Bright Lights Film Journal

Reflecting the Theoretical Beyond: The Quay Brothers Talk About Art, Life, and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

“It’s hard to be intuitive when you’ve got 42 crew behind you and they’re like, ‘Look, they don’t know what to do here. They’re panicking, look at them!'”

Introduction

Ever since their Palme D’Or–nominated Street of Crocodilesbrought them to the attention of critics and new fans in 1986, identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have parlayed their willfully weird stop-motion animation into a dazzling array of projects for film, music, and theater. Disciples of Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer and early pioneers like Ladislav Starevich and Walerian Borowczyk, the Brothers Quay are masters of a dreamscape all their own, creating phantasmagoric fables literally cobbled together from the junk-box detritus of yesteryear: wire, string, spools, buttons, forks, doll parts, flywheels, and other antiquated oddities and homemade mechanisms. Equally inspired by the pessimistic strain of Continental literary fabulism (Kafka, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz), their hermetic, quasi-mythic visions of madness and existential distress have an Old World patina that make them as beautifully otherworldly as they are beguiling.

Natives of Philadelphia, the Quays attended the Royal College of Art in the 1960s for graphic design and soon acquired a taste for Eastern European animation and puppetry, especially the tradition of marionette theater extolled in German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist’s famous 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre.” Apart from their own darkly fascinating shorts, which look and feel like interpretive tweaks of nonexistent fairy tales (Nocturna Artificialia, This Unnameable Little Broom(right), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies), the Quays helped create Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer music video, contributed an animated sequence to Julie Taymor’s Frida, and designed projected stage décors for the Grand Ballets Canadiens production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. In 1995, they directed their first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, based on Swiss writer Robert Walser’s tragicomic novel Jakob von Gunten. Mark Rylance played the gloomy title character, a submissive simp who enrolls in a purgatorial academy for domestic servants out of a fatalistic sense of his own worthlessness.

After an aggravatingly long phase of inactivity (except for two shorts, Duet and the haunting In Absentia, a collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen), the Quays are finally back with The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, a mesmerizing live-action fantasy rooted, like so much of their work, in waking nightmares, Symbolist art, and literature of the fantastic. Set on a remote island studded with cypress trees and perpetually aglow in an amber, crepuscular light, Piano tracks the interlocking fates of three characters: opera chanteuse Malvina van Stille (Anatomy of Hell star Amira Casar); Mabusian scientist Dr. Emmanuel Droz (Gottfried John), who has kidnapped Malvina and put her in a necromantic trance, intending to imprison her voice in one of his ocean tide–triggered automatons; and gaunt tinkerer Felisberto (César Saracho), the unwitting cog in Droz’s scheme. Although the film’s narrative borrows from many sources, including Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel and Raymond Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, it hews closely to Jules Verne’s The Carpathian Castle, about the abduction of a famed diva by a sinister Baron.

Of course, the main draw of this alluring fantasia is neither the story nor the acting (though luscious Almodóvar alum Assumpta Serna obliges with her turn as a sylvan enchantress), but the ethereal visual atmosphere conjured by the Quays and cinematographer Nic Knowland. Here they mix unusually rich high-def imagery (one reverse-motion sequence in a shimmering moonlit grove is a direct homage to Cocteau) with lurid animated sequences that depict each of the seven musical automatons Droz has ostensibly brought his Orphic piano tuner to the isle to fiddle with. Sometimes images appear without warning, like a brief flash bulletin from the subconscious, and it’s hard to know what you’re seeing: a laboratory jar with a fleshy octo-whatsit pulsating within, a creaking set of wheels and levers tensing fibrous wire, a puppet axman working to some oblique, circuitous purpose. Through these and other profane illuminations, the Quays chart a reliably unsettling path through the nether regions of our collective imagination, exploring places where the real and the virtual meld in the erotically charged realm of the senses.

