PARIS — Gaul’s multihyphenate comic Alain Chabat, helmer of “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” and the French voice of “Shrek,” is clearly a man who plows his own furrow.
When French companies sow seeds in Hollywood, they tend to wither: Everyone from Vivendi to TF1 seems to have left L.A. in recent years.
But bucking the trend, Chabat, 45, who acts, writes, helms features and hosts television shows in France, is determined to do business in Hollywood.
Two years ago, he created Wamerica, an L.A.-based company whose purpose is to develop English-language projects for the U.S. market.
At the airy Paris office of his French company Chez Wam — Gallic slang for chez moi (my house) — Chabat, puffing on a cigarette, tells Variety: “We had subjects that weren’t French, that made no sense in France perhaps because I consumed too many American comics when I was a kid.”
Born in Algeria, Chabat moved to France when he was 2 and spent an uneventful childhood in a Paris suburb absorbing pop culture and being cheeky to his schoolteachers. Today, he has three children of his own.
A French Billy Crystal, Chabat is a wisecracking wit when faced with a packed audience at the Cesar awards, but in real life he is a much more unassuming, softly spoken character.
“I’ve always wanted to do something in America,” Chabat goes on, “and after the success of ‘Asterix’ I was able to invest money in projects so, with my business partner, Alex (Berger, one-time right-hand man of former Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure), we said now’s the time to try our luck.”
Earlier this year, Wamerica sold its first script, “Superhero,” to Disney, a romantic comedy about a superhero who loses and tries to win back his girl.
“Superheroes are a part of American culture. I can’t imagine one in Paris — they belong in Gotham City,” Chabat says.
Wamerica has four other projects in development, he says, other comedies including a bigscreen adaptation of “L’il Abner” — a favorite from his childhood — and a sci-fi project.
Chabat says he is not “obsessed” with the idea of helming a U.S. film, although if the chance came along he wouldn’t mind: “I’d like to helm ‘Superhero’ because I love the subject, but we’ll have to see — it is early days yet.”
It is frustrating, however, for Chabat to have come so close to making a name for himself in America only to see the opportunity slip away on more than one occasion.
He was to have helmed a Miramax remake of “Didier,” the 1996 pic he wrote, helmed and starred in as a dog who becomes human and goes on to achieve soccer stardom (“Catwoman” helmer Pitof did the f/x).
Years later the film’s producer, Claude Berri, still gripes about Miramax sitting on the remake project, but Chabat says politely: “We went quite a long way with the preparation, but in the end it didn’t happen. There are lots of films that spend years in development, films that are shot but aren’t released, rights that aren’t exercised. That’s just the way it is.”
It has been a similar story with “Asterix.”
The film notched up more than 14 million admissions in France and has played around the world, but having bought it and Claude Zidi’s “Asterix and Obelix Vs. Caesar” in a two-pic deal at the Cannes Film Market in 2001, Miramax has released neither in the U.S.
Says Chabat: “They worked on it a lot. There were new jokes, it was re-edited, and they did a really great job. They considered dubbing it, and they did tests, but I don’t know where they are with it now.”
By anybody’s standards, Chabat’s “Asterix,” peppered with witty French in-jokes, was going to be a hard sell with American audiences.
“Comedy is difficult to export sometimes,” Chabat concedes.
And sometimes it isn’t. Warner Bros. recently bought the U.S. remake rights to Chabat’s latest laffer, “RRRrrrr!!!” a prehistoric murder mystery that was less of a hit than expected in France.
Coming up, Chabat has a number of other irons in the fire. In a project that he reckons will take four years to realize, he is developing a 3-D and live-action bigscreen film starring the Marsupilami, a fantastical furry creature invented by the Belgian comicbook artist Franquin.
He is also writing a project for popular French comic Jamel Debbouze, developing several TV show ideas (Chabat was one of the creators of Canal Plus’ long-running hit show “Les Nuls” and the more recent “Burger Quiz”); in the fall he will play the lead role in a second film, “Papa.”
But none of these tasks will interfere with the Stateside trips he makes once every two months.
“I love working in Los Angeles. Everybody talks about films all day long, they read everything and see everything,” Chabat says. “In France there is a cliche about Hollywood only making disaster films, but it’s unjust. I’ve met as many cinephiles in America as I have in France.”