In the middle of grey, urban Borough the American-born identical twins and animators extraordinaire have transformed an industrial unit into an enchanted fairytale world, a delightful jumble of trinkets and quaint objects where antique clocks chime the hour and classical music plays softly in the background. This is where Timothy and Stephen Quay have been creating their astonishing animation work for over twenty years, including their darkly inventive short Street of Crocodiles (1986) and their feature debut Institute Benjamenta (1995). In 2005 they released their second feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. A surreal fantasy bathed in rich golden hues, it tells of a mad inventor who kidnaps an opera singer and takes her to his island to recreate her last performance. In preparation for the concert, he hires piano tuner Felisberto to ‘tune’ his fanciful, monstrous automata.
In an interview conducted in 2005 the Brothers talked to Virginie Sélavy about dream states, Cameroonian ants, Argentine literature and the frustrations that come from being under pressure to make a more accessible film. Their uncanny habit of talking both at once and finishing each other’s sentences made it impossible to disentangle their respective contributions, which is why they are presented here as one voice.
Virginie Sélavy:The Piano Tuner is only your second feature. Why did it take you ten years to make another one after Institute Benjamenta?
Brothers Quay: It took that long to get it off the ground. We went straight from Benjamenta to writing the script for this. We got development money right away from Channel 4 and within a year it was written but they just rejected it outright. They said it wasn’t accessible.
But they’d seen Institute Benjamenta…
Yeah, well, they weren’t that crazy about that either… Benjamenta was started under somebody else and when David Aukin [Head of Film at Channel 4] arrived on the scene and was handed the film he didn’t like it at all. But then Terry Gilliam came on board six or seven years later as executive producer and immediately the French and the Germans put money down.
What’s your relationship with Gilliam?
We’ve known him for eighteen years. He’d seen some of our theatre work and he came to meet us and since then we’ve always been in contact. We did some preliminary designs for some of the monster creatures in Brothers Grimm – but of course they got chucked in the bin… We worked on some of his commercials. He’s on your side by his instincts. He just gets bigger money than us! (laughs)
Why do you think he’s seen as more accessible than you?
Well, he goes out and battles Hollywood, like for Brazil when he took out full-page ads and things like that. We wouldn’t do that. We’d just write a little note in The Guardian – or a postcard! (laughs) You have to be philosophical about it. So-called traditional narrative isn’t a huge obsession with us.
Yes, I can see that…
Although we both feel that The Piano Tuner is a compromise of some sort because the brief was to be more narrative and more accessible when the Film Council came on board. And I think it suffers because the script wasn’t written that way. They tried to get the film into a position where it could be shown in forty cinemas. And of course we knew perfectly well that it was impossible. But the sad thing was that the French and the Germans were on board first and they had approved the script as had the Japanese; and the Film Council came on board because the French, the Germans and the Japanese were already there and then decided to tweak the script. We had a lot of interference from everybody. Everybody had their own idea what the film should be.
So it hasn’t been an entirely positive experience.
No, not at all. It’s been a very unhappy experience. Not like Benjamenta, which might be a bit long, OK, but we made the film that we wanted to make. With this one there was a lot of pressure and it’s not something we’re used to handling. Nobody expects anything from animation so they leave you alone – if you want to get down on your hands and knees and move the camera, go ahead, who cares? (laughs)
Although there is no traditional narrative in Benjamenta, I felt that the story went from one place to another. I thought there was less of a sense of direction in Piano Tuner.
Oh, really? Other people have said that Piano Tuner is more narrative. It’s interesting you should say that because with Piano Tuner we were feeling that we were trying to hit certain narrative points which everybody felt were there in the script and therefore should be maintained. But with Benjamenta we didn’t have that, we were sort of cruising very quietly below the surface, like a submarine emitting its bleeps as it moves along. We were very true to Robert Walser [on whose novel the film was based] in that sense. It was sort of a quiet, zero land and we liked that. It allowed so much to be smuggled into the film. But we couldn’t smuggle anything into Piano Tuner because in the end it just got cut.
The subtitle of Benjamenta is ‘This Dream That People Call Human Life’. Could it be applied to Piano Tuner too?
Yes, because in a sense the starting point for this was… do you know the Museum of Jurassic Technology out in Los Angeles? It’s this quirky little museum run by a guy called David Wilson. When you enter and you see all the exhibits you have this eerie feeling that not everything is as it should be. There’s a fine line between is it fiction or is it genuine documentary evidence that he is producing. And one of these things was the Cameroonian stink ant that inhales spores [which infect its brain and cause its behaviour to change] and we used that in the film as an allegory of madness. That anecdote was really the starting point of the film. And we also used the idea of that famous Magritte painting Empire of Light, where in the sky it’s daylight and if you pan down it’s dark. We were interested in that sort of simultaneous in-between world. I think we might have aimed too high for what we wanted and didn’t pull it off, but these were the sort of things that we were using as framing devices for the story. That and South American literature, magic realism, which also adds confusion to everyone’s vision within the film.
Was The Invention of Morel an influence?
Yeah, it was very important. We couldn’t get the rights for it. We actually wrote to Adolfo Bioy Casares and he said, ‘sure, you can have it’, and then he wrote back a day later and he said, ‘I forgot, I gave it to somebody else’. (laughs) We found out that this guy, some Argentinean in Paris who’s had it for thirteen years, never got it off the ground but keeps renewing the rights. So Alan [Passes, co-writer of Piano Tuner]and the two of us said, well, let’s just work around the themes a little bit. So all you really have is the island, the tide, elements like that.
