Marjane Satrapi interview: ‘I’m in love with a serial killer’

Director Marjane Satrapi explains how she found the softer side of her new film’s antihero

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The Independent Culture

A Hollywood ‘black-listed’ script about a schizophrenic, serial-killing factory worker named Jerry who chops up women’s bodies and talks to his pets for advice, might not seem like the perfect basis for a film. But the Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi thought it was so “fucked up and immoral” that she had to make it … with Ryan Reynolds in the lead role.

Michael R Perry’s script for The Voices was put on the official Hollywood Black List back in 2009. This is where the highly rated but often controversial unproduced scripts go. Many others on the list have gone on to great success, including the Oscar-winner Argo. But The Voices remained in the wilderness because it was deemed too difficult to make.

“The script had passed through the hands of other film makers, but never got made. It’s not an easy film to do, as you can imagine,” explains Satrapi. “I was given the script by my US agent and read it in one sitting, which is not like me. I thought it was crazy and fucked up, but decided I had to give it a go.”

Even then she had to wait almost a year before she could go into production, due to problems finding funding. It was a big gamble for the Iranian-French director who came to prominence with Persepolis, an animated adaptation of her own graphic novel detailing her struggles as a young girl during the Islamic revolution. Persepolis was widely praised and received an Oscar nomination.

She has since made the dramatic comedies Chicken With Plums and The Gang of the Jotas, but The Voices is her first attempt to adapt someone else’s script, and her initial foray into English-language film-making. And what an introduction it is too.

Satrapi concedes that she wouldn’t think: “Ooh, I’m going to write a story about a serial killer who talks to his dog and cat.” She’s terrified of scary movies, admitting to walking out of a screening of The Blair Witch Project after just six minutes.

But despite initial nerves and apprehension, Satrapi soon found herself getting stuck in, shouting: “More blood, more blood!” The harder challenge was convincing the audience to believe in Jerry’s motives and actions.

“I wanted to make the serial killer a lovable man, which is hard to do. If you think about the premise of a guy killing women, chopping them into pieces, and putting their heads in a fridge, you’d assume he’s a sexual pervert. So I had to go around his sexuality and make him seem like an innocent child in the body of a 34-year-old man.”

Step forward Ryan Reynolds, the handsome Hollywood A-list star of romantic comedies such as The Proposal and Just Friends. He is not someone you’d imagine playing a psychotic serial killer, but Satrapi was convinced. “He’s a lovely, charming guy and a great actor, but he’s a Ferrari that has mostly been driven like a Hillman. His range and abilities as an actor are incredible [as seen in indie films such as Buried and The Nines]. He has dark pupils and wolf-like teeth that help portray the darker side of the character, but he’s also so cute and lovable that you can forgive his actions.”

Reynolds was determined to take on the role, tracking down Satrapi in order to insist he should play Jerry. He even filmed himself doing a scene on his iPhone, in which Jerry is having a conversation with his cat, dog and the decapitated head of his first victim, Fiona (played in the finished film by Gemma Arterton), and sent it to Satrapi. That seemed to seal the deal.

Reynolds puts on a Scottish accent (inspired by his agent from Glasgow) for the voice of the foul-mouthed cat, Mr Whiskers, who gives blunt assessments of Jerry’s escalating woes; and an American Deep South drawl for Bosco the dog, who has a friendly, encouraging outlook.

Shooting scenes with the pets, however, proved quite tricky. Marjane insisted on using real animals, which was fine for the dog, which obeyed instructions. But the cat was different. “They just look at you, like: ‘piss off’. It took the editor seven hours of waiting patiently before he finally got a good enough shot to use,” says Satrapi.

Likewise, to avoid the use of CGI in the scene where Jerry talks to the decapitated head of Fiona, Marjane got Arterton to sit in the fridge with prosthetics around her neck and act out the part. They then reconstructed the fridge and did a double pass.

Marjane was impressed with Arterton’s willingness to play along. “In one scene she had to lie naked in the woods in the freezing cold weather. I asked if she was ok, and she simply said, ‘We English don’t feel the cold.’”

The resulting film is a dark comedy that doubles as a psychological horror, with an excellent performance from Reynolds. He is very convincing as a sweet, if somewhat troubled, guy trying to lead a normal life through self-constructed fantasies, while struggling with inner torments and episodes that escalate beyond his control – kicking off with the accidental stabbing and killing of a co-worker on a date.

Michael R Perry is also happy with “Ryan’s humane, nuanced, thoughtful performance”, and glad that the script, which he wrote “on spec, by hand, in a 99-cent notebook” was picked up by Satrapi.

The Voices was well received at the Sundance film festival in January, and since then, the director has been bombarded with other serial killer scripts. But she doesn’t want to become a specialist in that area, and has no interest in romantic comedies either. “I’d be too bored. One of the leads would have to be killed off,” she concludes with a laugh.

‘The Voices’ will be released later this year

The ‘black list’: Top Hollywood scripts (yet to be filmed)

The Brigands of Rattleborg, script by S Craig Zahler (Black-listed 2006)

This dark, violent western about a group of bandits who rob a small town during a thunderstorm, but receive retribution from the local doctor and sheriff, has been touted as a potential future project for the Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy).

The Infiltrator, script by Joshua Zetumer (Black-listed 2007)

From the scriptwriter of the 2014 Robocop, and inspired by John le Carré with a dose of Bourne Identity, this is an intriguing story about British Intelligence efforts to stop IRA attacks by planting spies in high-level positions within the organisation.

Against All Enemies, script by James Vanderbilt (Black-listed 2005)

James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man, Zodiac) wrote this script based on the memoirs of the counter-terrorism czar Richard A Clarke about the war on terror. Several big names have been suggested to be developing it as a project in the past, including Sean Penn, Robert Redford and Paul Haggis.

The Muppet Man, script by Christopher Weekes (Black-listed 2009)

An interesting insight into the life of the Muppets creator Jim Henson. The script begins with Kermit the Frog waking with a hangover, so expect a darker tale of Muppet life.

Wenceslas Square, script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (Black-listed 2009)

Markus and McFeeley have already impressed as the writing duo for the Captain America and Chronicles of Narnia films. But this script, based on a short story by Arthur Phillips about a romantic liaison between a young CIA officer and a Czech spy working on separate Cold War missions in the 1980s, has yet to be made.

The Heretic, script by Javier Rodriguez (Black-listed 2008)

Set in the 1400s, this dark tale sees the Catholic Church call upon one of its former priests – turned hitman – to assassinate rebel monk Martin Luther: a great premise for a medieval action movie.

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