MS: Yes. It was part of the black market. But you know, everything else is part of the black market. Listen, I buy books of Iranian crosswords in a shop in Paris because I love to do crosswords, okay? You have this crossword with the image of an actor and you have to know everything [about him]. These crossword journals are official, because everything goes through censorship in Iran. Nothing of Brad Pitt is shown in the cinema, and here you have a photo of Brad Pitt and you have to know the name of his first wife, second wife—that means that officially they know that everybody sees all the films of Brad Pitt.
MJ: It's like they're inviting you to be subversive.
MS: In all the dictatorships, there's such a non-understanding of what human beings are. I mean, if you believe in the Bible, you have the story of Adam and Eve and God tells them, "Do whatever you want. The only thing you shouldn't do is eat the apple." What do they do the first thing? They eat the apple. So if you know a little bit the psychology of human beings, you have to understand that if you say something you should not do, then everybody wants to do it.
The unattainable Irane (Golshifteh Farahani).Sony Pictures Classics
MJ: I'll need to remember that with my kids.
MJ: So would you be in trouble if you tried to go back to Iran?
MS: I know that I can go there, but I'm not sure if I can come back. This is the problem. And that's why I don't go. I have not gone for 12 years now.
MJ: For the Persepolis film, you stuck pretty close to the book. With the new one, you adapted your graphic novel into a live-action film. Contrast the two experiences.
MS: With animation, if something does not fit, you always have the time to change it. When you make a live-action movie—I didn't have a big studio behind me—so when my 46 days of shooting were over, they were over forever. You have seen the movie: It's like a puzzle; there is not one scene you can miss, because if you don't have it then the whole construction doesn't work. So you had a big, big pressure. And at the same time, it is like living three years of life in three months. Everything is extremely intense. And every feeling you have is exaggerated by 12. It's really living extremely densely a moment of life. So the experiences are very different. The question is to know if you are a marathon man or you are a 100-meter sprinter.
MJ: This was your first time directing real actors on set—and you had some well-known actors like Isabella Rosellini and Mathieu Amalric. Was that intimidating?
MS: Not really, because they were very nice people. I called, for example, Isabella Rosellini, whom I didn't know at all, and she told me right away, "I'm in." And I say, "Well, maybe you want to read the script?" And she said, "I never choose the film because of the script, I just like to work with some people and I like to work with you, so I am in."
MJ: And she hadn't even met you?
MS: No, but she knew my work. I called Mathieu Amalric. I had met him like two times before, and I didn't know that he was in love with the book Chicken with Plums. I told him, "I want you to play this role." And he told me, "How do you want me to refuse a project like that?" So it went very well. Maybe it would not be the same if I didn't have these actors, but, you know, you smell people. I saw other actors, and when I feel that they are difficult, I don't feel like working with them. Because making a film should be a joy. The things that I do today are the things I did as a child. When I was a child, either I was drawing or I was taking all the kids off my street and I wanted to make shows—I was all the time making! The only thing is, now I know how to do it better, and now they give me money for it.
Nasser-Ali dreams of Irane in the graphic novel version. Knopf DoubledayMJ: You must be very happy!
MS: Very happy.
MJ: Excellent. So what filmmakers most inspired you in the making of this film?
MS: For the aesthetic, we watched lots of the '50s movies of [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger. They made The Red Shoes and The Black Narcissus. Because it's incredible—the images of these films is just unreal. I like the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. But in Douglas Sirk movies, you never have a moment [as in Chicken With Plums] when the father wants to give the last word and the kid farts, you know?
MJ: That was funny. It could easily have come straight out of Persepolis.
MS: Exactly, because this kind of thing actually happens in life. You never have these moments that, you know, are always perfect. Always something happens.
MJ: Back in 2007, you told this magazine that you had sexual fantasies about Darth Vader. In this film, the Angel of Death makes a memorable appearance—
MS: Well, it's the same thing.
MJ: What attracts you to these dark characters?
"I'm extremely unbearable. You know, I'm narcissistic and at the same time I'm very charming—I think."
MS: As a child reading comics I was always bored by Superman with his curled hair, because he was all nice and tidy. I was in love with Batman because he was full of hate and he was in his tower in Gotham City and he had this Batmobile and he had some kind of bizarre relationship with Robin but nobody would say it. I have my dark side. You have your dark side. From the second that we have a brain, there are things that are not right—we are human beings with all these illusions and complexes and everything. That's attractive to me. So the sexual dream about Darth Vader and the Angel of Death is not so far away. I like these characters because they resemble what a human being is. The really, really nice guy? I'm sure they're hiding some perversity somewhere. You cannot be completely nice. It's impossible. Who is it? Who is the perfect guy? Show him to me! It doesn't exist. And thank god.
MJ: Changing gears, you're certainly not the first writer to explore the plight of the artist in society—Kafka comes to mind. In what ways would you say you relate to your protagonist Nasser-Ali?
MS: Very much so. When I described him, I didn't have this automatic, unconscious censorship that I make to myself. As soon as I draw a female, I know everybody is going to relate it to me. So even unconsciously there are things that I won't say. When I create a male character, they wouldn't know it's me, so I could just say much more. And yeah, just like him, I'm extremely unbearable. You know, I'm narcissistic and at the same time I'm very charming—I think.
MJ: He really struggles with the strictures of society. Et tu?
MS: There is a problem in many societies that I don't quite understand what is this problem. I remember many years ago for the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson, suddenly her breast jumped out. And everybody went, you know, Wow! And I was like: What is the problem with the nipple? It's just a nipple. It's round, it's cute, it doesn't bite, it's warm, it's soft. All of us have eaten the nipple of our mothers, so all of us have seen nipples. What is the big deal? At the same time they were bombing Iraq and people they were dying. No problem. Nobody was furious against it. But then just one breast? When you don't make any harm to others, I don't understand why it should be restricted. What the hell is the problem? So yes, I have that. Forever!Maria de Medeiros and Mathieu Amalric as the miserable couple, Faringuisse and Nasser-Ali. Sony Pictures Classics
MJ: So, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Nasser-Ali's wife, who is also unbearable, but mainly because she loves him and he loathes her.
MS: She has missed his love. He meets another woman, but he misses her too. Everybody is missing everybody. But, you know, this is also in the '30s. Do you think a girl from a bourgeois family could go to say to her father, "I'm going to marry this musician," and everybody would applaud you? It was not like that. But this film is also saying that we have only this life. He misses his life first by missing his love, then by missing his wife. Of course you feel sorry for her. I felt so sorry for her! And that's why I wanted Maria de Medeiros to do it, because she's such a graceful actress, and she plays this ugly, harsh woman, and little by little you understand that no, she is beautiful, and at the end you feel sorry for her. That is what I wanted.
MJ: The notion of star-crossed lovers is an age-old theme. You could go either the tragedy route or the fairy tale. You chose tragedy. Do you think our quest for romantic love is futile?
MS: I think that no subject is more serious than the subject of love. And I think that if we are really honest to ourselves, we cannot survive a broken heart. It's extremely difficult. We tell ourselves stories: He was not as good as I thought. He was this, he was that, nah nah nah. But in reality, when our heart is broken, there's nothing to do. And Nasser-Ali is honest. At one point, he is like, "Okay, I will die because of my love." So it's a happy end. And, you know, love is the only subject in front of which we are all in equality. We always say we are equal in front of death, but when you are rich, for example, and you have everybody taking care of you, I think that you suffer much less. It must be much more painful to die when you are poor than when you are rich. But when your heart is broken, you can be rich, poor, whatever—a broken heart, we are all equal in front of it. And I think there is no subject more serious.