The latest re-imagining of Papillon offers a powerful portrait of the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of utter inhumanity. “It’s about people being kind to each other in a very difficult and violent place, and it’s a testament to man’s will to endure,” says Danish filmmaker Michael Noer. “The new adaptation of Papillon transcends its genre.’
Few topics have made for more gripping cinematic drama than true tales of incarceration. From the 1932 classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to the 1962 biopic Birdman of Alcatraz to In the Name of the Father (1993) moviegoers have been thrilled with stories that depict real-life prisoners struggling to survive the brutality of institutional confinement.
Amid so many acclaimed titles, perhaps none has captured audiences’ imaginations the way the 1973 prison adventure Papillon has. A box-office hit starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, the film was based on the critically-hailed memoirs of Henri Charrière, a French thief who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life at the notorious French Guiana penal colony in 1931.
Based on Henri Charrière’s international best-selling autobiographical books “Papillon” and “Banco”, and inspired by the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, the screenplay for the new re-imagining of Papillon was crafted by Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Contraband) and the film was directed by Michael Noer (R, Northwest).
It follows the epic story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Lost City of Z), a safecracker from the Parisian underworld in 1931 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 quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek – “Mr. Robot,” Bohemian Rhapsody), who in exchange for protection, agrees to finance Papillon’s escape.
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Filled with shocking details about life in one of the world’s most hellish environments, Charrière’s autobiographical novel became a global bestseller when it was first published in 1969 and remains a modern classic in the genre of prison literature.
Producer Joey McFarland, a producer of The Wolf of Wall Street and executive producer of the dark crime drama Out of the Furnace, has wanted to create a new feature version of Charrière’s remarkable story for quite some time.
“The 1973 film was one of my favourite movies growing up, and I watched it over and over again,” he says. “But at the same time, I always felt there was an opportunity to reintroduce the material to modern audiences.”
McFarland acknowledges that the idea of making an updated version of Papillon was not without its controversies.
“Whenever you tackle a remake or a re-imagining of a classic, one of the biggest hurdles is trying to differentiate it from the original without losing the integrity of the story.”
The solution, he realized, was to revisit Charrière’s original literary works and paint a broader picture of the jewel thief’s remarkable story.
“He actually wrote two novels, Papillon and a sequel, Banco, which describes his life in Paris, and later in Venezuela, before and after imprisonment,” says McFarland. “So the idea of this film was really to capture an overarching life story rather than to just focus on the escape. We ended up mining his books for fresh elements and brought in a lot of new ideas that haven’t been seen before.”
That’s not to say the new version doesn’t adhere to some of the iconic elements that made the 1973 film so beloved. “We pay homage to the original in many ways, but at the same time we take a contemporary, modern approach to sharing it with a new audience,” McFarland explains. “Our film is unique because our focus is not just about the prison and wrongful incarceration. It goes much deeper than that.”
Words and Images
Once McFarland obtained the rights to the material, he and his team began searching for the writer best suited to re-adapt Charrière’s source novels.
“We interviewed numerous screenwriters around Hollywood and we were lucky to meet with Aaron Guzikowski,” says the producer.
“Not only did he share our passion for the story, but his writing style was wonderful and incredibly detailed. Plus, he’d actually read Charrière’s first book when he was younger. As soon as he left the room, it was clear that we’d found a very good partner.”
Guzikowski is probably best known for penning the 2013 thriller Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The acclaimed film, about a father who takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, was featured on numerous year-end top-10 lists.
“In Prisoners, Aaron was able to blend tension and drama with moments of genuine humour, which is not easily done,” says McFarland. “That element of humour helped the central relationship in Papillon evolve in a very organic way.”
DALTON TRUMBO (Original Screenplay) was a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter who co-wrote the original Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Trumbo may be best known for enduring the infamous Hollywood Blacklist after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, part of the committee’s investigation of Communist influences in the motion picture industry. He was too talented to be shunned by filmmakers, however, and continued his work in secret. Two features he wrote under other names, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, garnered Academy Awards® for Best Screenplay. Trumbo was the subject of a 2015 biopic starring Bryan Cranston.
To direct a film as emotionally intense as Papillon, McFarland was convinced he needed an artist behind the camera who would eschew the standard Hollywood gloss in favour of a gritty sense of realism.
Danish filmmaker Michael Noer fit that description perfectly, says the producer.
“Michael is an amazing young talent who we felt very excited about working with on this project. He brought a rawness to the film, but he’s also a very character-driven director, so it was enormously thrilling to collaborate with him.”
An award-winning documentarian whose first narrative feature — the 2010 crime drama R — was also set in a prison, Noer faced a difficult balancing act.
“We wanted to combine a grand sense of scope and scale with a lot of intimate grittiness, and it can be extremely difficult to marry the two,” says McFarland. “But we knew Michael could embody both worlds, and he did.”
