Ari Folman discusses The Congress, Robin Wright and directing live-action and animation

Ari Folman‘s The Congress, his follow-up to the widely acclaimed Waltz with Bashir, arrives in UK cinemas this week. To mark the occasion, I was lucky enough to speak to him at his home in Israel over the phone last week.

We covered a great many subjects and chatted for some time, about his film, the current state of cinema and what may happen to the art form and industry in the future. There’s more coming later in the week, but for now, here’s what Mr. Folman had to tell me about The Congress.

The fake studio in The Congress is called Miramount – a portmanteau of Miramax and Paramount. Am I right in thinking you met Harvey Weinstein once?

Yeah, I met him once for probably the shortest meeting ever…This was in Cannes 2008 when I was there with Waltz with Bashir. He invited me to his suite, announcing that I was going to win the Palme d’Or, which of course I lost. And asking about my next project. I told him about The Congress and before I finished the word ‘Congress’ I was out of the room. It was a funny meeting.

Was it always Robin Wright that you had in mind for the role?

It was first written for Cate Blanchett – not the whole script, just a treatment. I was never really happy with it, then by chance I met Robin in a ceremony in LA and the minute I saw her I knew she’s the one. For me it was like love at first sight. There were no doubts anymore. I pitched her the project the next day, she committed immediately. It was honestly the easiest part of making this film…to bring Robin on board.

What specific qualities did you see in her that really clicked with you?

When I saw her that evening she was stunningly beautiful, in a very sad way. She looked very vulnerable. And as an actress, which is the most important thing, she is so versatile it’s really unbelievable. She can do everything. I wrote it for her. We were three days just talking about her and her career. Then I went back home and wrote the script. It took something like eight months. Every word was written for her.

There is obviously a lot of fiction in the story but it must have also been a very personal experience for Robin Wright.

I thought the script was very challenging for her but she never tried changing anything. Only when we came to Cannes last year and I was interviewed with her a few times, I realised what happened. She never believed that it was her in the movie. For her she just gave me the name Robin Wright and she’s playing this Robin Wright, who by chance acted in The Princess Bride and Forest Gump. And by chance had a boy and a girl. And by chance was a single mother. But it was nothing to do with her. Which I found amazing. She really truly believed it and it helped her. And you know what, now I believe it as well. I’m convinced. I converted.

She’s extraordinary in that opening shot in which it stays on her face, and in the scene in which Harvey Keitel talks to her whilst she enacts various emotions to be scanned. Was there anything in particular you did in those scenes, because they are obviously very emotional?

They are. Especially the scanning scene. I think for me it’s the best scene in the movie. This is why you make cinema, to create this magic. With Robin she has an earpiece that you don’t see, but I talked to her. Because obviously Harvey was shot separately, with his side then her side. We needed her reaction… Basically it was me whispering the magic words.

And what were those magic words?

Man, this is a professional secret. I cannot reveal it. Otherwise people are going to copy it. And I want this scene to stay very, very original.

There are obviously layers upon layers too, where he is like a director in the scene and you are doing the same thing by talking in her ear.

This is the whole point of the scene, he is directing. He is manipulating her more than directing her but directing has so much to do with manipulation. That you do on the audience first and then on your actors. Because sometimes they want to perform what they want to perform and you want to go in a different way and you have to manipulate them to make it happen. It’s part of our profession, I think, in many ways. It is what you see, the outcome of two layers, what Harvey did and what she did first of all and what I did, my input. It’s not about me, I think it’s about her. Because she’s really bringing…You can see how versatile she is in that scene. It’s unbelievable. She’s amazing.

Beyond the obvious, do you think about live action and animation differently?

First of all, I direct with my actors all the animated scenes. I insist on their performances and they did it great. Robin and Jon Hamm [who plays Dylan, a character who only appears in an animated form], we had a week of shooting. Of course with no sets, just in a sound stage, a huge sound stage.

They come in jeans and T-shirts but they act for the animators. I cut it into a full length video film – Waltz with Bashir was done using the same technique – and then the animators have to imitate what the actors did. They don’t have their own freedom, they have in a sense nuances, but it’s about the acting of the actors. But obviously there is nothing spontaneous in it because people work on each and every frame so hard. Especially in classic animation. It’s unbelievable. So you can’t claim it’s spontaneous like pure acting on a set. I miss it a lot when I do animation. Desperately.

You’d like to return to solely live-action films, then?

