THE VOICES is a jet black comedy that hits cinemas this Friday. Starring big name stars Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arteton and Anna Kendrick, the story centres on Jerry, a shy and lonely man-child who is battling mental illness. His two closest friends are his pets, dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers – who talk to him, and in the case of Mr. Whiskers, encourage him to do very bad things. After going off his medication the bodies start to mount up.
The film’s director Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran before moving to France. A heavy hitter in the realm of comic books & graphic novels Satrapi burst into the film world with PERSEPOLIS, an animated feature based on her best selling graphic novel. Her work on THE VOICES showcases a visual flair and style that is hard to come by these days.
Last week we had the chance to sit down with Satrapi and pick her brain about the project. She spoke about her admiration of Ryan Reynolds, her hatred of green screen, and the decision to use a ginger cat.
THN: How did you get involved with THE VOICES?
MARJANE SATRAPI: Well they sent the project to me via my agent. Most of the scripts you read are either not exciting, or you have already seen. Here comes something that I don’t have the equivalent too, it does not make me think of a movie that I have already seen. This is the first thing. Then I am very surprised because I am full of empathy for a serial killer and that I like it. I like this character. It’s a whole world that I can create because it’s all about the fantastic world of Jerry. Nobody tells you what is this world of Jerry so I have lots of possibility to create this fantastic world of Jerry. All in all I loved it.
And for people who are seeing the ads and posters which feature disembodied heads, what is THE VOICES about in a nutshell?
Well the story of THE VOICES is the story of the nicest serial killer in the world, he’s a very gentle guy. He means well but he does bad, its because he’s sick. He talks to his pets and he works in a bath factory, but it’s basically about a guy who tries to do his best and everything goes to Hell because he just can’t control it because he is sick. He’s mad.
Did you have to do much research into mental illness?
Yeah even though, I will not say that if I have to make a film about mental illness or schizophrenia or anything like that. If I made a film like that I imagine I’d be the most responsible person in the world. It’s a comedy, its a fiction, its just a film. We have to put it at the level of what it is. At the same time when you want to do things like that you have to base yourself on some sort of reality. For example, to understand why people in the case of schizophrenia don’t take their medicine. Because of so much side effects if you’re on your own by yourself you’ll never take your medicine. A person that has had an emotional shock at a certain age very often they get stuck at this age emotionally. My idea that Jerry is a child, he’s an eleven year old child in the body of the thirty year old man, it all makes sense. You need to have some basis in reality to ground it, but then over that you can build whatever you want. It’s just a comedy. I hate people who go on about this film about the nature of violence to women. It’s not – its just a film. It’s not a documentary about mental illness, it’s just a fantasy film, so take it as a fantasy film and that’s it.
What was it about Ryan, he comes from a comedy background but it tends to be more slapstick, this is much quirkier.
You know Ryan Reynolds is a very good actor so when they told me he was very interested in making the film you obviously don’t think of him as a serial killer. It was the other way round so when he read the script he knew I was going to direct it and he wanted to do it. So we met, and you can have the best director in the world and you can put him with the best actor of the world, but if the actor wants to make one movie and the director wants to make another movie, it won’t work. You have to first have the same vision, especially with the main cast. It’s very important that both of us are going to make this film. The first thing that was extremely surprising for me was that his understanding of the role was exactly my understanding of the role. But then you have to have a look, if at one point you think that this guy can be really scary and bad it will work. He has this innocent look, Ryan Reynolds, the moment he smiles, he has this boyish, juvenile smile. A face that you forgive him anything in the world, you’re like ‘It’s okay’. So we hired him for the look, the understanding, and he’s a very talented actor. I saw him in BURIED just before meeting him, and to be in a coffin for one and a half hour and hold the role is really not easy, so the guy has a much bigger scale that what people think he has. He’s much better than what he seems.
Definitely, and the project gives him a chance to show people that.
Exactly. But he is someone that you have to trust. He works very much at a mutual trust. He has lots of ideas and if you let him explore it, really direct it then everything goes into the same vision perfect. If you start cutting his legs and arms, you can’t cut off someone’s hands and legs and tell them to run. If you don’t give him the space to blossom then he can’t blossom. He’s in like 90% of the shots of the film. The whole film is about him and him and him.
Was it Ryan that suggested doing the voices of Bosco & Mr Whiskers?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The producer and I were looking for this actor and that actor and then I received a tape with the voices that he had made himself. I was like ‘who is that?’ and he said ‘Me’. It was just surprising, great and at this moment I was like, ‘why was I so dumb?’ It’s the guy who hears voices in his head so who else can it be?! But then the actor has to have the capacity of doing it. It’s one thing to say oh he can do it, but then he has to be able to do it because the cat, the dog, the bunny, monkey, the deer, everything he does it.
