Drawn From Her Own Life

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- "She could be a stand-up comic," says one of Marjane Satrapi's friends. This is an understatement. To spend any time with the Iranian-born author of "Persepolis" -- the internationally best-selling graphic memoir that Satrapi has now turned into an animated film -- is to see that she can be a sit-down comic as well.

Here she is, planted in a chair in her Manhattan hotel room, tossing off laugh lines with each puff of her nonnegotiable cigarettes. "If you have asthma or something, you tell me," she says. "Then I go into the toilet and smoke and we have to speak through the door."

Wouldn't dream of it. We'd miss the visuals that way.

Satrapi, 38, bounces in her chair like a 6-year-old on a rocking horse as she talks about the ignorant Westerners who assume that her Iranian relatives ride camels. She joyfully slaps her armpit at the punch line of a joke we can't print (you'll find it in "The Complete Persepolis," Pages 258-66). She brandishes an invisible semiautomatic while recalling her initial horror -- as someone accustomed to drawing solo -- at having to work with dozens and dozens of people to get the film version of "Persepolis" made:

" Shoot shoot shoot," she whispers, miming the mayhem she wanted to inflict. " Going to kill them going to kill them."

Okay. So why did she take on the project in the first place?

"Good question! I always thought it was the [expletive deleted] idea in the world to make a movie out of this book."

The first of four French installments of "Persepolis" -- Satrapi has lived in Paris for many years now -- was published in 2000. In the United States, her work came out in two volumes. The New York Review of Books called them "implacably witty and fearless."

In simply drawn black-and-white panels, "Persepolis" tells the story of a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. Before her widening eyes, the country transforms itself from a brutal secular dictatorship, propped up by Western interests, to an equally brutal, anti-Western theocracy. Her leftist, upper-middle-class parents had opposed the shah, but they fear for the safety of their outspoken daughter under the regime of the ayatollahs. Eventually they send 14-year-old Marjane to live in Austria, where she confronts the twin demons of adolescence and exile alone.

Satrapi didn't think Hollywood could get her story right, especially the complicated mix of love for her country and antagonism toward the current Iranian government. She turned down various proposals to adapt it. Then a couple of French producers (later backed by Hollywood powerhouse Kathleen Kennedy) made her the proverbial un-refusable offer.

Imagine, Satrapi marvels: "Somebody comes to you and tells you, 'I will give you all the money you want, you don't need to make any compromise, and you can make the movie exactly how you want.' I mean, how many times does that happen?"

All the money she wanted turned out to be around $8 million, which she thought was plenty. Worst-case scenario: She might make a bad film. "This is not the end of the world. I am not dead." So she signed up a co-director, Vincent Paronnaud -- "my best friend since ever" -- and plunged in.

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