While the Quays are hardly hermits, there is an aura of mystery hanging about the fraternal film artists that a face-to-face meeting only partly dispels. Handsome, elusive, and quick-witted, Stephen and Timothy, 58, both sport a long mane of hair dramatically swept back from their forehead, which gives them an almost Olympian appearance. Also, each has a slight, quasi-Euro vocal inflection (elfin, perhaps?) that belies their origins in the City of Brotherly Love. In conversation, they not only finish each other’s sentences, but refer to themselves using the collective pronouns “us” and “we.” (Distinguishing one from the other on an audiotape is maddening!) We spoke in New York in November, as The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (above) was getting its first U.S theatrical release.

Damon Smith: What were the difficulties that created this giant lapse between your two live-action features, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes?

Timothy: We started right away after Benjamenta — we went to Channel 4 with this project, and they made a lot of stipulations about accessibility, color … Stephen: … a recognizable genre, so we went for “poetic science fiction,” thinking like, That’ll pass muster! And then we wrote a script and they instantly rejected it, so it coasted for years and years. We would make revisions and try again because a new person came in to Channel 4. That was rejected. In the end, Terry Gilliam, through our producer — and we’ve known Terry for a long time — our producer said, “Get Terry to put his name [on it] as executive producer,” and like that, the German money was on the table, and then the French money, then the Japanese, and lastly the English. So that’s how we got a big co-production off the ground.

Gilliam was already quite familiar with your work, wasn’t he?

Timothy: Yes. We’ve known him and he’s behind it — and I think it’s great that he was earmarked as executive producer — but he hasn’t even seen Piano Tuner yet.

One of the things I noticed right away in Piano Tuner was how many of the same visual motifs and narrative themes from your prior work found their way into this film. As Felisberto says at one point, “It feels as though I’m living in someone else’s imagination.” I wonder if that’s been a guiding principle for you in the work that you’ve created.

Stephen: You mean living in each other’s imagination? [Laughter]

Maybe in the sense of creating something through which a viewer can experience that objectively.

Stephen: I think it’s an external application from our point of view that Felisberto says “I like living in someone else’s imagination,” meaning Droz, something higher or beyond. We wouldn’t want to occupy each other’s imaginations. It’s like holding up two mirrors. We tend to hold the mirrors out, towards life, towards a kind of a theoretical beyond, without getting into huge quotes. Timothy: In a way, I would say that we reflect our mirrors toward libraries. That also clearly represents something Bruno Schulz talked about — the apocryphal 13th freak month, which is an area we keenly want to explore. And I think that all the films could go into that niche, that bottom drawer.

One of the things that’s truly a constant across your animation work and live-action features is this fascination with oneiric imagery and antiquated objects. How did you develop that fetish?

Timothy: Let’s just call it consistency. Because in a sense, if you’ve been trained as animators or in graphic design and illustration or painting, you rely on a peripheral world. We’ve never asked our puppets to talk. So in that sense it frees them, therefore frees the imagery and you, individually, have to read it. You’re not being told to think. It’s for you to interpret. In that sense, it’s more like ballet, where a choreographer choreographs rhythms, but there’s never dialogue. So it gets much closer to the world we inhabit. Stephen: Are you talking about the visual textures?

Set design, animation, the overall look that you get during production.

Timothy: It was our mother who took us to flea markets. We were always drawn towards texture, towards the organic, nothing shiny and computer-like. It’s in our side of the family: there are cabinetmakers, there were tailors on one side. And I think wood, the organic, is really crucial; found objects, dispossessed objects. Stephen: And that they possess memory. History is something they’ve brushed up against, and they hold all of history in their bodies. And for us it’s a way of wanting to release that side of their history, if possible.

Did you find a kind of vindication in that interest when you first encountered the work of Eastern European animators and puppeteers?

Stephen: I think what we recognized instantly was a coded language. And there was a really strong tactility about the work, like Starevich’s early films or Borowzyck’s early animation work. They didn’t go for “cel” animation, which was labor-intensive and filling in the lines. It was very graphic, it was cut-out collage, almost Max Ernst-y, which I think gave the work right away a texture, and a very bold graphicness. And above all, it was never made for kids. It was already aimed at a very metaphoric language. Of course, kids could look at it and be charmed by it, by the oneiric side of it, but for us it clearly carried a deeper coded message. I think that’s why we liked Eastern Europe, because of the subtlety of that coded language — what you could smuggle under the table, while the façade was something else. And clearly, it was very hard to see puppet work in America, much less England. Only the East European schools still maintained the schools for it. Timothy: To this day! Stephen: And they also had a governmental system, socialism, that actually fully supported animation, puppetry, and also puppet theater troupes. Every city had its own troupe. We knew firsthand visiting Poland, going around to some of the things and seeing the kind of work that they were doing. It was amazing. And Russia was the same, Czechoslovakia too.

