The Art of Filmmaking: The Quay Brothers
Depth, light, sound, music: Stephen and Timothy Quay speak on the many dimensions of film.
Few filmmakers venture into the outer reaches of the subconscious in quite the same way as Stephen and Timothy Quay. Their work achieves a particular freedom that is less concerned with conventional storytelling and, instead, operates within (as Ambrose Bierce once coined it) the realm of the unreal. Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow interviewed the Quay Brothers at their London studio in February, 2006. We revisit that conversation now (a version of which appears in the DVD booklets of the U.S. and Japanese release of the Quay’s Piano Tuner of Earthquakes) on the occasion of the opening of the MoMA exhibition “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,” opening August 12 and running until early January.
Jonathan Marlow: As I understand it, your escape from America was not necessarily planned but something that evolved over time.
Timothy Quay: We were at the Philadelphia College of Art and a visiting professor asked what we were doing after we graduated. He said that we should apply to the Royal College of Art in London to get a Masters degree and venture into more film work and animation. He said, ‘They have a film department and you can apply as illustrators,’ which we were, ‘and then transfer.’ We were accepted but the film school wouldn’t let us in! They wouldn’t let anybody else transfer into the department. As we hung around with other filmmakers, they would loan us their cameras on the weekend. That’s when we shot a couple of our animated films on the fly.
Marlow: You were using a 16mm Bolex?
Timothy: Yes. We were creating cut-out collages. We set up two lights on our kitchen table and just shot it that way on weekends. Then we came back to America after those three years to pay off our debt and ended up completely unemployed. We were dishwashers and waiters in a café in Philadelphia and we said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here and get back to Europe.’ So we took all of our savings, thinking that it had to be better over here.
Marlow: Was it during this time that you became familiar with [Jiri] Trinka and other puppet animators?
Timothy: We first started seeing those people at the end of 1968 or ’69 at a festival in Philadelphia. It was much easier to see their work in Europe.
Marlow: You were initially interested in cut-out animation?
Stephen Quay: I think that we had a hankering for it. I think we probably felt more at home with cut-out.
They were really apprehensive of us trying to work out how the puppets would do things. We were still a little intimidated by these techniques. I think, for us, it really started with the little Svankmajer film.
Marlow: In any case, it’s definitely design-based…
Timothy: Having come from illustration. We did a lot of collage work. The first couple of films that we made were all collage cut-out animation. I think that we ended up getting frustrated with the ‘frozen image’ when we did our drawings and paintings. I think what we really needed was depth, to make use of light, sound and music. I think that’s what really pushed us towards puppets. When we came back to Europe, we were living in Holland and we went down to Belgium to see the Toone Marionette Theater. That really galvanized us. Although we had seen a fair bit of puppet work by then, I think that it was contact with a living tradition that really pushed us. We then applied to the British Film Institute to do experimental films but our idea was to make a puppet film. Keith [Griffiths], who was at the Royal College with us, was at the BFI at that point and we were living in Holland. He called and told us that we received a grant, so we returned [to London] in 1978 and we’ve been here ever since.
Marlow: Several of your films from this period were documentaries…
Timothy: There was Punch and Judy [subtitled Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy], [The Eternal Day of] Michel de Ghelderode (he wrote for the Toone puppet theater) and we did a 55-minute documentary on [Jan] Svankmajer for Channel Four.
Marlow: I had no idea that it was originally quite that long…
Stephen: Nobody knew! It was very interesting because we used a lot of extracts.
Marlow: What happens to these early films? The Janáček film [Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions] appeared on a Japanese laserdisc collecting some of your work but what of the Stravinsky [Stravinsky: The Paris Years], Ghelderode and Ein Brudermord?
Stephen: We didn’t get the music rights for Brudermord. Ghelderode was just rejected out of hand….
Timothy: It was also rather long. It was a 28-minute piece.
Stephen: They were really apprehensive of us trying to work out how the puppets would do things. We were still a little intimidated by these techniques. I think, for us, it really started with the little Svankmajer film.
Marlow: Were you able to lose a certain level of tentativeness in the way that you were working?
