One of the most popular comic series in the world – Asterix and Obelix has often been translated into different languages and the success of the series has led to the adaptation of its books into films. Asterix and Obelix – The Middle Kingdom’ is the first live-action Astérix film that is a fully original story. The film’s director Guillaume Canet who has also acted in it opens up about the film.
Let’s start at the beginning of this incredible cinematic adventure, which has lasted four years in total. Were the adventures of Asterix and Obelix part of your culture as a child?
Totally! My father owned almost all the Asterix comic books, and they were definitely his. When he wasn’t sharing them with me or my sisters, he’d dip back into them when he was alone, so it’s pretty moving now to be able to read his books with my children. That’s one of the reasons I got Involved in this project—to make a movie for my children at last. For everybody’s children.
What are your recollections of the first four movies in the franchise?
I saw Claude Zidi’s film in 1999. I liked it a lot, but it was Alain Chabat’s 2002 movie that was a real eye-opener. That was the movie that really built audience interest in the live-action adventures of Asterix and Obelix. It preserved the DNA of the comics while bringing a special touch or tone to the mix. It came up with something nobody had ever seen in a French movie. I saw the next two movies as well and, even if it’s hard to compare, I find the art direction in the 2008 Olympic Games installment is top quality.
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At what point did The Middle Kingdom project reach you?
Alain Attal, my longtime producer, partnered up with Yohan Baiada, who had developed an Asterix and Obelix in China project, and had obtained Hachette’s approval for this original story. They asked me if the project interested me on paper and gave me a treatment to read. Initially, it wasn’t something I could see myself doing, but as I was reading I glimpsed the possibility of making a great travel and adventure movie. I pictured all the things that cinema could bring to the story, with battles, action scenes and fabulous settings, all on an epic scale rarely seen anymore in France.
I knew that Asterix was a franchise that offered the resources to do all that. But once I had indicated my interest in the project, I had to pass the director’s test and prove my credentials. Then, I was given the first draft of the script written by Julien Hervé and Philippe Mechelen. We worked on it together, then I kept going alone because I wanted to make the film more personal by adding touches from my own universe. In total, I think I wrote about a dozen drafts before we started shooting!
As you were saying, Asterix is one of the rare blockbuster franchises in French cinema. Worldwide box-office of nearly $450 million, and nearly forty million admissions at home. Is it easy to liberate yourself of all that?
I always set that aside when I make a film. I have at least one quality, I think, which is recklessness! I mean, it doesn’t stop me being realistic and serious, but I want to maintain a carefree attitude by telling myself that the reason I’m on this project is that people have faith in me. Then it’s up to me to do the best I can with what I know how to do. It’s like mountain-climbing barehanded: when you stop to think if you can make it to the top, your grip stiffens up and you fall. On a project like Asterix, once it’s launched, there’s no going back. It’s a monstrous machine involving an army of people, and every question you’re asked, as well as every answer you give, has immediate, monumental consequences. The moral of the story is never to second-guess yourself and always act like you have the answer!
More seriously, this is my eighth film as a director and my past experiences on set were very useful, because even though I didn’t want to preoccupy myself with the scale of the budget, I still made sure I kept within bounds. I also realized that even with such a huge budget, spending issues can arise. It’s crazy! The explanation is simple: every department working on the movie knew it was an Asterix and wanted to do the best possible job: sets, costumes, special effects, etc. The costumes, for example: Madeline Fontaine made them using dyes that dated back to Gallo-Roman times for greater authenticity. All the dying was done by hand! On the soldiers’ uniforms, each little piece of leather was cut out by hand before being sewn, by hand also. For four hundred extras. An insane effort! So, yes, it involves spending a lot of money, but it pays off in the end because you see it there on screen.
As well as cowriting and directing the movie, you play the role of Asterix…
Yes, but I didn’t want to at first! To be honest, when I developed the story and characters, I really wanted to play Caesar. I started writing the character as depressive, madly in love with Cleopatra, who has conquered the Chinese market while he has to settle with “only” being known in his European empire. Maybe I saw certain similarities with my own life. I found it funny to see things as a sort of sequel to Rock n’ Roll, but talking it over with Gilles Lellouche (who was not yet lined up to play Obelix), we realized that playing on that chord again with Marion might seem a little bit stale. So I thought of Vincent Cassel, somebody I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. And I saw Caesar in him. It’s nuts, he has the exact profile of the comic book Caesar. He has that feline aspect, the right age and aura for the part, and I thought it would work perfectly with Marion.
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In the end, given the scale of the project, not taking a role in the movie seemed like a good idea. Then came a bunch of meetings to discuss the cast and, of course, the characters of Asterix and Obelix. For the latter, someone had to step into the shoes of Gérard Depardieu, who had nailed the part from the very first movie. He is Obelix! And he did the first four films, while three actors (Christian Clavier, Clovis Cornillac and Édouard Baer) played Asterix. So we started going through the names of actors and, at one point, at Pathé, Jérôme Seydoux said to me, “I don’t get it, Guillaume. Why not you? I mean, honestly, you’re young, you’ve got energy to burn, you’re the little guy with the short fuse who always wants to prove he’s right. You’re the perfect Asterix!”Everybody around the table started chiming in, saying it was a great idea, and I was thinking, “No way! How can I play the lead while directing a movie of this scale?”
And in the end, you accepted the part!
Yes, because I realised that the two actors playing Asterix and Obelix had to be friends, and that’s when I thought of Gilles. It involved him gaining weight but I knew he had what it takes to play the character: the ability to play something childlike, a kind of near-poetic naivety. I went to ask him if he was ready to put on 15-20 kilos and take it on from Depardieu. Gilles was brave enough to accept, and I know that it only takes a minute to see nobody else but him in the part. He is touching, magical, and that makes me super happy because it was one of the major gambles in this adventure. I can assure you, Gilles did a great job: he worked out and bulked up to fill the costume and really become Obelix.
As we said, you’re coming to the end of a four-year cinematic adventure, with the film’s hugely anticipated release. How do you feel?
Exhausted but very happy! I’m proud of this movie, which is close to how I pictured it in my dreams. During all those years of preparation and the months of shooting and post, I never gave up doing my best. And I have only one wish with regard to Pathé and my producers (Alain Attal, Ardavan Safaee and Yohan Baiada), who invested a lot of money in the project: I’d like the film to work for them. Finally, and with all my heart, I hope audiences will enjoy watching this Asterix. I hope they’ll laugh and have a lot of fun. That would really make me very happy.