What were the specific challenges you faced making Piano Tuner, as opposed to Institute Benjamenta?

Stephen: [Sarcastically] Oh, you mean to be “accessible,” to pick an “acceptable genre” … Timothy: I think even when we wrote it, we were under the impression that we were completely at liberty to do what we wanted. When it came to the final editing of the film, suddenly they all came out of the woodwork with a different idea of whatthey thought the film was about. And their idea of accessibility. They would make a point of saying “This, we don’t understand,” and the French would say “Well, this we don’t understand.” It became a mess. And the Japanese weren’t even there, amazingly. The English were screaming bloody murder, screaming the loudest — and paying the least. But that didn’t happen in Benjamenta (above), where the final cut we did ourselves — so there we learned something. Also, with Benjamenta we had an extra week compared with what we had on this film. It gave us a lot more chance to explore and it wasn’t so rigid. With this last production, it was [completed under] the sign of the watch and we just forced scenes through. Because there were a lot of special effects, it took up a lot more time than the producers anticipated. So the crunch came, and you suddenly are having to spend more time getting those important plates for the special effects that were driving us crazy. Next time, that won’t happen. Stephen: If there’s a next time. [Laughs]

Did any of those pressures find their way into the film, say, in terms of editing?

Stephen: Lots of cuts. They even asked that some scenes not be shot — just do without them. We did a kind of round-up to say no, this, this, and this can go out. I think what happens is, because of dramatic cuts, sometimes, you just drop the scene and plug it up with [collides his hands]. Of course, either you make the leap or people fall by the wayside.

There are a lot of those elliptical moments across your work. Sometimes, inPiano Tuner, it’s hard to tell which world we’re in.

Timothy: We didn’t bat an eye about cutting or suddenly lopping something out because we thought, If you bridge it to this scene, then actually you are escalating something. People will either take the hurdle or they’ll fall. And as the one French producer said, “You lose some, but you gain a lot. Don’t be afraid. Make it as musical and as visual as possible.”

When you’re creating an experience like The Piano Tuner of Earthquakesfor viewers, what is it you hope to elicit by way of a response?

Stephen: For this one, ultimately, it’s the journey. It’s not going to be a straight run-through. You’ll get lost, you’ll go into a deep forest and get disoriented, but ultimately, you know, I guess you have to feel your way through it without knowing exactly where you’re going. There’s no handrails. I think that’s very important for us in the short films, this sort of subjective rung or pathological rung that you have to go with. And we’ve always said that the musical laws are more important than the dramaturgical laws. It’s a feeling that you think the feature film can be pushed along that route. [Long pause]

How did you make the crossover from animation to feature filmmaking? What motivated you? Because it seems like a huge leap from puppets to people.

Timothy: Well, it’s not that big of a leap. We do talk to people in our life. I remember our producer [Keith Griffiths] said, “Why don’t you think about doing a feature film?” And of course our first impulse was precisely, as you said, Why? But we were reading Robert Walser at the time and we thought, Yes, if we kept it chamber-like, under control, we could do that. We were just beginning to do décors for theater and opera, and I think that acquainted us with leaving the studio and going to see the puppet sets blown up to 25 times, being populated by a chorus of 80 singers, and that just gave us a kind of gentle confidence that we could fill it with real people and not just puppets.Stephen: But also, because all our life we’ve looked at live-action cinema , we’ve seen how [others] have handled it. And there are a lot animators who’ve moved from animation into live action, people like Borowczyk, like Kon Ichikawa. But it’s also like any composer who has been doing piano pieces, who then does a string quartet. Finally, he says, “I’m going to do a symphony. I’m ready.” There’s got to be a time when you feel it’s right and you make that step. Of course, for us what was important by going from animation to live action was to say that everything we learned in animation wasn’t to be cast aside. It will be an independent film, it will be a marginal film, we should do it with our sensibility. In Europe, the independent strain is very on the edge and marginal and I think we sort of aimed in that direction. And again, it’s not with arrogance. It’s the feeling that this is the way it should be done.

