Thierry Ardisson Brings French Icons Back from the Dead

“After I’d interviewed everyone, the only ones left had already passed away…” With this in mind, and with the help of artificial intelligence, France’s most insolent TV host has created Hôtel du temps, a documentary show in which he interviews deceased French celebrities such as Dalida, Coluche, and Jean Gabin. The first two episodes are available on TV5MONDEplus, and Warner Bros. recently acquired the concept for an American adaptation.
Thierry Ardisson with two of his digital guests: Dalida and Jean Gabin. © François Roelants/Mac Guff

France-Amérique: You have transformed a Paris hotel, Le Meurice, into a luxury residence for dearly departed celebrities. What inspired this idea?

Thierry Ardisson: I had already “invited” the dead onto my shows using actors in makeup or lookalikes. I spoke with Hitler on Tout le monde en parle on France 2, along with Victor Hugo and John Lennon. Then, when I discovered the concept of “deepfake,” I thought that we could use the idea again, but this time with the help of artificial intelligence. We use a process called Face Retriever, which was developed in France and has less pejorative connotations. And of course, I wasn’t going to interview my guests in a cemetery! The idea of a hotel where legends live struck me as very poetic. It would be a hotel where only I could enter, where I could be 20 years younger just by taking the elevator… It was a lot of fun!

How did your guests’ descendants and relatives react?

Dalida’s brother’s reaction was very positive. Jean Gabin’s son cried as he watched the episode with his father. He was overwhelmed. Things didn’t go so well with Coluche’s children, but his fans were delighted to see him again. When I created this show, I set myself two rules: to have the permission of the person’s relatives – although it’s not a legal obligation – and to only have my guests say things that are true. I couldn’t have Jean Gabin giving his views on the Gilets Jaunes protests, or ask Coluche what he thought of Emmanuel Macron! For each episode, we had to do a lot of research in the press, TV archives, books, and more.

The Italian accent of Dalida, the polyglot singer born in Cairo who arrived in France on Christmas Day in 1954, is breathtaking. And so is the cheekiness of Coluche, the troublemaker from the banlieue turned comedian and activist. Can you tell us more about the role of artificial intelligence in Hôtel du temps?

First, we film the interview with an actor who has the same body language as the deceased star. They don’t even have to look the same! We then place what we call an AI-generated digital mask on the actor’s face. The same person plays both Coluche and Jean Gabin – an actor named Cédric Weber. For their voices, we worked with two impersonators. For Dalida, on the other hand, we actually transformed the actress Julie Chevallier’s voice. Sound modulation techniques have come a long way since I started working in TV in the 1980s – it’s so easy now!

How does it feel to have another chance to “see” such legends again?

I had already interviewed Dalida for “Descente de police” [a series of articles for Rock & Folk magazine], and Coluche, too, but never on TV. It was very impressive seeing Dalida. The actress looked so much like her! When we talked about her suicide, I had tears in my eyes…

You talk about the career highs, but also darker times, such as Dalida’s depression, her complicated love affairs, her abortion, and her suicide in 1987 wearing white satin pajamas. You also discuss Coluche’s addiction, as well as your own. Is this your “blunt” side?

That’s what I was interested in. I’ve always made personal TV shows.

Since Bains de minuit and Lunettes noires pour nuits blanches, filmed in a Paris nightclub, your shows have shaken up the world of TV by shining a light on our current era. What is Hôtel du temps really all about?

A dying age! A time when there are more stars to interview among the dead than among the living. There are very few living people who interest me today. It’s only natural; when you’ve interviewed Serge Gainsbourg, Jean d’Ormesson, and Bret Easton Ellis, today’s celebrities seem less interesting… It’s also a more cautious time; you can’t express yourself as freely as you used to.

Where do you get the ideas for your shows? Have the United States and late-night shows influenced you?

I turned 19 in 1968, so I was naturally influenced by the United States with its rock ‘n’ roll and movies. It’s still a place I like to visit – I have spent a lot of time in California and I often stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. But I invented a talk show that was different from the one-on-one format the Americans used to make. My shows have several guests around the table, like Tout le monde en parle and 93, faubourg Saint-Honoré. They weren’t American at all. I was more influenced by the ORTF [France’s sole, government-run TV channel until 1975]. Instead of imitating the Americans, I created an on-screen personality that contrasted with hosts I found rather insipid, like Michel Drucker, Patrick Sébastien, Patrick Sabatier, and Jean-Pierre Foucault. Their interviews were so formatted! Léa Salamé has adopted the concept of having several guests around the same table for her show Quelle époque ! on France 2, and it’s very good.

You were preparing an episode on Johnny Hallyday, but Hôtel du temps wasn’t as successful as you’d hoped, and France 3 didn’t go ahead with the show… Why do you think that was?

It was unfortunate, but the show was a pleasure to make! I expected the premise to surprise viewers, but they weren’t particularly thrilled. Perhaps I was caught in the middle? It’s a very expensive show [between 600,000 and 700,000 euros per episode] for late-night television, but it’s too chatty and too quirky for prime time. Maybe talking about death also frightened the viewers of the France Télévisions network, many of whom are very old!

Nevertheless, your show was nominated for an International Emmy Award a few months ago, and an American version is currently in production.

With Time Hotel, Warner [who recently announced an upcoming movie about Edith Piaf made with the help of AI] actually had a better idea than I did. In each episode, a living star will interview a deceased star – the best would be Paul McCartney and John Lennon! AI can do incredible things – in advertising, with Karl Lagerfeld coming to present a product, or in cinema, making new films starring Steve McQueen! But it can also be used in museums, with painters discussing their art, and in schools, with historical figures talking to students. I hope the idea will be used again in television, as well as in other fields. The possibilities are endless.

The Hôtel du temps episode on Dalida and the one on Coluche are currently available to stream on TV5MONDEplus.