The Cannes International Film Festival gets under way Wednesday with the international premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” a perfect opening night choice given its already established hit status stateside (TOH review here). And on Thursday the edgier Cannes sidebar Director’s Fortnight (or Quinzaine) will open with Israeli director Ari Folman’s “The Congress,” a live-action/animation hybrid starring Robin Wright, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel and Danny Huston, which is being screened for the first time not only for Cannes audiences and critics but North American distributors as well. (Trailer here and below.)
Folman first pitched me “The Congress,” which is based on the 1971 Stanislaw Lem sci-fi novel “The Futurological Congress,” over a Sony Pictures Classics dinner at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival celebrating his Israeli animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir,” which debuted in competition in Cannes and was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. I found the idea of an actress selling her digital persona to a studio both haunting and timely. We debated who would be willing to play the role: he was interested in Cameron Diaz at the time. We talked again last week via Skype between L.A. and Tel Aviv.
Anne Thompson: Well, you finally got it done. Did it take longer than you thought it would?
Ari Folman: I think it took, mentally, something like 19 years. So long.
It became more current, right? Isn’t the world ready for it now, in a way?
I think it is. Even when I first discussed it with you, it was before the “Avatar” film, it was before CGI characters were something in our actual everyday cinema life. When I wrote it, I had no clue that coming to LA I would see this unbelievable scanning machine at USC where we could shoot the scene. It was already there, everything was ready for us.
When we spoke about “Waltz with Bashir,” you made a distinction between the animation you created and tracing live action images via rotoscope. What are the differences, aesthetically and technologically, between what you did on “Bashir” and this film?
This film is half pure live action, and half animated. The first part is completely live action where Robin Wright is playing herself, an actress, who gets an offer from a big studio to be scanned into their computers and they will buy her identity for 20 years and they will be able to make any kind of film that they want to do with her, especially all those films that she, in her real life being Robin Wright, never wanted to do, like stupid sci-fi movies, any kind of box office. In the reality of the film, those who do not sign will not exist because big studios don’t need flesh-and-blood actors anymore because they can just make them. This is the first part of the movie and it is completely live action, with documentary elements because she is playing herself and it is written from her biography and her filmography. She’s playing Robin Wright, and they are buying Robin Wright, the actress that was a huge promise and then something happened in her career, she’s a single mother with two kids. It’s a very brave part for her to do.
Who did you approach to play this role? I remember you wanted Cameron Diaz.
I was thinking about her, Cate Blanchett once, I started writing, and at one of the ceremonies I attended in 2009, the LA Film Critics Awards, I saw Robin for the first time in person. I was so obsessed with the script, I was stunned with how perfect she was, but there was something really vulnerable in her. Because of the time difference between LA and Tel Aviv, where it was early morning, I asked my illustrators if they could illustrate her while I was sitting there. And they started sending me illustrations of Robin so that by the end of the night I had everything I needed to pitch it to her, and I did. I had the story and on my mobile all the illustrations for the second part of the movie. She said immediately, “I hardly know you, but this sounds so interesting I will go with you wherever you take me.” Then we met a couple of months later just to write her personal story.
The part that’s live action is contemporaneous with who she is today and the part that’s animated is the future, when she’s older?
We jump 20 years. The contract is good for 20 years so we jump 20 years in time and she arrives in that city called Abrahama — in the Mojave Desert — basically the future Disneyland, what it would be in 20 years time. You drive in the desert, you come to a checkpoint, you get an apple, you break an apple, you sniff it, you become animated and the whole city becomes animated. She arrives to Abrahama first for the Futurological Congress, where they declare the future aspects of cinema, meaning the next era after CGI, after 3-D, and this is where they will sign her for the extension of the contract. The technique I used in the second part is completely not like “Waltz with Bashir.” We made a tribute to the Fleischer brothers (Popeye, Betty Boop), which is very tough to do, so basically it’s like a 1930s animated style of the Fleischer brothers. It was very tough, today, even just to find the right people.
That’s a very specific style.
Yes, this is basically the second part of the movie where she’s confronted with the first image I had, which is her coming into Abrahama while they screen in live action in the animated world her new piece. Because this studio that bought her has been manufacturing all those trashy sci-fi films where she’s the star and where they keep her forever young, because it’s part of the deal, that she will stay 34 years old in the movies. And this old lady now has to confront her being the star, when she’s old, and it’s not her, it’s her CGI character, and nobody recognizes the real her as the big star that the studio made out of her. This is basically the story, it was very complicated to do. First it took a long time to write and understand what I’m doing. And the live action went very smooth in America because I got support from fantastic actors because they love the project.
How much did it cost? And how long is it?
The budget was around $5, 6 million. The movie is exactly two hours.
That gives you freedom. Was it difficult to raise that budget?
It was raised completely in Europe, but it was difficult because it’s a co-production of six countries so I had to work in five countries because according to the European co-productions you have to spend the money where you get it. We shot in America, and the animation was done in Israel, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Poland, and that was tough, combining everything together.
Where did your animators come from and how many were there?
They were the same crew I had for “Waltz with Bashir,” and we had a very good team in Brussels. They did the line production in Brussels, in Luxembourg, in Hamburg, in Berlin and all the assist work was done in Poland, the Philippines. Believe me it was transgalactic, it was very tough. 200 in total, but all spread around and of course the basic problem was because we were spreading scenes from the movie, it was keeping the consistency of the characters.
How did you do that technically, monitoring their work?
We had a team of Belgian people who came to Tel Aviv for the last year and they were basically re-doing all the stuff just to make it a one-liner, with one style. For example, Robin’s lover in the film is portrayed by Jon Hamm; I shot the whole animated part in live action video and the actors were really acting for the animators because we had the transition from live action to animation. It was very important for me that the audience will go with me to the second part of the movie, so if Robin or Paul Giamatti or Danny Huston, if they have a kind of style of acting in the first part of the movie, we wanted it to be consistent in the animated part as well.
The animators were using it as a reference as opposed to following their movements?
Yes, but they kept it. Once you see the video part you will see how much respect they gave to the performances they made. I want to screen it in 35mm because the animation gets new life under the projection. It’s very difficult to imitate an old style of animation without the flicker of the projector, because this was part of the animation, the flicker of the light, so we were hoping to have a good 35 print we can screen in Cannes (we have a DCP print), it’s part of a statement. I’m flying to Berlin to see what they did.
You were in competition at Cannes with “Waltz with Bashir,” so how did that play out with “The Congress,” where you ended up opening Director’s Fortnight?
I was waiting like everybody else, I would say the very last moment. It was not clear. I got the invitation from the Quinzaine to open earlier because they saw the film while competition was debating and I took it.
It’s prestigious to be the opener and you are part of the youthful, contemporary, cutting edge program in the Quinzaine.
Considering the directors who were there before me, I feel really privileged: Francis Coppola, Werner Herzog, who I adore. I do believe that films have some kind of karmic life and this film will go where it has to go.
What is the distribution situation?
Big territories in Europe are taken (UK, France, Germany) and it’s part of the financing. Deliberately we have screened to no one in the US because I think the Cannes performance is the right place to do it. This part is the unknown, we’re going with Cannes and we hope for good surprises.