Ari Folman interview: The Congress, Nolan, Kubrick

We talk to director Ari Folman about Waltz With Bashir, The Congress, his Anne Frank film, and his love of sci-fi, Nolan and Kubrick...

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman fused poetic animation with brutal reality in his breakout 2008 film Waltz With Bashir, a personal account of the Lebanese conflict of the early 1980s. The Congress, based on the book The Futurological Congress by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem, is an altogether different animal, though it treads a similar line between dreamlike animation and unvarnished reality.

Robin Wright plays a 40-something Hollywood actress (loosely based on her own career) whose advancing years and capricious nature have made new jobs increasingly difficult to come by. Pressured by both her agent (Harvey Keitel) and a shark-like executive (Danny Huston) at Tinseltown studio Miramount, Wright agrees to have her likeness scanned into a computer. Afterwards, the younger, idealised CG version of Robin will appear in movies (but not science fiction, she insists) and the real Robin will get a handsome pay cheque – on the proviso that she never acts again on stage or screen.

The Congress is a film of abrupt plot turns and dizzying psychedelia. From its live-action opening hour – beautifully shot by Michal Englert – Folman’s film takes us into the future and off to somewhere unexpected: a chemically-induced reality that looks like a Tex Avery cartoon. At once a mild Hollywood satire (look out for one animated bit-player who bears more than a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise) and an examination of how individuality can become overwhelmed by technology, The Congress is a true one-off.

Folman spent the best part of five years getting The Congress funded and made, with the animation created in studios ranging from Belgium to the Philippines. As the film makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with Ari Folman to talk about the difficult task of making it, his passion for science fiction, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, as well as his desire to make an animated version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unrealised Dune project.

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I wonder if you could talk a little bit first of all about how you arrived at making The Congress after Waltz With Bashir, because they were both lengthy projects – about four or five years.

It takes four to five years to make an animated movie, as you can probably imagine – especially a film like this, where we had the animation being made in different countries. So it was really tough. And it takes a long time anyway, to make a picture. But I love animation, and I wanted to make a combination of live action and animation, so I went for it.

What inspired you to take Stanislaw Lem’s book, and set it in the film industry?

Well, I first read his book when I was 16, and then again in film school. And I always wanted to do something with the book, but it took me a while to realise how I wanted to approach it. I purchased the novel for adaptation, but I had no idea what I was going to do. It was a process of finding something that intrigued me.

Was it a way of exploring Hollywood from the outside this film, given that the success of Waltz With Bashir brought you into contact with that industry?

I met a few, and they were way better than the guy we have in the movie! So a lot of it came from my imagination. But basically it’s what I think about how movies are made today, and what you have to do to be part of the system. So everything was from my imagination – I didn’t meet anyone like Jeff Green or anything like that.

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Is it also a meditation on where entertainment could go?

I think, in a way, it does. I tried to figure it out, to take it one step ahead. The chemistry part comes from the original novel, and you put that with the entertainment business as you know it today, and that’s what you get. 

It reminded me of some of the things that are coming through again in videogames now, like virtual reality and Oculus Rift. Where you create another persona for yourself.

This is true, but honestly, I only recently, because of my kids, got into videogames. Because kids get addicted to them. When I made the movie, I had no interest in videogames. At all. To me, they were a waste of time.

What was Robin Wright like to work with, and how collaborative was she?

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Well, she was very collaborative. I pitched her the project in LA, I think it was in 2009. She took one second to commit herself. I don’t think she believed I’d ever really make this movie anyhow, but she did commit. And then she was a great partner for me. I was surprised at how open she was with her approach the script and her part, and it was only when we finished that I realised that she wasn’t playing herself – she was playing another woman who happened to be called Robin Wright. The film has nothing to do with her work.

What was the thinking behind using her name and some of the films she worked on?

It was in order to make it a bit more real, to make it connect with the audience. I thought it would work better. 

There’s a real sense of fun in the film, especially with the recreations of famous actors and historical figures, and the Dr Strangelove-referencing sequence as well. I got the feeling you enjoyed putting those in.

I loved putting them in. Kubrick is my all-time hero as a director. I made this homage, and we were afraid to ask for permission. We only asked for permission after we shot it, and then we sent them the final scene. And we did get it eventually, obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t be in the film. And then, for me, the very last scene is a tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which of course is a great film. But I do believe that Dr Strangelove is the greatest comedy ever made.

Absolutely. I’d say Kubrick’s really underrated as a director of humour, really. People think of him as being very cerebral and dry, but his films were very, very funny.

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This guy… every genre he dealt with, he was the best. He made one of the top three sci-fi movies, obviously the best comedy, horror picture – you know? You name it. There was only one Stanley Kubrick.

The Congress also reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch paintings with a dash of Terry Gilliam zaniness.

Well, there is. There is Bosch, and Gilliam was another guy. In the animation there’s also references to the Fleischer brothers, and Ralph Bakshi, in a way. And a little bit from Yellow Submarine, at the beginning, on the way to the Congress, with the colours and the psychedelia.

I was wondering if you could talk about your process of making the film, because you shoot live-action reference material rather than going straight to storyboards.

