Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 24, 2011

Ten Secrets Behind the Making of the Silent Film “THE ARTIST”

The French-language trailer for “The Artist” – Nothing Is Lost in Translation


Consider “The Artist” as a French film, with English intertitles, and the sound turned off.

With that starting point, it is perhaps easier to understand how director Michel Hazanavicius proceeded to form the more sophisticated idea behind making a modern-day silent movie, revisiting an almost Lost World where actions speak far louder than words ever could. “Silents” really are a unique and treasured early 20th Century art form that, in Mr. Hazanavicius’ brilliant revival of it, regains the respect it is due but seldom accorded.

But where else did the inspiration for “The Artist” come from? Let’s go behind the scenes:

The Hollywood of George Valentin & Peppy Miller

1. The Idea – Mr. Hazanavicius, 44, is a longtime student of film. And like many directors before him, he spent uncounted hours at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, poring over films from bygone eras. He honed his craft in two “OSS 117” spy spoofs – comic, period-perfect, send-ups of early Bond movies (in which his star was Jean Dujardin). The Cinematheque, now housed in a stunning Frank Gehry-designed complex, also offers a massive collection of silent films. These fascinated Mr. Hazanavicius, and watching dozens of them, an idea started to germinate in which he unlocked – in his mind – the secret to making a successful, modern-day silent. Mr. Dujardin recalled, during the film’s premiere at AFI Fest in Hollywood Nov. 8, that Mr. Hazanavicius came to him in 2006 with a script – between takes of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies – and said, “Read this. But don’t laugh. Do you think it’s possible?”

2. The Cast – The script was written with the idea of Mr. Dujardin and Argentine actress Berenice Bejo as the leads.

The movie's stars at AFI Fest

Mr. Dujardin, 39, who speaks little English, is a well-known actor in France. But heretofore unknown elsewhere. “He’s like our George Clooney,” director Francois Truffart told the L.A. Times recently. Ms. Bejo, 35, has starred in English-speaking dramas, such as 2001’s “A Knight’s Tale” with the late Heath Ledger; but most of her acclaim comes from French comedies. She co-starred with Mr. Dujardin in the first OSS 117 film. Her starring role in real (as opposed to “reel”) life is as the wife of Mr. Hazanavicius, and the mother of their two children. So that aspect of the casting was pretty much settled from the outset; other parts, such as those for Malcom McDowell, James Cromwell and John Goodman, were set as soon as word leaked out about where and how “The Artist” would be filmed. “When people found out,” Mr. Hazanavicius said, “they came to us.”

3. The Money – Enter Thomas Langmann. He agreed to bankroll this risky vision of Mr. Hazanavicius. Mr. Langmann, 40, is one of the most controversial – and successful – film producers in France today; he makes movies about polarizing subjects such as French gangster Jacques Mesrine, and spends unprecedented amounts of money bringing them to the screen. Mr. Hazanavicius said Mr. Langmann, a former actor, screenwriter, musician and stuntman, is more than a little crazy: “He is mad, and he gives himself the means to act on his impulses.”

Thomas Langmann

But as a producer, he is “more of a patron – like a Florentine prince” who is willing to bankroll works of artistic expression – even something as “out-there” as a 21st Century silent movie, in black and white. Mr. Langmann’s father is filmmaker Claude Berri, who is renowned for classics such as “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.”

4. The Script – The screenplay is actually a rather straightforward, almost formulaic re-telling of a timeless Hollywood-style melodrama. But Mr. Hazanavicius is re-plowing fertile ground that has been left undisturbed – until now – for the better part of seven decades. Although it a complete work of fiction, there is much truth in the telling of a story of a squeaky-voiced silent film luminary whose star faded when the “talkies” came in. (If you’ve seen “Singin’ in the Rain,” loosely based on the careers of actors John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, you may be familiar with this storyline.)

Hollywood, circa 1927

5. The Location– As a story ripped from Tinseltown headlines, there was, of course, only one place Mr. Hazanavicius wanted to make this film: Hollywood.

But the Hollywood of the late 1920s and early 1930s doesn’t exist today; it’s a city that is rapidly modernizing, after decades of decline and decay. The landmarks of old have mostly disappeared; the ones that remain are “re-imagined” with a kind of revisionist retro-chic rehab that does more to bury the past than un-earth it. But the Hollywood of our dreams still exists at the back lots of Paramount Pictures and Warner Brother Studios. And that’s where, in 35 days, “The Artist” was filmed, with a budget of under $20 million.

