Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Tales of an Alien Director
It’s hard to match the early success of the Alien franchise. The first two movies in the series, while radically different, as both near-perfect entries in their respective genres. The third movie wasn’t as successful, but it did introduce the world to director David Fincher who went on to do great things. Given the pedigree of the series, whoever was chosen to directed the fourth alien movie – one that was intended to set the series back on the right course – was going to have enormous shoes to fill.
After nearly every American director passed on the opportunity, the job ultimately went to French film-maker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jeunet had previously collaborated with Marc Caro on the films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. His co-director opted out of the Hollywood game leaving Jeunet to handle 20th Century Fox and Sigourney Weaver solo. Alien 4 didn’t resurrect the series as intended, but Jeunet managed to bounce back with his next movie, Amélie.
No series of films has more deeply or disturbingly penetrated the dark corridors of our collective moviegoing psyche than Alien, Aliens and Alien3. Consider the caliber of the directors alone. A 1979 peak form Ridley Scott brought razor precision to the psychological shock of the original Alien, and registered 10.0 on the primal Richter scale. A 1986 peak-form James Cameron reimagined the monster tale as an ultimate action thrill ride; Aliens was unsurpassed for lean, muscular drive. The young, gifted David Fincher, who would go on to make the visually arresting, style-setting hit Se7en, brought an art-house sensibility to Alien3, veering the series into despairing, brainy existentialism. And there begins our story about the fourth Alien, appropriately titled Alien Resurrection. The entire Alien franchise did indeed need to be resurrected after Fincher’s fascinating film killed off Sigourney Weaver’s heroine and alienated ticket buyers at the same time.
Faced with a platinum franchise on the interstellar skids, Fox made one great move that set this much-hoped-for Alien Resurrection in motion. The studio nurtured a crackerjack script by Joss Whedon that brought Ripley back from the dead (through the wonders of cloning), and lured a discouraged Sigourney Weaver back to play her. Then began the search for a director who could do for Ripley and audiences what Ridley Scott and James Cameron had done–while avoiding the pitfalls David Fincher had slipped into. No wonder the trade press and Internet fans followed the manhunt for the next Alien director with rabid interest. Early reports had Danny Boyle, after Shallow Grave and before Trainspotting, meeting with Sigourney Weaver, whom Fox executives were anxious to please. Part of these discussions between the uncompromisingly individualistic Boyle and his possible star centered on his being reassured that he would be able to make his own mark on the gargantuan production. Boyle didn’t buy it. Neither, apparently, did David Cronenberg. While promoting Crash, Cronenberg told reporters he’d declined the job out of reservations about autonomy. Marco Brambilla, a Ridley Scott protege, was also said to have considered the assignment. When, after all the rumors, Fox execs announced that their choice would be French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, eyebrows shot upwards. Jean-Pierre who? If you still don’t know, I’ll tell you.
Visionaries are scarce in the movies. Four or so years ago, I waited for the end credits of Delicatessen, a wry, visually stunning, French-made romp about cannibalism, certain that whoever had directed it was a visionary. To my surprise, there turned out to be two visionaries, codirectors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Later I read that these 17-year collaborators, who were known for award winning commercials, music I videos and short films, divided up the directorial duties as follows: Caro took care of the look of the film; Jeunet concentrated on the actors and the cinematographer. Both were said to be painstaking control freaks who micromanaged down to the very dust motes. Four years later, I rushed to see the team’s The City of Lost Children, a wondrous-looking fantasy film in which a waif and a giant team up to vanquish an aging mad scientist. The film’s extravagant retro-futurism was like some glorious head-on collision of Cirque du Soleil with Jules Verne with The Wizard of Oz. I knew that from then on, I’d see any bit of inspired, sardonic weirdness these two guys got themselves up to. Alien Resurrection was not what I expected the next project to be.
Jeunet turns out to be a quietly striking-looking guy with the diffident, tuned-in-to-his-own-frequency vibe of an animator or computer effects wiz. Bizarrely enough, he looks tanned and rested, though he’s in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a high-profile sci-fi epic that could prove to be a major hit for a studio that could use one. I could have chosen to start our conversation by asking why Jeunet thought Fox had entrusted Alien Resurrection to one half of a French team known for arty, exotic, low-budget films, but I decide to go for a question that might have a concrete answer: “So why, after all the other American offers you’d gotten, did you say yes to doing a huge franchise movie?
“With the question hanging in the air, Jeunet regards me as if I were tres fou. “If I had said, ‘No,'” he answers, “I would have never again been able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning.
“It was quite impossible for me to say, ‘No,'” Jeunet continues. “Before Alien Resurrection was offered to me, I’d always say, ‘I prefer freedom to do the kinds of weird movies I like to make.’ But I knew I had to have this experience. I mean, to do an Alien movie? Now, that is unique.
“Unique and scary as hell,” I point out.
