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


John Densmore: The Original Drummer Of The Doors On When You're Strange

AS DRUMMER with The Doors, John Densmore not only survived the 1960s but, more to the point, Jim Morrison: the self-proclaimed Dionysian erotic politician, whose excesses and early death have threatened to obscure the fact that The Doors were more than just a one-man band.

When Densmore's candid memoir, Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors, was published in 1991, it read like the work of a man lucky to have emerged sane from his wild 54-month ride with the band. Morrison's erratic behaviour – fuelled by a staggering consumption of drugs and alcohol – created such tension, the author recalled, that "I got year-long headaches, rashes, phobias."

The appearance of Densmore's book coincided with Oliver Stone's widely derided but entertaining movie, The Doors. Playing fast and loose with the truth, it was criticised for essentially offering a fantasy of what it might have been like to be Jim Morrison, as imagined by a man who, at the time, was fighting in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, the drugs and hedonism took centre stage, overshadowing Morrison's fellow Doors – guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and Densmore – and even, to some extent, the music. Now, in what looks like an attempt to redress the balance (a bit), indie film-maker Tom DiCillo has made When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors – a whistlestop tour through the history of the band, comprised entirely of archive footage and a narration by Johnny Depp. Morrison still dominates the story, but the documentary's scope is broader than Stone's film, with due attention now paid to the creation of The Doors' sound.

Even so, when I meet 65-year-old Densmore at a hotel in London, he rejects the idea that When You're Strange is a corrective. Wiry, with a grey goatee and ponytail, he says he personally sees it more as an "addition". "Some people in the band hated The Doors movie," he says. "I didn't. Val Kilmer was astounding. It was about the self-destructive artist and this new one has more of the times, more of the other band members – so it's kind of more well rounded. As Jim says (in the film], you can't help but reflect what's going on: Vietnam, assassinations, all this stuff. So I'm pleased that there's more of the era this time."

What it also has is astonishingly fresh-looking footage from a self-financed art film that Morrison made, starring himself, called HWY: An American Pastoral (out of respect for the dead star, DiCillo only used outtakes rather than edited sequences). In one excerpt, a lean and bearded Morrison emerges from a car partially submerged in the desert. In another, he turns on a car radio and, in a surreal addition by DiCillo, appears to hear a newsflash about his own demise in Paris.

"Fabulous!" says Densmore, laughing. "But it's not to say he isn't dead; he was an alcoholic." His caution is understandable. For years, some have suggested the burnt-out star didn't die at all, and that he was never in the sealed casket interred in Paris's leafy Pere Lachaise cemetery, resting place to the likes of Edith Piaf, Chopin and Oscar Wilde. These stories, Densmore sighs, were "fuelled by Ray. When Jim died there was some fake-death rumours and we sent our manager (Bill Siddons] over to Paris and all of a sudden he was buried. Our manager called us and said, 'Hey, we buried him,' and I said, 'What?' We didn't see his body', so the rumours started."

It was a sad end to a journey that for Densmore had begun when he met Morrison in the garage Manzarek used as a rehearsal room at his parents' house in California. Morrison was completing a four-year degree in film at UCLA; he was shy, and couldn't play an instrument, but Densmore was impressed by his lyrics – well read, Morrison was already into Rimbaud, Blake and Nietzsche by the age of 16 – and his mysteriousness. "I dug that," he says.

Manzarek has said the band, formed in 1965, were "kindred souls – acidheads who were looking for some other way to get high". Indeed, Densmore recognised the dangers in prolonged LSD use early on. When he took it for the first time, it opened up new realities, changing the way he saw the world forever. None the less, he says now, "it's a complicated subject, psychedelics. I won't deny there's knowledge there, but they need to be respected. You don't party." 

Morrison lacked such caution, and one night, high on acid during the band's 1966 residency at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, he added an Oedipal passage to the band's eerie epic The End, expressing a desire to kill the father and f*** the mother. "I thought I was in a band with a psychotic," says Densmore, "but then I wasn't well read and I didn't know the Oedipus myth." 

Residencies at the Whiskey and, before that, the grungier London Fog, had given the band time to find their identity and hone their songs. However, after their first hit album, The Doors, and number one single, Light My Fire, it would never be the same again – at least for Morrison. Playing the clubs had been "a time of experimentation… and a good time," says Densmore. "And that was a little bit of torture for Jim, because you get bigger and they want to hear Light My Fire, and the incubation period of songwriting goes out the window." He says that his new book, The Doors: Unhinged, due in October, will reveal how "Jim wanted to go off to an island and start over, but by then he was a drunk. So we didn't want to do that. It's tough," he says gloomily. "It's tragic."

Morrison's substance-fuelled unpredictability meant the rest of the band often didn't know what to expect during a show. When things were going well, Densmore says it felt "exciting, dangerous". They were like "Geppetto – able to move him around emotionally with the music. We had sections where he could improvise poetry, and it was like, what is he going to do tonight, live, in the moment?"

When Jimbo – the name they gave to the Mr Hyde side of Morrison's personality – took over, no-one was safe. At a gig not mentioned in When You're Strange, at the University of Michigan homecoming in 1967, the singer revealed a darker side than Densmore had seen before, as he launched into a tirade against the audience of tuxedoed football jocks and their coiffured girlfriends. 

"He was f***ed up. Drunk. I left the stage and I was very pleased that Robby joined me as a statement. Ray then picked up Robby's guitar and was playing blues and Jim was, like, ranting. Ugh. And it was all because we wanted to stop for ice cream. 'Oh yeah?' said Jim. 'OK. I'll get some Courvoisier.'"

When the pressure of Morrison's behaviour became too much for Densmore during the recording of their fourth album, The Soft Parade, the drummer quit. However, he returned the next day as if nothing had happened. What was going through his mind? "Ah, that's a good question," says Densmore. "That there's an elephant in the room and nobody's saying anything. And also he's connected to my path that I've found in my life: music. So I came back." 

The film reveals that Morrison had wanted to quit in 1968, at the height of the band's fame. "He'd had enough," Densmore says. In hindsight, should he have gone? "Mm, yes," he says warily. What happened? "Jim said, 'I'm having a nervous breakdown', and one of the band said, 'Give it another six months.' And I'm feeling, 'Holy f***! So what if we don't have another LP. Maybe this train wreck will not happen.' But I'm young, and we don't have substance abuse clinics, and I don't know what to do."

But the train wreck did happen, during a riotous concert in Miami that resulted in Morrison being convicted of indecent exposure (to this day there is no evidence that this actually happened) and profanity. The band's first major US tour collapsed in the fall-out, but they bounced back with two of their best albums: Morrison Hotel and LA Woman.

Morrison didn't hang around but left for Paris with his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, to write poetry and try to get himself straight. Densmore became the last person in the band to speak to him when he called from France. I point out that Depp's narration says Morrison sounded "slurred", but in his memoir he wrote that he "didn't sound loaded". "Hm, I should check that," says Densmore. "I'm trying to sense how he is, you know? And I know he got excited by hearing about the response to LA Woman and Riders On The Storm. So he wanted to do more. But I was feeling he was still partying too hard, I just could tell."

Whatever the truth, Jim Morrison died not long after, aged 27. The band recorded two more albums – Other Voices and the wretched Full Circle – and then disbanded.

In 2003, Densmore filed a lawsuit against Manzarek and Krieger in a bid to prevent them from using the band's name when they started playing as The Doors of the 21st Century. I ask if this was out of loyalty to Morrison. Densmore looks over his right shoulder. "I'm trying to listen to my ancestor who's on the other side. Although," he says, adding what I suspect are arguments used against him by his former bandmates, "'Who the hell are you to speak for him? He's dead. So we should do whatever we want.'"

Densmore clearly doesn't agree with this. "Is there The Police without Sting? The Rolling Stones without Mick?" he asks, sarcastically referring to singers – such as Morrison wannabe Ian Astbury, presumably – that have toured with Manzarek and Krieger as 'Jimitators'. "People ask if we're getting back together. Yeah!" he exclaims. "When Jim shows up. Not with somebody else."

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

Hollywood Maverick Oliver Stone Goes South Of The Border

Early in his new documentary South Of The Border, Oliver Stone tells the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that after spending three days with him, he realises he must have had to grow a thick skin. It is one of several moments in this entertaining survey of the new Latin America, and the popular movement that is changing its relationship with the United States, where Stone's identification with his subject becomes apparent, and lends the film an extra layer of fascination.

Like his interviewees - Chavez, Bolivia's coca-chewing president Evo Morales, Cuba's Raul Castro, Argentina's Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa - Stone has been demonised and caricatured by large sections of the US media, often because, like Michael Moore, he goes against the grain.

When he challenged the lone gunman theory in the assassination of John F Kennedy in JFK, the attacks reached hysterical proportions. Stone, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, was not just wrong, according to some, he was un-American.

With South Of The Border he has again come under fire, notably from the New York Times' Larry Rohter. His claims of errors and misrepresentations began a written war of words with the film-makers, who retaliated with their own accusations of inaccurate reporting and bias.

Sitting across a boardroom table from me in a London office, jet-lagged but voluble, Stone says that these days he views such onslaughts as a "missile shield". "That was the Reagan Star Wars idea that he'd shoot out of the sky any incoming missiles," he laughs. "I think there's a similar feeling in the United States media, even if they like the movie, of 'This must be a trick. I can't accept this as a fact because it's Stone, and at best it's going to be rose-coloured agitprop. Which is fine, as long as I know that it's agitprop,' as if I was secretly manipulating the gears."

He wasn't, he insists. But then neither was he firing the kind of tough questions at Chavez that the BBC's Stephen Sackur did recently on HARDtalk. A film-maker who believes in the classic Hollywood tradition of giving audiences characters they can care about, Stone says: "I go and I say, 'I'm not interviewing you as a journalist. I'm not a prosecuting attorney. Tell me what you're thinking about and what's going on about this. If you lie that's fine. People may see it on camera or not.' If it's a clear thing where there's a tremendous dislocation I will (come back at them], and I have."

Stone has inevitably been accused of being too pally with Chavez - a man as bad as Bin Laden or Hitler, according to Fox News - as he was when he spent time with Fidel Castro for his documentary Commandante (he recently interviewed him for a third time). However, the aim of South Of The Border, he explains, was to let people who haven't got a voice in the Western media speak for themselves. As for the charge that, in Chavez, he is giving a platform to a dictator, he says: "I have been in dictatorships. This is bullshit. It's really a Right Wing/Left Wing battle in Venezuela where the Right Wing has used Chavez as this egomaniac character they can attack much easier than they can the concept of reform."

But his approach is unobjective, say his critics; he is a patsy. Stone sighs. "I could never be fair or balanced enough to suit their needs unless I turned against Chavez. I don't know where the line is. I don't know where true objectivity lies. I just think that you have to take it as you can do it."

South Of The Border draws parallels between the way much of the US media fell in step with the Bush administration's foreign policy in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the way it demonised Chavez in advance of a coup - backed, it appears, by America - to topple him in 2002. Stone knows from personal experience how dangerous this can be. As a young man he dropped out of Yale and enlisted for combat duty in Vietnam. Then, the American media was behind the war.

"I feel like I was a gullible, stupid kid, brainwashed by that education system that made the ethno-American point of view dominant," he says now. "I really had not a clue as to what was going on. The media really marched to war and it took me a long time to de-educate myself."

Indeed, he didn't "wake up overnight" in Vietnam. Caught in the thick of it, "I did my duty, but I kept my moral lights, and I did in any situation what I thought I should do. Which is to say not kill civilians, and find the enemy and kill them before they kill you. What I saw with my own eyes woke me up to a degree of pain and suffering I had never experienced in my life. I saw the racism and maltreatment, the regard of the Vietnamese as a lesser people. But I really only became aware of the historical causes after the war. It took me a few years to recover."

Studying film-making in New York helped, he says, by providing an outlet that "curbed my illegal mentality". What does he mean? "Coming back from a war you're not exactly a member of society," Stone reflects. "You're living in the bush and you're living by a different set of rules. The violence doesn't end with the country, it crosses the border, and we bring the violence home. Violence begets violence is an old cliché but it's true. 
Unless you stop."

Violence can take many forms, of course, and right now we're dealing with the economic violence of the financial meltdown in 2008. It has given Stone the perfect opportunity to bring back Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas's slick insider trader who, in Wall Street in 1987, notoriously declared that "Greed is good". In the long-delayed follow-up, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko emerges from jail broke, into a world where the hedge funders have become what he was. Greed's not just good now, it's legal.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of banks refused to collaborate with Stone on the project. He talked to "dissidents and people who had made independent money", but the banks, including Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland, "were very arrogant. They closed their doors. They were scared of us. Only the Royal Bank of Canada said welcome."

Coming out so close together, South Of The Border and Wall Street 2 make an interesting pairing. Does Stone see them as complementing each other in any way? "Only in the sense that Wall Street's responsible for a lot of the misery in South America, which it is." On the other hand, "it can also be an instrument for good," he says, pointing to Shia LaBeouf's character, who is part of "an idealistic new generation". That said, being able to talk to some bankers gave Stone an insight into the "new class" and its "evident immorality". Compared to the 1980s, it's "sharper, meaner, tougher", he claims. A lot of them saw the original Wall Street and were, contrary to the film-maker's intentions, inspired to become traders because of Gekko. "It shows you the immorality of the broker, no?" he says, although he adds quickly: "Some of them are good. My father was a good one."

What the impact of the new film will be is anyone's guess. Like the first film, Wall Street 2 is meant to be a morality tale. Its message? "Enough. Enough of this bullshit. It's crazy what's going on. The system is whacko."

If people misunderstand, it won't entirely surprise Stone. It happened not only with Wall Street but also Natural Born Killers, which instead of being viewed as a satire on the media's fascination with and exploitation of violence, was taken by some as a celebration of violence.

"I don't think I could make a film that would not be misinterpreted," he says. "It seems to be my destiny." This doesn't bother Stone any more. He has come to accept it. He tells me that he sometimes feels like the character of an "old drunk" in A Chinese Ghost Story, who dances and repels spirits. "I guess it's my destiny to be perceived as a fool and a drunk," he says, "but underneath that, the Chinaman is very effective in exorcising the demons."

Originally published in The Scotsman