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Misbehaving is Good: Marjane Satrapi on Radioactive

Like a fluorescent glow, alluring and mystifying, irreverence has marked Marjane Satrapi’s interdisciplinary oeuvre. Both as a graphic novelist and a filmmaker, the Iranian-born, French artist consistently reinvents herself through the narrative vehicles she chooses to expand her eclectic reach. Deservingly, Satrapi garnered international acclaim for co-directing the Oscar-nominated, animated adaptation of her autobiographical work “Persepolis,” but then didn’t follow a formulaic route behind the camera. For her sophomore effort she reimagined “Chicken with Plums,” another of her own stories, as a fantastical live-action tale, then came an under-the-radar, no-budget venture titled “The Gang of the Jotas.” In 2014, she made her English-language debut with “The Voices,” a horror comedy starring Ryan Reynolds

Each move Satrapi makes confounds and impresses with her willingness to repeatedly throw away any semblance of predictability. In yet another unexpected feat, her latest feature, “Radioactive,” marks her first—and probably last—foray into the dramatic biopic with the story of scientist and Nobel laureate Marie Curie whose discoveries patently altered the course of human history. With Oscar-nominated actress Rosamund Pike in the lead role, Satrapi’s new period piece (from a screenplay by Jack Thorne) doesn't present Curie as a static historical figure, but instead confronts her with the repercussions of her life’s work via an imaginative structure ripe with flourishes as unorthodox as its director. 

Irremediably candid, Satrapi, who is currently working on a British film with her friend Gemma Arterton, shared her thoughts on the joys of never behaving as expected and her quest to build a filmography without a clear pattern. 

Marie and Pierre Curie’s professional relationship, as equal partners in their scientific pursuit, is a major part of the film. Have you been able to find a creative collaborator that’s just as compatible in your career in film?

No. I’ve had good collaborations but not like that. In scientific work, unlike the artistic work, it can happen because all science is based on previous science and nobody can actually know what works until there’s collaboration. Artistic work is different because you have to have a vision and then you have to defend this vision. Besides those who are brothers from the beginning, like the Coen brothers, is very difficult for two people to have exactly the same vision. An artistic vision is very subjective, while science is factual. In science you talk about facts and then you deduce them, art is about what you feel. I’ve had collaborations before, but I have to say that while I collaborate to an extent with people, in the end I need to make all my choices myself. I cannot say that I have found a partnership like that. 

How would you describe your artistic relationship with Vincent Paronnaud, with whom you co-directed both “Persepolis” and “Chicken with Plums”?  

We collaborated on two films and then we stopped collaborating because after a while it becomes difficult. I love him as a person, but sometimes we don’t have the same point of view and when you are making a film that’s not easy deal with. In general the collaboration was enjoyable, but both of us needed to make our own decisions and that’s why we stopped collaborating. 

This is the second time that you worked from a screenplay that you didn’t write. How do you find ways to infuse these projects that were first envisioned on paper by someone else with your personal style? 

It’s actually very funny, because when I write my own stories, for example now that I’m writing a new script, it’s always a world that I know more or less. It’s a world in which I’m comfortable and I just have to find my own solutions. When it’s a script that someone else has written I have to enter into a world that I don’t know and one that I would probably not go into on my own. For example, “The Voices,” I would never say to myself, “Let’s write the story of a serial killer who talks to his cat and his dog,” I wouldn’t do that. 

But when something comes to me it is like a new world is added to my world, and then I have to work on the script. First of all to make it doable, because the written screenplay might say, “They do this, and then go to the moon,” but sometimes the budget doesn’t follow that. You have to make it doable and maybe cut some stuff because you don’t have a big enough budget just to start with. But also, a script is still literature, so I have to imagine how to put it into images. While I’m imagining that, sometimes I find incoherencies, so I always collaborate with the writer and then we fix these things together. Then, at some point, I have to completely posses the thing, make it my own, and believe that it's my own story so that I can be totally invested in it. It’s a very nice exercise I have to say. I very much enjoy writing, but when a world that is completely unknown to me is offered to me I also take it as a present. 

Specifically for “Radioactive,” what were some of the visual elements you wanted to implement from your point of view? There are plenty of great flourishes throughout. 