Although the story of Papillon is set between the years 1931 and 1945, Noer was drawn to the project in part because of its contemporary themes.
“Sadly, much of Papillon is still relevant today because many men and women are incarcerated under horrific conditions, and isolation is used as a way to torment them,” Noer explains. “It’s happening all around the world at this very moment. So what attracted me to directing Papillon was the chance to revisit the topic in a historical context while focusing on what makes it relevant to today’s world.”
Noer was also interested in shining a light on the way inmates navigate prison life to stay alive.
“I’m drawn to the masks that men are forced to wear in order to survive long-term incarceration,” answers Noer. “Behind those walls, you have to play certain roles to not show your weakness. A prison is almost like a theatre stage in that respect.”
Beyond its profound sociological subtext, Papillon offered Noer a chance to explore the lives of two highly charismatic main characters.
“Although I’m drawn to prison movies as a genre, this particular film was a great opportunity to follow a pair of amazing protagonists. The horrific conditions in French Guiana helped them forge a unique bond to survive.”
That emotional depth is one of the director’s favourite aspects of Papillon.
“On the surface, it’s a thrilling adventure film. But for me, it’s about the relationship that’s created between Papillon and Dega, who initially hate each other, but who become entirely dependent on each other by the end.”
Unlike McFarland, who’d seen the 1973 version of Papillon countless times while growing up, Noer purposefully avoided the original film as he prepared to direct the update.
“This movie is primarily inspired by Charrière’s books,” he explains. “Fragments of it are based on the original film, but I thought the worst thing I could do is go back and see the other version. So to remain as free as possible, I didn’t really watch it. Instead, I reread the books, which I’d first read when I was very young.”
Noer found the process of collaborating on the adaptation with screenwriter Guzikowski hugely inspiring. “When I initially heard about Papillon, Aaron was one of the first names that attracted me to it. I’d seen Prisoners and really loved it, so for me, it was a pleasure to work with one of my recent Hollywood heroes.”
Charlie Hunnam, well known for starring as Jax Teller on the long-running television series “Sons of Anarchy,” was the perfect choice for the title role, says McFarland.
“When we thought about an actor to anchor the film, Charlie ticked all the boxes. He’s closer in age to the real Henri Charrière at the time of his incarceration than McQueen was, so he represents a very youthful version of the character that’s more accurate to the true story, which was thrilling for us.”
The chance to collaborate with director Noer was one of the prime motivating factors in Hunnam accepting such a demanding role. “Michael is the reason that I did this movie,” the actor says. “I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years, and I desperately wanted the opportunity to work with him. So when he brought up the idea of re-adapting Charrière’s book, I had to say yes.”
Though he hadn’t seen it for many years, the 1973 version of Papillon was a favourite of Hunnam’s growing up and the memory of the film loomed large in his mind.
“It was very important to me in my youth. I’d seen it many times and I’d read the book at least twice,” recalls the actor. “I actually turned down the role at first,” he explains. “But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Thankfully, Michael reached out again and asked if he could spend a couple of hours with me.”
What was originally scheduled to be a short conversation quickly grew to a 14-hour session in which Noer successfully convinced Hunnam to accept the part.
“He disabused me of the notion that this would be a remake,” says Hunnam. “Instead, he was very clear about wanting to make a brand-new, thoroughly independent adaption of the book. And so our two-hour meeting turned into an all-day affair, and by the end, it was obvious we were going to do this film together.”
Despite the director’s assurances, Hunnam admits that stepping into a role made famous by one of Hollywood’s most legendary stars was understandably daunting at first.
“In some ways, this film is very dangerous territory for me,” he says. “I mean, Steve McQueen did a pretty fantastic job the first time around. There’s just no competing with him. He’s the coolest, and greatest, of all time. So to make it our own and to liberate ourselves, Michael and I pretended the original film didn’t exist. I didn’t go back and re-watch it until about halfway through shooting.”
Hunnam credits Noer’s background as a documentarian with adding a critical sense of realism to the film.
“Because of Michael’s early history as a nonfiction filmmaker, you could say he has an anthropological approach to storytelling. He sits back and watches as much as possible, and he’s most excited when things take on a life of their own. There were long takes of total improvisation, and a lot of it ended up in the finished movie.”
Rami or Nothing
For the critical role of timid counterfeiter Louis Dega, the filmmakers knew that they needed an actor whose presence would visually and emotionally contrast with Hunnam’s muscular portrayal of Papillon.
“Since we were lucky enough to get Charlie, we had to find someone equally strong for Dega,” says Noer. “I met with many different actors in Hollywood and they were all great, but Rami Malek was especially intriguing. When he and I finally sat down together, we were both a little nervous, but it was love at first sight for me. The vulnerability he brings to the role of Dega, and the ambiguity and spirit he has in his eyes are incredible.”
