A CONVERSATION WITH JAN KOUNEN
How did you begin work on "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" ?
First with the help of diverse documents and biographies, I did a lot of research on the era, the Ballets Russes and the characters. The project, which was suggested to me by Claudie Ossard, was already a screenplay written by Chris Greenhalgh. I immediately read Chris' novel. I digested the lot, then I worked on the screenplay with the author. I suggested adding some scenes and removing others. We worked together for weeks and with Chris' agreement I added my world to the story. Finally I completed the adaptation in French with Carlo de Boutiny.
You once said: "You can read piles of books but to conceive of a character you have to meet him". How did you 'meet' Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel and what was it like?
To enter the world of a character who has lived and moreover who has become an icon is very strange. I met Igor Stravinsky through his music. I already knew "The Rite of Spring" but in order for that meeting to take place I listened to it non-stop about thirty times in the dark; then I found its place amongst his previous works and the ones that followed. It was very different for Coco. I really did meet her by spending a whole day in her apartment; I touched her objects, read her books. Those are moving moments, where you feel you have a responsibility towards the dead and where the character you have conceived evolves with that feeling in mind. I didn't think about this at first but that's how it happened. I was caught off guard but I made a pact with them, they are still here… somewhere.
How did you get into this story which is both intimate and legendary?
The characters are legendary; the intimacy allows you to embody them. What is interesting is to work on the feeling even though we are talking with characters that have grown mysterious. The result rings true to me: it is not Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel as they were that you see, but their essence. Their stamp is very present today.
When did Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis become involved as the famous but clandestine couple? And Elena Morozova, the third, fragile character between these two giants?
Mads was one of the reasons I agreed to make this film: he's an actor I wanted to work with. From "Adam's Apples" to "After The Wedding", he shows great talent and intelligence in creating his characters. For me, Anna represented Chanel: her voice, the way she moves, everything in her was the character. I had my doubts at first; she had a great handicap, having been the muse of CHANEL, but she was the character and that was the main thing. I met Elena at a casting session in Moscow. I had met a lot of actresses but from the first test I knew my search for Catherine Stravinsky was over. Her character had to be very attractive and very strong, she had to be Coco Chanel's rival and make Igor Stravinsky's dilemma even worse. Elena will be a great discovery for the audience.
From there, how did you bring these two mythical characters to life?
The actors took care of that. Anna has been inhabited by CHANEL for a long time. Mads created his version of Igor Stravinsky. I was there to help and guide them but above all it is their creation. We had little time for preparation knowing that Mads had to learn how to play the piano and speak Russian. We didn't rehearse but the three of us spent three days exploring each scene, the motivations, the personalities, the desires and the frustrations of the characters. What was said but also what they thought, how they felt. With this framework we went straight on set with plenty of room for freedom and creativity.
The film depicts an era and its protagonists, and two bodies of work - Chanel's and Stravinsky's - as if both were great revolutions and a single passion. How did you connect the personal and the larger stories?
That is exactly what made this project exciting. In fact I had planned to spend a year writing but I interrupted that once I read the screenplay; it contained the elements of your question: the creation of the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in 1913 - a massive scene to recreate - with, behind the scenes, a psychological drama between a small number of characters… the paths of desire, of creation and the era. The whole project was unusual. I had some of the required knowledge; the rest was unknown to me.
The film relates each step of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky's passion as much as each step of their work: "The Rite of Spring" and CHANEL Nº 5. How did you translate the intimate connection between creation and passion?
I tried to describe the rapport between an artist and his - or her - work, between personality, psychology and creation; the artist's ability to transcend the dramatic events of his life but also his obsession and the sacrifice that he makes of his life for the sake of his art.
The film opens with the historical performance of "The Rite of Spring" at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in 1913. How did you conceive this spectacular reconstitution of the original performance with Nijinsky's ballet on stage; a war of ideas breaking out in the audience; Coco Chanel in the shadows and at the heart of the event, the film's audience?
Some of my hair turned white because of it but you can't see that on my shaved head! First we had the historical facts, which we wanted to respect as much as we could. We took the liberty of having Coco Chanel walk into the theatre with Misia even though that is not how it happened. We also used slightly fewer dancers, but all the rest is historically accurate. For example, Nijinsky did jump on stage to shout the tempo to his dancers who couldn't hear the orchestra amidst the roaring of the audience. Dominique Brun was in charge of recreating the ballet. I had loved her recreation of Nijinsky's "The Afternoon of a Faun". We used statements made at the time for this, as there were no dance scores, unlike for "The Afternoon of a Faun". The scandal was like no other, and therefore very much talked about; again statements made at the time helped us with the dialogue. I had to study the music in order to know at which precise moment each instrument was played so we could synchronise audience, musicians and dancers.
You predicted it was going to be the most complicated scene you had ever had to shoot - were you right?
We rehearsed with the sets in the mornings, then the actors were made up while I'd prepare the outline based on the acting, then we shot. It was impossible to do that with the "The Rite". We had a limited time in the Champs-Elysées Theatre, so we had to recreate some scenes in the studio. We had more than 1000 extras, 25 dancers, 70 musicians and 4 choreographic tableaux. It was a monumental jigsaw puzzle. It took us three weeks to prepare this scene. I shot the dancers rehearsals on video. With Anny Danché, the editor, we made an animatic using other films, filmed rehearsals and videos of the "The Rite" concerts, to help with the timing and the drama. Finally I made a complete storyboard of the sequence. We then took the pieces of the jigsaw apart to shoot by groups of shots. We had to take everything apart quickly every evening and put it all back together each morning as there was a nightly performance taking place in the theatre. We were very lucky that it all worked out. The dancers had rehearsed a lot; the theatre was full of extras. The theatre staff became very passionate about our project, they were really helpful. Yes, it was the most complex scene I've ever had to shoot because I had such little time, only three days in the theatre and four in the studio.
Your associates say "Jan finds himself in Stravinsky's savagery." Do you think this is true?
I don't think that Stravinsky was a savage. Perhaps I found some common ground with him in as much as he was an agitator and he suffered setbacks. My monumental slap in the face was the last twenty minutes of "Blueberry", in a scene where I gave all my vital energy, where I took huge creative risks, and that ended up being booed by most of the audience.
The sets and the costumes are characters in their own rights. You said you tried to have a cinematographic approach closer to style than to effect. How did you work with the visual aspect in this way?
Style is sensory, this film contains few words. Much is conveyed through faces, costumes, objects and the layout of the shots. I worked on trying to use this language instead of the spoken word.
Karl Lagerfeld created a dress especially for the film. Was it important to cast the CHANEL of today in its era? How was this collaboration?
Karl and Anna are very close, so he created this sublime dress for her to wear at the last performance. The meeting with Karl and Maison CHANEL was important. The collaboration I dreaded was in fact very pleasant. Karl Lagerfeld advised us on the costumes and on Coco Chanel's habits. He also opened her private wardrobe for us. This time it was Chatoune, the costume designer, who did jumps worthy of Nijinsky! We also shot in Chanel's place and we had intimate objects of hers at our disposal for the shooting at the Ritz.
Chanel's villa 'Bel Respiro' is the central location where the two artists' passion explodes in the film and where Catherine, Igor Stravinsky's wife, sees her failing health deteriorate further. How did you reconstitute this house and its decoration with no image left of it?
Marie-Hélène Sulmoni, our set designer and her team decorated a villa entirely. We chose a larger house than the real 'Bel Respiro' to allow us more space to work. For me, his music is an extension of Igor Stravinsky and her house an extension of Coco Chanel.
The soundtrack plays a major role in the film. How did you combine Igor Stravinsky's existing works and the music composed by Gabriel Yared? Why did you choose Gabriel Yared?
Gabriel Yared came late to the film at a time when we kept fitting his music to our images. The collaboration with Gabriel was beautiful; he found his place in relation to Stravinsky, whom he worships. Gabriel has a strong style and the music serves the feelings. The recording with him at Abbey Road Studios was for me one of the most beautiful times in the making of the film.
You said that what interests you in cinema is to experience something different. How would you describe this experience today?
A total departure from "99 Francs". I could finally dig into what's human: sensitivity, relationships. I could explore the track I had opened up with "Panshin Beka WinoniI" (my short film included in the feature length film "8"). Films are worlds, and some are worth exploring. When you immerse yourself for so long in a project, you'd better be sure that it will nourish you. Immersing yourself in "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" offers a very different kind of voyage than immersing yourself in the biography of a serial killer, don't you think?
You said this film was going to be more classic but as original as your previous movies. How would you position "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" in your filmography?
As atypical as the others really, but more restrained formally and therefore more classic. The subject required that, it was exciting to film a dialogue in Russian in a long fixed shot. Looking through the eyepiece of the camera was like watching someone else's film.
Stravinsky said: "We have a duty in music and that is to invent it." Do you feel the same towards cinema?
We have a duty in cinema; to do something different to what was done before, but without forgetting what was done before us. For inspiration we have the duty to welcome it and accept the fact that we are not its master.
"Fashion fades, only style remains," was one of Coco Chanel's famous quotes. Do you feel that this can be applied to film?
Yes. Just look at Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes", or "2001: A Space Odyssey", where nothing has dated… except perhaps the red 70's sofas in the space station.
"I am a man for jumping, not one for sitting down," Nijinsky used to say. Is this how you would define yourself as a filmmaker?
In fact, no, I walk and I like to sit down but it is true that while I am shooting a film I am quite restless. I am trying to be less so on set.