One of the things that I think distinguishes your live-action work is that there’s a very strong erotic component to these features, an undercurrent of sensual power. And it’s triangulated in both Institute Benjamenta and Piano Tuner between Gottfried John’s character and the other, more innocent or vulnerable male and female characters: Felisberto and Assumpta in the case of Piano Tuner.

Stephen: Eroticism is in the indirectness, rather than stating it out in the open. There’s this dark undercurrent tugging all the time which comes from our own sensibility, where you push it under rather than float it on top of the surface. But I’m not sure that everyone would share that view. It sort of surprises us.

Well, I see a lot of interplay between the female and male protagonist in both films — Jakob and Lisa Benjamenta, Felisberto and Assumpta or even the near-catatonic Malvina — that’s very sensual and physical.

Timothy: Yeah. We actually thought we brought it off better in Benjamenta, maybe because it seemed less baroque than The Piano Tuner. A dilapidated boarding school for servants: it’s just right to create that kind of heat inside, the repressed feeling of eroticism.

I wondered if it had something to do with the fact that you were using flesh-and-blood actors as opposed to objects and puppets.

Stephen: Probably for us the most sensuous moment in Institute Benjamenta is when you suddenly see Gottfried’s big hands come up from behind as he grabs the back of Lisa’s waist and pushes those massive thumbs in, and she just arches back. It’s very disturbing, in a way. I remember Gottfried, when Lisa [played by Alice Krige] goes like this [swooning], at that point Gottfried went off set and we needed somebody to put their hands on Alice. And I remember I did it, I put mine on her and she just tremored. She just shivered. Timothy: And I thought, God, I should try that! [Laughs]Stephen: She knew that this was her incestuous brother, a mixture between the forbidden and a side of her where the frisson was there. It was very powerful.

How did you come to decide on casting Amira Casar and Assumpta Serna?

Stephen: Three of the originals who were on from the word go were Assumpta, Gottfried, and Cesar, who we wrote it for. Amira came on at the last hour, basically, through our casting agent, who is Terry Gilliam’s casting agent, and she mentioned Amira. We saw one film, but we hadn’t seen Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell at that point. It had just come out. But she said right away “No nudity.” She was running far from that. She was in trouble, I think. But we saw a film where she learned Arabic for her role and she was pregnant and very depressed and we said, That looks fantastic! [Laughter]

Another deep, abiding strain in your work is a sense of the tragic. There’s melancholy, despair, madness, a sense of entrapment. And there’s often a character, like Gottfried’s Dr. Droz, who’s a godhead figure, who’s devious in some way. In this expressive of your worldview or is this an essential component of the types of tales you gravitate toward telling?

Timothy: I suspect everything is slightly doomed. Even in the animation films — and I don’t mean “doomsday” — there’s a kind of fated quality, to be unhappy or to be caught in some kind of elliptical loop or something. [Long pause] Yeah, we should correct that, shouldn’t we? [Laughter] Stephen: I guess it’s true. It’s the kind of literature that we choose: You could lay them one on top of the other, and if we pooled them all together that way, it would be purely indicative of the level we’re choosing.

Those qualities seem to be integral to the genre of the fairy tale itself.

Timothy: True. Normally, you would expect that everyone would live happily ever after. But Walser was very deeply involved in fairy tales and wrote a few reworkings of fairy tales and gave it a very dark slant. And Piano Tuner is very Bluebeard’s Castlewith Droz’s obsessive collecting of eight voices. I was thinking of Walser when he admitted himself to the institution. The man who wrote his bio visited him 18 or so years later and said, “Robert, why don’t you try writing?” And Walser said, “I’m not here to be writing, I’m here to be mad.” Stephen: It’s like in In Absentia, where a woman’s condemned to the madness of writing letters to her husband as a form of catharsis. Her writings are a kind of exquisite mud, a kind of misery. They’re unintelligible, but in that film we’re using his example. Because Walser was in the same institution that Adolf Wolff was, and we were told he was given two pencils a day. That’s the little detail we have in In Absentia.