To give you a very concrete example, Marie is doing science, but we don’t really know what she is doing. We know she is doing science but that’s very vague, so I had to do as much research as possible to understand what she was actually doing. That’s one part. Then, in this particular story, I had to make the invisible visible because you cannot see the atoms, electrons, or radioactivity. I had to figure out how to make these invisible things visible. Also the fact that we have the present and future mixed together meant that I had to imagine all of that and make it work in a way that it wouldn’t seem like some element that was just added onto a biography. It had to feel organic. These scenes in the future had to feel like they were coming at the right moment. From what’s written you have to create something that you can show for people to watch. That is where I do my work. 

Beyond the obvious admiration that Marie Curie’s achievements merit, did you relate to her determination on a personal level? There’s a scene where she describes radium as an element that doesn’t behave like it should, a statement that also applies to her as a woman deifying the societal rules of the time. 

Absolutely. A very well behaved woman does not go very far. We need to misbehave. If they say, “As a lady you should not do this,” or “As a lady you should not do that,” then after a while I’d say, “F**k it, I’m not a lady so what? I’m not a lady but now I’m free.” I’ve had to misbehave practically all my life to be able to do what I wanted to do. If I had behaved the way I was supposed to behave, then I wouldn’t do anything that I do. You have to fight, you have to be fierce, you have to be angry sometimes, you have to yell, and you have to defend yourself. The way society wants us to be is not this way. It’s very surprising to me that sometimes I’ve heard comments saying, “Oh, Marie Curie, she was such a difficult character.” Well yeah, she’s a genius! I mean, if you are the only person in the whole world who has two Nobel Prizes in two different fields, you don’t have the time to think about, “Does my neighbor like me?” because you are concentrated on something else. When people would say that I’d tell them, “Would you ask the same questions if she was a man?” Because for a man people would say, “He is a genius, so obviously he is difficult.” But when it comes to women you always have to be proper, kind, convenient and friendly, which nobody can be all the time. What you are saying it’s right, this in an element that doesn’t behave exactly the way it should, and for me that’s actually the only way to be. Misbehaving is good. I like misbehaving. 

It’s been six years since your last movie. Did this feel like an unusually long break for any particular reason, like finding the right project, or was this just the natural timeline for a project like this and how you like to work? 

It was not a long break. “The Voices” came out in 2014, and I finished shooting this film in 2018, but it’s just the time it takes for it to get finished. It had been a year since it was finished before it came out last year at festivals, and then the coronavirus happened. That’s why it’s coming out so late. Basically I take four years between films. In the meantime, I started another film, worked on it for a year, and in the end it didn’t work out. In the middle of that I painted and had other jobs. I do a film when I think that it’s a story I really want to tell. It must be really important for me to be willing to make the effort. Now, I’ve realized lately that I don’t have so much time left to live. It’s not like I’m going to live another 100 years, so I’m going to work faster now. Normally I like to take my time because I have to do things my way. With this movie, from the moment I said I wanted to do it until the moment I started to shot it was a year and half, then it took a year and a half to complete it, and then it took another year for it to come out. It’s very long. 

Going back to “The Voices,” which is a movie I personally adore, it seems like a chapter in your career that dumbfounded some people because it was unlike what you had done before. How do you feel about that film in hindsight? 

I loved making "The Voices" and I love genre movies. If you look at what I have done until now I don’t have two films that are alike. My goal in life is to be able to make 12 or 13 films, I haven’t decided what is going to be the last one, but I want all of them to be completely different because I want to try new stuff. I really wanted to make “Radioactive” because it’s a complete story and it talks about things that I love, but I never want to make another biography again. I’m finished with them. I’ve done it. Now I want to do something that’s completely different. We’ll see what that is. 

Would you ever consider working in animation again, perhaps adapting another one of your graphic novels? 

Oh no, Jesus Christ. Never again! No, no, no. Animation takes f**king long, too long. It takes such a long time that you have to be a marathon runner. I cannot run a marathon, I can run maybe 100 or 200 meters, with my best effort 800 meters, but a f**king marathon I can’t. It’s just too much for me. It takes so long that I get bored. I have a quite an explosive personality, and in animation you have to create image by image by image for years. I will never do that again. 

You did return to animation to play yourself on “The Simpsons” a couple years ago. 