Stephen: Exactly. Going to Prague to make a documentary that discussed the tradition of Czech surrealism (as opposed to French surrealism)…. It gave Jan’s world a context and a lineage, following through from the earliest days of the Czech surrealists [and the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group]. It’s a good history lesson, too.
Marlow: Was it always the case, when you were preparing for the Svankmajer film, that you would use the music of [Zdenek] Liska?
Stephen: We thought that it was necessary to have his music [since Liska scored many of Svankmajer’s short films]. Keith had bought the rights to these films so we were able to use it. Through a friend, we were able to get tapes of Liska’s music from other films. We cut The Phantom Museum to this music and then his widow said, ‘No.’ We were all prepared. ‘We’ll pay. We’d be happy to pay.’ But she said no.
Marlow: What was her issue with your use of his music?
Stephen: We don’t know. Apparently a few people had ripped her off. We said, ‘We have every intention of paying you properly.’ We had it beautifully cut to the music but then we had to suppress it and get somebody else [Gary Tarn] to compose the music. He did a nice job but, of course, it’s not Liska!
Timothy: It’s easy to become obsessive about these things, actually.
Marlow: More than just about anyone, I wager that you are responsible for exposing more folks to the exceptional work of Bruno Schulz and Robert Walser. You’ve found a great opportunity to take things that you are passionate about and put these passions on the screen. In what way did you approach The Street of Crocodiles? In which way did you say, ‘This is something that we have to do?’
Timothy: I think it’s because we made an application to the British Film Institute and they said, ‘Your wayward narrative in Nocturna Artificialia,’ our first film, ‘won’t do. We insist that you adapt something with a more literary foundation.’
Stephen: To lead us more down the straight and narrow.
Timothy: So we proposed Bruno Schulz. They said, ‘Great!’ They had never heard of him. But the mere fact that we were connecting the film with something tangible meant that they didn’t have to be concerned and we just got on with it.
Stephen: What his own work proposed was to push us in that domain of the ‘thirteenth freak month’ and the whole notion of the poetic ascendancy of the every day, degraded with reality…
Timothy: …all the sorts of themes that were already in us but seemed more systematically organized by Schulz. The story is really like a poetic essay about matter. We just said, ‘It’s not much of a narrative, but it’s enough.’ It was a real discovery for us. It was the first time we shot in 35mm.
Marlow: Was it your first shoot with an actor?
Timothy Quay: I guess it was the first time, properly. [Feliks Stawinski] was someone that we knew and someone whom we felt comfortable with.
Marlow: You tend to use unconventional armatures. Were you building the puppets yourselves?
Timothy: For the first time [on Crocodiles], they were actually quite severely good armatures compared to the earlier films. Actually, that’s not entirely true. All along we were using ball-and-socket puppets.
Stephen: Olivier [Gillon] was making them. Our first professional armature was made for Ein Brudermord.
Timothy: With a lot of the other objects, you might create a little armature made out of wire (depending on how small it had to be).
I think that we ended up getting frustrated with the ‘frozen image’ when we did our drawings and paintings. I think what we really needed was depth, to make use of light, sound and music. I think that’s what really pushed us towards puppets.
Marlow: It was around the time that Street of Crocodiles was completed that your work began to be seen really widely in the United States. They were screened in cinemas around the country as a self-contained package.
Timothy: What happened, first of all, was the TV program with Laurie Anderson [Alive from Off Center].
Marlow: This was shortly before your spot for MTV?
Timothy: That came a little bit later, around 1988.
Stephen: After Crocodiles, we went straight into Rehearsals [for Extinct Anatomies].
Timothy: Or we did Peter Gabriel [Sledgehammer], then we did Rehearsals. After we premiered Crocodiles, we got a call a call the next morning to do the Peter Gabriel video. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘It’s come to this!’
Stephen: We thought, ‘It’s all downhill from here.’
Timothy: We also got our first commercial.
Stephen: Actually, Sledgehammer was a very nice occasion to work with the Aardman boys. We were hired as animators, art directors and the whole thing. It was a really intense ten days all together and then we did our first commercial. Then we went straight underground for nearly a year making Rehearsal. Then the MTV thing popped up, which also gave us a bit of the Stille Nacht.
Marlow: That was the first of the Stille Nacht series.