Let me ask you a little more about the technical aspects of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. I’m a fan of 19th-century Symbolist painting, so I recognized immediately the visual reference to Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead, which provided the look of Droz’s island and some of the lighting and set design.

Stephen: He painted five of them, you know!

Yes, and one is hanging here in New York, at the MOMA. You should go see it.

[Gasp, they look at each other with delight.] Timothy:Which version? [Laughter] Stephen: That was a crucial image right from the beginning, as was the famous painting by Magritte, The Empire of Light, where it’s daytime above this beautiful blue sky and then you pan down and there’s this dark forest and this little house where the lights are on. So it’s simultaneous day above and night below. We said to [cinematographer] Nic Knowland, “That’s the sort of atmospheric climate that the film should really inhabit.” And the idea of Earthquake Island just seemed like part of the archetype. When we talked about doing science fiction, you had to go for these big, grand archetypes, like the mad composer or the Earthquake Island. Hence Böcklin, the doomed opera singer, seven days to tune the automatons, a “final performance,” all that sort of thing. Those elements should be one-eighth of [what’s] showing on the surface; the seven-eighths below the surface was really where we wanted to operate, around the contamination between, say, the automata and the live-action realm. Who belonged to whose realm.

How did you and Nic Knowland work on the lighting scheme for this film using these paintings as sources?

Stephen: We shot in high-def, which we thought would be the best way to keep things homogenous. Apart from showing Nic those images, we desaturated a lot in post-production. That original gambit where Channel Four said “It has to be in color,” but we said, “Okay, fuck you, we’re going to design it in black and white” and we’ll put color in the faces and a yellow handkerchief or something like that. So we tried to do as much black and white as possible on the central side of the color. But with the last one, Nic came down and saw all the models that we had built, so he knew the tonalities. For Benjamenta, we wrote in, very powerfully, all the lighting states — and that the light had to be an erotic light — and he responded. You really didn’t have to say much. He just took off and ran with it. We’d seen some of his work in black and white, like the film he shot on Shostakovich [The Story of Shostakovich] so we knew he could handle black and white. And he also worked with a very interesting ballet troupe called DV8. And he did a film version of some of their work which again showed that he worked very theatrically. So we said “He’s our boy.” We interviewed a couple of people, but I think there was no doubt. He’s very intuitive, he’s very quick, and he’s a real gem to work with. Then we’ve also done another film ballet [Duet: Variations on the Convalescence of “A”] with him — it’s only 18 minutes — but it makes you shiver, what he does. He’s such a great talent.

Can you give me a quick and dirty lesson in how you create stop-motion animation, such as the wood-chopper automaton from Piano Tuner?

Timothy: Yes. The set would have been about 4 x 4. The top is about that big [indicating the 3-inch-high ax-wielding figure], it has an armature inside it, bore and socket, screwed into the ground. Then you start to raise his hand up, just a little bit, then you make a shot and another one. It just multiplies like that. And you light it, but it’s all very small pin light that we use. So it’s incredibly simple. [Laughter.] It’s like a piece of metal with wire and mirrors on them. Then you dangle the light into those mirrors while aiming the mirrors down. You can really make a very fine sort of pin lighting. Basically, all of it was done like that.

How much is planned ahead of time, to coordinate all these moments for 24 frames per second?