Jeunet nods. “The people who made the first Alien were artists,” he asserts, his gaze shifting involuntarily to a boxed video set of the trilogy that sits at the ready by a TV monitor on his office shelf. “Ridley Scott, [alien designer H.R.] Giger, the writers–they invented everything. The rest of us who follow are artisans. That first film is a work of art, an entity all its own. The second is an action movie, probably the most efficient and precise of them all. The third is the most artistic one, but the script really had a problem. And the fourth? That will be the best of all.” Jeunet utters the last pronouncement with an ironic grin–he’s more wishful than boastful.
“What is it that gives these movies such resonance?” I ask him.
“It’s something deep that captures people,” he observes. “For me, the idea of a monster that explodes from a person’s chest is not just suggestive of a terrible disease, but an evil that we all have within ourselves, an evil that is only waiting for us to release it. You remember the moment in Lawrence of Arabia when Lawrence tells his colonel he wants to go away because he’s killed a man? The colonel says, It’s war, these things happen in war. But Lawrence is disturbed because killing gave him pleasure. The Alien films are informed by that awareness.”
Did Jeunet chat up any of his predecessors or his competitors before he accepted the daunting challenge of shaping the fourth Alien? “I only talked with David Fincher. Oh mannnn, for him, it was a nightmare. Even though Sigoumey was very much [in support] of him, it was [still] his first film. He was 28. The script wasn’t ready. I love his film, but I must say that having Ripley die at the end was absolutely insupportable. Each time I see the film, it makes me so depressed I immediately have to watch ‘Mr Bean.'”
Jeunet was not arrogant enough to plunge into his Alien project without thinking about Fincher’s failure, or about the benchmarks set by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. “I was absolutely, completely terrified. I didn’t sleep the night before we began shooting because of jet lag. All through that night, I kept thinking of the first Alien, going, Oh man, is it possible that I’m actually doing this film? I kept thinking, I have to find a big idea, right at the beginning of the movie, first page of the script, to make sure I can even do this. I felt like I was the high-diver in the circus. Either I had to jump or I had to descend down the ladder. I jumped. I thought of a nice idea for the titles–which I can’t tell you because it’s a surprise in the movie–but I told it to the people at the studio and they were all happy. I also changed the ending, because nobody liked that. Again, the studio accepted it. I was relieved and that made me feel free.”
Jeunet’s confidence was rapidly put to the test by Sigourney Weaver, who, after all, had seen the series through three previous movies and directors, who exercises director approval, and who protects her interest in the franchise a little like Ripley guarded Newt. Did things indeed grow so cool between star and director that they stopped speaking altogether? “There were some difficulties,” Jeunet concedes, widening his eyes and chortling at the question. “That was hard for me, because if Sigourney had doubts about me .. . well, it’s a terrible thing to be in doubt when you’re working. We had met before we started the movie. I like to know exactly what an actor is going to do–I don’t want to discover it on the set, because then you’re shooting. Within five minutes of our being together, I knew exactly what she wanted to do with the part. But then …”
“But then things suddenly got rocky?” I offer Jeunet nods. “I thought, After all these other directors who have done Alien movies, Sigourney has come to the conclusion that I am nothing. That I’m incapable. That lasted three days.”
Jeunet pauses, then continues, “I’d known from the beginning, because I could see she was very strong, that one day there would be sparks. That much was obvious. And that’s not a problem at all. On every project, there are fights–it’s almost obligatory. But I also realized that an actor needs to understand that the director is strong. So, I did something to her–it’s an intimate something between her and me–and suddenly, that was it. It was over. Her smile came back.”
What exactly was this intimate something that brought back Weaver’s smile? “I will not tell you,” Jeunet insists, quite the discreet gentleman and quite the tease. No matter what else I ask about this emotional pas de deux, Jeunet will not dish. “I think it was just a matter of different personalities finding ways to work together,” he demurs. “These things that happen are just a part of beginning to work together, of dealing with a relationship.” And these things did not, apparently, keep him from appreciating his star. “She has real courage, great imagination,” he declares. “What I had to do was to be there to help her, to push her when I thought it was good, to give her a signal when I thought it wasn’t. It’s impossible to hide anything from her. She’d say something like, Jean-Pierre, didn’t you only last week shoot this scene in close-up?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I did.’ And she’d say, ‘So, how are you going to edit that with what we’re doing now?’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh man, she knows.'”
In the movie, Ripley has been cloned, so she embodies both human and alien traits. As such, she is something of a predatory vamp. How much did Jeunet contribute to the conception of Weaver’s character? “The sensuality, the almost vampire-like quality was a direction she wanted to go in,” he explains. “But I pushed it. There are going to be some very surprising aspects of that sensuality. Sigoumey is a special case. There are not many women capable of starring in an action movie, women who can be believable carrying a gun. She’s a kind of male fantasy: the woman with the gun. But when she does action scenes, she doesn’t become Rambo. She’s strong, yet open. There’s something completely believable about her. We both know that women are stronger then men. Sigoumey represents that strength. Everything she does in this role works.”
Since we know Sigourney was tough on Jeunet, I’m curious how tough she was on herself. “I have to tell you a story about Sigourney’s willpower,” Jeunet confides. “We had a scene in which her character was supposed to shoot a basketball into a basket from behind her back and from very far away. We had a special effects person, of course, but Sigourney trained to do it herself. I said, ‘Sigourney, let’s do it with the special effects.’ She insisted she wanted to do it, but in the end, she said, ‘OK, I’m going to throw it and let special effects sink the ball in the basket.’ She walked away 15 meters from the net, threw it from behind and it fell right through the middle of the net. That is impossible to do, even for a professional. She wanted to do it, she trained and she did it. That’s the way Sigourney is.”