Timothy: Yes. That was for Robert Walser, where he went mad in the asylum. We put that in the credits. We’re always trying to sneak in our little hobbies…
Marlow: When you do the shorter pieces, do you animate them here [at their studio]?
Timothy: Everything is done here! We had a studio just down the road. In fact, I think we did the first Stille Nacht there and Rehearsal we did there.
Marlow: Even the live action parts were done here?
Timothy: For In Absentia, all of the live action was done here. Everything.
Marlow: This studio has become many different places over the years.
Timothy: In a way, it’s like you don’t know where you’re heading. You just adapt and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to build a wall here. Let’s do it.’
Marlow: With the larger pieces, do you bring in other people to help construct the sets?
Timothy: Ian Nicholas. He’s a great carpenter and he repairs antique furniture. He’s a gloriously nice guy and that’s about the only help we ever get. He’s always in the credits.
Marlow: How do you balance your music video work, commercial work and work for the stage with everything else that you do?
Timothy: It’s almost always because a hole opens up in the schedule. A commercial or a theater piece arrives and we say, ‘We’re not doing anything. Let’s do it.’ A guy from the theater got us interested. He’d known our animated films and he said simply, ‘I don’t want you to think any differently than when you’re making an animated film. Make your same model and I’ll take care of the rest.’
Marlow: So you do the drawings and then build a miniature set…
Timothy: …and they scale it up. That is the way we’ve always worked in the theater. It’s actually like making a puppet film. We do it with all of the attention to detail that we give to our own films. Working in the theater and the opera led us towards being around actors. Suddenly, you see one of your sets populated by a chorus of eighty people. Just working with singers (even if you’re not literally working with them but merely up on stage when they’re working around the sets) made us relax. We felt like we were halfway there. We’d just never talked to them personally.
Jonathan: Was it difficult to cast Benjamenta? Did you have a pretty good idea of the actors that you wanted when you began?
Stephen: It was dead easy.
Timothy: Actually, we were really focused about it. We actually had Charlotte Rampling on board and, at the last minute, Channel Four refused to insure her because she had walked off of a French feature film. They panicked. Even her husband put down £30,000 cash…
Stephen: More than that, he said that he was going to put up a million or whatever, which all seemed so bizarre at the time.
Timothy: Channel Four still rejected her so we ended up using Alice Krige and it was the best thing to ever happen to us.
Marlow: An excellent choice.
Timothy: It was a casting agent who proposed her and said, ‘She’s wonderful, trust me.’ That’s how it happened.
Stephen: Gottfried [John] we knew from the Fassbinder films….
Timothy: We just dove into the deep end and said, ‘Let’s go for him.’ We flew to Munich and met him and his wife for dinner one night. It was wonderful. Occasionally he’d become really silent and we’d both look at each other. ‘Oh god, we’ve blown it already….’
Stephen: And then he’d say, ‘What if you did this?’ He was already working on it.
Marlow: Had he read the book?
Timothy: Yes, and he’d looked at the script as well. He really shaped the role very much for himself. We were so intimidated…
Stephen: I think he’s just one of those natural animal actors.
Timothy: I don’t think he’s intellectual in the way that certain others might be but he approaches a part from the gut with the animality of it all.
Marlow: It’s hard to imagine another actor that could pull off the role because the audience has to identify with this seemingly horrible person….
Timothy: Exactly. There is that one sequence in the forest. We just went over and over and watched it over and over. The only thing that we didn’t give him was a tattoo on his chest. He got to put lipstick on, though.
Stephen: That was his idea.
Timothy: We all thought that it was very beautiful because there is a homoerotic side to Herr Benjamenta. He followed that through.
Stephen: The other was Daniel Smith from Heimat. We had to write to Edgar Reitz to ask if we could have his address. It turns out Daniel was married to Edgar Reitz’s daughter!
Timothy: They were living in Amsterdam and so we called one night. We spoke to her for 45 minutes, talking about the role, and finally she said, ‘OK, Daniel’s here,’ and gave him the telephone. We just chatted and he said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do it.’
Stephen: We told him there was almost no dialogue. Here was a guy who could speak thirteen languages and he gets virtually no dialogue at all. But he went for it.
