Butterflies Aren't Free: Michael Noer's 'Papillon' revisits a legendary prison-escape story

Movies Features

The first question to ask Danish director Michael Noer is: “What’s the first question interviewers ask you about your Papillon remake?” The answer, he says, is “Why?”

They’re right to ask. The first Papillon—French for “butterfly” (after the tattoo that adorned the chest of its central character, Henri Charrière, a Parisian hood who flew his coop on Devil’s Island)—was well-made in 1973, with an epic sweep by director Franklin J. Schaffner and stirring work from a pair of actors basking in primetime stardom: Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Title player McQueen turned in a $2 million performance, compared to a $1.25 million one from Hoffman, as the rich prison pal Papillon protects, hoping he’ll finance their flight to freedom. (Yes, as a matter of fact, this salary discrepancy did send Hoffman off on a scene-stealing tear.)

One might wonder why McQueen seemed so perfectly cast as Papillon. Was it that he was one of the few who lived through The Great Escape? Or did some casting director’s brain short-circuit and translate Papillon McQueen as GWTW’s Prissy? Whatever, the actor responded to the role with his last great performance. And the film itself made Steven Schneider’s list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

In (inevitable) contrast, the current edition is a less star-driven affair. Headlining the film in the two key roles are Charlie Hunnam (last seen as a snack for South American cannibals in The Lost City of Z), manfully following McQueen’s act, and Rami Malek (theEmmy-winning henchman/hacker of “Mr. Robot”), doing little to hint that a Hoffman was ever here.

But back to the original question: “Why?” Forty-five years have elapsed between Papillons, and, to some, that fact alone would warrant a remake. But the plot terrain is very much the same—no small thanks to adapter Aaron Guzikowski drawing from both Charrière’s biography and, liberally, the 1973 script by Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and an uncredited William Goldman. Trumbo developed lung cancer during the shoot (his work was finished by his son, Christopher) and died in September 1973, three months before the picture premiered and three months after Charrière, who had managed to visit the set right before his death of cancer.

It’s not easy to overlook this weighty past, but Noer has somehow managed: “It is very important to not think there was ever another movie,” he suggests. “It’s probably like when you get a new girlfriend. You shouldn’t think about who she’s been with before. That would drive you crazy. You have to clean the slate and look ahead. Otherwise, you would feel jealous or revengeful or small. I would never have said yes to a thing like this if there was something living in the back of my mind.

“The initial idea to remake the movie at all was proposed, via my agent, through Joey McFarland, a Hollywood producer,” he recalls. “It was just an offer I got where I skimmed the script, with the thought always in the back of my mind that it won’t happen.

“I’m Danish, so we kind of expect that—which is pretty funny because, historically, we’re Vikings and we made a lot of things happen. Normally, though, Danes never expect things to happen. We always expect people to be late—that’s probably the only thing we do expect. It’s the bad weather we have that makes us like that, I think.

“But it’s a good way to approach Hollywood: Hope for everything, expect nothing. It wasn’t till we got closer to filming that I realized it was happening. I did what all European directors do: I went to Hollywood and took meetings. That was thrilling because I got a chance to be part of the film’s realization from an early get-go.”

In particular, Noer proved a very active participant in casting the picture, putting up a big battle to bring aboard his two stars. “From that point on,” he says, “I was totally hooked because, for me, Papillon is a love story. It’s about the struggle between these two radically different men under extreme conditions, going from hate to love, united at the end by what they’ve been through. I like that classical arc to the film.”

Having just endured a grueling filming of The Lost City of Z in Magdalena, Colombia, Hunnam wasn’t keen on jumping out of that frying pan back into another one—but Noer, without even seeing his performance in that film, persisted and prevailed.

“I look at Charlie as a beautiful, masochistic philosopher. He’s very emotional, but he’s also a philosopher. These things combine both in private and in his work life. Charlie totally submerges himself in the universe, and this time the universe was very limited—not in scope but limited because it’s a prison. It was adventurous of me to see if I could break Charlie. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I certainly tried.

“People who are really good at something, like athletes, do the same movement over and over again till they are able to perfect it. That’s what I appreciate about Charlie, and I hope that’s what he appreciates about me: His goal is trying to hit the mark, and my goal is to create an environment where that hitting-of-marks really works.