Stephen: We said that there would be seven automata, and we knew that every one should have a cycle or a loop. The little guy looks up, he shouts something, then goes to fell the tree, but the ax slips and bounces off and cuts his leg off, like this, and then he points to it and it bleeds into the water and then it starts all over again. Which is really what automata, if you wind up an old one, that’s what they do: one figured loop for infinity. That’s all. But what we wanted originally was that the automata are run by the tides, so when the tide comes in, off they go. When the tides go out, they become inert. But we also wanted — as the tides increased, or if there were variations in the tide — to introduce variations in what the puppets would do. So in theory, there could be 364 variations. It would have been impossible to film. We realized it was creating too much complexity, something we didn’t have the time to explore, and we had to back off that kind of embellishment. Of course, Felisberto arrives, and depending on what point he arrived, we looked at whether it was in the middle of the night or the daytime, when they were inert. At first he’s charmed, and then he realizes they have a secondary strata, which he has to build off, like a mystery solver has to detect what’s going on. And of course, he has to divine that this is a symbol of Malvina. That’s your dirty lesson. [Laughs] It’s all done on camera. There was no special post-production. We did shoot it all in the camera.

How much do you think that your commercial work of the past ten years has fed into your film shorts and features?

Timothy: It’s just the opposite. We’re hired to do commercials because of previous work. I don’t think there’s been any commercial [job] that’s informed us. The only thing that a couple of commercials did was allow us a bit of post-production work, digital post-production, which we got familiar [enough] with to know “Ah, we can do this.” Commercials have big budgets. Whereas usually, like on Street of Crocodiles(above), or any of our animation films, there’s never any budget for post-production. None, ever. You try to do as much as you can inside the camera.

What is your scheme, then, for pushing yourselves ahead, creatively speaking?

Stephen: Ideally, what we’d like to do is Bruno Schulz’s novel Sanatorium. We don’t have grand schemes. It’s better that we be pushed into a corner. Our idea is to be pushed further and further into a corner where another kind of infinity opens up. I mean, to do In Absentia II would be great. We wanted to do it from the husband’s point of view, but nobody’s bitten. Every time we’ve had a project, like Benjamenta, it’s closed doors for us. Absentia closed doors for us. On Crocodiles, we got Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer out” of it. Otherwise, basically, we don’t get any work.

How exactly did Benjamenta close doors for you?

Stephen: We didn’t work for ten years. That’s what we felt. That’s the two of us being paranoid. Nobody would accept another feature-film project from us. We did some commercials and a lot of theater and opera. But we didn’t do one film that whole time.

Do you — either of you — ever have a desire to work alone, apart from the other?

Stephen: No, you’re sort of joined both psychologically and metaphorically at the hip or at the heart. I think the kind of work that we do is very demanding. Most animators tell us how they envy our duality. We’ve grown up together our whole life. We went to art school, and we each did our own art, but when it comes to film, we have to come together — they’re not going to give you two budgets to make two films. And it’s forced us to work things out. And who better than identical twins could feel at home with the other? If Timothy has an idea, immediately you sort of build on it, and it goes quickly. It’s really just focusing it, where you’ve got lots of bottles of wine on the table and notepaper and the film evolves. Timothy: There’s a lot of intuition. And when we start to actually make the puppets and build the décor — it’s a stage where you really open up. That’s where the journey really starts to take place. So it’s very important, that expiration, that sigh, it’s very important for us. And if it was somebody else you were working with, they’d [say] “Well, what are you doing?” and you’d say, “I’m exploring.” They’ve usually got storyboards, and it’s all blocked out. But we don’t have storyboards, we have it here [points to his head], between us. On a commercial, they ask for storyboards and we do it, reluctantly. Stephen: Our hands sort of edge into the film — he from the left and I from the right — and we edge toward the making of film, very slowly, a bit like the tide comes in from two angles.

Does it ever present any conflicts for you when you’re trying to direct together?

Stephen: You mean on the features? There you’re in public. When we’re doing animation films, no one else is around, ever. It’s just the two of us beavering away, you know, in a dark room, twelve hours later. Timothy: It’s hard to be intuitive when you’ve got 42 crew behind you and they’re like, “Hey look, they’re being intuitive!” or “Look, they don’t know what to do here. They’re panicking, look at them!” [Laughter] Because you’ve really got to represent a united front, even if it’s going badly. It’s scary. If you do it once every ten years, you don’t have that confidence or that experience.Stephen: Or Gottfried [John]’s acting up.

He acted up on the set of Piano Tuner?

