Capone dances with WALTZ WITH BASHIR creator Ari Folman!!!
Published at: Jan. 20, 2009, 1:25 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. There's a film about to open wide in many markets this week that seems almost so timely that it borders on creepy that it's coming out right now. Also a likely Oscar nominee this week for Best Foreign Language Film, the film blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, since it is based on the very real account of one man's memories--or lack of memories--about one man's time in the Israeli Army during the first Lebanon War of he early 1980s. The man in question is the filmmaker, Ari Folman, whose recurring nightmare and scattershot memory of a particular incident during a particular mission serve as the basis for WALTZ WITH BASHIR, an animated tale about Folman's search for the truth and his attempts to recover these sure-to-be-terrifying memories. He speaks with actual people that he served with at the time (and whose voices and testimonies are heard in the film), and slowly the truth comes together.
As strange as it might seem to say out loud, if WALL-E had not come out in 2008, the surreal accomplishment WALTZ WITH BASHIR would have been considered the best animated film of the year. In fact, the L.A. Film Critics Association gave it their Best Animated Film award (the organizations gave WALL-E the Best Film award). And last week, the National Society of Film Critics named the movie Best Film of 2008.
If Folman is known at all in the United States, it's for being one of the writer on the Israeli television series "In Therapy," which was adapted last year by HBO as the really wonderful Gabriel Byrne vehicle "In Treatment." Primarily a writer, Folman has dabbled in directing in the past, including the 2001 work MADE IN ISRAEL.
I spoke with Folman late last year at the tail end of a promotional tour that has taken him all over the world for the better part of the year, and I found the conversation and the man to be fascinating and enlightening. WALTZ WITH BASHIR is a stirring work that almost demands this kind of follow-up with its maker, and hopefully you'll have a chance to see the film soon and head back here to read this interview. Enjoy…
Capone: You’ve been on a whirlwind worldwide tour since Cannes, is that right?
Ari Folman: Yeah, I’ve been on the road since Cannes.
Capone: It’s exhausting just to think about.
AF: Yeah, it’s been a very long seven months, but I think I’m about to complete the journey.
Capone: I saw that yesterday the L.A. film critics gave you a couple of nods.
AF: Yes, that’s incredible.
Capone: Best Animated Film…
AF: Best Animated Film.
Capone: …and runner-up for Documentary.
AF: Hopefully, we will come back here next month for the Award season. We’ll hear tomorrow about the Golden Globes. [WALTZ WITH BASHIR did win for Best Foreign Language Film.]
Capone: And this film Israel's Oscar entry in Foreign Language category.
AF: Yes, it is.
Capone: I know that you had always conceived of this as an animated film. Was there something about that medium that kind of lent itself to the story you were trying to tell, which is not a linear story, per se?
AF: It is a very linear story.
Capone: But, it jumps back and forth between…
AF: The only dimension it jumps from one to another is from reality to dream. As a filmmaker, I believe in very simple storytelling and what I call the ‘journey’ films, you know? They start at one point, and they end at another point. And, the protagonist goes through a journey. If it’s literally a journey, even better. If it’s on a motorcycle, it’s the best. [laughs]
But, no, seriously, I mean, the only thing that is non-classic is the fact that it runs from reality to the subconscious hallucinations and dreams. And, I think animation is the perfect technique for storytelling in this free zone.
Capone: Also, the unstable value of memory would have been hard to capture in a conventional film, and animation can lend itself to the slightly different memories that the people in the film seem to have.
AF: I completely agree with you. I think that for the audience it’s easier just to stream with this kind of film when it’s drawn. It’s easier for them.
Capone: Yeah. Was it a bit terrifying or emotional for you when you made the discovery that you had lost this very important part of your life?
AF: Well, I didn’t lose everything, you know. It’s not that I went through an amnesia or something. I had the main storyline of my army service. There were just fragments missing. So, it was not really difficult. This is the truth. I mean, once I decided to go for it, I just did it. And, I was very much into the filmmaking process and into the production. I mean, the first part, maybe, was the hardest, just troubling, meeting the people and reviving all those stories. But afterwards, it was just pure filmmaking.
Capone: The conversations that we hear in the film, the remembrances from the people that you sought out, are those the original recordings that you had of those discussions, or did you go back to those people to talk to them, when you finally decided this was going to be a film?
AF: No, it was always a film.
Capone: It was always a film, the discovery of these memories, the search for these memories?
AF: Once I decided to do it, I mean, we advertised on the Internet, and we got more than 100 replies. And, we started research, but just on tape. Then, I wrote the script based upon the research, and next time I met the interviewees was on a sound stage, where we shot it.