6. The Inspiration – The inspiration for the production design, sets, staging, lighting and so forth, Mr. Hazanavicius says, came principally from two F.W. Murnau classics, 1927’s “Sunrise” and 1930’s “City Girl.” Film critics consider these films, particularly “Sunrise,” to be among the greatest movies ever made – with or without sound. Film buffs will spot Mr. Hazanavicius’ nods in “The Artist” to other silent masters, too, including Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Erich Von Stroheim and King Vidor.

7. The Inside Jokes – Maybe “jokes” is the wrong word here. Inside trivia? No, nothing trivial is found here. But some of the scenes that audiences will likely take at face value had something more going on, with a wink from the filmmakers, behind the scenes. They filmed at locations once used by Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and other cinematic greats. “Peppy’s house in the film – that’s the actual house of Mary Pickford,” Mr. Hazanavicius revealed. “The bed that George wakes up in – that’s Mary Pickford’s real bed!” (BTW, Miss Pickford’s fabulous career as “America’s Sweetheart” crashed with the advent of talkies in 1927; she was only 35 then – the same age Ms. Bejo is now.)

A common 1920s movie pairing

Ms. Bejo concedes that she is channeling Miss Pickford (and to a lesser extent Miss Garbo) in her performance; Mr. Dujardin, meanwhile, admits to emulating Miss Pickford’s real-life husband Douglas Fairbanks (more “talkies” roadkill).

8. The Acting– “Did George and Peppy really speak their lines? I’m asked that all the time,” Mr. Hazanavicius says. “Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. But usually they didn’t, because the last thing I wanted them to work on was text.” Instead, he had them work on things, like tap-dancing. “I am no dancer,” Mr. Dujardin said through an interpreter. “I can speak English better than I dance – and my English is atrocious!” But through a lot of hard work, he eventually learned to expertly perform the complicated routine he seems to pull off so effortlessly in the film. The reason Mr. Dujardin was the subject of so much Best Actor Oscar talk, Mr. Hazanavicius says, is because he is the best in the business at acting with body language and facial expressions.

Timeless faces

“Jean doesn’t need dialogue,” he said. “Watch his movement, his expressions, his eyes.” Dujardin also has a classic face. “Timeless,” he said. “Vintage, even. Berenice also has that quality.”

9. The Music – To inspire the actors during filming, Mr. Hazanavicius played music for them. “I played mostly Hollywood music of the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. Selections included the songs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann and early works of his OSS 117 composer Ludovic Bource. “But I also mixed in some contemporary soundtracks too – ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ ‘Laura‘ and ‘The Way We Were.'” He explained, “To act in a scene while music is being played is a wonderful way to help you find the mood.” He said the right music worked better than any verbal direction he could provide. “It was really lovely to watch them blossom,” he added, “thanks to the music.”

That's entertainment!

10. The Memories – Mr. Dujardin was asked what his favorite memory would be, from the making of the movie. His answer really summed up, for this writer anyway, how giving one’s self totally to the movie – not only as an actor, but for an audience member as well – can be a transcendent experience.

“The last tap dance scene with Berenice, and what we both went through at that moment,” he said. “The sets, the crowds, the flashes, the faces of the extras, the music – I was in an old movie. I was in the picture!”

Now, that’s entertainment!

Jerry Garrett (A footnote: The author grew up in La Canada, Calif., on the former estate – now sub-divided – of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.)

November 24, 2011


  1. […] a followup to my earlier column on the making of the silent film smash, “The Artist“, here are some more specific […]

  2. This movie has the (Feel good factor ) and that is something missing in our cinemas today. I would love to see Jean Dujardin playing the other Gene that is Kelly in the remake of Singing in the Rain.. Now that would make a great deal of us very happy.

  3. Great post – lots of interesting details. There are many direct film vs. film connections between Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and The Artist.

    A. Peppy Miller’s home in The Artist was once the home of Mary Pickford. You can see the Peppy Miller home in the background during a scene from Chaplin’s The Kid.

    B. Edna Purviance leaves her baby during The Kid at 55 Fremont Place (where Muhammad Ali would later live), the mansion across the street from Peppy’s mansion. The corner lawn to this home appears both in The Kid and in The Artist.

    C. The Red Studio where The Artist was filmed was once the Metro Lot #3 in Hollywood, before Metro became part of M-G-M in Culver City. The Red Studio was two short blocks directly south of the Lone Star/Keaton Studio, where Chaplin made his Mutual comedies during 1916-1917, and where Keaton worked from 1920-1928. A small home that appears in Keaton’s One Week (1920) still stands across the street from the Red Studio.

    I’ve written a series of posts about other silent era connections to The Artist

    • Excellent details. Thanks so much for contributing. i encourage people to follow at your blog for further interesting details!

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