“There’s no doubt that Charlie was my closest creative collaborator on this picture. If you have to do a movie like Papillon, I think you have to approach it like you approach actors. It’s important you look at actors, talk to them, spend time with them, look at how they move their eyes and their hands and their heads. Even though they pride themselves on the fact they’re playing a part, you should help them be proud about the fact they’re hiding behind the part they’re conveying.”

Malek came in for comparable TLC from the director. “Rami is energetic and fearless and quirky. There were a lot of things in him that related emotionally to Charlie and, in turn, a lot of things in Charlie that related physically to Rami. What I’m proudest of about this film is that it is a portrait of two men—and more than that: In the last line in the film, we say it’s a story of a lot of men. I’m happy we had the ambition to try and make a film that was not only about Henri Charrière but about many men.

“The three of us often talked about the relevance of imprisonment and what it does to the human soul. What intrigued me most about Papillon, in the book and in real life, was the bond between these two, how their friendship developed through pain.”

There wasn’t a word back in 1973 for what Noer was shooting for, but there is now: bromance. “That was why it was so important not to think you were casting one actor. You have to have in line the fact that you’re casting two actors. The movie really depended on their chemistry. Theirs is a unique chemistry because they go through this journey. For me, they are my Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. When you see the uniqueness of Rami’s vulnerability and the uniqueness of Charlie’s way of submerging into a role together, I think something magical happens on the screen.”

Papillonis not Noer’s first time behind bars. His debut picture, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Tobias Lindholm in 2010, was a prison film called R (short for Rune, the protagonist who’s new to the hardcore ward); he’s played by Pilou Asbaek, now on “Game of Thrones”. “It was so much not about a prison escape and so much about having to be in prison. I’m interested in prison as a film concept. Inmates talk about how you’re always climbing your way up the pyramid. Those who are at the bottom get spat on and kicked on. Pilou, our star, got that kind of treatment in the lunch line. Everybody’s always pretending to be tougher than they are.”

Economic necessity brought Lindholm and Noer to cell life. “We basically had to figure out a concept where we could make a fiction film for no money. I like to have a storytelling concept to base your emotions on and get a preconception from the audience about what they’re about to see. Then, you play with those expectations.”

More for realism than for economics, they cast the film with former inmates and current prison guards. (One inmate, Roland Møller, can also be seen this summer in Skyscraper.) “Prisoners felt they were going back into their roles, so it was easy to pretend in their imaginary world they were alone in a cell.”

R raked in 14 international prizes, including the 2011 Bodil Award for Best Danish Film, and is one of the two reasons that Noer believes he got the Papillon gig.

The second is Northwest, his 2013 foray into the gangster genre. “It’s interesting to try to make genre movies, then twist them so that you can put some authenticity in.

“Prison movies, as a genre, are about loneliness—the lone wolf—like Papillon, but gangster movies are often about family. There are so many about brothers, so I cast two real brothers who’d never acted in a film before just to give it some chemistry.”

Noer just wrapped his fifth film, the fourth to be shot in Denmark. It’s called Before the Frost, and it concerns a family that is close to dying of starvation in rural Denmark of the 1850s. Apparently, there was a lot of that going around then in Scandinavia (vide Bo Widerberg’s Swedish prize-winner of 1967, Elvira Madigan).

The patriarch is played by Jesper Christensen, a veteran of two James Bond movies (Quantum of Solace and Spectre), and the film is shot from his perspective. “He arranges a forced marriage to save his family. They can move up to a bigger farm before the frost comes because, when the frost hits, you have to have enough manpower to work your land, but his daughter doesn’t want to go through with it.”

Papillon played the recent Toronto International Film Festival and will have its U.S. premiere on August 24 from Bleecker Street. Noer attended the first and plans to make the second. “I’m just getting all the dates arranged. I have two small kids, so I have to plan everything in advance. It’s a little harder to improvise in your 30s than it was in your 20s.”

He turns 40 on Dec. 27, so it won’t get any easier for him—but time and technology are on his side. “I don’t know how you work in Hollywood and make a Hollywood movie, because I live in Copenhagen. It’s an amazing world we live in right now where you’re actually able to have meetings over Skype. I can travel the world, and it doesn’t matter where I live. That just gives the film business such a vibrant feel.”