Capone: Okay, and that was the first time you were meeting those people?
AF: Some of them, I'd met before, between the research and the shooting. But, when I do that, I try not to dig too much, so I can leave some stuff still fresh for the real thing.
Capone: Yeah, it’s strange, especially watching an animated film that feels conversational like that.
AF: Ahhh, I must tell you that I think that animation has…I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about it so long…you know, it hasn’t really explored into the world of adults. And, it’s something that the studios, I think, really manipulate, because it’s only about big money, productions, and family.
Capone: Mass appeal.
AF: Mass audience. It has to appeal to, you know, the age of 6 to 100. And, it’s not treated as a serious genre. I mean, kid’s genre is very serious, but serious in terms of box office. They’ve done some incredible work--Pixar and everything--but they will never treat it as, you know…maybe they will, now.
I think it has economical issues, because it’s expensive, it’s tough, it takes a long time. This was not expensive, compared to any other American film, but we’re crazy, so it’s not a good example. [laughs] But, we will see, you know, we will see in the next project. We will see.
Capone: Yeah, and I do want to talk about that in a second. But, you mentioned that these adult-themed animated films are virtually nonexistent. Now, that being said, last year France put forth PERSEPOLIS as its Oscar contender. What did you think of that?
AF: I like PERSEPOLIS.
Capone: I mean, in theory, were you happy to see it?
AF: But, PERSEPOLIS is a family movie, and BASHIR, no. PERSEPOLIS is for kids, it’s for everyone. It’s a very good movie in terms of craft--the design and the classic animation. It’s very well done. But, it’s a completely different film. And, you know, PERSEPOLIS was not nominated in the end [for the Foreign Language Film Oscar].
Capone: Right. No, it wasn’t. You’re right.
AF: It wasn’t. Why wasn’t it? It was nominated for Animation. I think that there is a problem when they go from, you know…take it out of the section, take it out of the niche. We’ll see this year if it’s still a problem.
Capone: Hopefully, the L.A. film critics will help you out there.
AF: I think it’s a big move, and always Pixar makes these great films; some of them are really great. So, when they’re out, critics say, “Okay, this film will be nominated for Best Picture,” not just for Best Animation--like THE INCREDIBLES, the masters, you know, and NEMO, at least for the script. But, in the end, when January comes, it never happens.
Capone: Yeah, it’s almost a shame that they created the Animated Film category, because it gives the Academy an out.
AF: I’m going to use that. Yeah, yeah, it gives them an out. It’s true.
Capone: Let’s talk a little bit about the animation style, because I really have never seen anything that looked like that. It seems like all the elements are moving. It’s very fluid. Is that something you came up with, working with your people?
AF: We invented it, in a way. We decided to take our budget problems as an advantage, take all the downsides and put them up front, and to make it our statement. And, when this film started, I had $80,000. So, we had to invent something which was simple.
Basically, we took the most common software, which is Flash, and we took it to the extreme. Nobody took it so far. Nobody even thought of making a fully length feature film out of Flash. I remember I was in San Francisco screening my previous project in 2005, and I called Macromedia, the manufacturer of Flash. I told them, “I’m this guy from Israel, and I’m doing this feature-length film with your software. I want to screen you some, maybe…” I didn’t want anything; I just wanted to be proud. And, they said, “Yeah, of course.” And, this was it. [laughs]
Capone: Is that really what it is? Just a version of Flash?
AF: Most of it, yeah, but very developed, and there is a little 3-D in it…and some classic animation. We found out problems in slow movement and less-action scenes, because it brings all the downsides out. Sometimes, half part of the bodies, we cut out the upper part, and the lower part would be in classic. So, we made a lot of combinations in between. The director of animation, Yoni Goodman, is a really very brilliant guy--and funny--and, I mean, he was very innovative. We had to invent it all the time.
Capone: Wow. So, there’s no Rotoscoping or motion capture or anything like that?
AF: No, no. We don’t use it. I don’t believe in Rotoscoping. It’s not a matter of budget. I don’t like Rotoscoping. I think Rotoscope would have prevented the option that the audience would be emotionally attached to the characters. And, for me, it would have been a big problem. Because in Rotoscope, what they do is they draw over the video in a very straightforward way. And, I think the technique in Rotoscope is very much out there. I mean, you see the faces, like in a [Richard] Linklater film, and you see that it’s drawn over.
Capone: Yeah, there are commercials here that have that effect, too.
AF: And, now, they do it with commercials. They do it…and, it’s…it’s…I don’t like it. It’s bad taste.
