Destiny and chance have often played an important role in my work. Meeting with Audrey Tautou, after Emily Watson backed out, the discovery of Yan Tiersen thanks to an intern who put one of his CDs on while driving me to the Amelie set… and more recently, MicMacs, was a ‘carbon copy’ of the Amelie experience; I met Dany Boon after Djamel Debouze backed out, and discovered a young composer, Raphaël Beau, in the same way as with Tiersen…
Dany Boon had agreed to do Micmacs, but the problem was that he had to shoot two other films first: De l’autre côté du lit, and Le code a changé. He wouldn’t be free for another four months. So we decided to push back the preparations for Micmacs. The risk was that I would lose some of my team, because four months is a long time to wait and people do have to put bread on the table.
But, the very day that we took the decision to delay shooting, I received a call from Chanel, asking if I would possibly be available for the new n°5 commercial that would replace the Baz Luhrmann commercial with Nicole Kidman!
A year earlier Chanel had called me to do a commercial for a different perfume. Chanel’s long-time artistic director, Jacques Helleu, wanted to meet me. He had discovered my work thanks to a member of my team, Valérie Mullon.
But I was busy with the storyboard for Life of Pi, and had to turn the offer down because I am only able to do things 100%. I just can’t make a film, even a short one, by treating it as second fiddle. Obviously, since no one refuses this type of offer, the more I refused the proposition, the more Chanel wanted to work with me. But in the end, an English director was chosen to shoot the film with an English actress.
In the meantime, Jacques Helleu had left. But when it was time to shoot for Chanel n°5, the big boss, Maureen Chiquet, remembered Jacques Helleu’s suggestion, and so I was contacted…
What a windfall! In the same day, I wrote two possible stories and the next day found myself in their sumptuous offices in New York, with a breathtaking view over central park and a sublime private collection of paintings and photographs.
Of course usually the procedure for making a commercial doesn’t happen that way at all. Normally a client approaches an advertisement agency. ‘Creatives’, having been briefed by accountmen make up a storyboard. Then several producers or directors are approached and put in competition. But in this case there was no agency. Just a direct contract with these delightful people, who were motivated by a real desire to work with me.
My first proposition was received well enough, but the second was a hit. While I proposed Venice as a destination for the night train, they suggested a less conventional Istanbul. Since I adore port cities, I jumped on the occasion. Less than twenty minutes into the meeting and my proposition was accepted!
And that is how I used those four months of forced availability…with perhaps the most idyllic adventure of my career. Three weeks of shooting… plus one week of trials for the lighting effects in the train. We had the Venise Simplon Orient Express come, a magnificent train, and set it up in mountains of the back country behind Nice… we reproduced an entire corridor and compartment of the train, reproducing everything from the woodwork to the original decoration. We shot in the Limoges train station, the most beautiful station in Europe, for the intro shot, and requisitioned the train stations in Nice and Istanbul. We worked all over Istanbul, redecorating the spice market…we rented magnificent boats and sailed them on the Bospherus, among the giant tankers. We even saved the life of a Turk, who had accidentally fallen into the water, rescued by our studio manager who dove into the cold water like Superman, while the port authority agents tried to find the key to a locked up lifeboy…!
And I was able to work with Audrey again, and finally complete our triptych…Who else would have been able to show her feelings with the simple intensity of her eyes, especially in such short takes?
From the beginning to the end of this adventure the Chanel people were charming, respectful, passionate, with an elegance and generosity that is rarely found today. This is why I say that this film was not just a commercial, but a personal short-film, sponsored by Chanel…
Chanel was thrilled with the commercial, and from a business perspective it reached its objectives. The photos of the shooting express the joy that this film was made with.
On a night train, on my way back from scouting locations, as I was reading Miss Chanel’s biography, I felt an unusual pressure on me, as if someone were whispering in my ear: “you my friend, had better do a good job”! Other than the responsibility of working with such an important company, I felt the obligation to be worthy of that little woman, so individual, so dedicated, and so talented…