The Epic of Gilgamesh


This interview was conducted on the 20th of October 2001 at L’Auberge des Acacias, in Montreal, Québec, and transcribed by André Habib.

“We want to make a world that is seen through a dirty plane of glass.”

“That’s the question nobody’s ever asked us: ‘What are you doing?!’ or ‘What are you doing to us?’”

– Stephen and Timothy Quay

This conversation with Stephen and Timothy Quay was recorded in October 2001 on the fringes of three separate events. The Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal was hosting a complete retrospective of their films; the New Film and Media Festival was screening their latest dance video The Sandman (2001) based on Hoffmann’s tale; and the Grands Ballets Canadiens was staging a production of Tchaikovksy’s ballet The Queen of Spades for which they had been commissioned to make a series of video projected stage décors. In the midst of this tight schedule the two brothers found time for this rare and precious interview which illuminates not only their craft and artistic endeavors but also their generosity, their humor, and the breadth of their curiosity. (2)

Capturing an extended period of time with filmmakers Timothy and Stephen Quay – discussing literature, film, music, dance, light – is something like weaving a thread à trois. You never really know which of the two begins, which one fills the silence, which one, in the end, answered the question. In this hollow, hidden area that speech opens up, in the underlying music that streams through their words, lies a collection of orchestrated gestures, a distant echo of the miniature marvels that they have patiently struggled to release. From their stumbling upon the term ‘Kafkaesque’ in 1968 to the ferocious beauty of their film In Absentia (2000), the Quays have never stopped sketching out in their minds or with their lenses the blurred signs and lines of otherness. If literature – very often Eastern European literature – is a source for their films (Street of Crocodiles [1986], The Comb [1990], Institute Benjamenta [1995]), all their animation and fiction works strive to extract from objects the secret music, the intimate dance, the unnerving poetry that lies within.

Their films in recent years have confused the boundaries between live action and animation and it seems that it is in this direction that the Quay Brothers have chosen to pursue their experiments. Aside from their films, the Quays have produced video clips, stage décors, advertisements, and dance videos. This multifaceted mode of expression can only in part explain their success. This success ultimately rests on the elusive power of their films, which have elicited the curiosity and admiration of animation directors, film students, visual artists, literary scholars, philosophers. It seems that all their films address a certain ‘plurality of margins’, precisely because they resist all forms of distinct classifications. They are, in other words, invitations for an intense journey, a walk through an unpolished looking-glass.

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Due to the particular nature of the interview with the Quay twins and their habit of finishing each other’s sentences it was virtually impossible to distinguish in any given response who was giving the answer. Answers have therefore been rendered as spoken by one person.

* * *

André Habib: I saw you last night during the screening of Alexander Sokurov’s film, Taurus (2001). I know you are both great admirers of his work. What did you think of this one?

Quay Bros: Ultimately, we would prefer Whispering Pages (1993), but this one is very beautiful. I was a little tired. I was drifting in and out, and so I felt a little like Lenin in the film. You know the feeling, when you don’t know what’s happening around you, there is this strange ballet of nurses and people whispering. It’s quite nice.

AH: I would like to know, to start out, what was the nature of your collaboration with the Grands Ballets Canadiens and, as a broader question, how do you consider the relationship between dance, choreography and your films, both in your animation and in your dance films?

Quays: The collaboration with the Canadian Ballet was hardly a collaboration. It was more or less an assignment from Kim [Brandstrup], the choreographer. I wish we had been able to be in Montreal during the projection, to adjust the technical side. We arrived on the night before the premiere and things couldn’t be sorted out. We worked with Kim on trust, we’ve known him for 20 years. Unfortunately, nothing turned out the way it should have. I think there were a lot of politics involved. But it wouldn’t stop us from trying again.

Now for the larger question. For one, we are not dancers, we are not trained in any way. What we like is the way the camera can become a subjective other character. It’s by watching dance that you realize that a world can be expressed through gesture, décor (like the silent cinema), music, or a look. You have to read, to interpret, the ballet – since there’s no dialogue – and that fascinates us. The way a choreographer deals with abstract space is very exciting. There is a lot to learn from that.

AH: I was reading the other night Heinrich Kleist’s essay on the Theatre of Marionettes and it made me think of the relationship between puppets and dancers, between puppetry and dancing. Do you believe, like Kleist does, that a puppet – since its movements are void of self-consciousness – can have more grace than a dancer?

Quays: Certainly not. It’s of a different kind. I don’t think you can ever compete with the human body, the way a dancer can. But I think a puppet can achieve other things, on a more symbolic level. You would never make your puppets work the way a dancer can and we wouldn’t begin to attempt it. It’s a sort of empty virtuosity, even to begin. It’s important to watch what a dancer can do. The girl in The Sandman, who plays the nurse, was magnificent. And to be there, not in a theatre, but right there with them is very nice.

AH: In Absentia deals with madness, with seclusion. It made me wonder if, in a way, madness was a constant theme, or an approach that could be used to look at many of your films – as a sort of subjective ‘other reality’?

