The Academy Award-nominated director and best-selling author of Persepolis recently visited the fifth annual Kustendorf Film and Music Festival to screen her new live action film, Chicken with Plums. A passion project of Balkan director Emir Kusturica, Kustendorf brings together new student filmmakers with some of the world’s greatest auteurs in the mountains of Mokra Gora. Satrapi enchanted the audience at a special workshop, where more than a few young men broke traditional Q&A form to stand up and declare their love for her.
Chicken with Plums, due out in the US later this year, was co-written and directed with Satrapi’s frequent collaborator Vincent Paronnaud. Less explicitly political than Persepolis, Plums tells the story of a man who dies over a lost love. That the object of his affection, an angelic woman from his past, is named “Iran” is no small coincidence — this visually stunning fairytale mourns a lost dream of democracy.
In person, Satrapi herself is stunning, perhaps due to her constitutional inability to mince words. I spoke with her about the perils of the artist’s life, the impossibility of ever becoming a morning person, and how her perspective on “changing the world” has evolved over the past 20 years.
Film still from Persepolis.
Why were you attracted to the graphic novel art form?
Well for me, who is someone who cannot choose between writing and drawing, it was the best way of expressing myself. And I enjoyed doing it for a long time very much, but it’s very solitary. And now the love of my life is the cinema, and maybe in three years it will be something else. But I don’t have any career plans like, oh, I will do this or that.Life is too short and we cannot spoil it. I don’t have 300 years in front of me. So I just do the things that I really want to do at the moment because that’s the only way you will do them well. If you don’t believe in yourself, it won’t work.Because creation, you know, it means that you don’t have any salary, you don’t have any retirement, all of that. So if you don’t have the security, at least have the freedom. I go for the freedom.
What was it like for you to go from animation with Persepolis to live action filmmaking in Chicken with Plums?
It was very cool because live action is like living four years of your life in four months. Everything is extremely extreme. It’s a little bit like taking hard drugs. You get really high and then you go down, and then you’re like, “Never ever in my life I will touch this shit again.” And then, once you are fine, you feel like taking it again.
With a feature animation, it’s a little bit like running a marathon. It’s a long thing. And I’m not a marathon runner. So I had more joy making a live action movie than an animation. I would like to make an animation project again, but a short animation project. A long animation feature takes lots of lots of time. It’s very slow.
Film still from Persepolis.
Do you consider yourself a rebel?
Actually, I never thought very differently from other people. Many times I have heard people say that I was a rebel, but I’m not a rebel at all. A rebel is when you know you’re conscious of something that you’re fighting against.With me, I just don’t understand why I should do what people tell me to do. The majority is always wrong. I mean if the majority was right, then we would live in a better world. But the world is not good, which means that the majority is always, always wrong.So you always have your personal way of thinking, and you just cannot let it go. There are things that I believe in and nothing in this world would make me change my mind.
What’s your creative process like?
When I wake up in the morning I am in a very bad mood. This is the start. I’m not really a morning person. I work almost everyday. Even if it’s just a little bit. But I kind of like to be distracted, too. Sometimes I need to read, and sometimes I need to do nothing.
But when I start a project then I really live like a nazi. That means you wake up at a certain hour, you eat in a certain way, you make some exercise, you have to be in shape. For example, if at lunchtime you eat a lot, then you cannot work. So you have to watch everything, like the military service. You wake up, you make your pushups, you shout, stuff like that.
Do distractions help you be more productive?
I think you need that, of course. You know, for example, you make a movie, and then you do one year of promotion, then you seriously need one moment where you have to stop and be full of something to want to tell something new. So for that you need to be distracted.
What have you learned from your career as an artist?
With an artistic work, I think you know if you have to make it or not because either you can live without it, or you can’t. With all this Internet shit, people have the feeling that everybody’s an artist. It’s not true. And not everybody is a good doctor, nor everybody a good surgeon. But I think everybody has a talent. But this talent could be that you are a very good plumber, which is great, because society needs that, too. Of course all of us have something to express, but do we know the way of expressing it?
Film still from Chicken with Plums.
How can you tell if someone has real talent?
I think if somebody has to make an artistic work, he will finish it no matter what. It has nothing to do with the money, with the time. I was sure that I was not made for artistic work, and I tried to make another kind of work. I was supporting myself, you know, making all sorts of shit work that everybody else does. And I got completely depressed. I had to take pills, and I was really not well. So it wasn’t that I decided [to be an artist]; I just didn’t have any other way out. It was that or I would be in the mental hospital. It was as easy as that.
If you have to do something then you do it. People say, “I want to make this movie but I don’t have real connections.” You don’t need to have real connections. If you really have to do it, then you will finish it, I’m sure of that.
What’s the best way to finish a project?
It’s just work, work, work. You can be the most gifted person in the world, but if you don’t work, you don’t have any results. So if you want to do things, then you have to do them, just for the joy of doing it, not for becoming famous, not for this, not for that.When I made Persepolis, we had all the awards you could expect that somebody would have with a first film. And then I said to myself, “Why do I want a movie? Do I want to be on the red carpet again or what is it?” But I experienced the red carpet, and it was extremely stressful. You know, you have bad stomach; you don’t feel well; the makeup guy has given you a look that doesn’t fit you at all; you’re not comfortable; you’re sweating.
So I know why I make things. It’s not the red carpet. Though, you know, when the movie gets applauded in Venice then I’m very happy. I’m stupid enough to like the competition and I’m stupid enough to enjoy winning. But it’s not enough. We need more. We need personal satisfaction.
Trailer for Chicken with Plums.
What’s the message you hope people take away from Chicken with Plums?
I don’t have any message. If people can enjoy one and a half hours and dream, this is enough for me. Even when I was 25 years old, I wanted to change the world and I said to myself, “I cannot change the world.” When I was 30 years old, I said to myself, “I definitely will change the world.” At the age of 35, I realized that the world was changing me, and I didn’t like that at all. And now I’m 40. I’ve decided it’s on me to change, and maybe by my own change, I can change the small world around me.