Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born film-maker of Persepolis, tells Antonia Carver why she hopes it will be seen as a film that just happens to be animated.
Following the success of her graphic novels, Marjane Satrapi received enquiries from several US studios. 'One wanted to make a kind of Beverly Hills 90210 in Tehran,' she laughs. Instead, the novelist turned to friends in Paris to take her vivacious story of growing up in revolutionary 1970s Iran onto celluloid.
Marc-Antoine Robert, head of business affairs at France 3 Cinema, and Xavier Rigault, then a booker for Europalace (Pathe and Gaumont theatres), were setting up a production company, 2.4.7 Films. Persepolis became their first production.
Satrapi already shared a studio with co-writer and director Vincent Paronnaud, a fellow graphic artist and short-film maker. Together they rewrote Satrapi's life story for the screen, from her time as a rebellious nine-year-old during the Iran-Iraq war, to her emigration to France at the age of 24.
'We met every morning at 6.30am for four months at a cafe by our studio, writing, erasing and reworking the script,' remembers Satrapi.
Keen for Persepolis to be seen as 'a film that just happens to be animated', Robert and Rigault recruited a team of enthusiasts, including French distributor Diaphana's Michel Saint-Jean and Hengameh Panahi of Celluloid Dreams (later Dreamachine).
The financial breakthrough came with the support of associate producer Kathleen Kennedy, who had wanted to buy the rights to the film. Kennedy approached Sony Pictures' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who pre-bought the film - rare for a French animated movie.
Meanwhile, the team set about recruiting a stellar cast for the French-language voiceover. Catherine Deneuve had previously commissioned Satrapi when guest editor of French Vogue. 'We sent her the script, to play my mother, and she agreed right away. It was as simple as that,' says Satrapi. 'And then Chiara (Mastroianni, Deneuve's daughter) wanted a voice test. She was perfect to play me.'
Danielle Darrieux voices Satrapi's grandmother and Simon Abkarian her father. And Deneuve is re-recording her part alongside Gena Rowlands, for an English-language version.
Satrapi directed the voice recordings, playing the parts opposite each actor. Then came the long process of animating more than 600 characters, using traditional techniques.
'Black-and-white animation is abstract enough for anyone to identify with the story. If we'd used actors it would have become the third world, and the film a kind of science fiction,' says Satrapi.
Satrapi emphasises that the story is a universal one, about a young girl's coming of age, albeit with an additional motive. 'When people talk about Iran, they think of flying carpets before 1979 and flying rockets after 1979. If people watch our film and see human beings, then I've achieved my goal.'