Portraying brutal incarceration: Interview with director Michael Noer.
I caught up with director Michael Noer who helmed Bleecker Street's re-imaging of Henri Charriére's classic true tale of escape from the prison colony at Devil's Island (known as one of the most brutal in the world) in French Guyana in the 1930s, Papillon (pronounced Pah-Pee-Yon, French for “butterfly”). Starring Rami Malek as the great French forger Louis Dega and Charlie Hunnam as the titular Henri “Papillon” Charriére – a French thief convicted of a murder he didn't commit and sentenced to life.
You may recognize Papillon primarily from its 1973 silver screen incarnation from director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as Dega. This version is generally regarded as McQueen's last great big-screen performance before his death at age 50 in 1980 of cancer.
Noer's version of the tale should not be viewed as a remake, however (as he explains in the interview below). It is for all intents and purposes a “re-imagining”, especially because Charriére's second book helped form much of the vision for this Papillon and was not employed for the material in the original classic.
This new Papillon is precisely that, new and qualifiedly different, while firmly standing on its own in its own territory with Noer as a very capable director and a cast which helped make the film entertaining, touching, and raw while keeping us entertained with the pure adventure of it all – the way any movie in Papillon's vein (the prison escape flick) absolutely must do.
Both fans of the original and those discovering this immortal adventure tale of the indomitable quality of the human spirit when at adversity and the rugged, unbreakable nature of true friendship, for the first time, will dig Noer's Papillon. Catch it now on VOD.
Hello Michael! Getting right into Papillon, what initially attracted you to do a re-imaging of the story?
You're using the same word that I would use which is “re-imagining” and to revisit as well.
I hadn't thought about the book for a long time, and also not the old film and suddenly this idea of revisiting Papillon comes along, and I certainly remember Franklin's [Schaffner's], it's something I watched as a kid on German TV – dubbed in German.
I saw the potential in revisiting not only the movie and the book, but also revisiting a genre that I love which is the prison movie genre.
Then the special thing about Papillon is the escape thing as well. I've done a prison movie before where there was no escape, and – for me – I was attracted to almost like a turn-around on this one.
There's a little part of me that considers Papillon almost magical. I think first and foremost, it's the potential of actually making a bromance” – a love story between two men who in many ways through the torment and pain, have to learn to work together but also teach each other some important life lessons.
I thought there was a simplicity and a beauty to that story which attracted me like a theater director would be attracted to doing Hamlet.
That's a fantastic way of looking at the dynamics that underlie the sheer adventure of the escape itself, which I think is something it’s easy to kind of get lost in – but your movie balances that part with the dynamics between Papi and Dega really well.
As it is a re-imagining (and I thought a very well-executed one), what did you want to take from Schaffner’s 1973 original? What did you seek to do differently?
Actually, I very quickly found out that looking into an old film would almost be like reading my girlfriend's old diary. It would be like keeping ghosts alive that wouldn't really help my project going forward.
That's a fascinating way to look at it. I like the metaphor.
I very quickly didn't use any time on the old film. I used my time on the book, together with Charlie and Rami – especially with Charlie [Hunnam].
So, `I was happy with the potential of not looking at this really as a remake but much more revisiting of the book. If I had given the old film too much attention, it would've cast too long a shadow – the shadows would've been too long in the shooting.
I think one should try to avoid anything that reminds you, or of where you're copying anything, but it's much better to take the book and distill the DNA out of that. Then it was also inspiring for me because it's the first time I've directed a movie where I haven't written the script.
So, I approached it very much from a director's point of view which was a great personal and professional endeavor.
So, in that sense, I think it's very much to go back to the original, to go back to the book which is excellent. It's very rich in its detailing of the environment.
I've never read Charrière's original novel but I'm going to have to now.
So that is a very big ad for the film and also a very big reason for me saying yes because of the potential of going back in the book.
I'd recommend it to anyone to read because in any book there's a lot more to get out of it.
That's an excellent segue into another question I had which was geared a bit more to Charrière's literary output. He published a sequel to Papillon” called “Banco: The Further Adventures of Papillon” the same year Schaffner’s original came out  and the same year the author died of lung cancer. Any thoughts or interest in being the first to tackle filming of that as another feature? I am absolutely sold on your capability as a director after watching Papillon.
