Aside from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, no graphic novel has helped popularize the form for mass consumers and readers than Marjane Satrapi Persepolis. Widely circulated and frequently taught, Persepolis, like Maus, provides a small biographical perspective of life during wartime and political instability. Through its presentation of simple and frequently uproarious comic strips, Persepolis candidly reveals Satrapi’s journey from youth to womanhood in modern Iran.
The film adaptation of the Persepolis books, co-directed by Satrapi and largely drawn in a glorious black and white, is out in limited release on December 25. We spoke with Satrapi in San Francisco to discuss comics, culture shock, and the Oscars.
Which was more difficult: Approaching your youth for the graphic novel, or approaching it again for the movie?
Marjane Satrapi: It’s different difficulties. To start with, you should never forget this is not a documentary about my life. The [process] of storytelling should not be forgotten. For the memoir, that is my life in 400 pages in comics. So already [I’m choosing] moments that are representative of something, an anecdote that will help someone understand a situation.
16 years of life, you cannot put it in a movie if you don’t have direction. You’ll find yourself with five movies in one. Very often that happens. You have a great beginning, and a great end, and in the middle you have nothing. It’s too many things going on.
When we made the movie, it was a very nostalgic moment of my life. The whole structure of the movie [reflects] that. This is the story of this woman who goes to the airport, doesn’t have any tickets. [She] sits in this airport and remembers her whole life.
But saying that it [was] difficult…not so much. I’m a very pragmatic person. I’m here to make a nice movie and serve the movie. The movie’s not there to serve me. If the idea doesn’t fit the movie or it destroys the rhythm, then I throw it out. That is it.
MS: That was something I did do in real life. One day, I went to this airport and couldn’t go back [to Iran]. I didn’t remember all my life… [Laughs.] But I sat there and I cried.
The fact was that [the framework] made it really efficient. You start [the movie] in color. Color is always attributed as fun, na na na na, and black and white is very sad, [but that] has nothing to do with [Persepolis]. The most sad scenes are in color and all the fun things happen in black and white.
Which part of the books did you find hard leaving out of the movie?
MS: The story of the maid was very important to me. At a young age, I was very aware that people didn’t have the same values, even in the same house.
Or my friend when he loses an arm and a leg and he says this joke. For me, that was a very important moment. But, you know, life takes it swipes anyways. We have to laugh about it, etcetera, etcetera. But if you start saying that, then you have to say the whole story, you can’t just leave it there. Either you have to say a little bit, or you have to say the whole of it. You can’t make it half-half. If it were another time in the history of cinema, like if it were 1928, I’d make an eight hour movie. I enjoy seeing eight hour movies.
That’s why I like making comics and animation. Because it takes such a long time. I’m not a runner of the 100 meter. I like marathons. The longer it takes, the better I feel.
Was there ever discussion to animate Persepolis entirely in color?
MS: [Co-director] Vincent Paronnaud and I both come from underground comics in which we work in black and white for economical reasons. So that’s something we’re used to. And it helps keep the coherence of the movie to go from one narration to another.
MS: The person, for example, who animates the grandmother is not the same person from beginning to end. It’s different people because it’s too long for one person. So the body language had to be coherent so [we wouldn’t have] one person doing it one way, and another person doing it another way.
Also, in Iran, we talk a lot with the hands. The use of the hand is very important. Some cultures don’t use the hands.
MS: You know, I don’t consider it that way. I don’t believe in shock…the clash of cultures. The culture is one. The culture is a ring off the same chain. Picasso was very much influenced by the African arts, and he influenced a whole other generation of artists. So everything influences everything.
When I went to Austria, it was not so much a matter of place. You know, I was an adolescent without my parents. I had this crisis of religion. Plus, my parents were not close to me. Plus, there was war in my country. Plus, I was in the bourgeois school with all these bourgeois kids. All of this made it very difficult. If it was in Austria, or in France, it would’ve been the same thing. When I was much younger, I thought I had to choose between being an Easterner or a Westerner. I don’t think this way anymore. I take what I like. I am Iranian, but I am French also. My husband is Swedish. I travel a lot to America. It’s about the human being. I have my friends. That is good. If I don’t have them, that is not good.
Of course, it’s much harder to live in a repressive place. It’s not just east or west. America has become a repressive place and you see this repression every day. Well, now, it has changed, but at the time the war had started, people [couldn’t] say it was a bulls–t war because they were anti-patriotic. Apparently, true patriotism destroys freedom of expression.
I remember doing an interview making a whole big mess, saying the war was stupid. And the interview came out describing my sunglasses.
Which interview was this?
MS: Well, I won’t say. The person who did it didn’t have a lot of choice. Here, you have the best laws for freedom of expression. The problem is that expression can be bought by people who don’t want you have it.
MS: Chris Ware I like a lot. He’s a real genius. I like very much the American cartoonists, actually.
Persepolis is France’s official selection for the Oscars. What does that entail on your part? More prestige and more press to do?
MS: For me, it means more than that. Germany chose The Edge of Heaven which is as much a German as a Turkish movie. It’s this recognition, and you don’t have that [recognition] in America because everybody is from somewhere. But, in Europe, immigration is a bit of a problem because not everyone comes from somewhere. So there’s this recognition that you can be an immigrant in France. That you can have another background, and another piece of luggage. It means a lot to me. But it’s also a lot of responsibility. Lots of more press, lots of more travel, lots of more this and that. But these are the things you don’t choose, but what you do when you are chosen.
Persepolis and Ratatouille are the favorites for being nominated and winning the Animation Oscar and it’s interesting that they’re both, in one way or another, connected to French culture. Have you seen Ratatouille?
MS: Yes, it’s a nice one. I really like it a lot. I watched it with two kids and they were so excited. I was more excited by their excitement.
I don’t know, if we could have the Oscar for Best Animation and Best Foreign, that’d be a record. Yes! Why not? I worked for it. [Laughs.] I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care. I do care. I hope. At the same time, this is just a competition. It’s surreal. If it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. But I hope it will. [Laughs.]