Marjane Satrapi’s Muse
An international director in self-imposed exile from the culture and home that inspires her talks about melancholy, soap operatics and the more ludicrous dimensions of the American ‘dream.’
Marjane Satrapi’s is a very personal political vision from a writer (as well as graphic artist, painter, truth-talker and comedian) who, with a few key exceptions, stays as far from the conventional realm of politics and politicians as humanly possible. Her breakout graphic novel memoir-turned-animated feature film, 2007’s Persepolis, won her a Cesar in France and an Oscar nomination in the U.S. for its insouciant approach to storytelling, among other attractions. Satrapi, always candid and forthcoming, brings a new film to market (Chicken with Plums opens in many cities September 7), and with it, a new set of entertaining, philosophical, bawdy observations about the nature of the universe. I spoke with Satrapi in a San Francisco hotel as she toured with the film this past summer.
Keyframe: I last saw you at an opening for Persepolis here at the Sundance Kabuki.
Marjane Satrapi: I know that I was here, but I cannot tell you exactly why and when….Because I have travelled too much.
Keyframe: Do you travel a lot aside from traveling with films?
Satrapi: In Europe because everything is very close, I see the European countries…I travel a lot, yes, even without the films. I like to travel, but when I have the promotion time, there is no space for any other travel.
Keyframe: Does this get tedious? How long does this promotional campaign go?
Satrapi: It goes for almost a year, you know! I started last September because the movie opened in Venice. After that you have all these international festivals you go to, here and there. There are a few countries that when they make the release you have to go. And then the film opens. I have to come back to the U.S. in August for that.
Keyframe: And yet, in spite of being so busy, you already made another film since the completion of this latest, Chicken with Plums.
Satrapi: This other film I made was a very tiny film. We were a team of five people. We had one DOP [director of photography] who was a friend of ours. We were acting ourselves, doing everything ourselves. Why? When you make big projects, when you have a big production thing, etc. etc., sometimes it is very good to find yourself with your friends and have the joy of doing things ‘just for fun.’ Because sometimes we are so much in this…. While I’m preparing the film, etc., it’s all fun. But once it’s finished and you are in this whole machine of promotion, you are cut off from the reality. You forget WHY you are doing things. It’s an improvised film. Every day, I’m saying what am I going to do tomorrow? And I am acting myself? At the beginning, we really didn’t know if it would be a movie at all. Then we came back with the material. We shot a lot; we had this small Canon 5D camera. And that was it. Then it came back: It really didn’t look bad. It will come out in an intimate way, in a couple of theaters. Between two big projects, I always have this need for doing something really personal. Something in which no one is involved. I just do the thing for the joy of doing it.
Keyframe: That was a road movie?
Yes it was a road movie in Spain. It was completely improvised. You know, it has the pluses. When you make a movie with $20,000, and a small Canon 5D camera, you have the movie that you have. The joy of making it was to be in a car with a friend. …. It is a movie with a real story. I am quite happy about it. Going from one big project to another big project to another big project is not my style. I need to do something just for the joy of it.
Keyframe: What was the last personal project? Between Persepolis and this?
Satrapi: Between Persepolis and this, I did one year of painting. Then I looked at it, and threw everything out. Because I thought whatever I did was crap. You know, when you’re an Oscar nominee and everything… at one point, I believed I was really interesting. I was like, ‘OK, my paintings are very interesting because I am myself.’ And like six months after that, I looked and them and I was like, ‘This is fucking crap.’ I didn’t want to look at them one bit. I threw them all out and started over. And now I’m happy with them [the new pieces]. I’m going to have an exhibition in September. Between Persepolis and the painting…. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. As a child, either I was drawing, or I was gathering all the kids in the street and making a show with them. It’s again the same thing that I am doing. The only thing is that today, because there is money involved, fame involved, this involved, that involved, sometimes it takes me far from my real motivation. That’s why I always need to go back and do these things as if I never did it before. Do it for the fun of it.
