Michel Hazanavicius conjured The Artist as a silent crowd pleaser

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      TORONTO—By the time The Artist arrived at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, everybody was already buzzing about how the Palme d’Or nominee had the chance to become the first silent movie to receive an Oscar for best picture since the invention of talkies.

      Since then, the black-and-white comedy (which opens this Friday [December 9]) set during the end of Hollywood’s silent-film era has racked up a hefty collection of awards, accolades, and year-end “best of” mentions.

      Just before his film’s screening at TIFF, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius answered the inevitable question from the Georgia Straight—“Why a silent movie?”—by jokingly responding: “Because somebody has to do it.” Then he laughed. “I really love the way that the stories are told in silent film. And as a director, I think it’s the most pure form of cinema.”

      During a one-on-one meeting in a downtown Toronto hotel, Hazanavicius explained that other directors have made silent movies in the past few decades, but other than Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie in 1976, they were all aimed at the art-house crowd. He said The Artist—starring Jean Dujardin as a silent-film heartthrob, James Cromwell as his loyal manservant, John Goodman as a movie mogul, and Hazanavicius’s real-life wife, Bérénice Bejo, as the star who is born with the birth of talking pictures—was created as a crowd pleaser.

      “Everybody thinks it’s very cerebral, very intellectual to go see a silent black-and-white movie, but actually, I think, as an audience [member], it’s the exact opposite. It’s very childish; you’re playing with the story. It’s very delighting and very sensual.”

      Hazanavicius dismissed the earliest silent films as “too primitive”, but he loves the movies made at the end of the silent era. He also recalled sitting in the audience as a kid watching Silent Movie, which he avoided rewatching while he was preparing The Artist. But just before shooting, he did cross paths with Brooks. Hazanavicius was visiting a Hollywood studio and saw a car in a space reserved for Brooks. “I said to my producer, ‘Do I understand well what I see there? Is that the car of Mel Brooks?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ And the woman who was with us, from the studios, said: ‘Yes, this is his office; do you want to see him? He’s a really good person, and he would be delighted to know that you’re doing a silent movie.’ ”

      “And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to disturb him.’ So we didn’t go to his office. And my cinematographer hated me for that, saying, ‘Why did you not say yes?’ And then I wrote later to him and I asked Mel Brooks if he wanted to do a small cameo, just an apparition in my movie. I said, ‘I’m a comedy director and I make comedies and I’m doing a silent movie and I’m Jewish, so, really, would you like to come?’ And he was too tired, because he’s an old man. He was tired and he was working on the Young Frankenstein musical, so he didn’t have the time. And I regretted not to have the guts to go to his office.”

      The way things are going for Hazanavicius, he’ll probably get to talk about silent movies with Brooks at the Oscars.

      Watch the trailer for The Artist.