I’m dying to. [Laughs] Currently I’m working on an Anne Frank adaptation for a kids, with animation. We shot a big chunk of the development in London. I have plans for three live-action films, very simple movies. I just don’t see the time where this is going to happen. But it must happen, because I really long for a live-action movie. I love the feeling of a set. I love the artistic freedom of animation, it’s unbelievable as well, but the production side of animation is a pain. A real one.

For The Congress you used animation studios in multiple countries, right?

In nine countries. It’s unbelievably tough. On the production side it’s the issue of the pipeline and how things work. There were shots in the movie… one single shot done in four different continents. Can you imagine? It was shot in America, the live-action, it was key-framed in Israel. Then you have the in-betweens done in Germany and Luxembourg. And the painting was done in the Philippines. One shot. It was so complicated.

And on a very artistic side there is the differences between each studio. For example, if you take Dylan’s character. In a very masculine country like Israel and Germany he is a very masculine character. He’s really edgy, all his movements are horrible. In very feminine places like Luxembourg and Belgium he’s very feminine. We had to create a team – and this is not a joke – that worked for eight months just to make this character a character that is a single character that doesn’t change all the time. It was very tough.

We bought all the modern technology. The Shotgun software and everything and after two months we started flying because the technology doesn’t work. The people who sold it to me told me that ‘you’re gonna sit in your home and if one of your animators is watching porn instead of making animation you’re gonna know online’. But this never worked and there were so many delays, so we had to fly all the time.

Stanislaw Lem obviously speculated very much about the future. Was that what drew you primarily to his work to begin with?

I think Lem, because he is not known enough… I think he’s the greatest. I love Philip K. Dick but I think Lem is more sharp because, I mean, he used less drugs obviously. He was a real philosopher. An unbelievable philosopher. Even if you look at that really short novel, The Futurological Congress, he predicted so many things, it’s unbelievable. He predicted in the second half of the sixties 3D TV and he predicted the iPad and the iPhone. And he predicted the complete takeover of pharmaceutical drugs of our lives in many ways. When he wrote it, for example, depressed people were still treated with lithium. He predicted Prozac and everything. Everything we have now, when society tells you it’s okay, you can break down, we will fix you. Everything is in that novel. He was a prophet in many ways I think.

The first part [of The Congress] doesn’t have very much to do with the book and the second part is very much inspired by the book. The book is completely psychedelic. And I think it’s such a cinematic book, extremely cinematic. For me it was a gift that I could explore. Obviously when I first read this novel, when I was sixteen years old, I was attracted to it solely because of the psychedelic part. But when I grew older I understood all the layers of it. For making this kind of animation – going backwards in time – the drugs and the psychedelic part, this is I think every director’s dream. Well… I think [MichaelHaneke wouldn’t do it [laughs]. I don’t think he’s in to that stuff man.

Waltz with Bashir also had a blend of memories, hallucinations and dreams. Is that something that really gets you excited making films?

Yeah, it is. I think we live in a parallel universe all the time. I don’t want to sound like a psychic but you know… In one dimension we live the real life. And on the other hand we are always hallucinating parallel to what we do. I think a very good movie is one that can combine the two different timeframes into one timeframe that exists only in that specific movie. Where you believe that your clock, your watch, moves in a different timeframe that can exist only in this one and a half, two hours in the dark. For me, when this works it’s the best cinema that you can have. If it’s a great Kubrick movie, if it’s David Lynch, Mullholland Drive, the timeframe of these movies exists only in the movie. It has nothing to do with the life that we live. You walk out of the cinema, you are back… It’s something that motivates me in everything I do, I think. I try.

Were these filmmakers you mentioned influences on The Congress? It also made me think of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Clever guy, you are a clever guy. Yes, indeed. I read so much whilst writing the script. We have two or three tributes to Kubrick in the movie. One is the complete imitation of the bomb scene from Dr. Strangelove and we have the Barry Lyndon Schubert, repeating. I think Kubrick specifically is the best because I think in each and every genre of cinema he has one of the three top movies… The Shining is the best horror move ever probably. Still to this day. I was terrified to read that they’re going to make The Shining 2 now.

I also read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Tom Wolfe. I read a lot of stuff. I don’t remember everything. I don’t know how it came into the movie. I didn’t use drugs by the way, as I’ve been asked. I’m too old for that now. It was written inside my boat. For eight months I wrote it. The boat is an old Swedish boat and man it was tough.

Thanks again to Mr. Folman for his time. There will be more from our discussion here at Film Divider later in the week.

The Congress is in UK cinemas from the 15th of August and in the US from the 29th of August.