We were also very much inspired by that book because we didn't want to limit ourselves to “Papillon.” We wanted to see if we could convey a fuller and richer portrayal of Henri in the sense of including that book.
Of course, with the plots and such, it's not in the film in that sense, but there are some details here and there that he releases in “Banco,” especially the way he describes how they escaped on the sea. Which, without revealing too much of the film, there's also an important sequence in my movie where a boat and the riots upon the ocean played a very important part.
So that was actually something that we were inspired by, by “Banco”. And you could say that both books are excellent and especially rich in the way they describe the environment.
I'm going to have to read both books now. I’m wondering if we could get a look at how the characters themselves were elucidated for Papillon, was in the writing or the production or a pretty equal balance? What originally got me thinking along those lines was reading that Dustin Hoffman in the original molded much of Dega off of writer Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms and characteristics, saying in an interview "He's a real feisty man and he's got a combination of toughness and sophistication and integrity that I felt were right for Dega... So, I said, why didn't he write the character of himself, so to speak?"
For me, I was very much looking at it how you would cast a romantic comedy or romantic drama because you need a certain amount of chemistry, but you also need a certain amount of plus/minus magnetic energy in the sense that Rami [Malek] and Charlie [Hunnam] and Dega and Papi they start off on the wrong foot. They dislike each other at the beginning, they try and remedy that, but they are very, very different.
Definitely. Very different characters.
I think that in any love story – the people, they see each other, and they go into a big, long kiss – the movie's five minutes long. So, you've got to have some conflict between them, some differences...
So, we weren't really looking into the past, I was actually looking much more into trying to look into the colors and the different traits that Charlie [Hunnam] and Rami [Malek] could offer to the different roles. I really looked at it as a yin and yang, like a male/female, masculine/feminine movie that was always – within the characters – debating vulnerability against masculinity.
I think that is very much the essence of all good prison movies. Which is not dependent on gender, but is very much about this love and hate, and violence and caring. To me, the Papillon environment and the case for making this film – it's almost like the mother of all prison movies.
I'd agree with that wholeheartedly. When I think of prison movies・, three always come to mind as sort of archetypal: The Great Escape, Papillon, and The Shawshank Redemption. Three very different movies too.
Yeah. I think these fights within the characters of male/female, it's extremely interesting. I also look at Rami and Charlie as having the same attributes and physically they're very different but in mental strength and such they... it's so interesting to see them together not only as actors but also as they're portraying characters, because it switches all the time, and they have their own little fight in between them of who's winning...
[Laughs] Nice. Glad it wasn't rocky like it was rumored to be between McQueen and Hoffman when Schaffner did his film in '73. What you're describing sounds to me like a healthy kind of competition.
Yeah. I think it’s the duality within the characters but also the duality of the environment that we tried to convey within the characters.
Then I can also say, to touch upon that, a character like Cellier played by Roland Møller … he's Danish. So, he was also in my second film called Northwest – you can look it up on IMDb if you need any info on that...
I link every title and name on their first mention in an interview to IMDb so our readers can absolutely get more info.
But Roland Møller plays a character called Cellier from the book – which is a completely different character in the other movie – but in the book, he's in jail for murder. So, he's far from being an angel, and Roland Møller has a certain way of conveying masculinity and for me, it was interesting to cast someone who's from my own back catalog and have him put into the mix because Roland in many ways – I'm using the word “cliché” but not in a negative way – he has a great persona and conveys the clichés of masculinity which I think opens up a good visual and dramatic potential in trying to convey a more complex portrayal of masculinity.
Definitely. Even having that pre-existing working relationship I'm sure helps cut down on what would otherwise take more time to establish, namely trust.
I was hoping we could switch gears a little bit into something that for me as an audience member is absolutely vital in any film that has even a bit of period piece about it: mise-en-scène and also the music. The scene that really caught me with the music was the Paris, 1931 scene where you used The Hot Sardines’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” [listen below] which I thought fit very well with Paris in the jazz age (I really dig their version of that song too). What did the process look like in really getting that right and transporting the audience to French Guyana and Devil's Island in the '30s?
For me it was interesting, in my other movies I worked much more sparse in the use of music and camera movement. For me, this film in many ways is also a tribute to some of the directors who came before that I really, really liked – David Lean for example.
