Iranian-born author and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi first came to American attention in 2003, when her autobiographical comic Persepolis became a surprise hit in English translation. It became an Oscar-nominated French animated film in 2007, directed by Satrapi and French comics artist Vincent Paronnaud. The two collaborated again in 2011, for a Wes Anderson-esque live-action French adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic-novel fable Chicken With Plums, about a secretly lovelorn Persian violinist who decides to lie down and die after his instrument is smashed. Satrapi took on her first solo directing project and entirely original screenplay with 2012’s crime comedy The Gang Of The Jotas. And now with The Voices, she’s tried her hand at her first English-language film, her first shot at directing someone else’s screenplay, her first horror-comedy, and her first film with an American movie star. Clearly she doesn’t want to be pinned down to one type of project: Every feature she’s done breaks new ground for her.
The Voices stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a mentally ill factory worker whose cat and dog talk to him, feeding his delusions and paranoia. (Reynolds also voices the cat and dog, with a Scottish and a Southern accent, respectively.) Jerry lives in a literal fantasy world, at least when he’s off his medication, and his brighter, happier version of reality takes over. But his illness leads him to start killing and dismembering women, in a storyline that queasily rides the line between a horror-comedy like Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil and creepier cinema like May. Satrapi recently talked with The Dissolve about her obsession with horror, her hatred of purple, and why working with Reynolds is much better than working with a real live cat.
The Dissolve: This is your first time directing someone else’s script. When your agent brought The Voices to you, were you actively seeking an English-language project? Or for something you hadn’t written?
Marjane Satrapi: I’m always open to any kind of thing. When you have your own world and you write it, there’s something good about it, because it’s a zone in which you’re very comfortable, and you’re good in it. But then your own world is limited by you. When you have other projects that come to you, it just makes your world bigger. I would never sit behind my desk and say, “Today I’m going to write a story about a psycho who talks with his dog and his cat, and he’s a serial killer.” Never. But when that script comes to me, and I become obsessed with it, I can see that it becomes mine after a while. Because I have to turn the script into images. I feel like it becomes a very personal project.
The Dissolve: As part of making it your own, and as a long-time screenwriter yourself, did you get involved in re-scripting? What kind of relationship did you have with the screenwriter?
Satrapi: The screenwriter, Michael R. Perry, he’s very gifted. He writes a great script, but he’s a very nice man also. We could do work in lots of things. I only have 33 days of shooting, and in this case, the script was kind of long, so you know I cannot say, “Let’s shoot everything we want.” These are things we had to cut before. And there are things you can do better. I don’t know. Like in the original script, the murders were all described in a very precise way. I thought it was too much, because once you have shown it once, it is unnecessary to show it two times, or three times, or four times. So these are the kind of adjustments you do. Then you know, Ryan came with lots of ideas himself. He also improvised lots of things, but the good thing with working with a good screenwriter is that you know you can rework things, and not everything is described. Jerry cuts up the body, but I have to figure out how does he cut up the body. So I come up with the idea of Tupperware—this was not in the original script.
The Dissolve: Given that Ryan was doing the voices for the animals, and given that you had to shoot the animals in live action, did that ever present a problem in terms of him developing his own ideas? Did you have to go back and get shots to match things he had come up with?
Satrapi: With the dog, we didn’t have so much of a problem. Because you can say “Sit,” and the dog sits. But we had lots of problems with the cat, because cats are very sensitive. If more than six or seven people are around, they freak out. And they’re cats. So if you tell them “Sit,” even if they do understand what “sit” means, they will not sit, because they are cats. So what we did actually is that my editor, with who I also prepared the film, Stéphane Roche, he was the director of the second unit, and he was very, very patient. Basically, most of the time, the cat is in a separate room. We had three cameras that were locked, then we just use the two images and glued them together. The cat, we had to shoot during the night, like at 10 o’clock at night until 4 in the morning. Say “Minnow minnow minnow!” for hours until maybe the cat would be gentle enough to pose for 10 seconds. It was difficult, but it was out of the question to make CGI animals. I think they look too ugly. I see in films CGI animals, and I don’t like it at all. It breaks my heart. I really wanted to show true animals.
The Dissolve: Was this a very different project from what you’ve done in the past, in terms of working on a larger scale and with a bigger star?
Satrapi: The budget wasn’t bigger. I had this budget on Chicken With Plums. It’s like $11.3 million, or something like that. It’s not a huge-budget film. The actor was very different, and the American production was something else. All the second roles, all the female roles, they’re all great. But Ryan—oh my God. He was my crush, because he was so nice to work with. I could never say “Cut!” at the end of a scene, because I knew he would come up with something. He always came up with something, and we used a lot of the somethings for the editing of the film. We were in the trust of each other. He came with so many things, so many propositions, that many times, it was like I was not the director of the movie, I was just spectator. I was just looking at him doing the stuff. He was just incredible.
