Marjane Satrapi likes to play Ping-Pong in a garden near her Paris house, but if she ever challenges you to a game, bring ear plugs. "I yell a lot to completely destroy the concentration of the person I'm playing with," she says. "That's the way I win." She has to do that, she says, because she's entirely self-taught. "It's always like that for me," she says. "Whatever I do, I dive into the water, and then I say to myself, 'S––t, I don't even know how to swim.' That's actually the way I learned how to swim."
Get ready for Satrapi's biggest dive yet. When her 2003 graphic novel "Persepolis," a memoir about growing up in Iran during the 1979 revolution, became an international best seller, Hollywood naturally came sniffing around. But Satrapi remembered the 1991 Sally Field movie "Not Without My Daughter," where the Iranians were depicted as uncouth people who didn't even shower very often. So she decided to direct "Persepolis"—her first movie—herself. Actually, Satrapi, 38, collaborated with her friend Vincent Paronnaud, a French cartoonist, though he doesn't have much film experience, either. "I didn't need the help," Satrapi says. "I just wanted to work with my best friend. I always say to other people, 'We're like the Coen brothers, except we're not really brother and sister'." They wrote the script, condensing 16 years in the life of its young heroine, also named Marjane, from two books of cartoons. Satrapi drew all 650 characters, hired a team of animators and raised $8 million, partly from funds for French filmmakers. Catherine Deneuve, a fan of the books, signed on as the voice of Marjane's mother. "Before directing her, I was so nervous I said 'I can't eat because I will throw up'," Satrapi says.
Marjane might be a comic-book character, but Satrapi is just as animated in real life. She speaks English (her fifth language after Farsi, French, German and Italian) so fast, it's like she's in a race with the Road Runner. She tells you she likes to go to Paris's only Iranian disco, and you can't help but remember the Marjane in the movie who gets in trouble for wearing a jacket that says PUNK IS DED, and a Michael Jackson pin. Although the story is set in a specific time and place, Satrapi thinks that viewers will relate to its characters because "the drawings make it abstract so it can happen anywhere," she says. At Cannes, "Persepolis" won the jury prize and it beat out "La Vie en Rose" as France's selection for best foreign film at the Oscars. If it wins, expect more yelling than at a Ping-Pong game. "That will be so cool!" she says. "I will go on vacation and put the Oscar before my eyes and every day I will caress it." Sounds like a very good acceptance speech.