ASTERIX AND OBELIX: MISSION CLEOPATRE - Q&A with director and actor Alain Chabat
How did the project come about?
Claude Berri, the producer, knew of my passion for Asterix and simply asked me to write and direct a new episode of Asterix and Obelix's adventures. I both directed a film and made a childhood dream come true.
Why did you choose "Asterix and Cleopatra"?
Claude felt that it was one of the most cinematic books in the series. Personally, I love them all. Besides, this one allowed me to offer Jamel a tailor-made part.
Asterix has changed a little. Notably in his relationships with women.
I don't think he really has changed. For me, he's the Asterix from the comic strip. He simply falls head over heels in love with an Egyptian handmaiden, Gimmeakis (Noémie Lenoir). And the feeling is mutual. Goscinny used to say: "We don't often put women in Asterix but when we do, it's Cleopatra." I've added a few, all real bombs.
As in the books, the film can be interpreted on several levels.
Whether you're 8, 16, 30 or 60, you never read an Asterix book in the same way. I tried to make sure that the audience members, whatever their age, would find the same pleasure.
How do you bring to life a story that everyone knows?
I had a totally free creative rein while respecting the plot line of the comic strip, altering and adding characters. Edifis, for instance, is no longer an architect who builds everything lopsided but an eccentric who has a very personal vision of construction. After that, I had to work out how to respect the rhythm of the boxes, Goscinny's dialogue, Uderzo's visuals and add my own grain of salt. Basically, get back to the spirit of the Comic Strip as an art form.
Did you respect the 3D rules?
Sure. We have disrespect, dancing and denunciation.
Can cultures mingle, help one another and enrich one another? I believe they can. It's a gentle style of denunciation. Humanism, if you like...
What was it like working with Gérard Depardieu and Christian Clavier?
Christian is astounding. He's equally at ease with action sequences as he is with microscopic nuances in his performance. He's a very demanding and precise person. He tops the ERA (Ever Ready Actors) list. I like his cold humour and his ability to throw himself into a scene like a child. It was a joy working with him and a delight to watch him (and see him again).
Gérard Depardieu really is "bigger than life". He is Obelix, he's never lost that fraction of childish wonder that resumes all the character's emotion. In his work, he is devastating in his energy and precision. He's incredible. Something is always happening with him. To see and see again without moderation.
And the sublime Monica Bellucci?
A volcanic temperament, an incredible figure, the posture of a queen and then that nose... I couldn't have hoped for a better Cleopatra than Monica. On top of all that, she's a comical, extremely kind and incredibly professional woman. She really deserves her nickname, "Belluccissima"...
How about Jamel on the set?
Things are never boring, which is more than understating it. Jamel has astounding energy, inventiveness and comic power, as well as genuinely high standards in his daily life and work. I can't wait to work with him again, the guy's a joy.
For your second film, you write, direct and play the Emperor Caesar. Do you like power?
On the set, I had giant statues built in my image. People had to prostrate themselves before them... I had vestal virgins to fan me, people would speak to me in Latin... I think it's important to control a crew through terror.
Dieudonné, Edouard Baer, Jamel, Chantal Lauby, the Robins des Bois team... Is this a "buddy" movie?
Not to mention all the "special guests" who were kind enough to take part. The only one missing is Dominique Farrugia, who isn't in the film because of conflicting schedules. But, all the same, he appeared in the first teasers, disguised as Cleopatra. The actors would tell me, "It's like making a short film." I tried to make sure that they were relaxed and could carry on having a good time within this huge undertaking. I'm not saying that films with a good on-set atmosphere are necessarily good films but, personally, I prefer them.
Did you decide to appear in the film from the start?
No one other than me, apart from perhaps Richard Burton, could play Caesar. And since his agent never called me back, I had no choice!
How about Getafix?
I feel that Getafix embodies wisdom and craftiness, a slender figure with a sparkling eye, in other words Claude Rich in person.
And Gérard Darmon as the ideal villain?
I adore Gérard. He's a complete actor. He does most of his stunts and fights himself. He's committed 1000% to a part. I used to tell him, "Artifis is a wounded Shakespearean character. Normally, Cleopatra should have chosen him." He had a great time playing the villain. The whole crew loved watching him.
Dieudonné is a Tividinnus beyond my wildest dreams. He's Caesar's war general. Power in all its purity. Caesar's armies are made such fools of that there was no need to make them more pitiful but, on the contrary, to give them the strength of the Empire.
Did you ask the actors to follow their lines or give them a free rein to improvise?
Both. Comedy is a precise, spot-on mechanism. But, once the scene was in the can, if the actors felt like trying other versions, I was always ready. Clavier, Depardieu, Jamel, Edouard Baer, Darmon or Dieudonné, to mention only them, are excellent at improvisation. I'm particularly fond of loss of control, helpless laughter, surprises... It's just the sheer pleasure of acting.
You also have Chantal Lauby, Isabelle Nanty...
In the comic strip, Caesar's spy is an Egyptian. I turned him into a Roman woman played by Chantal. She does a totally surrealistic act, something that only Lauby can possibly pull off. I was also very keen on working with Isabelle Nanty, a wonderful actress.
Why Pierre Tchernia?
Because he's my idol, he was a close friend of Goscinny's and he appears regularly in the albums, sketched by Uderzo. He had to be in the film. I asked and he accepted. It's a genuine honour to have the famous Centurion Gaspachoandalus in the film.
What was your guideline for the sets?
In the "Asterix" comic strip, the historical references are rock solid. So there was no question of opting for anachronism. We used a lot of documentation and worked with an Egyptologist. With At Hoang, the production designer, the idea was to be credible but not necessarily realistic and allow ourselves a few flights of fantasy. But, where historical truth is concerned, the most learned Egyptologists will even be able to read jokes in hieroglyphs. They'll be the only ones to laugh but I love the idea.
What about the costumes?
With the Gauls, the Romans and the pirates, we followed the comic strip to the letter. For the Egyptians, with Philippe Guillotel and Tanino Liberatore, the costume designers, we created a whole range of Egyptian fashions. "Street wear" styles for Edifis, an unsettling and reptilian look for Artifis and Haute Couture Glamour Fashion for Cleopatra.
What was your priority where the special effects were concerned?
We often used several techniques within a single scene. You can combine a mechanical special effect (models, explosions) with CG effects (characters, flashes), matte-painting (digital painted sets) and traditional cartoons (hand animation). There was a close collaboration between "Les Versaillais", the specialists in mechanical special effects, and the team from Duboi in charge of the digital effects. The special effects have to serve the comedy and the situation, without sapping its energy. For the flying Romans, for instance, if it was funnier to see a model fly, we'd start up the model guns. Otherwise, they were flying stunt men or CG Romans.
Do you have any unpleasant memories of the shoot?
No... Just memories of tiredness. Getting up at three. At six p.m., battered by the wind, sun and exhaustion, you'd finish the day's shoot but you wouldn't go back to the hotel: you'd go to the office, check out the next day's locations or go over one of the details... They were genuine 20-hour days. But, at the same time, we had a lot of laughs!
Apparently there's one Egyptian name that you forgot to use...
Jean-Pierre Bacri pointed out that there was a name I had forgotten. He said to me, "You call yourself an Aerosmith fan and there isn't a single Egyptian called Aerosmis?" I was appalled! It's stupid: I'd thought of Willsmis, Brucewillis... But I'd totally forgotten that one!...
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