Film Interview: Alienated? Excuse my French ...

When Jean-Pierre Jeunet got the call to go to Hollywood to direct the latest `Alien' film, he knew it was time to learn some English, get on a plane, and compromise the principles of a lifetime.

Interview by Ryan Gilbey.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet wasn't some starstruck kid hooked on Hollywood; he wasn't a Godard or a Luc Besson. In fact, he wouldn't have been bothered if he never set foot in the bloody place. His agent was operating under strict instructions not to waste his client's time by even forwarding any scripts with a US postmark.

But then it came. That offer. The one that you know is special because you can feel your principles wobbling loose. The call went something like: "Hi there, we love your stuff, will you come and make the next Alien film for us?" - though in French, obviously. The next morning, Jeunet was on a plane to Los Angeles. "My life changed in 24 hours," he says. "I was on the flight out and if I could have hijacked it, I would have done. I was so upset. I was saying to myself: Why did I accept this fucking movie?

When shooting was finally set to begin on Alien Resurrection, after months of extensive pre-production, Jeunet arrived on set equipped with some key English words and phrases to make the production run a little more smoothly. Not that the 20th Century Fox brass who hired him were under any illusions about his linguistical capabilities - it's the done thing to bluff your way through an interview, or add a water sport or two to your extracurricular activities, but if you're directing a Hollywood movie and every word that comes out of your mouth is in French, then sooner or later the centime will drop.

So what were those useful words, I ask, unwittingly playing the straight man. He smiles.

"`Faster'; `Much faster'; and `Shut the fuck up!'"

There I was, thinking that I'd be meeting an embittered auteur who would reel off horror stories about how he had survived Hollywood only by the skin of his teeth. Isn't that what's supposed to happen when art gets within a 100-mile radius of commerce? But then, Alien Resurrection is an exception. It's a chilling, disturbing, exhilarating picture - no ordinary sequel. The plot is, naturally, pure insanity, with the series' regular heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) reborn through cloning after her martyrdom at the end of Alien 3. But one of the crucial factors in the film's success is the distinctive Jeunet style, which international audiences will be familiar with from Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the movies Jeunet made with his working partner, Merc Caro.

This style comprises tight close-ups, compositions as precise as the panels in a comic book, and sight gags that teeter on the brink of slapstick. One such idea, a joke involving a ricocheting bullet, that appears in Alien Resurrection, began in the first draft of The City of Lost Children, written 15 years ago.

It was after that film was eventually made, in 1993, that the duo decided they wanted a break from each other. They had been collaborating on shorts, music videos and commercials for more than 10 years, but Jeunet maintains that working alone feels more natural to him. The offer to direct Alien Resurrection was made to Jeunet alone. "I called Marc and told him, and his advice was that I should do it if I could have freedom. I don't think he's ready to work in Hollywood; it would be tough for him. It's all about politics."

Has Marc seen Alien Resurrection? "Yes."

Did he like it? "I didn't really get a chance to speak to him. But he said it was pretty good."

I first met Jeunet and Caro when they were in London three years ago to publicise The City of Lost Children, and it was an experience that I haven't forgotten. The pair were, by turns, baffling, hilarious and tiresome, blatantly relishing the difficulties and misunderstandings that can arise when conducting an interview via an interpreter. Jeunet insisted that his great passion was Barbie dolls: Caro claimed to have dated Pamela Anderson. A peculiar time was had by all.

Now, Jeunet speaks fluent English, with only occasional assistance, and even feels confident enough about his pronunciation to reprimand me on my own delivery - "Ugh", he exclaims. "That London accent is worse than American!" I can think of nothing remotely horrid to say in retaliation, though it should be noted that he pronounces "Sigourney" to rhyme with `tourniquet'.

If learning English can be considered necessary for working in America, then it's pleasing to find that it's the only area in which Jeunet was willing to compromise. "For the studio people, it's not a film, it's a show", he says. "They only worry about it selling all around the world, and then it's a bonus if it is good. They told me I made them proud and happy, but every day they were trying to make me cut costs. They always watched the rushes before I did, just to be sure. It's a strange game between the studio and the director. Now I know why some American directors have reputations for being tyrants. You have to fight like a dog because you won't drop your bone. It's always `Get your hands off my film!'"

Despite Fox's enthusiasm for Jeunet, he often felt that his working methods were under threat. Wary of the slapdash manner in which David Fincher was treated on Alien 3 - the young director was forced to begin shooting when only 40 pages of the screenplay were yet in existence - Jeunet refused an early shoot. He insisted on two clear months to prepare storyboards, and, after much gnashing of teeth, his wish was granted.

If the studio representatives occasionally made life tough for Jeunet, then working with American actors was a pleasant surprise. "If you ask an American actor, `Are you able to swim underwater?' they will say, `Yes, no problem.' I can just imagine what a French actor would say. `To swim underwater? Are you joking?' In America they know they are doing a show, whereas in France actors are more given to intellectual masturbation."

Was there much hostility from your home country toward the news that you were defecting? "A little bit", he admits. "A lot of people in France prefer the Cahiers du Cinema approach. Same old shit. But there is so much that I don't connect with in French cinema. Like comedy. I hate French comedy. Les Visiteurs? I don't understand it. I look at the screen, then I look at the person next to me laughing. I see that they are laughing, but I don't understand why. It's Monty Python who are very special to me."

Of course, Jean-Pierre Jeunet then goes and ruins his argument, as well as his credibility, by claiming that Mr Bean has him rolling around on the floor. I wouldn't want you to think I've mentioned this potentially career-destroying detail just because he poked fun at my accent.

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