STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week two movies are opening that tap into nostalgia for old films. One is the latest from Martin Scorsese and we'll hear a review just ahead. The other is a black-and-white silent film from an obscure French director. In spite of the silence, "The Artist" is generating a lot of talk, including talk about Oscars.
NPR's Neda Ulaby met the director at a landmark in downtown Los Angeles where part of the movie was filmed
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NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This 1920s movie palace is a faded fantasia of Art Deco design. Underneath the swooping marquee stands the director with a difficult name - Michel Hazanavicius. He's lanky in blue jeans and bright yellow sneakers.
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS: So now we're facing the Orpheum. It's a theater on Broadway, I think. Yeah, that's it - on Broadway, downtown.
ULABY: Today, it's a downtown stretch of grimy storefronts selling knockoff purses and cheap jewelry.
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ULABY: But with a flourish, Hazanavicius transports you back in time to a dazzling Hollywood premiere, 1927, the era of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks.
HAZANAVICIUS: It's so mythic.
ULABY: The movie "The Artist" follows the decline of a dashing silent film star. Imagine Fairbanks with a whiff of Rudolph Valentino. He's playfully virile, with a pencil mustache. But the newfangled talkies leave him behind, even as his lovely, tap dancing protege blossoms into a new screen darling.
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ULABY: Director Michel Hazanavicius thinks every director secretly yearns to make a silent film. It's cinematic storytelling at its purest. And "The Artist" is immersive in the same way great radio can be. There's a sense missing. Your brain fills it in.
HAZANAVICIUS: So you do it with your own imagination, with your own ghosts, your own life, your own sounds, your own reference. So it makes the movie much more yours in a way.
ULABY: I saw "The Artist" with someone who swore later he could remember what the actors sounded like. The film is critically adored. It's a smash in France and the lead won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Still...
How difficult was it to get people to finance a silent, black-and-white movie.
HAZANAVICIUS: Yeah, that's one of the more difficult parts of the entire process.
ULABY: What helped Hazanavicius was the fact that back at home he'd made two hit comedies about a French secret agent.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OSS 117")
ULABY: If you're ever bored one night at home, it's worth checking out the "OSS 117" movies. They happen to star the same two leads as "The Artist," so producers signed on reluctantly to Hazanavicius' wild dream of filming a black-and-white silent movie on location in Los Angeles.
HAZANAVICIUS: They didn't say no exactly but it was a very shy yes.
ULABY: "The Artist" was shot on classic old Hollywood back lots, as well as historic locations here. The cast includes some great American faces, character actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell, who you maybe remember from "Six Feet Under" and "Babe."
JAMES CROMWELL: My goal was not to be in a silent picture.
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ULABY: Cromwell says most actors prefer to be heard. They're accustomed to using their voices and acting in ways that work in contemporary film.
CROMWELL: The trick is to always come under in the performance and do very, very little with your face. Your face - you keep your eyes open always because you don't want to blink because when you blink, the director's going to cut away from you. So you betray as little of your inner life through your face as possible and everything is done by the dialogue.
ULABY: Acting in a silent picture meant rediscovering how your face and body could express your character.
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ULABY: Of course, music also does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in a silent film. Director Michele Hazanavicius played it as the actors worked, to set the mood. Now, as he ambles down a particularly noisy Los Angeles street, he says it was a real benefit not to have to worry, say, about sirens.
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HAZANAVICIUS: What's great with a silent movie is that kind of sound, it doesn't - it's OK. You can shoot.
ULABY: The mechanics of silent film production was also a blessing for one of the film's other stars, a scruffy dog whose trainer could bark orders while the cameras were rolling.
HAZANAVICIUS: Usually he has to wait for the actors to stop talking. He could really talk to his dog during the shooting. And maybe that's why the dog is so good in the movie.
ULABY: So good, the dog actually won a special award.
HAZANAVICIUS: La Palm Dog, which is a pun on La Palme D'or on La Palm Dog. I think it's a bone or something.
ULABY: If Oscar watchers are right, Hazanavicius may take home the movie world's biggest bone of all, the Oscar for Best Picture.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.