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Within the first few pages of hits from Googling Virginie Besson-Silla, I found a Tumblr entitled “White boys dating black girls.” Of course. I sighed and glanced through the photos of Virginie and her children and husband (who happens to be director Luc Besson), and moved swiftly on.
It only struck me later that this Google hit is basically how some of the world views Besson-Silla, as a famous white director’s “exotic arm candy.” I realized that before my interview with her, it would be useful to unpack this identity. Yes, she is the half-Senegalese, half-Breton woman that Luc Besson decided to marry -- and she does a lot of other stuff along with it.
One of Besson-Silla’s important identities is that of movie producer, someone with impressive titles under her belt (most recently the film "Lucy" with Scarlett Johansson), many of which involve the portrayal of women who are strong, weak, political, apolitical, beautiful, ugly, not white, white, and (most of all) very real. (You can see her full production credits at IMDB.)
She is such a good producer that Luc Besson once said she’s better at producing than he is -- which, because they are often creative collaborators, allows him to focus his energy on what he does best, too (directing).
My favorite of all of her joint production credits with Besson is "The Lady," a movie about Aung San Suu Ki’s relationship with English husband Michael Aris. This movie taught me things that I didn’t know about Aung San Suu Ki, including the fact that she has two half-Burmese, half-English sons, and had to make a difficult decision to either rejoin her English family and never see Burma again, or further the cause of Burmese independence and never see her husband again.
My own parents are Thai and American-Caucasian, and seeing on-screen depictions of difficult issues immediately relevant to my own identity just, well, floored me.
Even in the midst of a Western film industry that might attempt to other the hell out of a half-Senegalese woman, Besson-Silla is absolutely unafraid to be herself. She lives in an extended family situation that rings true to my own non-White heritage. She’s mentioned in articles that her husband Luc Besson was very open to the idea of living with her sister Karine, so they share a dwelling space, as well as a lot of children: three of her own, two of Luc’s, and four of her sister’s.
Besson-Silla’s unwavering support of films like "The Lady," a tough sell in any market, has made her my movie producer idol. When I found out that she’d be doing interviews, I jumped on the chance to chat with her. We spoke together about the creative project that she’s currently promoting -- a fantastical, clock-punk animated film that she’s been nurturing since 2007, "Jack et la mécanique du cœur" (the English title of which is "Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart").
The film is totally whimsical, and highlights one of the things that I find incredibly compelling about Besson-Silla: She does what she wants. Another thing: If she wants to do it, she’ll stubbornly see it through to the end.
The tale this movie tells through song and animation is straightforward: It’s a love story about a boy with a mechanical heart and the singer he falls for. I admit that the film hit me a little in the “lost in translation” place. I felt that it was absolutely charming in French, much like the original album by the band Dionysos and novel that it was based upon -- but it was just a touch inexplicable in English.
The plot hangs on the conceit that the performer, the chanteuse, is a conduit for the main character to a larger, brighter, more interesting life. See this in French if you can.
The joy of the interview, for me, was seeing how invested Besson-Silla was in making sure (with all her heart) that this creative project grew and prospered.
Besson-Silla’s voice was warm and low on the phone, and her English accent is neither French nor Senegalese, but kind of everything -- I speculate that this is because she grew up in a global stew of Canada, Chad, Mali, Gabon, and sometimes Brittany. She is a darned awesome human.
This music video is a distillation of the film, highlighting Mathias Malzieu’s music and a stop-motion version of the animated story --Achariya)
Achariya: This project began a long time ago in an entirely different medium -- music, specifically the music of Mathias Malzieu and his band Dionysos, along with the book that he wrote to accompany it. What made you listen to it and think, this could be an animated film?
Besson-Silla: Ah, yes. I saw him for the first time -- Mathias -- when he performed the music to promote his book, you know, and as soon as I saw him I really liked his energy. Afterwards I just had to meet him, and I asked him about his story. He was so enthusiastic and brilliant about how he discussed the project! It was evident that the concept for a film was clear in his head and that he should direct it, too. I absolutely wanted to be a part of it.
Achariya: So this began as far back as 2007. What was the story of the production, why did it take so long to make?
Besson-Silla: It has been a long process, hasn’t it? The movie began as a love letter in music and book form about Jack and Acacia, but it was really from Mathias to his inspiration for the chanteuse. It was based on his love story with the singer Olivia Ruiz, who he was with back then. Jack -- the way he moves, his character, everything -- is based on Mathias.
Achariya: Boy, it would be nice if every love story produced something this creative.
Besson-Silla: Yes! So after I met with Mathias and convinced him to direct it, we had sessions with him to find the skeleton of the story, the important beats. It took a while because Mathias adapted his album and book into script form while he was also on tour with his band. He’d go and tour, and then come back and we’d have another session. We brought on a co-director eventually, Mathias’s music video director Stephane Berla, and after that we discussed graphic design. Mathias wanted to bring on the book illustrator as the designer for the film -- Nicoletta Ceccoli. She did such a beautiful job of bringing the world to life, especially through the doll-like quality of the characters.
Achariya: I noticed the big eyes, like anime characters, very expressive!
Besson-Silla: Yes, we paid special attention to the eyes! Oh, then. The reason why it took so long is because the original French animation company went bankrupt. We had to pick everything up and move the production to a Belgian studio. After that, things went more smoothly. They salvaged all they could from the first animation company and did all the rest -- the compositing and lighting and the rest of the rendering. We all went to Brussels twice a week to have a look at everything. For motion, we didn’t use mo-cap, but the animators had video of how Mathias looked in concert and used that for Jack’s motions in the film.
Achariya: Do you think that there were things lost or gained in the translation of all of Malzieu’s lyrics and poetic words from French to English?
Besson-Silla: We worked hard on the translation. Every time we had to lose a joke because it was too French, we tried to work it in a little later, when it made sense in English. We tried hard not to lose anything in the adaptation.
Achariya: So it has taken a while to see the end of it. What are you doing next, now that you’re finishing this project?
Besson-Silla: It’s 2014 and we’re still here! After so many years, when we were finally ready to release the movie, I made sure to show my kids first and get their stamp of approval. But this is what I’m doing now, promoting the English DVD release of Jack, as well as opening "Lucy" in different countries. That movie is still being released in theaters, so I’m following "Lucy" around too.
Achariya: So, what’s next for this creative project? A stage show, more books, a sequel? Will the characters live on in fanfiction?
Besson-Silla: Oh, no, this is it for this production, because it was just so hard to do. Mathias has another book coming out, though. It’s an unrelated book about a man named Giant Jack, but not the same Jack.
Achariya: Best of luck! I’ll be watching to see what you’re up to next!
Even though Besson-Silla’s answer to my question about her creative future was coy, I couldn’t help but wonder what she’ll be up to next. After a bit of digging, I found a French article from 2013 that interviewed Virginie and her sister Karine. Maybe this is a hint for the future?
"I'm half African, I lived there until the age of 18, and this is something that is very important to me. Africa has such a rich and little-known culture. I dream of making a film on that continent.”
If so, I can’t wait to see it.