And what’s the way Winona is? “She has a magical quality. God’s little finger is pushing Winona along,” Jeunet says, smiling. “You can make a take of everything she does, but if you need 20, she’s perfect on all of them. Sometimes, I would need a close-up of her, a reaction, when, because of special effects, I didn’t actually have an alien for her to react to. I’d say, ‘I m going to tell you what the alien is going to be doing, going here, here, here.’ She’d say, Jean-Pierre, I have a powerful imagination.’ And she’d do everything exactly right. She’s even better in the dailies than when you’re on the set, and she’s better still when you edit the details.
“I understood right away that we had to adapt the character to Winona, not the other way around,” Jeunet continues. “In the script, the character was very tough and I didn’t think it would be good for Winona to do that. I thought instead it would be interesting to have this character in a science-fiction movie be almost like a little girl from an old fairy tale lost in a huge forest.”
“Your previous movies are filled with extraordinary, bizarre faces, something that clearly fires you up,” I comment to Jeunet. “Did you get similarly inspired by working with these two movie-star faces?”
“Sigourney has an extraordinarily intense, extreme face,” Jeunet observes. “Winona’s is almost the opposite. She’s like an angel. To put that angel in a universe full of extremes was interesting” to me–the angel among the ogres. Movie-star faces are interesting, but it always depends upon the role and the story. A face has to be as ‘right’ for a movie as the set or the costumes or lighting. Why not Julia Roberts in this movie, for instance? Because she would not have a place in an Alien movie. It would not work. Neither would Juliette Binoche–she’s one of the rare French actresses I admire, but, again [not for this] kind of film. It’s difficult for me because I mostly work in France and will probably continue to do that, but there are no movie stars in France anymore. Tarantino was right to say that French moviemaking is in such a terrible state because of the lack of movie stars.”
What about the differences between French filmmakers and Hollywood filmmaking? “In France, we imagine Hollywood in terms of terrible artistic pressure, but financial [freedom]. The surprise on Alien Resurrection was that there was artistic [freedom], and that the real pressure was money.” Then again, Jeunet adds in the studio’s defense, “It’s a principle, whether it’s commercials, shorts or features: you never have enough money to make the movie you want.”
I ask Jeunet how it felt to do all this without his cohort, Caro. “I missed him sometimes, especially when we were working on costumes,” he answers. “Caro did work on the movie a little bit. He did sketches of the costumes and hair and those ideas made it into the movie. It was so tough every day–sometimes 16 hours a day–and there were so many things to decide that I would have liked to be able to deal with one thing and nothing else while Caro dealt with other things. Honestly, though? It might not have been that bad in the end, because with time being what it was, I had to step back a little bit and let the details take care of themselves.”
Jeunet leans forward slightly on the couch. “It’s odd that I somehow felt less pressure on this movie than on The City of Lost Children,” he confides. “I didn’t write this movie. Directing a film you’ve written is like giving birth to, then raising your child. Directing a film that you didn’t write is like raising an adopted kid. It’s rather nice. It’s probably easier to do better work this way because I’m more objective. Also, I have an enormous studio behind me here. I hope the studio is going to make a lot of money on this movie, but it’s not as if it’s with a French producer who, unless he makes money, is going to be on the street. So, I guess I’m a little cooler. Now, of course, if this movie is good, one kind of pressure will go down, but another kind of pressure could rise.”
Given Jeunet’s apparent equanimity, not to mention the primal, dreamlike quality of his films, I can’t resist asking if he’s ever engaged in anything like psychoanalysis. “Therapy?” he asks. “I think that’s very American. The answer is no. I don’t want to be cured. Obviously, I’d have to change jobs.”
What if Alien Resurrection, with its kick-butt underwater action sequences, and its creation of a new strain of monster, the Newborn, wins over fans and critics in a major way? Will Jeunet be tempted to tackle another installment? “Clearly, it’s much better for a new director to be involved each time. Each of the films has been so close to and typical of the directors who made it, whereas the last two Batman movies have been done by the same director. The next Alien should be very different from this one. Each film should renew the series. [In any case] I wouldn’t want to do another American film right now. I want to do a quiet, personal film next–without special effects, without the pressure.”
So, according to its director, is Alien Resurrection a worthy successor to its scary, hellaciously entertaining, unsettling predecessors? “I’m not far enough yet from it to talk about its mood, its feeling, its strengths,” Jeunet observes. “I have to say, I’ve had all my shots and vaccinations against big success or big failure. You’ve got to keep an even hand, keep yourself cold and detached from it. I hope people will like the movie. I hope the things I love in the movie will remain in the final cut. In fact, I pray nightly that the things I love will stay in it. But, you see, all I want is freedom. I don’t want to be, I want to make.”
Stephen Rebello interviewed David Caruso for the October issue of Movieline.