The producers of "The Artist" handed out reusable water canteens to the crew and cast, a water-saving measure that writer-director Michel Hazanavicius admits he'd never have thought of on his own. "I was here to make a movie, not to save trees, but I'm very happy that we did it," says the French filmmaker, whose delightful silent movie blends old Hollywood nostalgia and feel-good romance. It may be dialogue-free, but the Oscar buzz surrounding the black and white movie, opening in limited release Nov. 25, is deafening — and deservedly so. Hazanavicius says most people thought he was "crazy or unconscious" to make it, and he had to dismiss his own self-doubts. "I think you have to try sometimes to do things that people don't think are doable," he says, calling the silent format "the purest way to tell a story."
Hazanavicius cast French comic actor Jean Dujardin (named best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival) as George Valentin, a silent film star unable to make the transition to talkies, and his wife, Berenice Bejo, for whom he wrote the role of Peppy Miller, the chorus girl who becomes a star, and filled the supporting roles with familiar American faces: John Goodman as a movie studio chief, and James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Missi Pyle as Valentin's chauffeur, wife and leading lady.
To prepare, Hazanavicius watched old Hollywood movies, read autobiographies, examined photographs and listened to music by composers like Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Bernard Hermann, Alfred Newman and Leonard Bernstein. "This is a period that's very cinegenic — the cars, the props, the suits, the haircuts, the dresses, everything," he says of the late '20s-early '30s milieu, which he recreated on Hollywood backlots, at iconic locations including Mary Pickford's home, and by playing film scores from "Sunset Boulevard" and "Vertigo" on set.
Dujardin watched Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gene Kelly and Clark Gable movies for inspiration, while Bejo screened Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson films and read Swanson's autobiography, and both had tap dance lessons to prepare for their big dance scene. Miller also watched some silents, "but I think this movie goes beyond the silent films," she says, praising Hazanavicius' ability to "take every cliché in the book and make them unique and original and reinvent them and make them exciting to watch."
The director's meticulous attention to detail and verisimilitude in the settings, props, hair, makeup and costumes helped Miller (pictured right) and her co-stars immensely, she says, but there were challenges nevertheless. "We are so used to hearing our voices and relying on the inflections and conveying our emotions through the timbre of our voice. The daunting task here is that we have to rely on our faces and our feelings and our expressions, not being over the top and trying to be authentic to the period. It was a fine line and you didn't want to cross it," says Miller, who actually has silent film experience, appearing in film-within-the-film sequences in "Chaplin."
Cromwell, who "only had 16 lines in 'Babe,'" and deems it virtually a silent performance, says he approached his latest role the same as he would any other. "We still speak, it's just not recorded," he reminds. "There's no printed dialogue, so we made up our own," elaborates Goodman. "It's much more liberating and you're able to be more present because you're not worried about your next line," notes Pyle.
The comedienne, who has a few independent films in the works including "My Uncle Rafael" and one she's producing called "A Boy With a Moustache," has been following a mostly-vegan diet and using fewer napkins and paper towels, the result of staying for a few weeks with friend Alicia Silverstone, "the greenest human being. She was a very good influence on me." Cromwell, an active PETA supporter, has two movies in the can: he plays a World War II veteran in "Memorial Day" and a man whose wife has Alzheimer's disease in "Still," and can be in "A Lonely Place For Dying" online at Vodo.net.
Goodman, who recurs on "Community," will be on screen in January as a doorman in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and is recording voiceovers for the "Monsters, Inc." prequel "Monsters University" while shooting "Flight" with Denzel Washington. Miller will play Mary Todd Lincoln in "Saving Lincoln" and be seen in the family adventure "Robosapien" and tragic drama "Saving Grace B. Jones." Hazanavicius hasn't announced his next project, but it will likely be contemporary, and very well might star Dujardin and Bejo, who first appeared together in his James Bond-esque spoof "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies." Both would love to work in the U.S. again. "If the door is open and something happened and it was nice and interesting, then why not?" Bejo asks.
Noting that America is much more eco-aware than her home country, Bejo says that "In France we recycle but it's very new — it's not like here." Dujardin has a garden at his home in the south of France, where he grows carrots, peppers, beans and salad greens. "But there are lots of wild boars around there and they steal the food."
Hazanavicius and his actors acknowledge that getting audiences accustomed to chatty, if not downright noisy, movies into theaters to see "The Artist" will be a battle, but critical valentines and placement on top ten and Oscar shortlists will certainly help. Hazanavicius knows it's now up to Weinstein Company marketers and word of mouth, because once people see the movie they love it. "I can do nothing except screen the movie and hope they will say so to their friends."
Photo: The Weinstein Company