Stephen: Yeah, this time he was very edgy, very tetchy. Benjamenta was a dream, but in this film he was always on edge. A few times, he started shouting and everybody just backed off and ran into a hole. [Laughing]

He was having a Klaus Kinski moment.

Timothy: Yes, he was having a Klaus Kinski moment. He came a couple of times unprepared, he didn’t know his dialogue. And of course he reacted and embarrassed himself. He apologized. He’s very good, very honest like that, but it was a bit scary when it happened.

That temper worked in service of his character, I would imagine.

Stephen: Well, it does. For all the tetchiness, what we were surprised by as we cut the film [was that] he was all there, not what we could remember of him being uneasy, uncomfortable. Also, he couldn’t remember his lines, so he had [notes] all over [the set], just like Brando did. Watch the next time, you can almost see him looking [imitates the actor looking up at cue cards], he’s just reading the text. But English isn’t even his first language — French is his better second language — and he did it very well.

Both Institute Benjamenta and Piano Tuner of Earthquakes involved the casting of multilingual, international actors speaking in English. Was that deliberate?

Stephen: On this film, there had to be a German contribution, hence Gottfried. The French needed a contribution, so Amira. The other two they let us have — the two Spaniards, of which one is Basque, Cesar, and Assumpta is Catalan — but the Germans and everybody wanted it to be in English, because it gave it more … [trails off]. Timothy: What’s interesting is that the film, I mean, it’s a Euro pudding. And we know that, we’re aware of that. But what intrigued us was that in Paris, because it’s now subtitled, they can hear the sound of the English but they can actually read the precise text. And that gives it a kind of remoteness at the same time. They can read what’s actually being said, because a lot of people do have a problem with hearing some of the lines. Although we know what’s being said, we can see a lot of people saying “I didn’t quite get that.” They all came back in and dubbed their lines with a coach. But you know, an accent is an accent. And probably because there’s a German accent, a French accent, and Cesar’s Basque accent was heavily influenced by him living in Sweden, so he has a heavy [one]. Amira speaks beautiful English — she was born in Ireland — and English is her first language, too, so she was flawless. [Beat] But she barely spoke. [Laughter]

What you call a “Euro pudding” in some ways contributes aurally to that feeling of alterity and otherworldiness.

Timothy: Yeah, a strange scientist on some remote island — it could be off the coast of Italy or Albania, for all you know. Droz is German but he happens to like a French opera singer. And he happens to have a Spanish maid who happened to have answered a want-ad column. How can you tell the piano tuner’s [nationality]? But in a way, you should feel like that. It’s like [unintelligible name]’s dance troupe. Every nation is there, and every one speaks in their nationality and we always liked that. She made all that fiction come together, but I know that it can freeze out a lot of people as well as pull them in. You win some and you lose some.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet has gotten a lot of accessibility with his last two films,Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. Is that something that interests you, that kind of accessibility? And would you ever consider working in the States again?

Stephen: It was really with the Aliens movie that he made a big hit, didn’t he? Somehow he always got the right project off the ground that allowed him to keep building his confidence. And for us, when you do something every ten years, it’s hard to get that. Did he think when he was doing Amelie that he was really being accessible, or that this is a postcard that France that Americans will love? I didn’t particularly like the film, it was too sweet. Timothy: But is that a calculated venture that he made? I don’t know. Either you have that directorial skill where you say, “I know how to make something commercial,” or you’re like us. We don’t know. Or if we did, it would be by accident. There’s certain ways you want to tell a story, and you go with your intuition and hunches.

And yet you have a pretty hardcore audience of people who really appreciate your artistry.

Timothy: When we went out to Los Angeles to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last spring for an animator conference, we thought, Oh, okay, there’ll be nineteen people in the audience, of which we’ll know half a dozen. And it was sold out. So we said, Maybe LA needs that kind of work. It is a marginal thing, but it’s quite intense, and I guess we all need our alternatives.

David Lynch is fairly uncompromising in his view, which is deeply indebted to French surrealism. And people go to see his movies.

Stephen: Yeah, right. We’re big supporters of his. Is his new one out yet?