I watched the film knowing he’d done the voice but could not recognise it as him.
When he was doing it in front of me I was looking at him and was like ‘am I sure that this voice is coming out of this body?’ ‘Yes it does’.
So how were the voices filmed? Did he speaks the lines as you shot the film or was there another way?
In animation you always have to have the dialogue before because otherwise you can not make a perfect lip-sync. You have to make in advance. So we did all the dialogue before we’d even started shooting the film. But then every time he made a scene just after the scene he was very inspired and he came with so many improvisations, he improvised everything. The cat would say ‘Oh Jerry you’re a serial killer, can I have your autograph?’, this is not in the script. When he says ‘Fuck me’, a lot of things like because that was his feeling in the filming. I took a little bit from the old version and then lots of things from what he said on stage because he felt the character much more.
How was it working with the animals?
So the saying’s true, never work with animals?
A dog you can say sit and a trained dog means something. A cat that is trained does not mean anything. You cannot train a cat. A cat if they don’t want to do something they won’t. You can try until you’re killing yourself, they won’t do it. They are not obedient at all, a cat is a very small and sensitive animal so if you have more than five or six people around them they freak out. In 90% of the scenes the cat is not in the same room with them. We have shot them separately. It happens that my editor Stephane Roche, who was also the director of the second unit, they have locked cameras. So he’d look through the scene that we had and would make the cat separately and add him in with green screen. The reason it works is not because I’m a genius but because the editor is a genius to find all these little moment here and there that it gives the feeling that there is a total connection. But it was a nightmare, you have 33 days of shooting so if you have to have the dog ready, the cat ready, and everything working you know it will take us 333 days. It was really difficult.
Yeah cats can be difficult.
They do what they want.
I think that helps with the sort of character that Mr. Whiskers is because you can whole heartedly believe that cat is like that.
A cat can look at you and in its eyes it’s ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you’, a dog will look at you and be like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. It’s really two different looks but don’t ask me why I prefer cats.
Me too. The scene where Jerry comes home after being out all night sums it up, Bosco is ‘Oh my God I missed you, never leave again’ and Mr. Whiskers is just ‘Food!Food!’.
‘Give me the fucking food!’ and ‘I’m hungry – where the Hell have you been!’
This will seem like a strange question, but after I watched the film I suddenly realised that almost all cats in cinema are ginger tabbies. Mr. Whiskers is also a ginger tabby – was this a conscious decision or just a happy coincidence?
That is by coincidence really. I had this dog who was really, physically he dominates because he’s really big and has this special look so he dominates. Then we have this cat who is mouthy and says ten times more than the dog, and what he says is ten times more fun, and interesting etc. etc. We can not have a cat that has a very special look because then otherwise the cat steals the show, its all about him. I wanted to have a very normal cat. It was between two cats, there was one that was black and white, and one that was ginger tabby. The ginger tabby really had those ‘fuck you’ eyes. He really looked like that, and I loved his eyes. Casting animals is like casting human beings, this cat was the cat of the role. If that was the black and white one that had the look then it would have been him. But the black and white one you could not imagine he would say all these bad things that this one did.
How were the disembodied heads shot?
I actually made them sit in the fridge.
I did wonder if that is how it was done.
Yeah, yeah because if you out it on the green screen the problem is I get bored, the actors get bored, they don’t play with nobody. The head has to be still so if you’re not stuck to something no matter what you do you will move it. Then you have to stabilise the image, then you have to fight against the green on the skin, then you have to make the light of the fridge and everything. It doesn’t look good, it takes lots of time and lots of money so you have to go towards how did they do the movie before (green screen). You lock your camera again, she sits, you put some prosthetic on – because the head needs to look like its on the shelf not in the middle of it. She comes out, you reconstruct the fridge and make it perfect, and then you do the double pass. Then it works. The reason I like cinema is because I like the magic to it. That I see right away if it works or not. With green screen many things can happen and I don’t like the idea of everything in the post production. I like to do whatever I can until I can’t do it in real. I can’t make the animals talk so of course we have to make dynamic fur to make them talk. How does a house explode? We have a fire but I can not make a huge fire because we are shooting in the middle of the forest and it is summer and we might burn down the whole thing. So we make some fire, but not huge, then we add over it, but you cannot make fire over something that has no fire. I hate animals in 3D because as soon as I see them, I see that they are fake and I don’t like it at all. I mean come on, give yourself the possibility, shoot with a real animal so it’s always something about the 3D that is so perfect. If something is too perfect then it’s not normal. You take anybody’s face and cut it in half, (points to face) this half and this half are not the same. When its too perfect you know that something is wrong and I don’t like that at all.