Timothy: We didn’t know.
Stephen: We had no idea.
Timothy: When we did Crocodile, Keith [Griffith] asked, ‘Have you guys ever thought of doing a feature?’ And we thought, ‘No, why?’ But then I remember we were reading Benjamenta at that point and it’s actually a beautiful chamber piece for four main actors and seven ‘dwarves’ (or, rather, seven or eight students). And then we went to Keith and said, ‘Actually, we do have an idea. It’d be great to do the Walser piece.’ We started working on the scenario way back in the late ’80s, applying to Channel Four.
Stephen: The man who owned the rights in Switzerland to Walser said, ‘I’d like you to do for Walser what you did for Bruno Schulz and The Street of Crocodiles.’
Timothy: We first discovered Walser was actually back in America. It was part of the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] article that said ‘Portrait of a Nobody.’ That’s for us!
Marlow: The characters that appeal to you, literarily speaking, are outsiders…
Marlow: In large part, this ‘rediscovery’ of [Robert] Walser, [Bruno] Schultz and others in this work is an integral part of what you’re doing.
Timothy: In the Gilgamesh film, This Unnamable Little Broom, originally we had dedicated it to three mad painters. At the last minute, we withdrew the dedication.
Marlow: In The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, there are a number of subtle references. For instance, the story that Gottfried John tells about the inhaling of the spore (recreated visually at the end of the film) originates from the remarkable Museum of Jurassic Technology. I was rather amazed to find you working this diversion into the script.
Stephen: Do you know who introduced us to the Museum of Jurassic Technology? Michael Penn.
Marlow: When you did the video for Look What the Cat Drug In [aka Long Way Down]? Did you shoot the video in Los Angeles?
Stephen: No, we shot it here in London but we had to go out there. When we first met, for some reason he said, ‘I must take you to this museum.’
Marlow: Obviously, with Benjamenta you were working from a novella [Jakob von Gunten]. It’s not an entirely loyal adaptation but you have the book as your foundation. The Comb also has a literary basis, as does Crocodiles, but in Piano Tuner you’re taking various strands and pulling them together…
Timothy: It’s more of a collage.
Since the story was about memory, we always had this music in the back of our brain, even before Lech had written his 70 minutes. We knew to fall back on it instantly if disaster hit. This music originally was written for a boy-meets-girl ballet way back in the 1950s and stayed in the Boosey & Hawkes library. Because they had an office in Paris, Chris Marker likely went to the library one day looking for cheap music and probably found this, releasing it to the world as ‘La Jetée.’ When we met Trevor Duncan, which was really his pseudonym [he was otherwise known as Leonard Charles Trebilco], he said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard about this film,’ ‘La Jetée…’
Marlow: Do you prefer working with a single text or with multiple sources?
Timothy: In a sense, the film is an homage to [Adolfo] Bioy Casares and his La invención de Morel [The Invention of Morel]. Even though we wrote to him and he said we could have the rights, he wrote back the next day and said, ‘I forgot, I’ve already given the rights away.’ So we decided to work around it and make it an homage. We’d never read it in English, only bits in French. My French isn’t particularly good. I tried to tackle it one day and I went, ‘This is tough. I can’t be bothered!’
Stephen: We read an outline said, ‘Great, if that’s the opera singer.’ After working in theater and the opera, we thought it would be nice to do something related…
Marlow: The composer for Piano Tuner [Christopher Slaski] is one that you hadn’t used in the past.
Stephen: We had a falling out with our composer [Lech Jankowski].
Timothy: Such a shame. He wrote seventy minutes of beautiful music…
Marlow: But the music is quite beautiful in the film.
Timothy: Do you know where it’s from?
Marlow: It has the air of familiarity about it….
Timothy: La Jetée. Since the story was about memory, we always had this music in the back of our brain, even before Lech had written his 70 minutes. We knew to fall back on it instantly if disaster hit. This music originally was written for a boy-meets-girl ballet way back in the 1950s and stayed in the Boosey & Hawkes library. Because they had an office in Paris, Chris Marker likely went to the library one day looking for cheap music and probably found this, releasing it to the world as La Jetée. When we met Trevor Duncan, which was really his pseudonym [he was otherwise known as Leonard Charles Trebilco], he said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard about this film,’ La Jetée…
Stephen: We finally showed it to him. On DVD.