Quays: Maybe that was what we were trying to make all along. (laughs) When we made The Epic of Gilgamesh (aka This Unnameable Little Broom, 1985), the character of Gilgamesh was based on some images from a mad painter Heinrich Anton Muller, a Swiss. We dedicated the film to three ‘alien’ artists. After that, we got frightened and took the credit off. Maybe the film wasn’t mad enough. But all along it’s been a subject that has always fascinated us. I think also the music of Stockhausen, in In Absentia, released that madness. We found the right universe to release madness, or at least to approach that kind of subject. In other films, the music could never locate that madness. It located something else, but not madness. It created a sort of otherness, in things and characters. It located solitude, not madness. Whereas the Stockhausen music was so ferocious, and created such a fresco, a full assault. In that sense the music is subjective, it’s almost like it’s the sound of her universe, inside her head, fighting, like a pure psychic pressure, pushing her into this obsession of writing again and again: “come darling, come sweetheart.”

In Absentia

AH: After having seen your films, it’s funny how daily gestures become different. Objects and gestures – holding a pen, turning a screw, sawdust – become animated with beauty. It’s as if one begins to realize a “secret order of things”. It seems that your films reveal just that, a subjectivity from within an objective system.

Quays: Yes, exactly. Can we use that? (laughs)

AH: I was also reading Bruno Schulz’s Treatise on Mannequins. It seemed as though Schulz had seen all your films.

Quays: We saw all of his films, rather! (laughs) It’s as if he wrote the secret scenario for the films. I remember when we first read Schulz. The BFI was demanding that we hang our new film on an author, and we proposed Schulz right away. It was such a challenge, since we had been reading his work and we thought that this was the direction we really wanted to go with the puppets. We had to sort of grab them, and not be fearless, not be afraid of the puppets. Schulz in a way liberated us. He’s such a powerful writer. We could make films around Bruno Schulz for the rest of our lives and still try and grasp, apprehend his universe.

AH: His aesthetic program is very close to your films.

Quays: He’s been the secret catalyst of our work. Even when we did the Robert Walser adaptation (Institute Benjamenta), the Swiss lawyer who had all the rights for his work said to us: “you must do to Robert Walser what you did with Schulz.” It’s wonderful a lawyer would say that.

AH: Another secret influence for your work is Franz Kafka, who introduced you to what you called, in an interview, a “reservoir of psychosis”. Have you every thought of adapting his novels or his stories? Are there films of yours that are secret adaptations of Kafka?

Quays: I think it’s more of a milieu. We could never be specific because we never had a commission proposed to us. Actually, we did, once. We did an early film that was never shown. The producer didn’t clear the rights to the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, so we couldn’t show the film. Our approach to Kafka was always informed by what we discovered first: the Diary. And what utterly fascinated us was the incompleteness, the fragmentary quality of his writing. Almost like the wash of an idea, or a theme which he gave up on. We’ve always felt that in those fragments there was a constellation which was vibrating, that it was complete in its incompleteness. You didn’t really have to know more, because you felt you had scraped a bit of life away and the texture was there. I think – although we’ve never really been able to do a fully-fledged Kafka story – that he’s always there, like Schulz, who knew Kafka as well. They were only born a couple of years apart.

AH: If you take Walser, Kafka, and Schulz. All three of them have this epistolary, diary form of writing.

Quays: It’s a very intimate kind of approach. And that’s what we like about them. They don’t try and write too hugely, which would intimidate us. (short silence)

When you think about it, on one day in Prague, on a street corner, you could’ve had Schulz coming down on one side of the street, Walser coming down on the other, and Kafka already standing there. And of course they would just pass insignificantly. Imagine if somebody had caught them on camera. Slightly out of focus since that person would’ve been photographing something else, like the Clock. (laughs).

In a way, one’s reading is totally disorganized, there’s never direct relationships, but there are things you discover over years. All of a sudden you realize that your constellation has a certain consistency. In its randomness, you actually bring things together. (silence) They could’ve asked each other for directions. To be lost in Prague. “I’m lost, me too…”

AH: It’s interesting to me that all these authors were not fully-fledged authors. They were devoted to writing of course, but writing was not their job. I think this also adds to that sense of intimacy. In a sense, it’s as if they were writing for themselves.

Quays: Kafka had his 9 to 5 job, he worked 6 hours in an office; Schulz taught in a school. I think Walser tried to be a writer, but he had done all sorts of odd jobs from waiter to banker.

AH: This also hints to that special intimacy, that unheimliche, that strange familiarity, that uncanny that Freud talks about, which makes me think of your adaptation of Hoffman’s tale, and the fact that Freud – in his text on the uncanny – talks precisely about Hoffman’s Sandman. Was it done on purpose?

Quays: No. Actually, we are not that interested in psychology, unless its pathology, fetishism. It’s the aberration which takes you on the journey away from the main street. You go down the side-alley, or you descend into the cellar, or into the attic…

AH: Into that 13th month…

Quays: That is precisely the greatest metaphor for us. It’s this 13th freak month. It’s everything that animation embodies and where its greatest freedom lies. Creating a realm, a universe that is totally self-sufficient in its freakiness.

