Sylvain Chomet: The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet found love in Edinburgh in 2003. It wasn't a person the acclaimed French animator fell for though, but Auld Reekie herself. He had come over to attend the Edinburgh International Film Festival with his acclaimed animated feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous, and, he recalls, "discovered a place and a people who were really welcoming. So I fell in love," he says, smiling wistfully. "It was very, very inspiring."

The smitten director moved to North Berwick with his English producer wife, Sally, and set up a studio in the New Town. Although the couple have since relocated to Provence, the passion of Chomet's brief encounter is evident in every frame of the movie he created in the city.

Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, The Illusionist is a veritable love letter to Scotland's capital, in which familiar locations are delightfully rendered in classical 2D animation.

The film did not start out this way, however. When Tati's script about an ageing magician who forms a father/daughter bond with a young girl, at the fag-end of the music hall era, was handed to Chomet by the late star's daughter, Sophie Tatischeff in 2000, a year before her death, the setting was Paris and, Chomet recalls with mild perplexity, Prague.

The Czech capital is a "lovely city", he says. "But a journalist from there told me that in 1959 it was a dark, horrible city. So, I don't know why Tati did this." Whatever Tati had found magical there, Chomet couldn't see it. Instead he found what he was looking for in, of all things, Scotland's fickle weather system. "I wanted the light to be constantly moving in the background so that when the characters are in rooms it is always changing." So what better than a city where "you don't sit out on the terrace even if it's sunny, because 15 minutes later it rains, or 15 minutes later it snows?" Chomet laughs: "I remember that well. It was like a clock."

Something else that troubled the film-maker about Tati's screenplay was a sequence where the protagonist arrived in a village at the same time as the arrival of electricity. Everyone told Chomet that while Czechoslovakia might have been an Eastern country, not even villages were that technologically backward. "The only place I found where they had the arrival of electricity in 1959 was the Isle of Iona," he says.

Consequently, the switching on of the lights on the island is the occasion of a ceilidh at which the coming of rock'n'roll drives another nail into the coffin of the world represented by the magician, and, says Chomet, whether the celebrating Ionans realise it or not, of their culture and way of life. The scene is thus simultaneously joyous and elegiac, echoing the film's theme of endings being new beginnings.

Chomet is convinced that Tati was writing about his own experiences. He had managed to cross over into movies when the music halls in which he made his name were dying. Not everyone was so lucky, though, and Chomet added a bibulous, down-on-his-luck clown to the story to represent one of the real-life friends Tati helped financially. "The Illusionist was very personal to him because he jumped before he actually collapsed," says Chomet. This, he suggests, is why it went unproduced. "It was too personal. He was a very shy guy and he didn't want to show his true self, I think. He always wanted to hide behind a character like Monsieur Hulot."

Chomet is convinced, moreover, that Tati wrote the script for Sophie, to whom the animator has dedicated the film, because he felt guilty about being away from her when he was working, missing much of her growing up and compounding the pain behind the story. This interpretation was contested by Richard McDonald, however, who argued in a letter to a London newspaper that the real inspiration was his mother, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, the illegitimate elder daughter whom Tati abandoned as a baby.

Mentioning the letter – published just days before The Illusionist's world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival – causes Chomet's expression to darken. He bitterly dismisses McDonald's claim as "madness", asking how could Tati have written something so personal about a daughter he never lived with? Although the script wasn't dedicated to anyone, "it was obvious it was for Sophie. And I knew it from her," he claims. "It's very frustrating to discover that he's related to Jacques Tati and he's got this kind of love and hate thing with him. I think it's much more of a personal problem that he has to solve himself."

Most hurtful of all, it appears, was McDonald's charge that Chomet had sabotaged Tati's script, referring to his supposed failure to recognise "his troubled intentions, so that it resembles little more than a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author", as "the most disrespectful act". Chomet shakes his head and complains that no one ever asked him for his side of the story. "You know, it's actually very difficult to make a film like that. It's very difficult to make it in the UK especially. And when that happened I felt it was very unfair to get criticised even before the film had screened, by someone who didn't dare even to talk to us and didn't dare to see the film. So, you know, that's all I have to say," he says, drawing a line under the matter.

Chomet had already moved back to France by the time the story broke. Running an animation studio in Edinburgh was, ultimately, a "bad experience", he says. This isn't to say he's fallen out of love with Scotland, far from it; he simply realised that being an artist and an entrepreneur was not for him. "At some point you just think about investing, things like that, and there's a lot of lawyers involved as well. A lot of really useless people. It's not nice. I just want to make films and then shut the place, a little bit more like a gypsy. I had five wonderful years in Scotland," he says warmly, "but I thought I needed some sun, and a real summer."

Those "wonderful years" produced yet more evidence that animation is not just for children, a perception Chomet blames on years of Disney domination. For a long time, he says, they were the only ones able to afford to make animated features, and, "although they did some really beautiful things – they created the medium, they made it flourish into a beautiful art form – they kept it a bit frozen for a long time. When I started, people said, 'You want to do animation for adults? No, no, it's for children.'"

The likes of Chomet, Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) are now changing people's ideas about what animation can do and the subjects it can address. "Even at Pixar they have started to grow up," he grins. "It's a new age!"

But animation remains an expensive medium and American products still dominate the market. Chomet has tried working with American studios but his experiences have not been pleasant. Being fired as director of The Tales Of Despereaux, for instance, is still a sore point. "That was quite a nasty story because I developed a lot of the look of the film, basically the characters, the little mice... and I'm not even mentioned in the credits."

Ultimately, the issue appears to be the difference between American and European practices. "I've learned that the Americans are very good when you have done a film that is successful. They're very good about calling you and asking you to do something. But what they're not good at is understanding what you do," says Chomet. "So it's very dangerous because you have to be a yes man because they take over the artistic side. So with me there have always been clashes."

Nobody's man but his own, Chomet has a number of ideas for the future. He would like to make a live action feature with Ewan McGregor as a mute in France, or an animated feature about the Paris Commune, or even a musical with people who can neither sing nor dance. Whatever he ends up doing, you can be sure it will be worth waiting for.

A version of this story appeared in Scotland on Sunday

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