Marlow: I imagine that it was a bit odd for him to hear his music used in this way. In what way did you approach writing the script with Alan Passes?
Timothy: For this feature, we decided to write something more original or more associative, dealing with a lot of the scenes that we dearly loved and wanted to play with.
Marlow: Was it always clear that the integration of the automata would allow you to insert the animated sequences?
Stephen: Actually, there was initially animation throughout the film.
Timothy: We cut much of it out. We had to cut it because the film was massively over-length in the first cut. We were told that the film could only be 95 minutes by the German funders [Mediopolis].
Stephen: We were talking with Jan [Svankmajer] the other night and we asked him, ‘How many days did you have to shoot [Lunacy]?’ He said, ‘Sixty days for the live action, seventy for the animation.’ We had only 30 days to shoot the live action and it was very rushed. Keith [Griffiths] said, ‘Do you want to do it or don’t you?’ And we said, ‘Of course we want to do it!’
Timothy: [Svankmajer] had a crew of basically, at most, thirty people, including the drivers, but the majority of the shoot was about ten or eleven people. We had forty-four people every day to motor about with.
Marlow: And where was the live-action photography done?
Timothy: All in Leipzig. We worked in a wonderful studio there. We had no complaints at all because they were fabulous. We were working exclusively with students all the time.
Stephen: A lot of them. No pay at all. We ended up in Leipzig because of the German connection, you know.
Timothy: It had to be in the Leipzig region. All of the gardeners were from Leipzig, for instance. The condition was that you had to be born there or be a resident to be considered for the crew. That way we would have to employ the people of the region. We were allowed to bring our cameraman over and our gaffer.
Marlow: Under these multi-country financing pacts, I wager it is possible that you might be forced to involve people in the project that are not your initial choice?
Timothy: We originally wrote the part of Dr. Droz for Gottfried [John]. We wrote the script for Assumpta [Serna] and for César [Saracho] as well but then all of the [production] companies wanted us to get bigger stars.
Stephen: We were shooting for people like Jeremy Irons.
Timothy: We considered Geoffrey Rush.
Stephen: We had Isabelle Huppert on board.
Timothy: We tried to get Lena Olin, who claims that she never got our letter. Her agent, I suppose…
Stephen: Nobody would take the role. Then we suddenly put our foot down and said, ‘You know, we wrote it for Gottfried. Let’s send it to Gottfried. And we wrote it for Assumpta,’ who was always open to do it. ‘Let’s do it that way.’
Timothy: Amira [Casar] was the only one that was completely new.
Stephen: Again, our casting agent [Irene Lamb] who chose Alice [Krige, for Institute Benjamenta] suggested Amira.
Marlow: What are your divisions of duties on the set?
Timothy: We always talked to the actors privately or, on some nights, at dinner. They got to know us well. In a sense, it was very gracious. But then it became a little bit harder because it was our first time dealing with a particular actress or whatever. We were told that one of us should stay with the camera crew and the other should stay with the actors so that they wouldn’t get confused. A stupid suggestion, really.
Marlow: Your recent shorts all seem to derive from circumstances. The opportunity to work with Stockhausen or the Royal Ballet, for instance
Timothy: Or The Phantom Museum
Marlow: Certainly. The Phantom Museum as well.
Timothy: …which was a commission from the Wellcome Trust for a big exhibit that took place at the British Museum [entitled Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome]. Again, it’s truly by chance. A phone call comes or a letter. For [Karlheinz] Stockhausen [and In Absentia], we felt that they probably went through ten different directors and all of them said, ‘I’m not going to work with that music.’ They ended up with us and we said, ‘Great!’
Stephen: ‘There’s a good challenge.’
Timothy: A terrifying challenge, actually.
Stephen: It’s the sort of thing you could do about seven seconds a day. It’s difficult to listen to a piece like that if you have a sense of totality about it.
Timothy: It’s an assault on the senses.