The Dissolve: You talked in the past about wanting to do Persepolis in animation because people can relate to animated characters. So working in live-action, were you worried about how people were going to relate to the characters, particularly to a story this dark?
Satrapi: You know, in Persepolis, it was very difficult, because you have my parents, and they’re alive. I cannot have somebody else play the role of my mother, who is still alive, or myself, or my grandmother. It’s just impossible. And plus, it was a very specific story about the Iranian revolution. So I say, even making it with real people, people would say, “These are only these people, these Iranians, far away. We don’t know them.” Animation helped with the universality. In a story like Persepolis, I think by definition, it’s universal.
The fact that somebody would be sick in his brain, hear voices, you know psychopaths, killers. All of these things, they’re universal in themselves. And the advantage of making a live-action movie is that in animation, I controlled everything. I know, “Here, he’s going to sit like that, and do like this, and na na na.” So at the end, I’m not surprised, because I control everything exactly. Each movement is calculated and decided. An actor is a human being, so they sometimes give a performance you were not waiting for, not at all. And then at the end, you have the result that you’re not expecting. It’s much more enjoyable to make a live-action movie. I enjoy it much more.
The Dissolve: You’re not a fan of horror, as I understand it.
Satrapi: No, I am so scared of horror.
The Dissolve: So without that kind of background, what did you draw on to make this movie?
Satrapi: I don’t know, because to me, this movie is not horror at all. Obviously, I am sitting there and I know what’s happening, I know what is faked and what is not faked. It doesn’t scare me one bit, because I made it. If I didn’t make it myself, I would be shit-scared for sure. But it’s not that I have not seen horror films. I’ve seen lots of horror films as a child. As soon as my parents left the house, I would turn off the lights and put on a horror film, and I would really be completely paralyzed. And I loved it. I think the height of that was Candyman, because at one point, I was looking at myself in the mirror trying to say “Candyman” three times, and I could never say it the third time. Even still to this day, I cannot do it, because i’m sure that he will come out of the mirror and he will kill me. At one point, I made a complete overdose on it, so I could not watch it anymore.
But to me, The Voices has more humor than horror. I guess it has scared some people. Seeing the reaction of the people in the theater, I was like, “Guys, this is not scary at all.” The voices in my head say, “You made this, that is why you know it’s not scary.” Maybe it scares people, but that is quite bizarre to me.
The Dissolve: Speaking of looking in your bathroom mirror and talking to Candyman, I’ve read that part of your process when you’re getting ready to direct a film is to lock yourself in the bathroom and perform the script for yourself over and over. What do you get out of that process?
Satrapi: By doing that, I know, for example, if a scene is too long. Or this part of the movie, how long does it take? It’s a very good exercise for me, because by doing it—“Okay, this is too long, this goes a little too fast.” I have a sense of the rhythm, and then playing it over and over, I start seeing more and more clearly who the actors are, what they should be. At the end, you can have the best moviemaker and the best actor in the world, if they don’t want to make the same film, like if they have two different visions, then it’s hell. It’s not possible. To be able to know if I have the same vision as the actor, I have to know from the beginning what is my vision, and if I don’t have these episodes in my bathroom, I can’t see it. It’s really for two reasons—acting, and is the rhythm of the film good or not.
The Dissolve: You’ve had elements of the political and personal in your films up until now. Is there any element of social politics here, any commentary on why people are so won over by somebody who’s handsome and seems sincere, even when we know they do terrible things?
Satrapi: Yeah, but for me, it was more what was interesting for me about this character was his loneliness. At one point, his shrink tells him, “You know what, Jerry? Being alone is the root of all the suffering, but you’re not alone.” But this is exactly the problem of the guy. He’s alone. Is he a monster? No. The guy is sick. It’s easy to say he’s a serial killer or a monster, but it’s not that he does it on purpose. He’s not a predator, he doesn’t go and look for people. People come to me and say, “This is more personal again,” though, so it might be that what you say is also true. I’m not conscious of all my decisions either. There’s lots of things I do unconsciously. I should write about this, actually. You open whole doors for me. Thank you. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: In the same sort of way, you’ve always come across as a very strong feminist voice, and somebody very interested in woman’s perspectives, and yet this is a story that looks sympathetically at somebody who murders women.
Satrapi: Which is true, but at the same time, he’s not a sexual pervert. On paper, he could be. If he only killed women and chopped off their head and put it in your fridge, you’re a sexual pervert. This guy does not have any perversity, because he does not have any sexuality. The desire in this film comes from the women. He just follows. It’s more like that. I like the fact that we have women in this film that are not the stereotype [of horror]. Normally in this kind of film, you have a 50-pound girl, blonde, and she’s the victim. Here, you have different types of women, you have one that is like really womanly, and then the smaller girl, and the chubby girl, and the older woman. I try to diversify the women, not to have the same size blonde women everywhere screaming, “Ahhhhh!” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: One of the things that really interested me about the women in this film is so much of the dynamic goes on between them without words. A lot of meaningful looks pass between them, where they communicate “I’m jealous,” or “Stop that,” or “It’s not my fault.” Were you particularly interested here in the relationships between women?
