French writer/director and comic actor Dany Boon knows a thing or two about ticking the funny bone. His international breakout hit and king of the Gallic box office Welcome To The Sticks (Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis) brought in over $245 million worldwide, including $610,000 in Australia, while his latest hit, Supercondriaque, enjoyed a bigger opening weekend than the final Twilight instalment in his native country.
Australian audiences can catch Boon starring in director Alexandre Coffre’s The Volcano (Eyjafjallajökull). A farcical road trip littered with increasingly imaginative mishaps, it pits Boon, as Alain, against his ex-wife Valérie (Valérie Bonneton) as they both race to beat the other to the wedding of their daughter in Greece via land, since the unfortunate eruption of the Icelandic volcano has grounded all planes.
How easy is it for Boon to slip between taking direction as an actor and guiding his own performance and that of his co-stars in his own movies? “It’s easier to just be an actor,” he says. “Then I just have to follow the ideas and the vision of the director. Even if I think that the director is making a mistake, it has to be their mistake, because it’s their movie. It would be more difficult if I worked with a director who had no idea.”
The success of Welcome To The Sticks caught Boon by surprise. “I suppose the more your work relates to your life, the more your stories are universal,” he offers, insisting he never intended to grab the spotlight. “There’s always the dark side of the moon. I’m free to do whatever I choose now, but the freedom can be complicated. It would be wrong to stop to think about how famous I am. I’m not scared to lose it. I didn’t start my career to become famous. I just want to bring joy to the audience.”
He insists that it’s the amount of laughs his films generate, and not the box office takings, that matter. Comedy has been a lifelong passion for Boon, one that was sparked by an early realisation his young mother was deeply unhappy. She had been disowned from her family when they disapproved of her chosen husband.
“She was quite sad when I was a kid, so I wanted to tell her jokes,” Boon says. “I was imitating adults just to make her laugh. She had me when she was 18-years-old, so it was really hard for her. I had a deep, amazing relationship with my mother as a kid and still do. That was the beginning of being funny.”
"I decided to be funny so I would be lovable, to prove myself."
The estrangement from his relatives also dented the young Boon’s confidence. “When you’re a kid and you don’t know part of your family, even though they live in the same small town, you question yourself and you wonder why that is? Why don’t they want to see you? Maybe you think it’s because you’re not lovable. I decided to be funny so I would be lovable, to prove myself.”
Studying his art on the streets, struggling to make ends meet, Boon says it was a trying but rewarding time. Graduating to the comedy theatre circuit in Paris, his stand-up routine really took hold, eventually leading to his big screen debut in Ba Kobhio Bassek’sLe Grand Blanc de Lambarene (1995). His directorial feature debut was 2004’s La Maison du Bonheur.
Boon and his family split their time between Paris and LA these days, but he says it’s a very different world Stateside. “I’m working on a project with Fox studios, and I’m happy about it, but I’m not crazy about Hollywood. As a writer/director you have less freedom than in Europe, because you have to spend a lot of energy dealing with executive producers who don’t know anything about comedies. They just want to make money. I just wanna make people laugh.”
His kids make Boon laugh most, and he also devours comedy books and films, particularly admiring the work of Billy Wilder, GérardOury, Louis de Funès and Francois Damiens. He doesn’t rate the US propensity for gross-out comedy. “I want to make children laugh too, so when I write a funny scene, I don’t want to be gross or vulgar,” he says. “I want to put a lot of emotion into it.”
If Boon had to chose one person above all he admires in the comic realm, he’d plump for the late, great Charlie Chaplin. “He came from the theatre, which is the best way to become a funny actor. He gave us an extraordinary inheritance. If my kids watch Charlie Chaplin they’ll be bored at first, saying ‘oh, it’s black and white,’ but then they get into it, because it’s universal. I’m sure in 100 years it will be as funny as it is now.”
The Volcano is now screening in Australian cinemas.