Stephen: But we coupled that with something that we saw at a show at the Hayward [Gallery] show on Outsider Art. The exhibition was a collection of images that came from asylums, but the ones that [inspired the pieces in The Phantom Museum] were simply handwriting from the charged imagination, the interior vision, of this one woman, Emma Hauck.
Marlow: Her handwriting, with words repeatedly written over each other, reminds me of the work of [painter] Mark Toby. Writing, layer upon layer…
Stephen: Except here she’s just psychotic.
Timothy: When we thought of her work we realized that it would function quite well with Stockhausen’s music.
Stephen: That kind of music is cosmic. It explodes the interior of the mind. Mixing the overexposed light seemed completely apropos. I remember that we had already done some tests and, when the music arrived, we just laid it down and put it on the table, played it and moved it twenty frames. It was totally in-synch and we said, ‘We’re on our way.’
Timothy: It doesn’t often happen. It’s like a gift when it happens.
Marlow: What about your project based on the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann [The Sandman], which I believe you made for television?
Timothy: Have you seen it?
Marlow: I have not seen it. I’ve merely read about it and the four shorts that comprise Death & Resurrection.
Timothy: English composer Steve Martland adapted these old 17thcentury texts of childrens’ songs for marimba and choir [the composer’s initial piece is entitled Street Songs].
Stephen: It was projected at Tate Modern in the big Turbine Hall. Sir John Eliot Gardiner didn’t once look at the monitor.
Timothy: It was done with live music. He wasn’t synchronizing the music to the films at all.
Stephen: Nobody seemed to notice.
Timothy: But we did, obviously. We’ve always worked with music as a starting point.
We made an application to the British Film Institute and they said, ‘Your wayward narrative in Nocturna Artificialia, our first film, ‘won’t do. We insist that you adapt something with a more literary foundation.’
Marlow: In that sense, your technique is very traditional. You start with the sound and then you start animating to the audio, despite the fact that there is no dialogue?
Timothy: Sometimes, but not all of the time. I don’t think we always Mickey Mouse’d it but we generally have a feeling and we know where the music was going to fall and, from that, we set the tonality. A lot of discoveries get made in the editing stage because you try different music and it tells you different things. But we definitely had strong ideas for the moment when Alice [Krige in Benjamenta] looks in the mirror and the camera keeps zooming and tracking. She did it in reaction to the music as it was played back.
Stephen: With a ballet, you have the choreographer. Since the music was selected beforehand, you knew that the length of the piece was identical to the duration of the music and you choreograph it precisely to that music. In a way, the camera movements were something that we added on top of it.
Marlow: Is your inclination more directed at shorter work or features? Clearly, there is a great deal more control working here in the studio than with actors on location.
Timothy: We’re not able to do [short-form] animation anymore. The only way that we can do animation is to slide it into a feature film, which is why we included so many sequences in Piano Tuner initially.
Marlow: Will the footage that was removed from the film ever reappear somewhere?
Stephen: No. Everything was shot digitally and we destroyed the files.
Timothy: At the time, we didn’t have an extra hard drive. We just didn’t have any more capacity so we deleted them. We still have some of the sets. We keep the sets. What we didn’t get into Piano Tuner, we’re going to re-work using the sets. We could make an entire film out of everything that didn’t get into Piano Tuner. It was sort of our wish to create something like a big epilogue. It would’ve been better.
Marlow: Although you’re working with digital video on Piano Tuner, would you prefer to shoot in 35mm if your budget would allow for it?
Stephen: I think we feel at home with 35mm but we’ve really come to like digital…
Timothy: If you shoot on film, you would still have to stick it back into the computer at some point.
Marlow: It is progressing to the point where, in Piano Tuner, it’s getting very difficult to tell whether it’s film or video…
Timothy: Few people even notice that we shot it in hi-def. We shot the animation to match because it fit well. It was a way that the whole budget could be kept down a bit.
Marlow: You were also using some matting techniques that you hadn’t used on Benjamenta.
Stephen: We had a model that was used for the island [in Piano Tuner] and then we just dropped in the people.
Timothy: We dropped in the actors, we dropped in the sea and we dropped in the sky. We even did the light coming in but that is the simplest kind of matting. We wanted to keep it visible.
Stephen: And atmospheric.