The Illusionist opens EIFF 2010 - Sylvain Chomet interview

This article is from 2010

The Big Draw

Miles Fielder meets animator Sylvain Chomet, whose new film, The Illusionist, pays tribute to his adopted hometown of Edinburgh

The year after French animator Sylvain Chomet knocked out cinema-goers at the 2003 Edinburgh International Film Festival with his wildly eccentric and utterly charming double-Oscar nominated debut feature, Belleville Rendez-vous (aka The Triplets of Belleville), he and his wife Sally relocated to the Scottish capital and set up their own animation outfit, Studio Django. Drafting in a handful of colleagues from Canada, where Belleville was made, Chomet began making commercials to pay the bills while considering a number of film offers from Hollywood.

None of them appealed to the then 40-year-old Frenchman who wanted to sustain his highly idiosyncratic artistic vision with the kind of complete creative freedom that Tinseltown financiers rarely agree to. So, instead Chomet decided to dedicate the next five years of his life to a self-penned second animated feature that would be set in Scotland, in Edinburgh and the Western Isles, in the late 1950s and would tell the story of an ageing itinerant stage magician and a young girl who becomes his surrogate daughter. The finished film, The Illusionist, is every bit as charmingly quirky as its predecessor and, quite appropriately, it’s receiving its UK premiere at the opening night of the 64th edition of the EIFF.

‘I had fallen in love with Edinburgh when I presented The Triplets of Belleville at the Film Festival,’ says Chomet, who has since moved back to France to live in Provence, but who will be making a return trip to his adopted home to present The Illusionist. ‘I found the city a very magical place – something about the constantly changing light. I had lived in Montreal when making The Triplets of Belleville and there is a very Canadian feel to that movie. I believe it’s important to live in the same environment you are trying to animate, because your inspiration is then all around you.’

Aside from the Scottish influence, there’s another strong source of inspiration apparent in The Illusionist: the French clown prince of comedy Jacques Tati. Chomet’s film is, in fact, based on an un-filmed script written by the late, great Tati, and its main character is modelled on Tati himself. The Tati connection came about as a result of Chomet approaching the comedian’s estate to request the use of a clip from Tati’s film Jour de Fête in Belleville Rendez-vous. Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, was impressed enough by what Chomet’s producer showed her of Belleville to not only grant his request but also to suggest he adapt a script her father wrote between 1956 and 59 but subsequently shelved.

‘I’m a big fan of Tati,’ Chomet says, ‘and Sophie thought there were a lot of common points between my animation style and her father’s universe. Unfortunately, she died before I had a chance to meet her, but when I went to Cannes [for Belleville’s world premiere] I read the script she had passed on to me through her will. I was reading the script on the train and I was completely surprised by the beauty and emotion of it. But Tati said that the film was too serious for him – he was aware of his reputation as a comedian. The character in the film was himself, not [his comic alter-ego] Monsieur Hulot. He was quite a shy person, so maybe the film was too close to himself.’

Chomet’s animated reinvention of Tati is uncannily accurate, from his perpetual toppling-over gait to his comically haughty expression. In fact, The Illusionist is full of well-realised characters, from the little girl from Iona to the wicked white rabbit, yes even a rabbit, the magician pulls out of his hat, each of which benefit from distinction and depth of character rarely seen in animation. Similarly, Chomet eschewed frantic editing and action-oriented sequences for the sort of static, widescreen long takes not normally used in animation. The result is that, while the old school 2D animation style (think classic sixties Disney: The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians) is very ‘cartoony’ looking, the feel of the film is authentic, mature and cinematic. ‘The script didn’t follow the basic rules of animation as it really was squarely aimed at adults,’ Chomet says. ‘So the challenge was to make a grown-up cartoon that is equally appealing to kids.’

It goes without saying that Chomet is delighted to be premiering The Illusionist in Edinburgh. But the animator is doubly delighted that the gala screening will be held at the newly fitted for film screenings Festival Theatre. ‘You know the story about this theatre?’ Chomet asks. ‘No? Well, in 1911 it was called The Empire and one of the biggest entertainers in the world, a magician named The Great Lafayette, was killed there when the stage caught on fire during his act “The Lion’s Bride”. His ghost supposedly haunts the theatre,’ Chomet says, laughing in disbelief at the remarkable coincidence. ‘It is bizarre.’

It’s also magic from beyond the grave, appropriately enough.

The Illusionist, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 16 Jun. Making Of The Illusionist With Sylvain Chomet, Cineworld, Edinburgh, Wed 17 Jun, 6.15pm.

Making Of The Illusionist With Sylvain Chomet

A close-up look at a new Scottish-set classic, with its Oscar®-nominated creator. A multiple award-winning writer, comic book artist, director and animator, Sylvain Chomet relocated to Edinburgh in 2004 after visiting the city to present his first feature – Belleville Rendezvous – at EIFF. His new film The Illusionist…

The Illusionist

  • 4 stars
  • 2010
  • UK / France
  • 1h 23min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
  • Cast: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin

The product of five years' work in an animation studio that Chomet (Belleville Rendezvous) set up in Edinburgh when he fell in love with the capital after attending its International Film Festival, this is an uncannily accurate portrayal of Edinburgh and Scotland. The story is an unfilmed script from Jacques Tati and the…