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An Interview with Jan Švankmajer

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In less than a week since its launch, world-renowned Czech animation filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s proposed “last film” Insects had already received over 90% of its first funding goal, firmly proving the artist’s status as one of animation history’s most respected and admired contributors. Teaming up again with longtime producer Jaromír Kallista, this new feature will be Švankmajer’s seventh, following on from the hugely-celebrated endeavours Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000), Lunacy (2005) and Surviving Life (2010), not to mention nearly thirty short films produced from 1964-1992.
Known for his uncompromising, envelope-pushing approaches to stop-motion and mixed media (children, live animals, dead animals, clay, rocks and raw meat are all amongst his films’ ‘performers’), his films veer from comic to nightmarish, oftentimes occupying a compelling limbo between both.
Continuing in this vein, this film uses insects as live ‘actors’ to evoke the work of Kafka and the Čapek Brothers in a celebration of the misanthropic duality between humans and bugs.
With the first budgetary goal almost reached, beginning production of the first stage of
Insects (shooting with live actors) is a near-certainty, with further stretch goals aiming to cover further animation and post-production costs and keep the film on track for a hopeful 2018 release. Skwigly are thrilled to be able to bring you an exclusive chat with one of animation’s true living legends and learn more about the project.

You have been referring to this as your ‘final’ feature film, is there a reason you will be closing the door on features after Insects? And is it at all possible that you might return to short films after this project is completed?

The main reason is that I am 82 years old. By the time we will be finished shooting and editing Insects, I’ll be 84. Making a feature film claims a significant amount of psychological and physical strength, after all. Add five more years to those 84 (which represents the average time it usually takes us to get hold on the finances needed for a new project), and suddenly you have a 90 year old filmmaker – that is already a kind of a stretch. I don’t, however, rule out the possibility of perhaps filming another short film (or films) in the future.

The teaser video – featuring live insects – is very intriguing. From a production perspective, will you be exploring any new processes or approaches with this film?

Insects is going to be mainly about real-life actors. All the tricks and animation that will be part of the film will be made by classic stop motion animation, no CGI whatsoever. We are currently in the try-out phase, figuring out how exactly we are going to handle the shooting. It’s likely we’ll use the same technique for the ‘transformations’ in the film that we have already successfully adopted in Surviving Life – by employing photographical phases.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of combining the ‘making of’ documentary and the film itself. How did you come upon this metaphysical approach and do you anticipate any significant challenges as far as how it will all hold together without disrupting the flow of the film?

The combination has struck me amidst shooting the rehearsals. It seems to me like a good idea. We’ll see if it really works as we hope only when we’ll get to the cutting room. Obstacles are there to be overcome.

The film is centered around a rehearsal/performance of the Brothers Čapek’s Insect Play – what was it about the text that appealed to you (including and beyond its misanthropic leanings)?

I think the play that the Čapek brothers wrote is still topical today, although it was written in the 1920s. The fact that it is still performed in Czech theatres reflects this pretty well. My film, however, isn’t a cinema adaptation of the play. Only a few samples from the second act, The Exploiters, will be shown.. Rather, the film will tell the story of the actors that rehearse it. Although the parallels between the two are quite obvious, we could say that the material by the Čapek brothers simply forms a background for an entirely different story. I wrote the film story already back in 1970, but at the time it wouldn’t be accepted by the state film dramaturgy, which was overshadowed by the communist regime – precisely for its misanthropy. Anyway, I don’t think the world has changed at all after those 45 years and if it did, it was for the worse.

I personally had not found much by way of outright misanthropy in your prior work, although human idiosyncrasies and weakness do rear their heads. As an overall subject do you feel that misanthropy lends itself to your style of animation and storytelling?

I think that the main thread that weaves through all my films (above all, the feature-length ones) is the interplay between freedom and manipulation. It is impossible to avoid misanthropy with such themes.

Kafka’s famed Metamorphosis is also cited as an influence, can you expand on how his writings/themes are incorporated?

As I have written in the explicatory texts, the film shall remind us more of Kafka than of the Čapek brothers. This is because with respect to creative outcome, I feel closer to him than I do to the Čapek brothers. That works particularly with the imaginative process, quality and quantity-wise.

From the making of Alice, Švankmajer's first feature film (©Athanor)

From the making of Alice, Švankmajer’s first feature film (©Athanor)

Prior features have their story roots in literature from the likes of Carroll, Poe and Goethe. Do you feel an affinity toward the writers whose source material you choose to adapt or do their writings serve more as springboards for your own creative process?

None of the movies I have made are an adaption to the literary sources I use – they may cite or evoke the dramatic work in very specific ways, nevertheless, they are still my very subjective interpretations. Besides, Carroll, Poe, Sade and Kafka – they all importantly determined my own journey. For long I have perceived them as an integral part of my mental being.

On that subject, it’s also noted that you did not formally study film, instead developing your own processes, possibly informed by theatre. Looking back at your work, if you were to do it all over again would you change anything?

I am afraid that to a large extent, our lives are determined by our childhood, by the stars, by our upbringing and by the repressive civilization we live in (at least all the relevant philosophers say so). Therefore, even if I wanted to change anything, it probably wouldn’t have been possible, not in a radical way anyway. Nevertheless, I rebelled against all of this all my life.

Jan Švankmajer with his lifelong friend and producer Jaromír Kallista (©Athanor)

Jan Švankmajer with his lifelong friend and producer Jaromír Kallista (©Athanor)

You’ve been working with producer Jaromír Kallista for over thirty years now, can you expand a little on the dynamics of your working relationship and how it has benefited your work?

We’re both “children” of the ‘60s, which was a period filled with certain hope: first, the Prague Spring, then the French artistic revolt, followed by a “return” to the avant-garde roots in art. Commercialization of art and society, which is taking place nowadays, is a direct contradiction to our education and mentality. That’s what connects us, binds us together. Concerning our working cooperation, I don’t meddle with his production matters and he doesn’t meddle in my art.

Having made several adventurous films that incorporate animation over the past few decades, has the process become easier over time (either through technological advancement or your own artistic process)?

I don’t think so. Concerning the technique, we still shoot on classical 35mm film. Most of the cameras we use are from the past century and we don’t use computer generated animation because I am not fond of it. I miss the tactile dimension in CGI. It works with the “untouchable” reality which somehow makes the final outcome poorer by one imaginary emotional level. I hope I became more professionally experienced over the years, but that’s not the experience that is fundamental for art. Imagination is paramount and we all bear that within us since our childhood.

A GIF animation preview of one of the metamorphosis (©Athanor)

Your book Touching and Imagining refers to having to endure censorship from the Czechoslovakian government. Does this remain an issue today and has this had any effect on how you’ve approached subsequent work?

I think that the censorship did not affect even my older films very much; only in the sense that certain topics couldn’t have been realized at that time so I “shelved” them for later. It is ironically convenient today, since now, as an old man, I have plenty of topics to choose from. Insects presents the evidence.

Crowdfunding has become a very tempting prospect for a lot of people starting out in animation, though I’m always intrigued to hear what it is about this avenue that appeals most to seasoned veterans of film such as yourself?

With the ever-growing commercialization of art and life, it gets progressively more difficult to raise money for the kind of projects we’re interested in. And given that I have never conformed up to my current age of 82, I see no reason why I should start now. I’d rather never shoot anything again, than to conform. To me, crowdfunding seems like an apt way of circumventing the pressure of commerce. I’ll just wait and see.

To learn more about Insects visit the official website insectsmovie.com
You can learn more about (or contribute to) the film’s crowdfunding campaign at IndieGogo

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