AH: On the question of self-sufficiency, I was wondering if you consider your films to be self-sufficient. All of your films, it seems, complement each other. We could even see Institute Benjamenta as a ‘Quay illustrated guidebook’. You have anamorphic painting, scissors, and even images taken directly from The Comb and Stille Nacht (1992).

Quays: The reason for this is that, immediately after Street of Crocodiles, we wrote the script for Institute Benjamenta. We then waited almost 8 years to film it. And in between time, we kept making little sketches, like the Stille Nacht series, as scenes that could potentially be in Benjamenta. The Comb was entirely devoted to some initial ideas about how we wanted to deal with Lisa Benjamenta and puppets, thinking that we might combine them. In the end we rejected that idea. It at least gave us a chance to sketch it out. We knew about anamorphosis beforehand, before doing the documentary, it simply made things click. In a way, we’re sketching out all the time.

AH: Do all these objects in your films have a symbolic, metaphorical meaning or do you see them more as poetic, textural, musical objects?

Quays: They’re all of that at the same time. They are distinct emblems, things that seemed to belong to that universe. Their initial banality allows them to be fulfilled, to take on another life, to free themselves of their own geographies.

In Stille Nacht III, for instance. At the time, we were doing a lot of research for Benjamenta, and we came upon some books on deer antlers. We got interested in this phenomenon of antlers deviating, in other words, when it’s not a perfect mirror-image. One antler is beautiful, and the other is defective. It’s a sort of aberration. This is due to a simple fact. When the deer is in a forest and it hears a gun shot, it turns to run, and when a bullet hits its testicles, this is what makes the antler deviate. They become prize-trophies for people who collect deer antlers. And we read more and more, and discovered more books and footnotes about those things. This is what we decided we were going to do Stille Nacht about: like a scene, a little footnote about deer.

The idea of a false documentary is interesting. That’s what we would really like to do, something along the lines of a Borgesian tale. You would go into a museum at night and the museum would re-enact its own history, exhibits would be cross-fertilizing one another.

AH: During the retrospective, a lot of people will be seeing your films for the first time projected on a large screen, since most will have seen your films on video or DVD. Do you think it’s a different experience seeing them in this way, that the meaning changes?

Quays: When you look at puppets on a TV set, you quantify the puppet as a puppet. It is six inches high, even smaller. When it goes up on a big screen, you violate the scale but then you’re suddenly winning because the puppet takes a human scale, even larger. On a large screen, an object seen in a close-up is disorienting, and it’s very powerful and beautiful. You can rub the people’s faces into that object even more. You see a pencil point, or a knuckle, and it surprises you. It’s like in the Sokurov film, yesterday, Lenin’s skull, the grain of the print. You can almost taste it.

AH: I was thinking of Samuel Beckett who, in his films for television, often plays with the idea of boxes. I mean, the TV set becomes a replica of the set of the film. In your films, there is also this system of boxes opening and closing, and I was wondering if that had to do, on some level, with the television box. In other words, were your films initially done for television projection or for a larger projection?

Quays: We had the illusion that we were doing them for the cinema, although they end up invariably on video and television. The first time Street of Crocodiles was projected, I wasn’t impressed at first, but the first time In Absentia was projected on a big screen, in Cologne, that was the first time I was very impressed with a projection.

AH: In Absentia is projected in Scope, isn’t it?

Quays: Yes. You know, it would be interesting to project Crocodiles in Scope, just for the sheer scale and the pleasure of stretching it. It’s a film in which you should feel that everything is really larger than life. It should feel just like a Western. (laughs)

Street of Crocodiles

AH: Your films are often placed in affiliation with the works of Czech and Russian animators, Jirí Trnka, Jan Svankmayer, and others. It seems nonetheless that your films explore cinematography almost as much as animation. For me, this is in part what gives them their specificity.

Quays: We want to make a world that is seen through a dirty plane of glass. Of course, it’s not really powerfully shot and clear. You can’t exactly get at it because it is elusive. The question of focusing is also central because when you’re working with such a big lens, and you’re focusing up on a detail, everything wacks out, no lens can handle that kind of range of detail. We saw that as a plus. The landscape of what is in focus and out of focus forces you to concentrate on a detail. As we got more experienced with films, we got more and more careful. We try and create universes in which we constantly ask ourselves how much we really want to show and how much we want to leave in the dark.

AH: But the dark (i.e. what is out of focus) is just as crucial in your films. It also has meaning.

Quays: Yes, the negative spaces can become positive spaces.

AH: A lot of people who are not experts in animation are fascinated by your films. Painters, literary scholars, philosophers, film students. Not many animators benefit from such a wide interest. Why do you think that is?

Quays: That’s because we’re not funny, they think there must be some meaning there! (laughs) If we had a puppet which had a grin maybe it would help.

Although we grew up living off Disney, we instinctively knew that that was not the route to take. I guess that we wanted to take puppets elsewhere. For us, real marionettes, string marionettes, produced those moments of otherness, they created a spell, something very unnerving, disquieting. They have such an inner life to them. Especially when they don’t talk. Although I know it can be done well – I think it’s wrong to have a puppet talking with a real actor’s voice. Not that you can’t do it, but it’s demeaning, it doesn’t release the puppet’s universe, it enslaves the puppet to a voice, it tries to make it overly accessible, cute and friendly. What we’re trying to do is release their strangeness. We’re not saying that we’ve done it yet, but that’s what we’re trying for: to try and discover what it can give. In the end we just keep saying: “I hope we can make more films, try more things out”.

AH: Do you get a chance to experiment a lot in your studios?

Quays: Not enough. We do it under fire. If you get a project, you do it. The commission side is limited. For five years we didn’t do any films, after Benjamenta. Then we did three in a row. Two ballets – Duet (2000) and The Sandman – and In Absentia, and a host of commercials.

AH: But Benjamenta was shown. The film won prizes. In North America at least it was widely distributed, on VHS and DVD. Why did you have so much trouble afterwards?

Quays: Benjamenta was a nail in the coffin for us. It closed doors. Although In Absentia was commissioned by the BBC. They approached us. We hadn’t even applied for it. They came and asked us if we wanted to work with music by Stockhausen. It was a lovely approach, and totally unexpected. But Channel Four has geared itself towards the ratings game, towards series and accessible animation that can go out at Prime Time, and we were cut out. It’s a shame. It used to be that there was a division between the serious animation, and the accessible, children animation. Channel Four set a great precedent during the early ’80s.

AH: Have you thought of approaching people in France to finance your films?

Quays: We’ve tried to get things off the ground. But they have their own people to fund. Why would they fund two guys like us?

AH: Because what you do is fantastic?

Quays: We may have a better chance now, it’s true. Benjamenta was shown in Paris, in a theatre. The French have actually put up some money towards the new feature. In England, they haven’t even presented our films on DVD. Maybe there’s hope with the French after all. In France, they’re doing so much work now, they’re putting England to shame. During the animation program at the Festival (The New Film and Media Festival) – the one in which The Sandman was showing – all the French animation films were 20 minutes long. That’s a length you couldn’t do in England. It’s too short or it’s not long enough. They’re only interested in 5 minute-films and films by young directors.

AH: How do you see, in your own work, the role of fiction films and experimental films?

Quays: We like to go to animation festivals but we prefer this kind of Festival. We’re interested in plurality, like Sokurov. This plurality of margins.

AH: Your films talk to us in that way, they hit precisely that chord. They also remind me of Walter Benjamin’s work.

Quays: Benjamin is approached – in England – from a highbrow, intimidating perspective. When we read his Reflections, his texts on postage stamp collections, on his library, it released a world to us. This is a man who knew about Kafka, Walser. In the same way Gaston Bachelard does, he opens these little cupboards. We love those works, and now they don’t intimidate us as much.

AH: The whole Benjaminian idea of the rag-picker seems to be very close to your work.

Quays: Yes. The weaver, the historian of lost moments.

AH: Are you willing to talk about Sparklehorse (2002), your most recent film?

Quays: Just see it. It’s a silly piece, but it has something.

AH: How does your collaboration with musicians take place, with Leszek Jankowski for instance, who did the music for many of your films, like Street of Crocodiles?

Quays: Leszek Jankowski is Polish and he speaks very little English. And we don’t speak any Polish. For Crocodiles, we sort of asked him to surprise us and a cassette came a couple of months later. And we said: “surprise us a second time”, and he sent us another tape. We then asked him if he could give us the sound of a guy whistling and a voice-over narrating the text of Schulz that we hear at the end of the film. He actually spoke it himself.

AH: How was Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988) done?

Quays: Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies was intended to be Three Scenes of Kafka. The project didn’t go through. But Leszek had written the music for Three Scenes from Kafka, music that can work for anybody. And in the end we shifted it to make Rehearsals. It arrived to us in three suites. As for The Comb, it was a gift. We were visiting Poland, touring the films with Leszek and a translator. He just gave us this cassette, and we made The Comb.

AH: As for Benjamenta?

Quays: For Benjamenta, we asked Leszek for a children’s chorus. For Crocodiles and all the others, he hadn’t seen an image. He saw the films when we went to Poland. The only film on which we collaborated a little bit was Benjamenta. He knew the script, and he clearly wrote for certain scenes, although he didn’t tell us which ones. We positioned things as we wished. We wrote a script for a new film, a feature film. We wrote a lot to Leszek, and he wrote us 68 minutes of music. So far, nobody has subsidized it. So in a way, the music is there. He’s frustrated that nothing is happening; we’re frustrating and we feel bad. And we haven’t had the chance to commission anything else from him.

AH: Do you basically lay out the music and build your film around it?

Quays: We always have a loose scenario, a through-line scenario. Once the film gets going, we start building the décors, we redivide the scenario, we start to really listen to the music. And the film grows, in that way, organically. We shoot the film, and it comes back the next morning. We lay it up against the score, and we see if it’s working. If it isn’t working, we shoot it again. It sort of goes all the way down like that. It was like that with the Stockhausen piece especially. We could barely work more then 10 seconds at a time. The music was so ferocious. We said: “Let’s just do a little a day.” It provoked us. In fact, we much prefer to obey musical laws because it’s not logical. You can’t print logic on music; it’s outside of that. I know it can alienate people but others will go with it and if you go with it, you’ll discover something. If you resist it, the films will fail for you, and they’ll fail precisely if you keep asking: “What’s it about?”

This is our way of working and a choreographer does the same thing. You work to the music. It’s much more corporeal, sensual, with a dancer or a puppet. You feel the music in things themselves. Stockhausen said, about the piece that you hear In Absentia, that the images are the music. We always felt that with Leszek’s music: you hear the images, and you see the music. There’s that sort of infiltration. Cinematic music works best when that happens. You sort of know it when you can feel it. The music feels like it is inside the image.

In Absentia

AH: In a sense the music is produced by the object, and it produces the object.

Quays: Yeah. It’s as if its secret inner music is what the objects are containing. It’s this inner music that we want to release. We have all these cassettes of Radio Moscow that we taped off the radio, and we play them occasionally. They create their own spell, with all that static and interference coming over. We put them in Stille Nacht, and in Crocodiles also, there’s a passage. We found out much later, through a Russian friends of ours, that it was a Russian actress speaking. It was a Russian radio drama and the music was done by a Russian composer who lives in Uzbekistan, who wrote these exotic, kitsch pieces. The voice and the static opened up this world. We always thought it was the voice of Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz’s city. It’s actually Muzak.

We once saw on opera based on texts by Schulz. It was too professional. Schulz would not have wanted a proper orchestra. It would’ve been a two-bit orchestra, with children playing, with their dirty clothes and dirty nails. There is that tendency in Eastern Europe. Leszek studied music and ethnology, and what always fascinated him was folk music, small ensembles, gypsy music in Poland. And when he would record his music, he would place the microphones so close to the musicians, that you could hear their fingernails, and the dirt under the nails almost, playing the guitar or the violin. We liked that. We thought that there was a texture about them that wasn’t too cleaned up. The recording studio was in Mono, it wasn’t Dolby stereo. In Benjamenta we were very proud to say ‘Mono’. On the other hand, when you hear Sokurov, and you hear the way he uses Dolby. Dolby is so good for subtlety, not for big effects, for whispers, rumours. These whispers are so suggestive. We would love to work in Dolby in that way.

AH: On Stille Nacht the grain of the record is also very powerful.

Quays: It’s actually the static from the radio.

AH: It actually sounds like a record. In any case it’s part of that world.

Quays: It’s that little glint, that privileged look into a keyhole, and realizing suddenly that there’s this little universe that’s probably suffering and barely breathing, but it’s pulsating, vibrating, with its own life. That in itself is a metaphor of the universe. You can widen the metaphor to political systems, to what’s happening in Afghanistan. You can really say this. There are these people who’ve been barely breathing, and now, suddenly, the lights are glaring on them. We’re suddenly aware they exist.

AH: The metaphors in your films are universal in that sense, although they are very much imbedded within an Eastern European sensibility. They have a certain quality of silence, of Russian silence one could say. But they also hit on something that can touch everyone. They can be used or thought about in many contexts: poverty, hunger, madness, solitude.

Quays: In a way we discovered Eastern Europe through Kafka, who wrote in the ’20s. He wrote his diary between 1910 and 1924. Of course, when we first visited Prague, in 1983, we said: “This is Kafka’s Prague”. Yet, when we were there we also realized that, at the same time, it wasn’t Kafka’s Prague. It was another Prague. Essentially, at the time, he was suppressed. You couldn’t find his books during the communist regime. There was this statue, on the corner of the street. Someone had graffitied ‘100 years’ on it. Revealing that in 1983 – Kafka was born in 1883 – the Czechs were not celebrating his 100th anniversary (although people knew about Kafka). I thought it was a wonderful coup de theatre. And the same thing goes for Schulz, who was suppressed at the time.

AH: Don’t you think, nonetheless, that an institutional Kafka would betray his work?

Quays: Clearly.

AH: I couldn’t imagine Kafka, although he would deserve it more than anyone else, receiving a Nobel Prize. Something wouldn’t work.

Quays: Imagine Robert Walser receiving a prize from an Academy, with the collars and all. It just wouldn’t work. You have to deserve it. (laughs)

AH: There’s an idea of the minor, of the margins, which is an essential part of their work, and that somehow must be maintained in order to maintain the power of the writing.

Quays: It’s true. In a sense Sokurov films are ideal for Festival situations. In London, they play in one of the arthouse cinemas. They don’t do very well but at least it’s there.

AH: As long as they’re there.

Quays: Yes. And then you meet the people who have heard of him, who want to understand his films. You can reject it but you have to submit yourself. I think it’s marvellous the way he forces you to submit to his universe. Or Béla Tarr. Satantango (1994) was shown during a retrospective in London. It does last 7 hours.

AH: Do you work differently when you adapt a story or a novel? Does your method change?

Quays: When you’re reading, as you’re discovering something, your brain is also asking: “can this be made cinematic, in a parallel way”. Can you take what Walser has given in his writing and make a parallel universe? Can you free the text from its literary side and yet make an equivalent universe in its visual, aural side. It’s a quiet homage to the author and then it becomes a very personal homage to the author. You realize, only at the end, that you were putting it out, out there. And you hope that the Bruno Schulz estate doesn’t get mad. It’s like people adapting Proust. You simply have to do it. In ballet or in music it’s the same thing. Janacek wrote House of the Dead based on Dostoyevsky and it’s a natural thing. You have to feel something very deep about what you’re adapting. It’s above all an intimate thing. You’re releasing it for yourself, to discover that universe and see what you can do with it.

AH: I read Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles after having seen your film. It’s funny how Schulz’s text works like a map on which you placed different elements.

Quays: In fact, we took a lot of elements from different stories and sort of pulled it together. We gave the story a theatrical dimension gleaning a lot of other things from Schulz, and even other things which we thought were Schulzianesque, which we thought would work in terms of a Schulzian universe. He didn’t have to write about such and such, it’s all blurred. We’re not sure what belonged to us and what was in the texts.

Many years later you say: “We knew about that all along”. It’s a system where you grab something in your subconscious and hold on to it very tightly and that’s what you really operate on. We’re very intuitive in the way we work, it’s very hands on. You’re building décors, working with your hands. Timothy is there. He starts on the left and we try and meet in the middle. And that’s how it organically grows. It’s a constant exploration. But deep down, all along, you have a deep inner scenario which is saying: “This would really work here and for this reason.” And the music is a pressure too. It’s give and take all along. You see now the confusion that we work from. (laughs) It’s usually just a blur all the time. There are these shooting impulses. We try and find a shape in what doesn’t seem to be taking shape too quickly.

AH: You have to find a way of working with ordered chaos. On a more technical level, do you use a lot of different film stock? For Benjamenta, for instance?

Quays: For Benjamenta we actually only used one. The lowest grain, Kodak black and white. The cameraman, Nic Knowland, experimented a lot. He pushed the timing so that it could handle a few stops over and a few stops under. It could grab all the highlights and the darks. He was wonderful to work with. He’s in our Bible for the rest of our lives. (laughs)

AH: Had you worked with him before?

Quays: No. We had always done our own camera. On Benjamenta, we couldn’t handle it. We never even pretended we could begin to handle it. We were afraid to choose the wrong person. Just who do you choose? Who would be sympathetic to our city, our universe? He got it right away. We knew he was our man straightaway, from the first days.

AH: Had he seen your films?

Quays: He had seen the cassettes. We had also interviewed a man who was Hitchcock’s cameraman for Frenzy (1972). And the real question we wanted to know was whether they could theatricalise certain elements of the film – rather than just cinematise them. The Hitchcock man said: “Why would you want to do that?” (laughs)

AH: I saw the DVD of Benjamenta on which you have a short ‘on the set’ documentary. The lighting set-ups look so simple.

Quays: I know. It was a real lesson to see how Nic lit it. It was so simply lit. He lit very quickly. But in between takes he was always tinkering.

AH: I was very touched by the saturated light scenes in Benjamenta where you see saturated whites in the back and in the front everything is black. That contrast is marvellous.

Quays: He came into a room one day and that room had three windows. He said: “we’ll shoot through the windows”. So we divided the scene accordingly. The actress was to open the windows. And when she was to come down to the foreground, to that last window, she was to get ‘nuked’ by the white light. Nic said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope the stock can take it. But let’s go for it.” He was always filming on the edge, between the blacks and the whites, and it was what the film needed.

Institute Benjamenta

AH: What do you think of Institute Benjamenta today?

Quays: Having seen Béla Tarr’s work, we should’ve either made the film three hours long and really steeped you in it or to have made it into a 60-minute film where you get the story and go through with it. It would have made a very different film. Now, it sits uncomfortably between being just boring – because it’s too long – and not long enough to take you into another universe. It’s like the opening scene in Satantango. It’s a 10-minute, one-take opening shot. But once you’ve accommodated to that rhythm you can ride for seven hours, it’s no problem. But you have to establish that at the beginning then you have to calm people down. They know what they’re in for. They’ll leave quite quickly probably, which is fine. But then you separate the boys from the grown men. (laughs)

AH: What motivated your passage from short animation to feature length fiction? Was it Robert Walser, the story itself? Was it something that you knew you were going to do at a certain point?

Quays: No, we didn’t. We would’ve been happy continuing doing shorts. One day our producer said: “Ever think about doing a feature?” Of course, we laughed it off. Then we began thinking that if we could make a chamber piece we’d feel comfortable, we wouldn’t be terrified of the experience. And at the time we were reading Walser. And we said: “this is the man.” I guess it’s like a musician planning on writing a symphony. Suddenly, the day comes where he says: “I can handle a symphony, instead of just chamber work.” We just thought we should go bigger, try something else, while knowing all along that it would never happen.

AH: Is that part of your pessimism?

Quays: Yeah. We didn’t believe anyone would bank on us or trust us on doing something a little bit larger. And there’s also the fact that we went into Benjamenta saying: “We mustn’t reject everything we learned in the puppet realm, we must bring this universe, and bring things together.” We didn’t want to play ball with the Hollywood approach to cinema. We wanted to do it our way, the way we think.

AH: You were able to transport into these films this dramaturgy of light that is in your puppet films, where light works almost as a character.

Quays: That was very crucial for us. The light was to work as the kind of soul of the film. We even wrote that into the script and we talked to Nic about it right from the start, stressing that the light is one of the main characters of the film. The goldfish bowl is the heart of the Institute. The light comes in there and everybody regroups around it. Even in that sequence with the upside down church. That was a set basically and we had it on the floor, trying to put up a big light, to nuke it basically. It was a total failure. We were sitting down and then suddenly the sun, which in our studio comes between two buildings, was just knifing through it. We just saw it going from the base, up along the wall, over the edge and we quickly turned the camera on and for three days we did that shot. Three times, with different second shootings. The first day, every three seconds we’d shoot; the second, every five seconds we’d shoot; the next, every seven seconds. And after that it was cloudy for a month. So, we were able to get it. It was like a gift of light from the Gods

AH: Isn’t it a paradox, to be using natural light in London?

Quays: It’s in fact so rare it has an urgency. (laughs) We did the same thing for In Absentia. We had this light and we sat there, with all these mirrors that we had set up. At the time I was even sleeping in the studio. We had these marks on the floor where we put the mirrors, exactly in that place, where the light would fall. The sun would come in from one window and slowly pass around to the next window where we had other mirrors and bounce onto all the mirrors back on the set. The most boring thing was those days when the sun would move very cleanly with no clouds in the sky. It was the days that we thought were too cloudy which worked the best. The clouds made the light dance. Some of the patterns were mad. A lighting cameraman could’ve never created anything like that. What nature gives is an invitation.

AH. There’s a mystique of light. It fits so marvellously with the rest of the film. I was also wondering if it was hard for you to direct actors? Do you consider that you have more freedom, or less freedom, when you’re working with puppets?

Quays: I think we did exactly what we’re doing with you. We sat down with them and talked. With Mark Rylance or Alice Krige, we sat down one to one in an intimate place. And you sort of say: “This is our ropy universe. This is the Institute.” And just talk with them. We hadn’t directed actors but we know how to talk with people. We knew they were very gifted and you just have to give them a few clues. We never said: “This is what we’d like.” We just sort of surrounded the subject and we captured what they’d do. Sometimes the nuance came from the actors. She (Alice) wasn’t too sure, she would ask for 13 takes. Mark would get it on the first take. She spent a lot of time exploring. Gottfried John could do everything on the first take (a genius that guy). In a way, for us, it was like this: Heir Benjamenta (Gottfried John) was the double-bass, Jakob (Mark Rylance) was the straight violin, Lisa (Alice Krige) was another instrument, and they all had their voices. And Kraus, we couldn’t get inside Kraus, but he was the perfect zero. That’s the side that we thought we could make work in telling a dark fairytale, from everything we had learned from the puppets. I think we’d do anything to work with actors again like that.

Working with Marlene Kaminsky for In Absentia was, on the other hand, very difficult since it wasn’t a role where you could sustain a character. The trouble was that we never showed her face. Her heart just fell when she found out. We only saw the back of her neck.

AH: For that reason it’s left more open, more anonymous, and it’s easier to project oneself.

Quays: Stockhausen even said that it was his mother. He just came to us afterwards and said: “How did you know?” And we replied: “Know what?” And he said “My mother…” It’s as if we had tapped into his psyche.

AH: Do you currently have things you’d like to work from?

Quays: We have a lot of scenarios, for a mixture of live action and animation. Again, given the chance we would go in that direction, another feature script. If only a neurotic tale came up, we’ve got the scenarios. Unfortunately, the only things coming up now are commercials.

AH: Insects on hockey rinks?

Quays: Yeah. Exactly.

AH: If you are going to get involved in something, I guess the notion of compromise… I mean, you would expect to compromise on certain commercial commissions but on your own stuff…

Quays: Yes. Because in those cases you know you have to satisfy a product. But the other thing is we prefer to be alone. For In Absentia, they just left us alone and we work best when we are left alone. In the same project for the BBC, Hal Hartley did a film, Werner Herzog did one on John Taverner, and Nicholas Roeg did one on Portishead. All four were screened on four successive nights.

AH: One last question maybe (if there is such a thing). Is there a question that nobody’s asked and that you secretly wanted someone to ask and that you were never asked?

Quays: (long silence) If we give an interview and we feel it isn’t going well, we try to steer the questions a little. We explain to them that this is the way we work, that we’re very intuitive, that we don’t come with a lot of intellectual baggage on a project, or in our approach to the world.

AH: Do you think people tend to over-read or over-interpret your films?