I thought you also kept the idea of people being replaced by their images and living this kind of eternal but illusory, disembodied life.
Yes, exactly. Perpetuum mobile almost, because at the very end the character in The Invention of Morel asks that if anybody should invent a machine capable of reuniting their images, they help him enter into Faustine’s consciousness, which is a little bit what the Felisberto character is attempting at the end of Piano Tuner. He claims to have succeeded – he says, ‘we’re together, buried among the rocks’. In his imagination at least he’s done it. The Invention of Morel was actually a homage to Louise Brooks – Faustine really is Louise Brooks. Bioy Casares was fascinated by her.
And there’s also the character of the mad inventor.
Yes, I think he features less in The Invention of Morel, he’s more like a shadow figure.
Why is the film called The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes?
It was the idea of a character who could hear at the most incremental level. Our whole idea of the Felisberto character was that he should be a kind of medium and earthquakes seem to follow him. At one point Dr Droz says something like: ‘do they follow you on a leash, like a dog?’ Droz wants to have a theatrical earthquake on stage as the showpiece of his opera and Felisberto sabotages it by pulling off a real earthquake. It probably doesn’t quite come off, it’s too abstract, we would have needed much more time at the end.
How did you create the visuals for the film?
We made designs for everything. The whole thing was built. The forest was there, the rocks, the bench, but there was no sea, that was just a blue screen. Actually there was water, but it was more like a giant puddle… (laughs) It was all built up to about one floor and then our model work was grafted and the sky dropped in. We built the whole landscape out of Portuguese cork.
Cork? Why cork?
It makes the best rocks. It’s what’s used for reptiles in museums. All the pet places buy cork for the animals, which is why when we tried to order a few slabs of cork we were told ‘minimum order is 100 kilos!’ (laughs) This giant sled came and we used it all. In fact we had to use another one. We wanted a sort of volcanic island and it gave that beautiful texture.
How do you work together?
We both build the sets, so one’s building the left wall and the other’s building the right wall for instance. You make a list and you say OK, we’ve got to build this, this, this, this, you start on this and I’ll start on that. And you’re always cross-fertilizing so it grows very organically. We don’t bring in other people to help, we don’t have a team of six people doing the mountains. We use one sidekick who helps gear up things technically sometimes but he’s really just a drinking partner… (laughs)
Do you ever disagree?
Oh yes, of course!
How do you sort it out?
Well, you have a firm argument. But also if we’re shooting something, we shoot it both ways, we shoot his version and my version and you decide on the editing table – you’re always much clearer at that stage. You just try things out. But we’re bound to have differences.
And how do you work with your writer, Alan Passes?
The three of us have always worked out the story together. For Benjamenta we’d meet every single day for three or four hours and hammer it out. But sometimes he feels he’s not part of this because the producers never consider the writer as being on board, he’s just invisible to them. Alan is a novelist, he has a novelist’s vision, a broader vision. We have an instinct for the sort of visual world that we want and the way the dialogue should be shaped. So he’ll contribute dialogue but he’ll also listen to our sense of dialogue. It’s a genuine rapport.
But also, I know that some people have said that in Piano Tuner it is as though the characters are speaking in code. Well, for us it’s important that people speak in code and that nobody speaks directly, like, ‘so, would you like a cup of tea?’ and someone responds ‘yes, I’d like a cup of tea’, ‘well, what kind do you want?’ That’s irrelevant to us. When Assumpta goes around Felisberto in the forest and says, ‘shut your eyes’, imagination is at work, and she’s challenged by it as is he. That’s why he says at one point: ‘I like living in somebody else’s imagination’. Things like that are important for us. But if you aim too hard at the state of the dream you can fall flat on your face because you have nowhere else to go. If you start in a more humdrum way, like Buñuel would, and then suddenly the dream erupts violently, it really stands out and it’s powerful. I think we may have misjudged on this one. We did try to aim fairly high right away to get into a nebulous dream state but people might just tire that there’s never a let-up, you never really come down and say, ‘come on, when is someone going to say something normal?’ (laughs) But we’re just fascinated by this kind of dialogue. In Tod Browning’s Freaks there is that amazing sequence when Randian, the guy with no arms and legs, is talking to someone, and you see him take out a box of matches and his tongue takes out a match, closes the box, does that little rotation, then strikes the match. The whole time they’ve had a dialogue and you don’t listen to any of it because you’re so compelled by what you’re seeing… (laughs)
Was Freaks an influence on the film?
No, not really, but it’s just fascinating that the visuals are so compelling. They could just be talking about the most banal things, which is what the guy is basically doing. But in our case we didn’t want to do that… because we didn’t have a character with no arms and legs… (laughs)
But there is an element of the grotesque in your film too, you have the automata, which are those bizarre part-human, part-machine constructions.
The idea with the automata was that there would be a contamination, that they really did infect people’s lives, that there would be a genuine contamination of elements. We wanted more automata but they said, ‘we’re paying all these actors, why don’t you use some of the actors?’ We were told, no excess of animation or automata, just keep the story moving along…
How you would describe your film to someone who has no idea about what you do?
Somebody wrote to us saying they thought it best that you should just wake up as it’s playing and then you fall back to sleep again and then wake up again and you just sort of drift in and out and in that way you would attain a better sense of consciousness about the film… So far it’s been misnamed as Gothic, no way is it Gothic, Gothic is better represented by Tim Burton. For us, a Baroque sensibility, or a mannerist sensibility in the best sense, is something we feel much closer to. The Baroque deals with the cryptic and the infinite and that speaks to us much more.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy