FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON is the first film in a series initiated by the president of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, Serge Lemoine, and the production, in conjunction with the museum’s 20th anniversary.
The idea is to bring together contemporary artists, in this case world class fi lmmakers, and the Museum’s Impressionist or Art Nouveau treasures. The terms are particularly simple: the museum must be present, either throughout the fi lm or just a scene.
This is how Hou Hsiao Hsien came to scout locations for the fi rst time in Paris.
This was the starting point for the adventure of this fi lm: FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON.
When did you fi rst see Albert Lamorisse’s fi lm Le Ballon Rouge?
When Francois Margolin, on the behalf of the president of the Musée d’Orsay, came to see me and invited me to make a fi lm with them, I agreed and started researching what I might do. I met people, read about Paris, read about French cinema... and I found out about Lamorisse’s fi lm and watched it. I also read a very useful book, published in France. It’s called Paris to the Moon and it’s by an American, Adam Gopnik. I think I related to this book because it’s written from the perspective of an outsider, and it became my guide to Paris. From the book I learned about the children’s toy called “The Machine for Drawing the World,” which I used in the scene in which Simon and Louise draw pictures. Gopnik’s book taught me many other things too, such as the fact that there were pinball machines in many Parisian cafés in the old days. He also writes about the game on the merry-go-round in the Jardin de Luxembourg: the kids on the ride have little sticks, which they try to push through the small metal ring as they go past. I put that in the film, too.
Coming to Lamorisse’s fi lm fi fty years after it was made, what did you make of it?
My first reaction on seeing it was that it showed certain realities of Paris in 1956. It shows the city’s ambience, and the social system of the time. The focus on the various constraints surrounding the child is revealing: he is forbidden to do things at home, at school, on the bus ... He doesn’t have enough space to live, but at the same time the fi lm gives a sense of the new, post-war freedoms around him. Kids today don’t have such freedoms. I didn’t think of the red balloon itself in metaphorical terms; I think the fi lm shows cruel realities.
How well did you know Paris before making your film?
I’d visited the city two or three times and seen the tourist sights. Once the fi lm was set up, I took every chance to visit and spent as much time as I could exploring the city.
There are certain similarities between your approach to Paris and your approaches to Tokyo in Café Lumiere and to Taipei in Three Times. You anchor your stories in the topography, culture, history and everyday life of the cities...
Before making Café Lumiere, I’d never imagined that I could make a fi lm abroad. I didn’t feel I knew well enough how people lived in other countries and other cultures. During the Café Lumiere shoot I gave the actors certain freedoms to do things their own way, and the results were quite pleasing. And so I approached this fi lm the same way.
I start with the locations. The fi rst thing this time was to fi nd Suzanne’s apartment. Then Simon’s school. What time does it come out? Where is it in relation to the apartment? Where is the puppet theatre where Suzanne performs? Once all of these concrete things are established, I can start work on the script.
Your Paris has a distinctly Chinese fl avour, though, thanks to the casting of Song Fang as the childminder and to the puppet play that Suzanne narrates.
I met Song Fang at the Pusan Film Festival when I was the dean of its first Asian Film Academy and she was one of the students. I talked
with her and found she spoke fluent French; she’d spent years in Brussels and Paris, and was then studying at Beijing Film Academy. Meeting her inspired the character she plays, who is not untypical of Mainland Chinese in France. Plenty of Taiwanese students go to France to study, but hardly any of them work as child- minders. On the other hand, lots of Mainlanders do.
The puppet play that Suzanne narrates derives from a Yuan Dynasty play. Director Bai Jingrui wanted to adapt it as a movie for many years, but never did. Versions of it are often performed in Taiwanese puppet theatres. About five years ago, the magazine Cahiers du Cinema asked me to write something about Truffaut’s cinema, and this play came to my mind right away. I associate Truffaut with single- minded, persistent characters, and this ancient play offers an archetypal image of persistence.
It’s hard to find people who are truly persistent in that way these days, but I think Suzanne is like that. She narrates the story of Zhang Yu, the scholar who tries to boil away the ocean to retrieve his beloved Qiong Lian, and her own domestic situation is analogous: she’s stuck in an emotional impasse, and is determined to help herself out of it through her own efforts.
How much of a film like this do you script in advance? Just the overall structure, or is it more than that?
I have a full script, but without the dialogue. Each scene is discussed in detail with the actors, who invent their own dialogue to fi t the situation. This worked fi ne in general but I had a problem with the child actor who plays Simon. There are strict regulations on the hours that children are allowed to work, and I had only thirty days in total to shoot the fi lm. I wasn’t satisfi ed that I’d captured the child’s feelings very fully, and that led to a lot of additional work in the editing and post-production.
How well did Juliette Binoche adapt to this way of working? Presumably she’s used to having a dialogue script to work from?
We didn’t have that much time for preparation, and I met Juliette only three times before we started shooting. The fi rst time, she wasn’t ready and couldn’t come up with any dialogue. The second time was not much better. But the third time, she arrived as Suzanne. She’d entered the character, knew her hair colour, knew how she talked, everything. When you work with actors as professional as Juliette Binoche is, you can expect to get that kind of contribution from them.
I had a similar experience with the parents in Café Lumiere. They’re both professional actors and their contributions ended up defi ning the characters they played. The man decided that he should be taciturn, almost silent, and the woman played off that, becoming more nervous and insecure.
Do you give the actors full back- stories to work with?
Yes, I write as much background as possible, in great detail. For example, we decided that Suzanne’s father and mother met in 1968 and later divorced. They ran a printing business in Paris. When they divorced, the apartments went to the wife, who bequeathed them to Suzanne. Suzanne had Louise by her fi rst long-term partner.
When that relationship ended, Louise went to live with her grandfather (Suzanne’s father) in Brussels. Pierre (Simon’s father) is thus Suzanne’s second long-term partner, a novelist; he went to Canada as a writer-in-residence for a university in Montreal.
Most of this detail is never mentioned in the fi lm, but because the actors know it all they can draw on it and refer to it when they need to.
This is the second film you’ve made in which puppet theatre is a central motif. What draws you to this very specialised art?
When I was young puppet shows were often staged in front of temples and I saw them many times, and so puppet theatre always looms large in my own memories. I even tried to make my own puppet shows when I was a kid. In this fi lm, it was thinking about the persistence of Suzanne’s character that led me back to puppet theatre. The story of Zhang Yu is a staple of the puppet theatre, and so
I wanted to use that in some way. But this is a French movie, and so I had to fi nd a way to integrate a Chinese puppet-theatre story into a French narrative. That’s how I came up with the idea that Suzanne would be a creator and voice performer of puppet shows in Paris.