Every fall I write for the official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs of the Toronto International Film Festival. And I usually try to find a guest writer to cover me here at the Gutter, write a piece ahead of time or even, sometimes, just totally wander out of my assigned comics domain to write about the movies I’ve seen and what I think about them. This year, I was lucky enough to get to stay here in my domain, continue my little sorta series on comics and film and, most of all, lucky enough to interview Dave McKean.
Dave McKean works in many mediums–comics (most famously his covers for The Sandman); illustration; painting; collage, music, photography and film. Aside from his previous feature film, MirrorMask (2005), McKean has directed two shorts, N[eon] (2002) and The Week Before (1998). He directed the film adaptation of the National Theatre Wales’ The Gospel Of Us (2012). He’s done design for Harry Potter And The Wizard Of Azkaban (2004) and the titles for Neverwhere (1996). And his collaborations with Neil Gaiman include the above mentioned comics, MirrorMask, Neverwhere and the children’s books, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish (1998); Coraline (2002); The Wolves In The Walls (2003); The Graveyard Book (2008); and Crazy Hair (2009). I have a particular fondness for McKean’s paintings and mixed media works influenced by early cinema, which you can see here. Now he has a new feature film, Luna.
Carol Borden: Where some of your other films are quite stylized and, in the case of The Week Before, almost expressionist, Luna combines fantastic, expressionist and animated elements with more naturalistic ones. What are some of the challenges in blending the fantastic with the naturalistic?
Dave McKean: I think it’s easier to sustain a very stylized form of storytelling for a short film. I like stories that exist both in the naturalistic world and in our imaginative lives, films are so immersive in that sense, we can explore how our characters think and dream, as well as how they exist in the real world. I think it’s very easy to just go down the rabbit hole, or through the door to Narnia or Oz. I’m interested in the parallel narrative of our fantasy lives, or as Dean puts in it Luna, our imaginative lives. How the moment of ‘now’ that is palpably real, is surrounded by our memories, our dreams and hopes, the stories and connections that our brains make as we navigate the world–a universe of fantasy, or unreality, or surreality. I’m keen to explore this very human experience, how our minds create our own realities–a blend of fact and interpretation of fact.
CB: What do you think fantasy, surrealism and magical realism’s strengths are in reflecting and understanding people’s lives?
DM: They function like a lens I think. They allow us to see our everyday joys, fears, dramas, tragedies, triumphs in terms or story, or even poetry. Our brains tend to join the dots, make connections. We create dramatic arcs by seeing the relationship between things, but this is our brains creating stories. So these associative images magnify and intensify our experience of the world. They create meaning.
CB: As someone who’s worked with illustration, painting, collage and photography, what are some of the differences for you in working with a moving medium rather than a static one?
DM: In some ways they are very similar. I’m always thinking about story, and the development of ideas or images, so with all of these media, I’m simply trying to communicate the feelings and ideas in the story or characters in the most appropriate and effective way. Film gives me live actors, editing, music, sound, a huge and powerful toolbox to play with. If there is a problem for me, it is that film gives me too much. There is less room for the audience to add their side of the conversation. The reason I love comics is that they DON’T move, and there is NO sound. As a creator I have to evoke those elements in the drawings and writing, and the reader has to create those elements in their own minds. Reading a good comic is a creative act. Watching a film is often a more passive experience, and since I’m interested in engaging that conversational aspect of creativity, I’m trying to find ways of achieving that in my films.
CB: Does your illustration, collage and painting inform your filmmaking, and, if so, could you share how it does?
DM: They all talk to each other. Sometimes the things I learn making paintings or drawings–composition, colour, expressionism, texture–can directly influence the making of a film. Sometimes it’s great that they are different, and simply taking a break from one medium to spend time with another, recharges the batteries and I feel refreshed.
CB: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and how have they influenced you?
DM: So many–there are so many extraordinarily creative and brilliant technicians and actors working in the field. The filmmakers I really love are the ones that let me look through their eyes for a while. they have an aesthetic and social point of view. And there have been so many of these. I love the silent era because you can see the rules being written, the grammar of film being created. Murnau, Dreyer and Sjöström I love, as well as many of the Ufa films created in the 20’s. Most of my films (all of them?) are in some way love letters to the silent era. I love directors and animators who take complete control of their film world; Svankmajer, Trnka, the Quays, Maddin, Lynch, Fellini. I love the great masters of time and landscape–Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Sokurov, Lopushansky. I remain a huge Woody Allen fan, despite the rough years. I love the group of truly modern filmmakers who have really got to grips with the digital realm; Jonze, Gondry, Glazer, Taymor. And I love Lars von Trier–he is, and I never use this word, a genius. I could go on for hours. Oh, and Bob Fosse–my favourite film is All That Jazz. Oh, and Michael Powell.
Okay, that will do.
This interview appeared in a slightly different form on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Vanguard Program Blog. Carol Borden was also fortunate enough to talk to Peter Strickland, director of Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio and his newest film, The Duke of Burgundy. You can read that interview here and see some of her initial thoughts about The Duke of Burgundy here.
I especially liked the questions you asked about mixed mediums and blending styles. It’s both interesting and useful to construct the combination of the fantastic with the naturalistic as an exploration of the parallel narrative of our fantasy lives.
Thank you. I tried very hard to balance my interest in media, genre and our internal/fantasy lives with actually asking productive questions that might be of interest to him and to readers.