Director Marjane Satrapi on Bringing Marie Curie’s Story to Life in ‘Radioactive’

Director Marjane Satrapi knew she was in the pursuit of keen minds when setting out to make “Radioactive.” This new Amazon film tells the story of Marie Curie, played by Rosamund Pike, the Polish scientist who, in late 19th century France, discovered radioactivity. More than a quick scientific recap however, Satrapi also sets her lens on Curie’s private life and marriage to fellow scientist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), who makes the discovery with her, but originally gets more credit because he is a man. Shot in luminous colors evoking radiated palettes, “Radioactive” becomes a story of the price of being a pioneer, including on the health of Marie and Pierre. When they begin their work both are unaware of the extent of radiation’s impact on the human body.

Satrapi, one of modern cinema’s underrated visual stylists, made her directing debut in 2007 with “Persepolis.” That film was a vibrant adaptation of her graphic novel recalling her childhood in revolutionary Iran and eventual exile to Europe. In 2011 she adapted another one of her graphic works, “Chicken with Plums,” into a live action, sumptuously heartbreaking film about a lovelorn violinist in ‘50s Tehran. Since then Satrapi has moved on from the subject of Iran to wider fare. Her quirky 2014 dark comedy, “The Voices,” starred Ryan Reynolds as a serial killer who chats with the severed heads of his victims. 

For “Radioactive,” Satrapi enters a unique terrain combining biography, science and her trademark visual inventiveness. Vivacious and a tinge of dark humor, Satrapi spoke with Entertainment Voice about the experience.

Your work tends to focus on specific lives. Some are based on fact and others are fictional. What brought you to the story of Marie Curie?

A couple of years ago my agent called me and said, “It would be so cool to make a film about Marie Curie.” I asked, “Why should we make another film about Marie Curie?” There was a movie already in 1943. There has also been a French version, a Polish version and an American version (laughs). Then I read this script by Jack Thorne and thought it was incredible. I always knew about Marie Curie. My mother wanted her to be my role model when I was a child. Then I read this script, which talks about both the woman and the science. It also talks about the aftermath of the science. How can you talk about this couple, who were both incredible, without talking about the science? Also, how can you talk about the science without talking about its aftermath? It felt that in this way it was a complete and new point of view. 

There are so many themes in this story but it does indeed expand into the future. We see Curie’s story and then you cut to a distant event, like the bombing of Hiroshima. 

Well it is quite incredible to think that the same thing that helped fight cancer later resulted in the atomic bomb, which is itself a cancer. It’s about how you use it. I liked how Thorne’s script was about the ethics of the science, not just the ethics of the scientists. Marie and Pierre were two of the most decent people in the world when they made their discovery. They didn’t even take a patent or something like that. For them it was an element of nature, so people should have been free to enjoy their discovery. But much later after their death we get the atom bomb. I don’t think you can talk about cancer treatment and avoid talking about the atom bomb. They are part of the same source. Think about how human beings discovered fire. It helped with cooking meals and warmth before it was used for destruction. It’s just part of human nature. 

Your films, from “Persepolis” to “Chicken with Plums,” have a distinct visual stamp. Your voice is palpable in each one. In “Radioactive” the color palette has this alluring, radiated glow. What were some of your visual influences when preparing to direct this project?

First of all you thank you, thank you very much. I’m almost ashamed at the compliment! Each story deserves its own visual treatment. You cannot tell every story in the same way. The way I choose a script is I lie down, I close my eyes. If I can visualize it I know it is something I can make. For “Radioactive” one challenge was in the fast forwards. They had to feel organic with the rest of the film. If you show a bomb dropping from the sky it still needs to feel one and the same with the story of Marie Curie. But the biggest challenge was how do I make the invisible visible? As you know you cannot see an atom, you cannot see electrodes, you cannot see radioactivity and you cannot see energy. But there are always ways to make it visible. So I based the look on all the work that was done in the beginning of the 20th century with radium. Apparently it had this unique glow. So I based myself on the color they used for these posters they made in 1900, 1901 or 1902. Each story needs its own treatment. But once I’ve made a film I know how to make it. Then I don’t want to make it again because it won’t be a challenge. For me the most exciting part of the process is that moment of, “how the fuck am I going to show that?” What makes me shiver? What makes me feel alive? I’m not going to live 300 years! I need to do whatever I can while I am alive.

Part of the canvas is the cast. If you could share about bringing in Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley and what was it then like working together?

Intelligence is not something you can’t fake. You know, an intelligent person can always pretend to be stupid but a stupid person cannot pretend to be intelligent. It doesn’t go both ways. I met Rosamund  Pike and she walks into the room, her eyes are very focused. Then the moment she smiles I have the feeling the whole place is full of sunlight. We talk and she understands from the story the same things I understand. It was incredible. I realized I could not make this film with anyone else but her. It had to be Rosamund Pike. Now it is a tricky role. From my readings of Curie’s correspondence and books about her, her character was not very loveable. From how she describes herself she’s a very odd person. She is not easy to love, which is why I love her. We see in the story how this is also why Pierre loves her. She does not bother him with her oddity. He likes her oddity. So we found Sam who was great. You can have two great actors but if they do not fit together it won’t work. I had them do “chemistry tests” together. This way we were able to determine that yes, they were a great fit.

Your last two films, “The Voices” and now “Radioactive,” mark a clear departure from your early work, which was very biographical. Much has happened on the world scene involving Iran since “Persepolis” premiered. Are you ever considering returning to that theme in general or the theme of Persian exiles?

There was a time a couple of decades ago when it was normal to have an actor with a huge New York accent play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Today everyone is looking for something more authentic. Marie Curie is an international figure, you can almost tell it in any language. But the stories I would like to tell about Iran have to be made in Persian. They simply won’t work if I make them in another language. But I cannot go back to my country. No Iranian actor can work with me either because if they work with me they cannot go back to Iran. I cannot go into Iran and there is nowhere that looks like Iran. I cannot go to Morocco and call it Iran. It doesn’t look like it all. So therefore right now I am working on another book. And now after making two films from someone else’s script I am writing a new script. At the same time I am almost 50 years old. I’ve only lived in my country 8 years of these 50 years. I cannot really talk about things that I don’t know. I have to talk about the things that interest me today.

“Radioactive” celebrates scientists at a time when we as a species are now facing a unique, scientific threat. How does Marie Curie’s story speak to us right now?

It’s a time when humans need to understand the laws of nature. We can’t be like the original monkeys before they became humans trying to understand how the world works. Hopefully people would understand that if they don’t trust science they’re just monkeys.

Radioactive” begins streaming July 24 on Amazon Prime Video.