Sylvain Chomet's fimmaking brush with the daughter of the great Tati turned The Illusionist into pictorial reality.
His master's voice: a cartoon homage to Jaques Tati
It was a request to use some footage from the Jacques Tati's classic Jour de Féte that led to Sylvain Chomet being given the opportunity to make The Illusionist, a screenplay written by the legendary French filmmaker, who died from lung cancer in 1982. There is a scene in Chomet's 2003 animated film Triplets of Belleville where the principal characters are watching television, and Chomet thought that it would be more interesting and surprising if the characters were watching a live action movie. It immediately struck him that he should use footage from the man who is famous for making the universe look like a cartoon, the great master Jacques Tati.
To get permission to use footage wrote to the head of Tati's estate, his daughter Sophie Tatischeff. He explains: "We had to show her some elements of Triplets, some graphics, the script, when it was only around a third done. Sophie said she really liked the idea and the style and everything and it made her think about this script written by her dad that had never been made. "For her this script was really important because it was a message from a father to his daughter. She didn't want the film to be done in live action, as she didn't want someone else to play her dad's role, so she thought it would be perfect as a cartoon. So just four months before she died - she died like her father of lung cancer, because they're really heavy smokers - I finished Triplets and on my way to Cannes to present Triplets, I read the Tati script and fell in love with it. I never got to meet Sophie, or even speak to her about the script."
The Illusionist is about a once popular stage magician who upon reaching the latter stages of his career realises that audiences are more interested in emerging rock stars than his vaudeville show. He is forced to accept more and more fringe jobs until a meeting with a young female fan in a pub in a Scottish village briefly changes their lives. They embark on a bizarre mutually beneficial platonic friendship that sees her keep house for him while he performs in increasingly odd locations.
Once the decision had been made to make The Illusionist the 47-year-old French director began the enviable task of re-watching all of Tati's films. In doing so, he made some startling realisations. "Basically he's not a guy who was amazingly talented with moving the camera and things like this," he said. "Most of the time his camera is fixed, it's at a height that is typically under two metres and you always see the feet of the characters. His work is much closer to theatre and painting in the composition than cinema actually."
Chomet also decided to make one massive change to the script, and that was to move the geographical locations of the picture. Chomet said: "Originally the story started in London, then the character went to Paris, then Germany and then Prague. But I went to Prague and was there for four days, it's a nice city, but it's really inland and the sky doesn't move a lot; it has a bit of a boring sky. "At that time I was living in Edinburgh and I really thought it would be much more magical to set it there.
"Also there is a scene in the village where the arrival of electricity is celebrated which took place in 1959, and in Czechoslovakia, at the time, they had electricity all over the place. "But I went to the Scottish islands of Mull and Iona, and actually 1959 was when electricity actually arrived there; they even had a little party in a community centre on Iona." The decision to make the main setting of the movie the Scottish capital has paid dividends in another way as The Illusionist has been chosen to be the opening film of this year's Edinburgh Film Festival, which begins today.
Chomet, who was born near Paris, moved to London to work as an animator at the Richard Purdem studio in 1988. Soon after he began winning jobs for big commercial firms and in 1991 he started work on his first animated film, The Old Lady and the Pigeons. It was when promoting Triplets of Belleville that he fell in love with the city and set up an animation studio there, Django Films, soon after he received an Oscar nomination for his work on Triplets.
He says of the city: "When I first discovered Edinburgh it was a shock. I was expecting something very dark and I saw a magical place. It was as inspiring as the script. The good thing also with Edinburgh is that it hasn't changed much since 1959." Yet these were just the petals that made up the flower around the heart of his story. He says: "The real story is about these two lives, and the times were changing and by the end of the 1950s it was very obvious that we were entering the modern era: the beginning of consumer society.
"But it was also an adolescent society with rock 'n' roll, fashion was suddenly accessible to everyone, and we had TV as well." An important aspect of the movie that really touched the director was the relationship between the illusionist and his young female fan, and the way that it mirrors the special relationship that bonds a father and a daughter. "That's why I wanted to do this script," he said. "Because I have two young children, a four-year-old and a two-year-old. But I also have a daughter who is 17 who I don't live with because I separated from her mother. She was 12 when I started the project and you can feel things changing.
"That is a really personal thing for a father to see his daughter change and turn into a woman, because little girls turn into women and little boys turn into big boys. I think that if I didn't have a daughter I would never have been able to understand this script." He also saw benefits in trying to mimic the cinematic language used by Tati on an animated film. "I said to myself now I'm going to do the same thing as Tati, I'm going to make exactly the same shots, long shots, wide, no camera movement and this is like an exercise but it's really good, because you are focused on the characters and bizarrely you get close-ups on the characters without using close-ups," he says.
"So with Triplets there were 1,300 shots and there are just 400 shots in The Illusionistand it's the same length." The technique, he believes, says something about Tati. "It is theatre, and I think that Tati is a stage man. The difference between cinema and theatre is that in cinema the director gives you bits, little bits of the place and then you create the whole place for yourself, and in theatre it is the contrary, you see the whole place and then you do your own close ups."
The Illusionist also saw the close in a chapter of Chomet's life. "I don't live in Scotland any more. I'm in the South of France now." Just like his characters and the cyclists in Triplets, Chomet is a character who can't and won't sit still.