McFarland echoes Noer’s praise of the “Mr. Robot” star.
“Rami is talented beyond words and was an amazing addition to our cast. He brings a very unique perspective to this character in the sense that he doesn’t play him as helpless.” McFarland cites Malek’s quirky comic timing as one of his strongest contributions to the part. “Rami brought a great deal of humor to the role in ways that we haven’t seen before. Yet throughout his performance, we never forget that Louis Dega was not wrongfully imprisoned for his crimes. He was, in fact, a criminal.”
Though Malek was everyone’s top choice for the role, his busy schedule came close to derailing his involvement in Papillon .
“There were some scheduling conflicts, so it wasn’t easy to get him,” says Hunnam. “But I felt like it was Rami or nothing. I really became fixated on the idea of him playing Dega, and I couldn’t move past it.”
When Malek’s availability became a serious issue, Hunnam reached out to him directly.
“At one point, it looked like it might not work out. So I called him and said, ‘Brother, stay the course! I know this is going to happen! We’ll make it happen if we have to!’ The funny thing is, he and I didn’t really know each other very well at that point, so it was sort of a heavy burden to lay on him. But thankfully he folded under my pressure!”
Like many of those involved in Papillon , Malek had a deep personal connection to the source material.
“It was a book I loved as a kid, and I frequently watched the original film at home with my parents,” he says. “It left an indelible impression on me, so I felt a reinterpretation of the story would be very exciting. It had been long enough that it was time for a fresh take on it.”
Putting a unique spin on a role made famous by a star like Dustin Hoffman would be a challenge for any actor, but Malek rose to the occasion by toughening up Dega’s inner drive.
“I love Hoffman’s interpretation of Louis Dega,” he says. “It’s an iconic role, so you try to steer clear of what he did any way you can. I tried to make the character a bit sharper and less brittle. Playing up his savviness and his ability to survive — like a termite — is something I really enjoyed.
In addition to revisiting Charrière’s novel, Malek also read a memoir called Dry Guillotine, written by former French prisoner René Belbenoît, which viscerally and vividly depicts life on Devil’s Island.
“It was hellish over there, and not only the prison,” says Malek. “Disease was rampant, and a lot of people died from malaria. Many prisoners never made it back to their homeland, whether they served out their full term at the penal colony or not.”
Louis Dega is arguably the most colorful role in the film and one Malek believes audiences around the world will be able to relate to. “Louis is a character I think almost everyone will identify with because he’s someone who’s found himself in a surprising place he knows nothing about,” he explains. “He’s been thrown into one of the most deplorable and miserable circumstances on earth, and has to fight his way through to survive.”
Sharing the screen with Hunnam was a life-changing experience, says Malek. The two actors hit it off from their very first meeting, talking long into the night about ways to challenge themselves by telling the story in a fresh way.
“Our characters’ relationship is extremely significant to the story,” says Malek. “If that chemistry doesn’t work, the film won’t come off the way it needs to. So we spent quite a lot of time together to build that bond. Eventually, we learned how to push each other’s buttons and how to force a laugh out of one another. We drove ourselves very hard and became close friends in the process. Charlie’s someone I’ll know for the rest of my life.”
Although many things impressed Malek about his co-star, he singles out Hunnam’s intense psychological preparation as perhaps most impressive of all. “Charlie is an incredibly thoughtful actor who doesn’t make any decisions without digging as deeply as he can into the character’s mind,” he says. “He works in such great detail to reveal all aspects of the man he’s portraying. In Papillon, he allows the audience to see exactly how someone can snap. Not only how they can physically break, but how their mind can deteriorate as well. That’s what he worked to display, day in and day out.”
The Will to Endure
Although Charrière’s tale is widely regarded as one of the most exciting prison stories of all time, director Noer believes the new adaptation of Papillon transcends its genre.
“This film is about much more than trying to escape Devil’s Island,” he says. “It’s about trying to escape yourself and your past. For me, that’s the true appeal of Papillon.” Malek agrees. “Essentially, it’s a story about understanding one’s true self. These two unlikely friends become so reliant on each other that a genuine love evolves between them. And that love allows them to understand not only the other person, but themselves as well.”
The film’s emotional journey of self-discovery is one that Hewson expects moviegoers around the world will strongly connect with.
“In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story,” she says. “Papillon starts as this young, ambitious, egotistical man, and he ends up a completely different person. Audiences will always relate to a story where a character goes on an adventure that changes them forever.”
For Hunnam, Papillon contains all the elements necessary for a gritty prison thriller set in one of the world’s deadliest places, but it also includes something else: humanity. “There’s plenty of visceral action and compelling drama, but it’s mainly a story of friendship,” he explains. “It’s about people being kind to each other in a very difficult and violent place, and it’s a testament to man’s will to endure.”
Papillon was released in cinemas in 2018 / 19 and is available on DVD / BluRay