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November 5, 2007

Newsmaker Interview: Marjane Satrapi


By Daniel Holloway, special to The Comics Reporter

Marjane Satrapi has spent the last three and a half years working on a project she never intended to start: a film adaptation of her graphic novel Persepolis. The movie, which premieres in the U.S. on Christmas day, has already won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and been nominated by France's film board for the U.S. foreign film Academy Award. All this has led to Satrapi becoming one of only two cartoonists I can think of (the other being Daniel Clowes) to have endured one of the most ridiculous of entertainment reporting rituals, the hotel press junket.

image Unfortunately (or fortunately) I missed Satrapi during her round of quickie New York sitdowns back in October. I had to settle instead for a quickie phone interview a few weeks later. The following transcript is taken from that interview, conducted for a mini-profile that ran in the NYC newspaper I work for, Metro. If it's at any point worth reading, it's due entirely to Satrapi's refreshing candor (folks who have been asked the same question a hundred times in a short period while doing movie press usually make little effort to hide their exhaustion with the subject), and not to anything on my part that would resemble interviewing skill. -- Daniel Holloway


DANIEL HOLLOWAY: How is making a film different from making a comic book?

MARJANE SATRAPI: Well everything changes. I was a very solitary person, working with myself and being all alone -- which I like, actually, a lot. In a movie, you have to work with all sorts of people. It's absolutely not the same relationship to the work. That was very difficult at the beginning. But also, you have a number of things that you never think about -- such as the music and a number of things I never had to take care of. Now I had to take care of that. That was quite an experience.

HOLLOWAY: You were the co-director. Did that give you final say on the work your collaborators were doing?

SATRAPI: Absolutely. I directed the movie with my best friend. Not only that but in France, according to the law, it is the director that has the final cut and nobody else. I think it's a good idea, because I don't know who else but the director should have the final cut, because you're the only person who knows exactly where you are going. I wouldn't work if it were otherwise, because my life is not just making movies. If I can do what I like, then I will make movies. But if I have to pull down my pants and do whatever people tell me, then I will just do my comic books, be independent and decide what I want. Freedom in the artistic world is the most important thing. I wouldn't do it otherwise.


HOLLOWAY: How did the idea to convert the books into a film come to you?

SATRAPI: At the beginning, I always thought it was a very bad idea to, out of the book that you yourself have made, make a movie. Because you are a good cartoonist, you will not necessarily be a good moviemaker. It's not the same narrative language. You cannot just take the book and say, "OK, because the book is nice, it's possible to make a good movie out of it." It was not really my idea, but I was exposed to a situation where they were proposing something where I could make it exactly the way I wanted it, where I would have the complete freedom. I said, "I want to work with my best friend." "OK, no problem." "I want to make it in black and white." "OK, no problem." As an artist, how many times in your life do you have that opportunity?

So it was just to try it. They gave me a magnificent toy, and suddenly I had the right to play with it. But the good thing was that I was aware of the danger. I was aware that it was not sufficient to take the frame of the book and trim it, and I would have a movie. I knew that the script should be a completely different narration, that it should be a new language. I was aware of that.

HOLLOWAY: How exactly did that opportunity come to you?

SATRAPI: I had a friend of mine who had been working at a TV station for a long time, and he wanted to become a producer. He liked the story, and he became the producer for the movie. All the people that I worked with -- the musicians, the producer -- whoever is in the movie, they were all my friends. I knew everybody from before, except for the actors. That made everything much easier.

HOLLOWAY: How would it be different collaborating with people if you didn't have such close personal relationships with them?

SATRAPI: I don't know. But I can never work with people if I don't like them. It's impossible. Some people will tell you, "Oh, this is business." For me, nothing is business. Everything is personal. So if I don't like people, it is impossible for me to work with them, because I take everything extremely personally. I would kill them probably, or they would kill me. Something bad would come out of it.

HOLLOWAY: Do you think American audiences will receive the film differently than European audiences?

SATRAPI: I don't think so, because I saw the reaction of the Americans. I think that the American audiences will enjoy it a little more. I don't know why, but I have this feeling. For example, my books work better in America than anywhere else, even France. I love the American people. I think that I have something in common with them.

HOLLOWAY: Especially with American audiences, do you think your work benefits from a timeliness, given the Bush administrations rhetoric toward Iran?

SATRAPI: Oh yes, but it is a coincidence. People say, "Oh, this is so timely." How could I know? I started the movie three and a half years ago. Three and a half years ago, there was no question about Iran. It was only Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm someone who also lives in a certain period of time, so it's normal that the things that I say or do make an echo to what is happening. At the same time, it is not a reflex. It's not political propaganda. It has nothing to do with that. I deeply believe that this movie, in 10 years or 15 years, will be like The Deer Hunter. Deer Hunter is a movie that came just after the Vietnam War. But you can still watch it now. It's still a great movie. It's a very timely moment to have the movie, but it doesn't take any value away from the movie.