Capone: It’s played out, that’s what it is.
AF: Although I like [Linklater’s] WAKING LIFE, you know. My animators didn't, but I thought it was interesting.
Capone: You brought it up before, it sounds like your next project is also going to include an animated element. What is that?
AF: Yeah. It’s a science fiction book I optioned by Stanislav Lem. Nobody in America…
AF: Yeah, good, cool guy, man!
Capone: You had to give me one second.
AF: In Europe, it’s okay. But here, who can spell that? Okay, so…
Capone: Which book is it?
AF: It’s The Futurological Congress.
Capone: Now you've stumped me. Never heard of that.
AF: It’s one hell of a book. It’s a very small volume, but big…So, basically, what we did, involved that we took the characters backwards in time. And, we took the advantages of drawings by doing that. We do the same, this time with an actress, and we are going into the future time. And, she will be herself, with her real name, playing herself, but jumping into 20 years, starting now, and then we will have her jump 20 years forward.
Capone: The actress is going to use her own name? It’s going to be her playing herself?
AF: Her playing herself. Like me, it’s going to be her. Yeah, the world is completely controlled by manufacturers of psychiatric pharmacology drugs. Everything, all the feelings…everything. So, it’s pretty wild. It’s going to deal with this issue and with the end of cinema as we have it now, and with the new CGI era, as I see it.
Capone: Have you selected your actress, yet?
AF: Well, just in my imagination. We are checking it now. She’ll have to be really cool, because she’ll be drawn at the age of 60 plus, and not very good looking, so, I mean, she should go for it. Now, we’re sending them all my candidates, BASHIR, to see how they react to this one for a beginning.
Capone: So, it’ll be a mix, then, of live action and animation?
AF: The beginning will be…it will be 70 percent animation, and 30 percent live action.
Capone: You mentioned the drugs, the pharmaceutical aspect…
AF: The psychopharma…pharmceutical? How do you say it? Psychopharmaceutical?
AF: No, just the pills that give psychiatric…psycho-pharmaceutical.
Capone: Yeah, so my question was, One of your characters here is a psychoanalyst, and then, you’re a writer on "In Therapy" in Israel. So, are you a proponent of the psychotherapy?
AF: Not at all. I don’t believe in psychotherapy. I’ve been there. [laughs] I believe in dynamic therapy, like filmmaking, like writing, like drawing, making music, when you really deal with it. I mean, this is dynamic therapy. I traveled, I met people, I interviewed them, I listened to their stories, I wrote the script, I shot it, I edited it. You deal with the stuff. And, in psychotherapy, I don’t know, it’s more like masturbation. I don’t treat it too serious.
Capone: It seems like, maybe, you got more out of the making of this film than from the sessions with the psychoanalyst.
AF: I did all the work with myself by making this film. I did get more connected to the guy I used to be and to my past. But, then, in those four years of making this film, I started it, I was a single man. And, after four years, I’m married with three kids, so that was much more of a change than just making a film. So, everything happened together.
Capone: As you were going through the process of talking to these other former soldiers, were you relieved, in a way, to find out that some of their memories weren’t quite clear on certain things, maybe for the same reasons?
AF: I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. Right from the beginning of the research, I knew it. I knew that, it’s a combination. The Lebanon era is something that people--I mean, not just by chance--chose to forget. They had good reasons for it, and it’s not something that as far as the nation and certainly the people who were involved are very proud of, and I was not surprised.
Capone: You’ve been on the road with this film for the better part of this year. Have you found it to be a divisive, polarizing experience, people watching this film?
AF: In Israel, very much. It made people talk. My life, of course, has changed tremendously, because I travel. I’m not at home, unfortunately. But, I mean, when I’m at home, I can’t go to all those public events, because I end up sitting in the corner with people I don’t know, and they keep nudging me with all their horrific war stories, you know? And, I tell them, “You should make a movie out of it.” But, this is it.
Capone: Has the Israeli government had anything to say about the film?
AF: Yeah. They were very pleased. And, this is the biggest surprise of this film: they keep sending the film at their expense all over the world. And, I think that they think that the film does good propaganda in the sense that it shows Israel is a very tolerant country that can deal with issues of the past that are hidden in many ways. And, they push it. And, this is surprising.
Capone: I don’t get the sense that one of your objectives here was to lay blame or exonerate anybody.
AF: No, it’s not about blame. The French think it is, but it’s not. They think it’s only about culpabilité, which is blame. But, it’s not. It’s not really. But, you know, if it helps selling tickets in France--more than 500,000--so, let it be. But, I don’t think it’s about blame…not this time.
Capone: Will another film of yours be about blame?
AF: [laughs] No, no. This is not about blame. A lot of people want it to be about blame.
Capone: You come from a place where military service is mandatory. Outside of this particular massacre, how did that experience change your life overall, do you think?
AF: Being a soldier four years?
AF: What do you mean? I lost the best years of my life. No, I mean, I’m happy now, but, when people are 18 here, they go to college. They party for four years or study in a good college. It doesn’t matter, they still have fun. We run in the hills; it’s insane. It changed my life tremendously.
Of course, in some manners, it did good to me. But, very few…just because I come from a very specific family and neighborhood, I got more connected to where I live. And, in the army, I met people that I would never have met, if I wasn’t going with this kind of unit, which is a pretty rough one, infantry. But, this is the only plus I can see. And, I exposed myself to Eastern music, which was nice, and black coffee. And, this is it.
Capone: The ’80s music choices are fantastic in the film.
AF: Yeah, but they’re not mine. Sorry.
AF: My musical education ended in 1978 with The Sex Pistols, I think, somewhere there. And, I had to consult my editor. She’s this ’80s kind of girl--darr-r-rk, you know? She knew all the stupid music from the '80s. [laughs] But, she did. We made two songs especially for the event: “Today I Bombed Beirut” and “Good Morning, Lebanon.”
“Today I Bombed Beirut” is a remake of an American song by Cake. It’s called “Korea.” And, it’s pretty much the same words. It’s about Korea, but we changed it to Beirut, and put it, like, with much more an electric vibe. And, “Enola Gay” [by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark], of course, is a master in the ’80s. And, with “This Is Not A Love Song,” [by Public Image Limited], it’s the remains of the ’70s with Johnny Rotten/Johnny Lydon and Sex Pistols/PiL.
Capone: I was going to say you did manage to get PiL on the soundtrack, so a little bit of your Sex Pistols there.
AF: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I say. I mean, at least he is like a refugee. But, what has become of him, I don’t know. I saw him on YouTube, my animator sent me. He’s, like, now he’s…oh man, he’s advertising butter.
Capone: I haven’t seen that!
AF:… in a farm, as a family guy. Ahhh, that’s embarrassing. You have it on YouTube, you have him now. And then, you can also find “God Save the Queen” in a gig in London in 1976, one after another. And, you see him now with the butter on the farm…and the guy he used to be. Argghhh! He’s not connected to himself.
Capone: That’s right. The image of the flares is one you revisit in the film. First of all, was that an actual memory that you had?
AF: You see at the end…Yeah, but it didn’t exist, of course.
Capone: Why do you think you held on to that image?
AF: Well, for me, the sea and the beach is something very strong and influential in my life. I’m a beach boy. And, on the beach in Lebanon is really part of the memory of everybody. Day and night, walking naked on the beach while there’s war going around. It’s really a pretty common memory. So, obviously, the perfect escape would have been to go for the beach, to visualize it on the beach.
Capone: The film’s final images are not animated. Why did you choose to end on that note?
AF: I chose it…I think it’s an ideological decision, not an artistic decision at all. And, I think that I did it so just to put everything in proportion. And, I wanted to prevent the situation that someone would walk out of the theater and think it was a very cool, anti-war animated film with great drawings. Well, it was not; it was more than that. People died, thousands of them. And, this is how war looks. And, it made people think more than it would have made them without the final images.
Capone: For me, it made it very clear that in the end this is an anti-war film.
AF: This is what it is. More than anything else, it’s an anti-war film. This is the only declaration that goes out of the film. It’s on the verge of being a cliché, like the Bob Dylan song, like “Masters of War.” The bad guys, the good guys, the bad guys that sit behind the desk, they send other people to die. It’s so simple, really. It’s nothing more than that.
Capone: The image of Bashir actually dancing with the gun across the battlefield, I’m guessing that is not an accurate representation of what you saw.
AF: It was.
Capone: Was it really?
AF: Well, not that extreme point, but the fact that the guy stayed in the junction, in the middle of the junction, and he just didn’t move--of course, he didn’t dance waltz--it was pretty accurate. It was a very strong memory for a lot of people. He freaked out. They were about to trial him after that event. He took the other guy’s gun. In the end, they didn’t do it, but there was a big issue over it. He took it by force, you know, and he…he freaked out. But, he stayed in the army for 25 years. He was just released.
Capone: It reminds us that, especially in the heat of battle, some people do just lose it lose their minds, like you said.
AF: Yeah, he lost it there big time. He had good reasons.
Capone: Ari, thank you so much. It was good meeting you.
AF: Yep, thanks.