, you’re both used to working alone, so what was it like collaborating with another artist?
Vincent Paronnaud: It went very well for many reasons. From a technical point of view, we wrote this script together from the beginning and talked about any potential problems in advance. While working, we weren’t always watching over each other. But we didn’t have to; the decisions had all been made beforehand.
Marjane Satrapi: Before we dealt with anyone else on our staff, we had already had the discussion between the two of us. That’s why it’s extremely difficult to say who did what [on the movie] because we did everything together. Vincent would say something, then I would add something. At the end, you have this thing, but it was made by both of us so it’s difficult to draw a line between our contributions. Everything we did, we did together.
How did the fact that you two are old friends affect your collaboration?
MS: The trust you have in people, that really helps. We knew each other for many years before this project. I knew who he was and he knew who I was. For instance, Vincent is someone who hates to read contracts. I hate to read contracts too. So my husband read the contracts, I signed the contract and I told him, “You have to sign,” and then he signs.
VP: [laughs] You get the best results in a climate like this of trust and affection and friendship.
MS: Basically, most of the problems start there. One person wants to get more credit. We were always a “we.” And as I always say to people, “You know the Coen brothers?” “We’re the Satrapi/Paronnaud brother and sister.”
How much of the finished film did you two actually draw yourselves?
MS: We had a budget of $8 million, which is not a big budget for an animated movie. When you have to pay the salary of 100 people for two years, that’s not a lot of money. So since both of us knew how to draw, whatever we couldn’t afford to pay for, we did ourselves. The storyboards we made entirely ourselves. The characters more than 650 characters in the movie we drew ourselves. Both of us come from underground comics, so we’re used to working a lot for no money.
Would you have liked a larger budget?
MS: The movie business is not about the money. Of course, you need money to make the movie. If you have a small budget, adapt yourself. Having $200 million dollars doesn’t ensure that you’re definitely going to make a good movie. There’s so many examples that prove that.
VP: Coming from the underground, we knew how to improvise. You have one idea and then you realize that technically it’s not possible. So you always have a plan B. But having to use your plan B is a good thing, because it forces you to explore ideas you wouldn’t normally try. At the end, [the smaller budget] was a good thing.
The film is very faithful to the graphic novel, but was there anything omitted from the film because you found it worked in the book but didn’t work in the movie?
MS: Absolutely! The first script that we wrote was about twice as big as the final version. There were things that seemed extremely important when we storyboarded it, and we might have even put it into the animatic. But then you watch it and you say, “I’m just repeating the same thing twice and it’s destroying the rhythm of the story.” I wasn’t sitting there going, “Oh, this is my great idea, it goes in!” If it doesn’t work, we’d just cut it and throw it out.
VP: The marvelous thing about this work is we have two completely different things that come from this same story. They’re very similar, but at the same time, they are so different. It’s not a transposition; it really is more like an adaptation. That’s why I felt like I had so much freedom in this project, because Marjane was smart enough to know when to put the book down.
MS: But I have to tell you something. At the beginning, because he’s very delicate I know he doesn’t look like it, but he’s a very delicate gentleman…
MS: …he was so much more attached to the book than I was! He would constantly say, “Can we do that?” Because he didn’t want to upset me.
Have your friends or family ever disagreed with your version of an event in the graphic novel or movie?
MS: This is my personal point of view. Whenever I’ve written something nasty about someone, I’ve never used their real names or real faces for that reason. Take Marcus, my boyfriend. Now, from my point of view, he’s an asshole. But if you ask [him], of course, he’d disagree, and he’s right to do that because he was a 19-year-old boy and I wanted him to be everything in my life. And it was too much for him; he couldn’t do it. But he doesn’t have any way to express himself and I do. It’s like having a duel with someone who doesn’t have a gun. I won’t shoot somebody who can’t defend himself. So out of respect for these other points of view which I know are also true I never do it. So I’ve never had problems like that.
VP: There’s this confusion nowadays between reality and the truth. We’re not looking for the reality. We have a story we want to tell. So the details, like what the dog looked like or where this event really happened, are not important.
MS: This is not a documentary of my life. From the second that you take any story, no matter how true it is, and turn it into a script, you create fiction. You have to cheat otherwise, you don’t have a story.
When I was at the Cannes Film Festival, I went into a bookstore and found all these gorgeous French graphic novels that I’d never seen before and couldn’t read because I don’t know French. How do we get more French underground artists published here?
MS: It’ll happen little by little. When “Persepolis” was first published in the United States, I was the only book my publisher had that was a translated comic because people think Americans don’t like comics that come from other countries. So I was the first one. But others have started to get translated now. In France, we have this great tradition of comics and graphic novels, but you have all the best cartoonists. You have Art Spiegelman and you have Chris Ware and you have…
VP: Joe Sacco!
MS: You have Joe Sacco and you have Daniel Clowes and you have Robert Crumb. They come from your country, so you have the best of them. Why do you want us?
When I see stuff I’m unfamiliar with, I get curious.
VP: There definitely is a lot of good stuff in France.
MS: [points to Paronnaud] His stuff!
“Persepolis” opens in limited release December 25th.