Gemma’s character Fiona is very stereotypically British, obviously due to her being Jerry’s perception of a British person. How much of that Britishness was scripted and how much did Gemma add?
Gemma, she’s British, she knows what she’s talking about. In the script it was just an accent from somewhere else. She said this place has a really strong accent so lets change it to Reading. It had to be someone un-American because she disappears and nobody worries about her. If she’s American she has a mother, a father, a brother, she has friends. If you are a foreigner somewhere you disappear and nobody knows, nobody asks themselves where you are. It’s more realistic. The base of the film, even if it is fiction, a guy who is sick, an accident happens and it just snowballs, there is nothing extraordinary about it. Its the way of showing it that makes it extraordinary, but the base is true. Gemma had to be a foreigner and she’s British but she’s a great actress and I felt like working with her for a long time. This was the occasion to work with her.
And Anna Kendrick’s in the film too – it’s quite a big cast for such a quirky film.
I always have a wish list and it always happens that my wish list comes true. I have my dream list and my dream comes true. Its always who I want to work with I end up working with. I am blessed and happy.
The film shares some themes with AMERICAN PSYCHO which is also directed my a women. Do you think it takes a female to showcase the male psychosis accurately.
There are many good psycho films, it just happens that AMERICAN PSYCHO has also been directed by a female. I really don’t think that female and male make different films. I really don’t believe in that. When I see a movie of Kathryn Bigelow’s I don’t think ‘oh a woman’s behind it’. Leah Ramsey, she made WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, I don’t think ‘that’s a girl’. I like it when you don’t have your gender printed on the film. I think with my brain and not with my nipples. I have never participated in female film festival. If that was a male film festival I would find it so pathetic so in the same way I find it pathetic. We are all making films.
I can understand at the Olympics we have to run in two different sessions because we don’t have the same muscles but do we have different brains? I don’t think so.
There is a lot of debate in America that there isn’t necessarily a lot of female directors given the same opportunities as men.
It’s bullshit. It’s 5000 years of the history of the human being. It’s only for 100 years that women have the right to vote, to go to school, to choose a job, even own their own body, you don’t go through 5000 years of history and just repair everything in 100 years. It takes time. Women make other choices in their life. Making movies takes ALL your life. It really does. It’s a choice of life, do you want to do that or something else? Some women are extremely happy to have three children, great for them. It’s a question of choice. It’s the kind of thing where women will say its the horror of film. It is not for me, because we don’t have the confidence yet. The second that you don’t care about that you just do it. I would hate they say 50% of film will be women even if their movies are bad, just because they are women. If you are handicapped then we have to make a special session for them, I would not like that.
You have some macho people its true, it has happened to me. Some guys are like ‘hey,hey,hey’ and then I slap them and its over. But for one macho guy I have twenty guys that work with me and the idea I’m a woman or man does not change anything.
Which is how it should be.
Yes. Why are we concentrating on this one asshole and not the other twenty who work with me? Generally I always work in a very male dominated world; comics is full of men, animation full of males, movies full of men. They always help me, plus it’s very easy to argue with men. I argue with a man and then after you say its over and its over. Argue with a woman and five years after they’re still angry at you. This male versus the female thing, male literature, female literature, if you want to do groups lets talk about black movies and white movies, dwarves movies and long people movies. Believe me, whether you are this high (points low to the ground) or this high (points to the ceiling) your vision of the world is not the same. We can make groups and we can just make ghettos after ghettos after ghettos and I don’t think its a good idea. Lets celebrate the movie – the movie should be good first. You have good film and bad film no matter who is behind it. A women, a man, a short person a tall person, black, white, I really don’t care, it’s never been a problem.
Maybe (people) don’t have any other problems in their life. Yes you have macho and you have bitches, this stupid person doesn’t have a gender, it can be man or woman. Women in power are not much better than men in power, its about the same. Give human beings power and some of them will abuse it, man or woman.
What’s next on the cards for you?
I’m working on two different movies and I can’t tell you – not because I’m Mrs. Serious, but because I’m extremely superstitious. I’m sure if I say it, it will not happen. In movies it’s so much about which is financed first blah, blah, blah, so I’m working. I’m painting for my next painting exhibition. Once the movie is done there are these holes of time where you have nothing to do. I have to wait and I get mad if I can not do anything, so I make my paintings and we will see.
THE VOICES is released in UK cinemas from Friday 20th March, check out our review here.