HOLLOWAY: You've said in recent interviews that you're not a religious person, but would you say that Islamic fundamentalism has influenced your worldview?

SATRAPI: No, I don't think so. I'm against stupidity, and I think fundamentalism, whether it be Islamic, Christian or even secular is stupid. When I say I'm not a religious person, the thing is that I don't have a problem with any religion. Not at all. I'm not a secular person who thinks that religion sucks. I think that religion is a very personal practice and it has to stay personal. When I'm asked about it, it's a question that I don't have to answer. It's like asking me the color of my underwear. It's the same thing. It's too personal. But again, I am against any form of stupidity. "If you're not with me, you are my enemy." That is the basis of fundamentalism. What I do in my work, whether it be in the movies or in my books, is to try to show that a situation is complex. As an artist, I am asking questions. I never give answers. I never say, "This is good," or, "This is not good," because this is not my duty. This is the duty of the preacher -- and the preachers, I hate them, to tell you the truth. As an artist, I put people in front of a complex situation and ask how you as a person will react to this complex situation.

Why I am against fundamentalism is that it takes away this complexity. It just tells you, "This is the way it is." I don't believe in it, because there are so many ways of seeing things. That is not to say that I am against Islam or any religion or any ideology. You can defend anything. My problem starts when people believe in something, then they tell me, "If you're not like me, you're against me -- and I have the right to kill you." That is when I don't agree anymore. If people want to go by themselves and do what they want, that is not my problem. Who am I to tell people what to do? For example, in New York, there was a journalist who said to me, "This movie is against theocracy." I said this was not true. I have received so many e-mails from Polish, Romanian people, people in the former Communist bloc. The movie is against totalitarianism. It is against repression -- any sort of repression. Repression can even occur under democracy. It can be in a small town. I think anybody can relate to this movie.

HOLLOWAY: You came from a very politically engaged family in Iran. How politically engaged are you?

SATRAPI: It's not so much that I'm interested in politics. The problem is that politics are in interested in me -- and you. If these politicians would pay for their own beer, then I wouldn't give a damn what they do. The problem is that you and I have to pay for their beer, and that is why I'm not happy. But I believe that the guys who are really interested in policy and power are the real freaks. Who wants to be responsible for 200 million people? The problem is that the people who want power are exactly the people who shouldn't have the power. People think that I'm an extreme leftist, or they think that I'm a bourgeoisie, so I'm from the right wing. In fact, I'm neither from right nor left. I believe in the importance of the human being, and I think it's about time that the human being should be at the center of interest. The war, of course it drives me mad. Of course I express myself. But what do you want me to say? The problem is that they are just all assholes. I'm sorry to say that, but this is it. I know that you cannot write that, but I can say it to you anyway.


HOLLOWAY: We'll bleep it out. At what age did you start drawing comics? I realize every cartoonist you ask that, they say, "I've always been drawing." But at what age did you start drawing comics specifically?

SATRAPI: I've been drawing all my life. But comics came much later, because I don't come from a country with a big comics culture. And I was too serious. I read Dostoyevsky and things like that as a child. I was extremely serious. I wanted to grow up very fast.

HOLLOWAY: At what point did you decide to write and draw about your childhood?

SATRAPI: I cannot only write. I love to draw and to write, and I do not know why I should choose only one or the other. When I read Maus by Art Spiegelman, I saw that it was possible to talk about any subject in this medium. It was so much the story of a childhood, my own story. Autobiography is you have a problem with your family and your friends and you don't dare to talk about it with them, so you make a book and that solves your problems. That is not my case. I use myself to describe what is happening around me. The reason I use myself is not because I want to make a political or sociological or historical statement, because I'm neither a politician nor a sociologist nor a historian. I am one person who was born in a place and has grown up in a place and has seen stuff and has had some feelings and has asked some questions. It happened that when I saw this story, I was a kid and I had a kid's point of view. But I'm not a kid throughout the story. I grow up.

HOLLOWAY: How are French comics different from American comics?

SATRAPI: Oh, Jesus Christ. What a question. It's very, very different. We have an interesting comics scene in France. But in France they say that my comics are in the same vein as the American comics. I don't know why they say that, but that's what they say. The only thing I would say is that my favorite cartoonists are all American, whether it be Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware or Dan Clowes or Joe Sacco or Charles Burns. All these people are American. Probably because pop art is part of the American culture, and comics is very much a popular art. That's why I like it so much, because it's a popular art. And you are the country of popular art.



images split between her New York Times op-ed, her books, and publicity stills from the films, and all rights to the respective rights holders


Ms. Satrapi's film is currently winning awards on the festival circuit and will open in the US on December 25. Her books are available just about everywhere books are sold.

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