Satrapi: Yes, of course. These characters work together, and they have a relationship. Of course, it’s not like—in most films, women fight each other because of a man. But we are sophisticated human beings. There is more to us than who has the smallest waist, and who has the biggest success with men. The relationship between these women is very, very interesting. Again, these are not things I do consciously. For me, life is like that. And if you don’t show it, it’s unlike life. I just try to do something close to what I consider life, from what I see with my own eyes.
The Dissolve: All your stories find comedy in pain. You’re serious about your own pain and you have empathy for others’, but you also laugh at how melodramatic people can be about their problems.
Satrapi: Yeah, but this is also life. It doesn’t happen that somebody is always sad, or always laughs. That doesn’t exist. In the middle of everything is always a moment of laughter. There’s always a moment when you take a step away. I have lived enough that in the most difficult moment, you have to laugh, or else you just completely destroy the equilibrium. It’s extremely important to have that. That is to be human being, to function this way. I just try to copy what I see in life.
I read somewhere that one of the Taviani brothers, the Italian moviemakers, said, “If you look for life, you will find your style. And if you look for your style, you will find death.” I think if I have any style, it’s because of my research, of what I consider to be real life. How does it really function? Personally, if I’m really angry, and I’m in the middle of a fight, there’s always a moment that I look at myself and find myself completely ridiculous. If I’m shouting, I’m like, “What are you doing?” It makes me laugh, I can never be 100 percent angry, because I look at myself and say, “You’re not a dog, stop barking.”
The Dissolve: Are the fantasy elements and surrealism in your films part of the process of stepping back and looking at a situation from a new angle?
Satrapi: Oh yes, absolutely, and that is the most exciting part of it. I live in reality. I am real. Everything that I do is real. Cinema is a place that I can exactly do whatever I want. Everything is possible. The only person who can put a limit to what I can do is myself. Stories like The Voices, it’s like, “We talk about killers all the time, but no one has seen the fantastic world of Jerry, so I can do whatever I want. It’s just like a big playground.” I like it a lot because of that. As much as I love to experience new things, I will never do a franchise. I don’t like The Transporter, but let’s say I have to make Transporter as a franchise. You have to make the same film. It has a certain look, it has to have a certain rhythm, so there is nothing I can actually create. Projects like this, independent projects where you can really construct the whole world as the world you’d like to see, that is very good. That is what excites me the most.
The Dissolve: A lot of the fantasy in this story comes across through design and color, contrasting the real world with the world as Jerry sees it. How did you conceive of set, color, and light design as story elements?
Satrapi: Well, my background, before everything, I’m a painter. So I have a very obsessional relationship with colors. For example, I don’t like purple. That is not a color I can use, because I really dislike this color. And there’s something with a frame. If the lines are not parallel, it really, really makes me sick. I will change a hotel room because I cannot move the television, and it is not parallel. It really can drive me mad. So there are things I think are beautiful. I love the color pink, and mixed with orange, it is great. I love it. So there is the fantastic world of Jerry: Why should I put in gray when I can put in something I find beautiful? Also, in this film, we are actually with Jerry. This is one of the rare films about a killer where we are with the killer, not with the victims. This world has to beautiful enough that when he takes his medicine, and he goes into the ugly real world, we should say, “Geez, don’t take your pills anymore. Let’s quit this dirty world, and go back to what it was before.” And you have to have a great production designer who goes in the same direction as you, and then you have it.
The Dissolve: There’s a lot of big, broad comedy in the film, but I also kept noticing little comic touches, like the butt-hop people have to do to get out of bench seats in restaurants. Were there little comic touches in the movie that you’re particularly proud of?
Satrapi: Lots of things like that. When Alison is coming, and Ryan is eating his cereal, and he finishes it like a chicken with grain. He chews extremely fast. This is one of the moments that makes me laugh every time. Every time, seeing him put his head back and forth, and chewing as fast as possible. Or when he’s making the karate, and he had his cellphone attached to his underwear. There is small stuff like that I enjoyed. If I don’t enjoy something, how can I make other people enjoy it? If I like it a lot, probably I will find another five people who would like it a lot too, because thank God, I’m not alone in this world.
The Dissolve: So what’s next? Do you have next projects in mind?
Satrapi: I’m preparing another exhibition of paintings, but I am basically working on two films now. But I am very superstitious, so I prefer that we make it first [before talking about it]. And then if I do it, because you’re a journalist, you will know it even before me.
The Dissolve: In a general sense, though, do you want to keep making American, English-language movies?
Satrapi: Yes, because I enjoyed a lot working here. I learned a lot of things. Just because I like to work with different scriptwriters doesn’t mean I will never write any other story, but to collaborate with another scriptwriter really taught me a lot, and my world became bigger. And then I need to paint, because painting is really a moment when you don’t have to deal with anyone. You don’t need to explain, justify, nothing.