It’s about giving the animators as much material as I can. In this film, it’s more essential, because you have a one hour live-action movie and then the characters go into the animated world. So you really want to follow the movements of the live-action actors. You want the animated Robin to move like the real one. You want the same smile and gestures. I just believe in this technique. 

How important is Max Richter’s music to you? He produced some amazing work for Waltz With Bashir, and does the same again on The Congress. So how early in the process does he create the music?

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Very early. He’s in the process of the script, if you really want to know. He read the script, and then a year later, I went through the scenes, emotionally speaking. Then he sees the animatics, the video boards. With Waltz With Bashir, the entire movie was composed on tape, not with live instruments, but the animators were literally animating the pictures while the music was playing on their headsets.

You can tell in a way. The music matches the rhythm of the film. You can’t really separate one from the other.

No, you can’t. I think part of it is that Max is a genius – no doubt. A genius musician.  And the other thing is that he’s involved very early in the process.

Could you talk a bit about casting Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti, because they’re great actors and it’s fun to see them in there.

Harvey took me a while, for many reasons. With Paul it was easy – he’s a sci-fi buff, and he reads so much. He knows so much about sci-fi. He’s read all of Lem’s work. When I sent his agent the script, they got back to me straight away, and said that no matter what part you find for Paul, he doesn’t care. He wants to be in it. He’s just the best guy on set you can have.

In both Waltz With Bashir and The Congress, you have a really powerful moment where you jump from animation to live action. In the case of The Congress, how difficult was it to achieve, that moment?

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It was more difficult. To have it go from live to animation and then animation to live. So it was more complicated. And the biggest challenge was making sure that the audience would go with  you – that they believed in Robin as an animated character. That was the biggest challenge of the movie.

One of the things I was thinking about after the movie is how frustrating it is that there aren’t more animated adult movies. Another great animated science fiction film was A Scanner Darkly. But there are so few of them. Why do you think that is?

Because animation is expensive, very tough to make, and it’s difficult when they don’t believe in the commercial potential of the animation. So we don’t have it. It’s simple. I don’t plan to make another adult animated movie. Only for kids. I spent ten years of my life doing that, and I think it’s tough.  It’s tough to raise the money, taught to convince people it will work. This cliche that animation is for kids or family – you can’t beat it. Unfortunately, I have to say, unfortunately.

So what about science fiction? I know you’re obviously a big sci-fi fan, in any can. So will you make another science fiction film in the future?

I’d love to. I’d love to make another one. I just saw Jodorowsky’s Dune. Did you see that one? 

I haven’t yet. I can’t wait to, though. It looks fantastic.

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Well, you have to see that. I wish I could do that film.

You would make Dune?

The Dune he [Jodorowsky] wanted to do. At the end of the movie, he says that maybe – he didn’t want to do it animated, but he had a 3000 page storyboard, you know, illustrated for that film. He said, “The time will come when a great animation director will come and take this book and make an animated movie out of it.”

I’m up for the challenge. I just recently got his email and I want to go and meet the guy.

That would be amazing. Do you think there’s the possibility that it could actually happen?

Well, you never know. I’m busy now with a big project, but I’ll give it a shot. I want to see that story. I’d love to see that story.

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I saw some clips where they’d made an animated sequence from the storyboards, and it showed what the opening shot would look like.

You have to see that movie. It’s one of the most ingenious documentaries I’ve seen. [Jodorowsky] is an unbelievable storyteller. So, so good. You immediately fall in love with him. He’s a great guy. Funny and clever. It’s a lovely story.

So what do you think about the state of science fiction cinema in general? Are there any directors currently working in it that excite you?

Well, in a way, it’s going too big for me. And I understand why it goes there… I think that sometimes, some directors cross the line in terms of what CGI gives them. For some, it doesn’t work.

If you see Blade Runner today, it’s probably the best sci-fi movie ever made. It still holds up, it’s still a very fresh movie. Unbelievably made, with so much talent – everyone involved. And everything’s made for real! Can you imagine that? There were no [digital] effects back then.

If you look at Prometheus, for example, there’s no comparison. [Ridley Scott] has all the money and technology in the world to make it, but his handcrafted movie was ten times better. But it depends on who does it.

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I think Christopher Nolan, in a way, he can do the combination. He’s an old-school director who uses everything technology gives you today and puts it into a movie.

The thing that’s interesting about Nolan, for me, is that he can make a film like Inception, which is almost like a Philip K Dick story, and make it not seem like science fiction.

Absolutely. He’s an old-school director in terms of his craft, which is a big compliment. He’s just so good with technology. He can do everything. Because the good things in Inception aren’t to do with technology. They’re about the dramatic way he directed it.

Can you talk a bit about what you’re doing next?

I’m making an animated adaptation of the Anne Frank story, for kids. We’ve shot part of it in London using stop-motion. It’s a very exciting project.

Oh wow. Stop motion?

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We have kind of a combination of stop-motion and 2D animation – stop-motion backgrounds and 2D characters cut into the backgrounds. But now we’re going back to London to change it to full stop-motion.

Can you tell me who’s animating it?

It’s some of the people who did Fantastic Mr Fox. I’m doing it with Passion Films. Our director of photography is Tristan Oliver who did ParaNorman and Fantastic Mr Fox. Great people to work with.

Well, I really look forward to seeing that. Ari Folman, thank you very much.

The Congress is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 8th December.