Michael Noer’s escape movie biopic Papillon is based on author Henri Charrière’s memoirs of the years he spent living in the South American penal colony of French Guiana after being convicted of a murder he denied committing. During the time he served — before he escaped and took up residence in Venezuela — Charrière, nicknamed “Papillon” because of his butterfly tattoo, experienced all kinds of horrors perpetrated upon him and his fellow incarcerated men, which he unflinchingly recounts in his work.
Charlie Hunnam — probably best known for portraying “Jax” on Sons of Anarchy — plays Charrière in the new film, and he recently talked to Uproxx about bringing those horrors to life, collaborating with his favorite directors, why he keeps going back to the jungle, and why he doesn’t regret losing out on a boatload of money to star in 50 Shades of Grey.
What got you interested in this story in the first place?
For me, as I’ve gone through my career, it’s now become all about the director. I mean, exclusively, 100% about the director. You know, it’s such a director’s medium, and a great story or a great character is really irrelevant if you don’t have an amazing director at the center of it. I’m such a huge fan of Michael Noer’s work, I saw R, his first film, which is also a prison film, in the cinema when it came out, and I bought it on DVD and showed it to a couple of my friends. And I was absolutely blown away by his follow-up film, Northwest, so I already came into this with an existing hope to work with him at some point. But I had to hear what the vision was, because I have no issue with retelling a story that’s already been told — because that’s just what we do, time and time again, so the nature of storytelling is to retell the same the ten archetypal stories or whatever —but I was curious to understand what his vision was. So, we met in New York, and we were supposed to have a 2-hour meeting together, and then we realized we’d been walking the streets for 8 hours and he was about to miss his flight, so we rushed back to his hotel so he could pick up his bag and had a very quick farewell and just said, fuck it, let’s do this movie together.
You can really get lost talking about this stuff.
Particularly in New York, when its two people not necessarily from New York, and it was summer and it wasn’t too hot, it was a nice balmy day, and we just walked and walked and walked.
I kept thinking about The Lost City of Z while watching this. Is there something that interests you in these period piece biopics about these complicated historical adventurers?
Again, there has to be something in the character that speaks to me, or gives the potential to explore something that I’m interested in. But with both of these pieces, it was a desire to work with the director, backed up by a really exciting and wonderful character. I suppose there are certain traits or similarities or themes that I find myself drawn to explore; you know, the nature of personal responsibility and sacrifice, and what it requires to find some sort of balance in life. If you have somewhat of an existential viewpoint, or at least the viewpoint that all of life is suffering, as just an axiomatic rule of life, then, where do you go from there? And I find myself interested in exploring that question in my life, and I find it interesting exploring it in my work. Some of the work I’ve done recently has maybe had a consistency in exploring that question.
What did Noer say to you to convince you to do Papillon? What was the one thing where you were like, “Yes, I’m into this.”
I think it was talking about process, about the way in which he goes about it. He comes from a documentary background, and you could feel that experience acutely in his film work. He has an incredible, visceral immediacy to his work. And that’s what we got really, really excited about on that initial day, was just talking about the process. Within the process, it became clear that the sensibility of the film was going to be so different from its predecessor [the 1973 Papillon starring Steve McQueen], that I felt liberated of any sense that this was going to be a remake. I felt that it was going to stand on its own two feet as an independent adaptation, albeit with some similarities.
Is it based on more Henri Charrière’s memoirs or on the previous movie?
I would love to say that it was based more on his memoir, in terms of the architecture of the written word, but I do think [Noer] borrowed very, very heavily from the first adaptation, I think it’s unavoidable to say that. But our adaptation actually borrowed, more than either of those projects, from a completely different entity, which is another true account called Dry Guillotine, by a man named René Belbenoit, who had also spent — I forget exactly — maybe 15 or 20 years incarcerated in French Guiana. This guy was a journalist and a writer prior to his incarceration, so he had a much more academic approach to chronicling his experience of being within this prison system day to day. So that was an incredible resource for us that we drew on in terms of just trying to understand and create an authentic visceral experience of what that prison life was like.