Interview: Alain Chabat; producer of Babies

Interview: Alain Chabat; producer of Babies. By Simon Miraudo.

Alain Chabat is a man of curious film credits. The César Award winning actor’s IMDB page is littered with projects he has starred in, written, directed and produced. Famous for giving voice to Shrek in the French-dubbed version of the DreamWorks quadrilogy as well as appearing in acclaimed pictures The Taste of Others and The Science of Sleep, he is also responsible for directing the international smash hit Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, and has a notable cameo in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Perhaps his most peculiar creation is his latest: the observational documentary Babies, in which we spend 80 un-narrated minutes with bouncing bubs from Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the USA. Although directed by Thomas Balmès, Chabat is credited with coming up with the idea and producing. I spoke to him about the inspiration for this adorable flick, any fears he had about his bold project, and tried – in vain – to see if there was some underlying commentary behind all the cuteness.

SM: You’re credited as a producer and writer on Babies, but specifically with coming up with the idea. So I’m curious what the very first seed of inspiration was for this.

AC: I don’t know exactly. It’s always weird the way we find ideas, or to be hit by ideas. But really it was to see very very little things on a big screen, from Babies. The idea was really immediately very clear. I just wanted to see these little adventures on a screen and go with empathy and be frightened by little things that were scared, or amused. Really, I’m sorry, but I don’t know exactly where it come from.

SM: That’s ok! I think that happens with a lot of ideas. But tell me, when you started pitching the project, how did people react to the idea of an observational doco about Babies?

AC: Actually I met some documentary people and they didn’t react very well, because they wanted music – I didn’t – they wanted voice over on it. The only one who reacted pretty well, and actually laughed at it, with it, was Thomas, the director of the movie. So he had also these questions and ideas on it, so we talked and it was a good dialogue and we went on this adventure.

SM: You mentioned that people wanted music and other sorts of documentary tropes on top of the film and you didn’t want to have that. Towards the end of the production, did you feel any pressure, or did you have any personal worries about not having narration, or not having any talking heads.

AC: Not really. It was a very small crew, so basically the film was kind of not so expensive at the beginning. I don’t know. I believed in my conviction, and Thomas was OK with that. No, not any pressure. I didn’t feel it actually.

SM: Well, that’s good. Going back to the start, tell me how you scouted the subjects, because the film begins before the babies are even born. How was the interviewing process of the parents? Did you have specific locations that you wanted to cover?

AC: Yes, it was first with the location. Again, Thomas went to Mongolia and loved the country; it was very scenic and dramatic landscape and great people. So he knew Mongolia. I always wanted Japan or a very very technology … how do you say … a kind of advanced technology country with a lot of noise and visual too, like Tokyo. We went through different countries to go from where we really didn’t have any technology to the place where there’s the most technology. Finally and eventually it was Namibia, Mongolia, USA and Japan. That was the process.

SM: What was the relationship with the parents’ like during filming? Did any have second thoughts during progress, or did you have much interaction with them at all?

AC: Nope, nope. It’s true that we of course needed loving families; people who really wanted a child. That was one of the … how you say … one of the common points that the family had to have. So, Thomas talked a lot with the families. We didn’t want to be voyeurs. We didn’t want to intervene, or have intervention. He will not be the babysitter, or will not be the judge. He will just observe. Of course we told the families that we’ll show them the movies and if there’s something they’re not comfortable with – it’s so private – we can talk about it and change maybe. At the end, after years, we showed the movie to every family and every family was so … I mean, no one wanted to change a thing. They were so happy with everything. That’s what they wanted from this adventure, and it was an experience also for them.

SM: Interesting. The film kind of suggests – as much as it can, and not explicitly – that there’s a peacefulness in simplicity. You have the Mongolian baby who’s very happy to play with toilet paper, and there’s a Japanese baby who’s weeping around its toys. Is that something you believe?

AC: Well, it’s also when we had all the material; ‘What do we keep?’ These two scenes were absolutely great. Little Mari with the tantrum in Japan; so cute and funny. For me, it’s more the frustration when the baby is maybe a little tired, or has no patience at all on something, because it’s a little tired. It’s more than ‘She’s got every toy possible, and she’s not happy, and Bayar has like nothing and he’s very happy’. I mean, it can be a comment obviously, and it can be a good comment too. But it was more the material that we have; two great scenes that had to be in the movie. But it’s true that there’s no comment or voiceover, but of course the montage is already a comment.

SM: For sure. You probably can’t answer this, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is any of the four babies your favourite? Maybe when you see on screen you smile a little more than when you see the other three?

AC: (Laughs) No, it’s true. Of course it’s not my babies; my children. I had the feeling of father with children. No favourites of course. But, hmmm…

SM: Was there anything during the project that made you change the way you view the miracle of birth? Or was the myth perhaps dispelled for you at all?

AC: Actually, I was really curious also, like Thomas, to be driven by the project. We didn’t have any conclusion before doing it. It was more question than answers. I had questions. I had as many or more questions at the end than before starting it. But yes, it was more, ‘Do babies have the same reactions in different environments?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What are we going to see?’ It was, again, more than an experience, and to have this journey with them.

SM: You’re an actor. You direct. Here you’re producing. You also do voice over work; I understand you did the voice of Shrek. I’m curious, first of all, what projects you are working on next, and secondly, do you want to keep working in all those different fields, or is there something specifically you want to work on in the future?

AC: Sure, the next project I’m working on is a movie I shot a couple of months ago and I’m in post-production. It’s a comedy. A family adventure comedy based on a French comic book character called Le Marsupilami. It’s going to be fun family stuff with a CGI character. Basically, it’s really the excitement on an idea that drives me on a project. So I never really produce documentaries. Just one on a French hip-hop band; that will be my second one. I would love to work again with Thomas, because he makes such great work, so we’re still talking and who says what can happen in the future. But really, it’s more the idea than the genre. It’s just the project. The movie.

Babies arrives in Australian cinemas May 5, 2011.

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