Don't mistake me [Laughs] I'm just bowing down in front of a genius but for me the pleasure of doing so which is also impossible to do so if you go by a different map which is just a little bit of the flavor of a movie if you look at the order of David Lean like Lawrence of Arabia and such.
He uses music in a very opera-esque way and I thought that was very fitting for my movie. Not only the setting – where the time takes place – but also in making people be submerged in the movie in another way than maybe they are used to. Certainly, in another way than I'm used to when I make movies.
Then another thing was – it's a very important thing to touch upon, it's a practical thing which I don't think the audience thinks about but they can actually see it – everything was built. That gave us a lot of challenges, that we were actually outside.
So I think if you and I were looking at the movie, I could pinpoint only 2 or 3 places in the film where it's actually green screen.
That helps get a greater authenticity definite. Something that alas is missing in much cinematic fare nowadays.
Yeah. Everything is there. We planted real palm trees in Malta and in Montenegro to give the illusion of the jungle. But otherwise, nature is what you see – and I think that gave a lot to the film – when the wind blows, it's a real breeze and when it's dark, it's really dark. You couldn't just turn up the lights, we had to work at night. I really like that physical part of the film.
David Lean had never done this in the sense of how we're doing it, where you could actually build everything and still have the equipment that could dolly through it all... for me that was an amazing experience to see everything being built and have this 360 experience.
I think it's something that you normally would see in historical films where you're limited – you're always limited in angles. If you're shooting on a street, there's always something you can't shoot. If you're filming in a studio, you're having to create most of it on a computer – but we were actually there. Which was great for me and great for the actors, where we could also just always be on our toes.
We felt much freer when shooting. Which allowed us to improvise as well.
I think that approach really helped magnify the rawness of Papillon too. Gave it a greater pull towards that end. What were some of the other challenges like?
It does give an authenticity that we were filming so much outdoors, but of course, it's also extremely challenging when you're working in an environment that you can't control.
It doesn't matter how much money you have, you can't keep the sun up.
So, you're always under the grace of God when you're shooting a movie like this. But I think that was great.
Another challenge was that we committed ourselves to shoot most of the film chronologically so that Charlie could lose weight during filming.
There you go. Schaffner did the same if I'm not mistaken so that Steve McQueen could develop his character too.
Yeah. And this is a bonus for the film as this was of course physically very challenging for Charlie. That was also quite the adventure and challenge and I'm really happy that Charlie was so physically and mentally committed to the film.
Then another thing – which wasn't a challenge but was a really great, unforgettable experience to me, was when Charlie – at the last week of shooting – there's a sequence which we didn't shoot chronologically, we saved it for the last week of shooting. But it's in the middle part of the film which is when he is isolated.
Yeah. Solitary confinement.
He actually came up with the idea himself that he didn't want to leave the cell. So, he stayed in there for the whole duration – the whole week.
Dedication right there.
...So, he was sitting there and didn't talk to anyone. I think that was his way of saluting some of the many men who had been in there for years, and it was also his way of giving a little bit back to the authenticity of what it would be like to be isolated – which is something that is unfortunately still as relevant now as it's ever been.
Unfortunately, it is almost everywhere but especially here in the United States.
What do you hope audiences will take with them from the film?
When I make a film – I'm so blessed and happy that I can make films, it's something I never dreamt could be possible – I always think of myself as very lucky. But in the back of my mind when the rain was hitting and it was cold and I hadn't gotten anything to eat, I was like really tired and everybody was kicking and screaming – I think the light at the end of the tunnel was looking at two friends at the age of 17 going in to watch this film.
Looking at them buying tickets for an adventurous prison movie, but then going out of the cinema and them being really quiet for some time and then patting each other on the back saying to other, “if you ever go to prison, I'll have your back.”
That's a great way of looking at it. Cementing that buddy relationship.
Yeah. I think I was looking at it as a movie for a younger audience about how important friendship is no matter what.
That was really what kept me going and that's not... I wouldn't want to use the word “target audience” but I was looking at those 2 kids who maybe or maybe not have some daddy issues but anyway... it reminds me of friendship. Friendship is an unbreakable bond if it's based upon love and I thought that was a beautiful hymn and a beautiful moral to the film. I hope they will take that with them when they watch it.