Jean-Pierre Jeunet: "It was easy to make Amélie"

Feature by Simon Bland | 09 Mar 2016

Visionary French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the epic sets of The City of Lost Children, the freedom of Alien: Resurrection and painting his own version of Paris with Amélie 

Together with fellow director Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet took French cinema deep into a dystopian future with 1995’s The City of Lost Children. This dark fantasy stars Ron Perlman and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon in the story of a deranged scientist who is unable to dream and forced to steal the sleeping thoughts of local children. Sound a little twisted? It is.

Recently given a Blu-ray polish, we caught up with Jeunet to get his thoughts on the film 21 years later, discuss the many charming qualities of Amélie and hear about the director’s steamy future project...

The Skinny: What are your thoughts looking back at The City of Lost Children?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet: The last time I watched it I was pretty happy. I was checking the Blu-ray and I wanted to see just the beginning but I couldn’t give up – I watched the whole thing, so that’s a good sign. I remember when I was in LA preparing Alien: Resurrection and across the street was a cinema playing The City of Lost Children. I watched – I even paid for my seat – and I was totally depressed because I saw only the defects. It’s not a perfect movie, especially the first 15 minutes. It’s a little complicated and we needed more shots because it was so difficult to shoot, but after 20 minutes it gets better. I’m happy with it.

The City of Lost Children was one of the last movies made for real”

What are your fondest memories from the set?

We made every set for real. It was a huge set with a sea, waves, the streets, the canal – it looked amazing. The first day we got lost in the set, it was so big; it was unique. It was one of the last movies made for real. CG is cool because at the end you can have a better result but the joy to make it is not the same. All my life I will remember the expressions of the kids discovering the set. They were absolutely stunned with an open mouth. Even Ron Perlman was totally stunned.

Speaking of Ron Perlman, he isn’t an obvious choice for the role of One – especially as he doesn’t speak French. Why did you cast him?

He had maybe one or two pages of dialogue – he was pretty quiet, so the visual aspect of the guy was much more important. I remember we did some casting with French and German people and then Marc Caro saw Ron Perlman in Kronos by Guillermo del Toro. I remember we thought, "Why don’t we send the script to his agent?" But his agent put it directly in the trash because it was French. We eventually reached Ron with the help of Jean-Jacques Annaud and he loved the script and fired his agent because of it.

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Do you plan to re-team with Ron in the future?

Yes, I wanted him for The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet for a little character but I gave it to Dominique Pinon because he plays in all my films, otherwise it would have been Ron Perlman. It was for the hobo in the wagon, the guy with the wax on the shoes with the story about the birds.

What is it about Dominique Pinon that makes you want to use him in all of your films?

He surprises me all the time. I remember for Amélie I told him "I don’t have anything interesting for you" and he read the script and said "Oh, I can play the jealous guy!" And he was great. If he is funny in the film it’s all because of him because on paper it was nothing.

“On Alien: Resurrection, artistically, I had lots of freedom”

You made Alien: Resurrection shortly after The City of Lost Children – that must have been quite a jump...

Yeah, but on Alien: Resurrection strangely I had more freedom. The pressure was much more about the budget because they wanted to save money all the time. I was alone on set, they were not there. They just watched the dailies and came on set to say, "It’s sublime! It’s beautiful! Let’s continue." I think it’s very different now. That’s why I turned down Harry Potter, because I had the feeling I couldn’t be free, but on Alien..., artistically, I had lots of freedom. Nothing compared to France of course. In France I have the final cut and I am totally free, like with The City of Lost Children – it was a big, expensive movie.

Were you intent on making your mark on the Alien franchise?

I tried to include some humour because I don’t like scary movies – they’re not my cup of tea. It’s a bit of a paradox for Alien and sometimes the American audiences didn’t like that but I couldn’t avoid putting some humour in there.

You followed up Alien: Resurrection with Amélie – was it a welcome relief to be shooting in France again?

Yeah because LA isn’t a city, it’s a big suburb and to live for twenty months in LA was not very pleasant, even if I was allowed to have a big house and a car and all that. I had the pleasure to be back in France to make a personal movie with my friends. But sometimes it was so easy to make Amélie. I missed the pressure of making Alien...! I thought "This is too easy. This is too cool!"

Amélie's about generosity and in this crazy world we need some positive stories”

Why do you think Amélie resonates so well with audiences?

We have several strong ideas in Amélie, but the main of course is the story of someone helping other people and not wanting something in return. Amélie does that for free. It’s about generosity and I think especially in this crazy world we need some positive stories. Also, everything Amélie loves – like putting her hand in the grains – these small details are touching for everybody.

Do you feel responsible for creating a certain on-screen version of Paris?

Yeah, absolutely. When I was back in Paris I thought, "Wow! Paris is so beautiful." After a while you don’t see it and it was fantastic to modify the reality. In fact, it’s probably because I come from animation but I feel like a painter. The French love reality cinema but it’s not interesting for me – as a director I prefer to modify the reality like a painter.

What do you have planned next?

I’ve spent the whole day writing about sex and sensuality – something a bit like Amélie but about sex. It could be like L’Homme qui Aimait les Femmes [The Man Who Loved Women] by François Truffaut but of today and I would like to shoot in Aix-en-Provence because I’m tired of Paris now and Provence is beautiful. We’re on the way. We write and it’s a pleasure but, of course, it will take time.

The City of Lost Children is released on Blu-ray 14 Mar by StudioCanal – order your copy here