Everybody talks about Iran after 1979: his beard, its weapon, nuclear war. Nobody talks about our great poets and our great philosophers and our great art and 4,000 years of history. Nobody talks about that. This is an identity that has been confiscated from us. When I make a film like ‘Chicken with Plums,’ it’s as important to say, you know in this country in ‘58, a man died because of a love of a woman. These people are capable of dying because of love. People there are glamorous, They are beautiful. They have big feelings. Just exactly like you. It’s just as important as going and raising up the hand.
So this new movie is half experimental, half conceptual, half with a friend, half road movie film. But I really really enjoyed doing it. No money no pressure. It’s free. That’s what’s good.
Keyframe: Chicken with Plums leaves you with the idea that it’s about desires: fulfilled, unfulfilled, buried. Was that the inception? Where did your need to tell that particular story come from?
Satrapi: When I wrote this story, actually, that was a moment of my life—I am always obsessed by the idea of death—but at this moment, I was even more obsessed by the idea of death, and what is the artist and what is the desire and what is love and what is the notion of pleasure in life. The movie talks a lot about desire. The chicken with plum is the last pleasure of your life. The basic pleasure is the pleasure of eating. I have the pleasure of smoking and of drinking and of making love. I can survive. I can survive without all these things. I would be miserable. But you can’t survive if you don’t eat. You are miserable and you are dead at the same time. I saw this picture of my great uncle, who is the uncle of my mother. And you know, it has something extremely melancholic in his face. I love the notion of melancholia. I don’t believe we should be always ‘on’ and ‘ha ha ha.’ I’m not like that. Sometimes I am really depressed and I love that. Sometimes I have lots of melancholy and I love that. And sometimes I feel like sitting in my house and crying, and I love that. I cannot be on all the time. I am not like this positive HA HA HA…. Bom ba bah. It’s not me. And I don’t think any human being is like that. Or they have to lie to themselves all the time. For that I would have to take pills, like Prozac. Otherwise if you’re not on Prozac, how can you be happy all the time? It’s something I don’t understand.
So this man, they told me: He was such a great musician. When he was playing in his garden, people would stop in the street and listen on the other side of his wall. From there, you know, I just went on and I constructed this story.
You always write the things at the moment you feel them, when you have some interest.
I told a friend of mine I wanted to write a book like that. He said, ‘After Persepolis, if you write a book like that, you’re going to destroy your career. I told him, I don’t have any plan for a career. I wrote this thing to have fun. The artistic career, you have all the insecurity: Sometimes you don’t make any money; you don’t have any retirement. But if I have all insecurity, and I have to work like a guy on insurance, meaning I have to do the same thing every year, then I have lost everything. I have lost my freedom, and my security. So if I have the insecurity, at least I have to have the freedom to be freestyle, to do whatever I feel like doing.
As a child, either I was drawing, or I was gathering all the kids in the street and making a show with them. It’s again the same thing that I am doing. The only thing is that today, because there is money involved, fame involved, this involved, that involved, sometimes it takes me far from my real motivation. That’s why I always need to go back and do these things as if I never did it before. Do it for the fun of it.
Keyframe: Why would that be seen as deleterious to your career?
Satrapi: Well, because I was seen as this positive person, caring about all these things, and suddenly I am this sad person who talks about death. Who cares? If I do something that I am not convinced about, how do you I convince other people? If I don’t believe in my own story, how can I honestly look into people’s eyes and try to convince them? I’m sorry, these are above my power. Either I’m convinced and I do something, or I’m not convinced and I don’t do it. Ever. I did it once, I have to say. One time I made for a magazine an illustration. this is my job, I know how to make it look good. So I made this illustration, and I loved it. I knew that I made crap. And believe me, for four years, I had it here [points to heart]. Every time I look in the mirror, for four years, I said, You did this crap and you knew it. It was too much weight on my conscience.
Keyframe: That’s refreshing to hear. The film has a fable-like quality. It seems to be a cautionary tale about the paths you can travel in life with the son/daughter characters flash-forwarded to the point where one is a cynic, the other a simple-minded American—
Satrapi: That is really the symbol of the American dream. I know lots of Americans—they are not like that. But the American dream is you have two dogs and a house and a wife and three kids and a car and you are supposed to be very happy once you have all of that. There are so many other ways to happiness; there are so many other ways of living. You don’t have two dogs and a car and a house and a wife and still you are very happy. It has nothing to do with it.
The reason I put it here: All the characters in the film are complex, and what I tried to say about the nature of the human being, there is no lie, is realistic. This guy, he is unbearable. This guy, Nasser Ali, you feel like slapping him in the face. And sometimes you feel like holding him tight to you and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ And his wife, she is a total bitch in the beginning, and then you have compassion for her. And the kids, they are very cute, but it’s not true that since you are cute as a child, you will become cute as an adult. All the children are cute. And you know, the guy he does not live his children at the beginning and he does not love their children at the end. But today, you know, in the films, all the parents love their children. So some one has to explain to me. Where do all these miserable kids come from. And someday they are going to be miserable adults. I heard somebody say, ‘Oh my God, he gives opium to his child,’ and I was like, ‘Don’t you think when you put your children in front of Game Boy this is a kind of opium that is much worse for the brain, because they get addicted for life and it does not develop their brain really?’
All these things are very realistic.
And then there is the imagination. And there is no end to the imagination. And what you call fairytale. Our brain has some capacity to understand the world. And there are some things we do understand and have the capacity to understand and to connect. But it’s another side the world that is in the shade. And that we call fairytales. These are the things that we can’t understand the reasons. This is the part of life that interests me. The things I cannot control. Because what I can control: I know it. It’s boring. So, you are right. It’s …. The kids, really amuses me a lot. This little girl, that is so cute, but becomes completely cynical. The other boy, half fool. And he becomes happy, you know. But this is also miserable. Life is also like that.
Keyframe: Extending the question about America and Americans: Even as an urban San Franciscan, I do know people that have that American dream. Have you experienced that part of America?
I love the notion of melancholia. I don’t believe we should be always ‘on’ and ‘ha ha ha.’ I’m not like that. Sometimes I am really depressed and I love that. Sometimes I have lots of melancholy and I love that. And sometimes I feel like sitting in my house and crying, and I love that.
Satrapi: Oh, yes. You know the American sitcom, they are everywhere. ‘The Young and the Restless.’ You have it all around the world. It works extremely well everywhere. One time, I was really depressed. I was watching a lot of television, like all the depressed people, and I was watching ‘The Young and the Restless.’ There is something very funny in this series. In normal life, when a woman is pregnant, it’s 9 months. In a film it’s 5 minutes. In this series, it takes 15 months. The woman was pregnant for fucking 15 months, and I was like give fucking birth! You know. You are not an elephant! She was pregnant all the time. These are the things, especially in the ’50s, the American way of life, etc., of course, is a stereotype and is completely gross. This image that is very … around the world. The boy in my film: He looks like he’s OK, but he’s not OK. These are the kinds of things that make me laugh. The French, they make the same. America, with this culture of soap opera,…. They have a copy of that. It was, for me, funny to do it.
Keyframe: You don’t travel back to Iran?
Satrapi: I haven’t been back since 2000. It’s been 12 years now. Almost 13. The thing was that when I wrote the book [Persepolis] my parents, they said, ‘No no no, don’t come back.’ I thought they were paranoid, but thought I would listen to them, not to make them sad. Then you know, my movie Persepolis came out and the Iranian government really reacted when I was in the Cannes festival. So I was thinking: Nobody told me ‘Don’t come back.’ But I’m not sure if I go back that I can come out. This is the problem. That’s why I don’t go. These are people that say the same thing I do, they are in trouble. They do the same thing I do.
Keyframe: Do your parents travel out?
Keyframe: So you get to see them.
Satrapi: Yes.They have never made my parents suffer. They are not in politics. They’ve never had any trouble.
Keyframe: I’ve read that following the Iranian elections in 2009 that you and Mohsen Makhmalbaf appeared before the government to talk. What have your involvements in political situations been…?
Satrapi: Well, I’ve not really been involved in politics. Because I don’t belong to any party. My problem has never been really political. It has been more existential. A human being is a human being. It’s a question of human identity. So that was 2009, an election; I was seeing all these men and women and boys and girls demonstrating. And as a result of that, arrested… So I was really really…. I have to say also that I went very close to the politics, and it really disgusted me from life. First you see the politicians talk and you think, they talk so beautifully, they want to change the world! Then you see it’s just talk. And then you realize that at the moment you have to make a signature for human rights somewhere, they say, ‘Oh no, we are in business with that country, so we cannot do that. ‘
The artistic career, you have all the insecurity: Sometimes you don’t make any money; you don’t have any retirement. But if I have all insecurity, and I have to work like a guy on insurance, meaning I have to do the same thing every year, then I have lost everything. I have lost my freedom, and my security. So if I have the insecurity, at least I have to have the freedom.
I need to have some belief. Everybody has to play his role. About Iran: everybody talks about Iran after 1979: his beard, its weapon, nuclear war. Nobody talks about our great poets and our great philosophers and our great art and 4,000 years of history. Nobody talks about that. This is an identity that has been confiscated from us. When I make a film like Chicken with Plums, it’s as important to say, you know in this country in ‘58, a man died because of a love of a woman. These people are capable of dying because of love. People there are glamorous, They are beautiful. They have big feelings. Just exactly like you. It’s just as important as going and raising up the hand. Plus: Here [in film] I am convinced about what I do. In politics, I see cynicism. Look at the politicians today. Have you heard one politician who has a vision for the ten or twenty years coming? None of them. I just can’t follow that.
So, I make a film that talks about Iran. It has actors from all around the world, Italy, France, Portugal, … I shoot the film in Berlin, and I have a French movie at the end. All this bullshit they give us about the clash of the cultures, and multiculturalism doesn’t work etc., it showed that its possible. To have the same dream, to tell the same story, to go in the same direction. Then there is no clash of the culture. Believe in the same story.
These are things like that. They are not obviously political, but they are.
I have to say also that I went very close to the politics, and it really disgusted me from life. First you see the politicians talk and you think, they talk so beautifully, they want to change the world! Then you see it’s just talk. And then you realize that at the moment you have to make a signature for human rights somewhere, they say, ‘Oh no, we are in business with that country, so we cannot do that.‘
Keyframe: So the character Irane, and the longing for her was allegorical at least in part? What do you miss most about Iran?
Satrapi: Her name is Irane, like people are called America here, or France in France. It’s a female name. The story is in the ’50s. [What happened after] destroyed the hope of Iran.
Iran is the same, it’s my muse. It’s my inspiration. It’s something that I also miss. I hope when I meet my Iran, she will recognize me. She will not pretend that she does not recognize me. That’s the only hope that I have.
Keyframe: What is your favorite cinema? There are some Iranian American filmmakers whose work has resonance with Iranian film; your films seem less ‘Iranian’ than European, to me.
Satrapi: Of course, Iranian cinema is a very specific cinema. I make French film. Ernst Lubitsch was a central European filmmaker who made American movies, but the humor is very central European. I’m not comparing myself to masters, but that is the same spirit. What kind of cinema do I like? I’m very eclectic. Any film that is well done is well done. I can enjoy a nice Batman in the same way I can enjoy an intellectual movie from Romania where nobody talks. For me, I don’t have any special type of cinema. If it’s a good movie, no matter how it’s made, if I can enter into the story and I’m happy about it. Then I’m really happy about it.
Two or three years ago, I went to see the film Up, of the Pixar. That was me with three tough guys, and at the beginning with the love story before the credits roll, I cried so much! Like that can touch me so much like the last film of Aki Kaurismäki, who is to me the biggest European filmmaker. If it’s well made, then I like it.