Oh my God! It was like a lifetime achievement for me. Once you are on “The Simpsons” then you can die, that’s how I felt. When they called they told me, “We want to ‘Simpsonize’ you.” They call it  “simpsonizing.” Then they asked, “Would you like to do your own voice?” And I said, “F**k yes! Of course.” That day I said to myself, “Okay, if I die now I’ve been in ‘The Simpsons.’ The rest doesn’t mean anything anymore.” So yeah, I’ve had my lifetime achievement moment already.  

You made a film in between “Chicken with Plums” and “The Voices,” called “The Gang of the Jotas.” As far as I can tell it was not officially released in the U.S., but it’s a crime story where you star in the lead role. In your pursuit of doing something new with each film, was the impulse for that movie to try your hand at being on screen? 

No [laughs]. That happened because I get easily bored when I’m on vacation. My friends and me wanted to go on vacation, I said, “Only for two days,” and they were like, “No, we go for 10 days,” and I said, “Okay, 10 days but we have to make a film.” I had a Canon 5D camera and took it with me. Each day I wrote what we were going to shoot. It was five of us, so I didn't have any choice but to act. I made the whole film for $10,000. It was an experiment that was really cool to do because sometimes when you make big movies the problem is you forget why you wanted to make films because it’s so much pressure, money, and all these things that normally are not part of my world but that I have to deal with. So once I finish a big project I really need to do something easy to clear off my mind so I don’t forget why I liked doing it, which is for the fun of it. That’s why I made that film, and I acted in it because I couldn't afford to have an actress. 

Rosamund Pike has played some great cerebral roles, from “Gone Girl” to the more recent “A Private War.” Why was she the ideal Marie Curie for your biopic? 

I knew her work. Marie Curie is not just an intelligent person. She is one of the most intelligent people in the world. Intelligence is not something you can fake. Intelligent people can always pretend they are stupid, but stupid people cannot pretend they are intelligent. You can see it in their eyes that they are stupid. So I needed an actor with huge intelligence, and when I met her not only was she intelligent but also she was a great actress. She was also very committed to the film. The first time we met and we started talking about the character of Marie Curie, we both wanted the same thing, which never happens from the first meeting with an actor. I thought she was the best, and then I became obsessed with her. The only extra thing I missed in the film was more of a sense of humor because I like jokes, and this was not the story for making jokes, so I will make my jokes in my next film. 

On a logistical level, with a story that has so many stylistic embellishments and some set pieces, were there any aspects that carried more complexity to bring to life? 

The scene with the dance around the coffin was definitely difficult. That’s when I actually tried to show Marie’s nightmare. The dresses the dancers were wearing had to glow, and I like to do these effects practically. I like them to be done in-camera and then I can enhance them. Finding the right way of making them glow and the right material was very challenging. Other than that, the hardest was the World War I scene that’s near the end of the film. I had only one day to shoot all of it. That day, I can tell you, I nearly died because it was very difficult to do it in that amount of time. 

Now that you mention that scene, it’s there that Marie Curie tells her daughter that she suffered more from the lack of resources than from being a woman. What’s your opinion on that statement? The lack of resources was likely tied to discrimination based on her being a woman, but she didn’t seem to see it that way. 

Marie Curie’s granddaughter said that sentence to me when I met her. She told me, “My grandmother wrote a letter to my mother to say that.” Marie wrote to Irène Curie and said that in the letter. The granddaughter then told me, “Everybody wants to make a figure of feminism out of her, but she was not a part of any feminist movement. She was a factual feminist because she did what she had to do and she fought much more for her science than for being a woman.” That’s something that Marie also actually said herself, and if she said that I can’t leave it out because I don’t want people to believe things that are not true. 

Having ideas is great but doing them is much greater, we have to do stuff. Marie Curie did things. I can’t just go out and say, “I’m equal to men.” I have to do stuff. This is where I can see a little bit of myself reflected in Marie Curie, because I never made a thing about me being a woman. I’m just a woman, but I could have also been a man. There was a 50/50 chance. Very seldom have I felt that people tell me certain things just because I’m a woman. Besides, people who say sexist things are stupid anyway, why would I care about what stupid people think of me? I have more interesting things to do than thinking about them. There’s always someone intelligent out there that gives me enough money to do what I have to do. 

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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