The epic story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker from the Parisian underworld who is framed for murder and condemned to life in the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island. Determined to regain his freedom, Papillon forms an unlikely alliance with convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, who in exchange for protection, agrees to finance Papillon’s escape.
Papillon, based on the memoirs of Henri Charrière, a man who was framed for murder and transported to a penal colony in French Guiana, from which he made a heroic escape, has captured the imaginations of generations. First adapted in 1973, and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, the story of the so-called Papillon, and his friend Louis Dega, is gracing the silver screen once more. Danish director Michael Noer has tackled the timeless story of adventure and brotherhood, but this time from a different angle. He spoke exclusively to Bookstr about his motivations and inspirations.
Hi Michael, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. I just finished watching Papillon there, and I absolutely loved it. Congratulations!
Thank you so much, that means a lot to me, of course.
It must have been intense to film!
Well yes, I don’t think you’re ever gonna talk to a movie director who says that making any movie is a walk in the park, with any film there’s always different challenges. But this was certainly one of the most mentally and physically challenging projects that I’ve ever done.
Absolutely. I mean, I feel slightly exhausted having just watched it. I can only imagine what being involved in making it must have felt like. Charlie Hunnam who plays Papillon has said it’s not so much a remake of the 1973 movie adaptation, rather this version focuses much more on the book. Can you tell me a little about the process of adapting a book and what are the key differences between the original film, and yours?
Well to answer your first question, it’s absolutely right, Charlie and I we were huge fans of the book and I myself look at the book as almost like a work of New Journalism, it has this Hunter S. Thompson feel to it, how he describes his time in prison. And I know some people have questioned the authenticity in it, but I don’t think you can question the authenticity in the way he describes details and this way of describing details fits very well with the way I approach films. I love authentic details, I love creating authentic worlds, I love casting non-professionals to try to amp up the authenticity. With this film being so big, it was great to be able to create these huge set designs which worked 360, so I think in part, in answering your second question, I’m answering your first, it was really an organic process in trying to create as many proactive choices to create as much authenticity as humanly possible.
An example would be Charlie’s commitment to isolating himself into the real cell, which worked as a real cell because you could actually lock him in, at the last sequence when we were shooting, which is the middle sequence of the film when he’s isolated. And I think that’s what drew Charlie and me to the project: that it was a physical film. It’s not an academic film, it’s not a mystery, it’s a physical, dramatic love story that takes place in the bleakest possible universe, which unfortunately still has relevance in the world politically as well because a lot of men and women are to this day isolated in and I’m just asking the question out loud, what does it mean to privatise imprisonment? So that was the thing that kept us going when the rain was cold and the wind was tough.
What does it mean to privatize imprisonment? That was the thing that kept us going when the rain was cold and the wind was tough.
At this point, I asked Michael to expand on the theme of incarceration, and what he hoped to contribute to the global discussion on mass-incarceration with his take on Papillon. Unfortunately, my recorder malfunctioned, but I was able to find this clip of Michael speaking very eloquently on the subject, and saying much of what he said to me. I felt was important to it include here.)
So, we ARE a book website, and our audience are book obsessed, so I was wondering, obviously you’ve read Papillon and Banco, but were there any other books that inspired making this fi—
Yes! Sorry to cut you off but I’m so, so enthusiastic about this question, I’m so glad you asked. There is a book called the Dry Guillotine by René Belbenoît, which is quite like Papillon, also about life in the penal colonies in French Guiana but it’s much more journalistic than Papillon, it’s not so much an adventure, more an account and it’s really amazing, I loved it. It’s really great.
I’m so glad you were so ready for that question! I’ll put a link to the book in the interview! And I wanted to ask you, what is another book you’d love to adapt?
Oh, that is a great question. You’d think any director would have a book right off the top of their head. Oh! There is one book, that I eh, that I love, I really love, but my producer would kill me if I said the name…
Oh, does that mean it’s already in the pipeline?
Oh yes, absolutely! Yes. But yes, my producer would kill me so I eh, I can’t say.
Well, having seen Papillon, I’m very excited to see what the next adaptation will be! I know you’re on a tight schedule so I won’t keep you any longer! Michael thank you so much for speaking to me it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you! And thank you for taking the time! Bye!
Papillon hits theaters today, August 24th
Featured Image Via Movie&TVReviews