Quays: Yes, but it’s inevitable, it’s natural, since we don’t supply the answers. We don’t want to nail it down by saying: “This is a symbol of this.” Often, we don’t know. But it’s also the privilege of proposing or suggesting meaning on a level where you can bring in your own thoughts. I don’t know. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is… For example, a sequence which we’ve always been the happiest with, in Crocodiles, the scene when the strange machine makes a rhythmic sound. We thought that this rhythm sets off the whole film. Every 24 frames you had this sound. The whole film grows with this rhythm in the background. In the different windows, every object was working to that rhythm, that deep contaminative rhythm that maybe secretly rules the universe, with that kind of pulse. On top of that dark rhythm we would have the guy looking through the keyhole. We brought in the Drohobycz music. At first it was just this little wafting flute. You can barely hear it. Suddenly, the fragility of life, the sheer fragility of one little object, the dandelion, reassembles itself from its decimation and tries to reform, to come into focus. It becomes elusive, and we started it up again.

It was a scene that we hadn’t scripted but it grew, in the experiment of developing the scene. We’d get it back from the lab and say to each other: “I think we’re on to something.” Of course, you can’t tell the world. But, between us, we began to realize that there was uncharted material there. In this zone, in the 13th free month, these things happen. A guy will arrive on a street corner, look through a hole, and all these insignificant elements line up, all the perspectives align on that one moment. Maybe all of this is an ice-cube that melts and reforms in its hardness, in its iciness. Of course it’s a metaphoric realm, and I’m not sure we know what it is but you know deep down that there’s something there, trying to breath, to resuscitate, whether it’s the insect kingdom, or the molecular kingdom. It’s a Schulzian universe. It’s just one little moment, one little fragment from Kafka’s diary that gives the feeling of being a universe. It doesn’t have to be completed and have a beginning, a middle and end. It’s there, in its incompleteness, it’s struggling to come to life. We know now that animation can capture that. That’s what we’ve come to know with In Absentia. We were mixing animation, pixalation, live action and we were saying: “Who cares.” Nobody has to know. In the end it has to work as a film.


There you are. That’s the question nobody’s ever asked us: “What are you doing?!” or “What are you doing to us?” (laughs) In a way, of course, people often ask us about our journey. We grew up in Philadelphia, we left and went to New York. “Why did you go to New York?” I don’t know, it was a hunch. We read some Kafka, we read some Walser, we listened to Janacek. In Philadelphia, the first thing we saw, on our first day at the art college, was this amazing exhibition of Polish posters. It opened up a universe which was crucial for us. There was a poster there for Janacek’s House of the Dead. And it just went (in our minds): Janacek – House of the Dead – Dostoyevsky. Three constellations. And we immediately went: “Never heard of them!” And we continued from there. It just exploded for us, from footnote to the next, without a precise order. There’s a certain randomness which is the most exciting part about these discoveries. You can’t learn these at school because you’re meant to go logically from A to B. The accident is what we love. To be the hunter, the trapper, who goes out setting the traps for these little madnesses that do exist. They’re the openings through which maybe life is really working, coming through. In that little moment of randomness. Sometimes you sit and read a fragment from Schulz, Walser or Kafka… I remember one text by Walser, at the beginning of The Comb. It was an essay on freedom. Every time I read it, I just couldn’t understand it, it was elusive. And yet it set up a strange mystery. There are things that move you deeply because you can’t trap them down. They’re beautiful in their elusiveness.

When we’re asked, “How do we make a film?” I think music does it better. This notion of trying to pin things down in terms of: “What is the story about, what are you doing?” It doesn’t apply in music. In our films it’s the same thing. You don’t see the bird, you just hear the flap of the wings going off screen, or the shadow going across.

AH: It’s these little objects that encapsulate, in Schulzian terms, the “mystical consistency of matte”. These little insignificant objects have their own metaphysics.

Quays: We had another project around Schulz’s Sanatorium. We wanted to integrate some of his treatises. But how do you do that without sounding pretentious? They’re such great themes. And to think this was a guy working in a crappy little schoolhouse, teaching sewing and drawing to kids, living with his mom, desperate to have a vacation, and have more time to write.

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer

AH: In The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer you have this title board: METAPHYSICAL PLAYROOM: A TACTILE EXPERIMENT. Which brilliantly synthesises both the metaphysics and the sensible, which is so central to your films.

Quays: Yes, it’s like when Bruno writes that Street of Crocodiles is just a white area on the map. Schulz does that so beautifully. I think life can be apprehended in that way, if you’re alert, and wait for it. Deep down, I think we all want to live like that. We really want to look through the looking-glass and not come out, or get lost in the forest, and be pleasurably lost. Like in fairy-tales, when you lose the handrail.

AH: There’s excitement in that fear.

Quays: Yes. The fear, the disquiet, the malaise is a very subtle and disturbing thing which is also very real. We know that feeling. It’s very disturbing to think that, while you think you’re fine, there is something that is navigating deep inside you.

AH: So many of your films have the power of revealing, or maybe even inducing madness.


Quays: The BBC said that In Absentia failed the test for people who are sensitive to stroboscopic light. Fortunately it slid by.

AH: Do you read a lot of what people write about your work?

Quays: Sometimes, yes, because we learn things too. We’re not writers but we respect writing. I think people often take things too far. It’s very hard to write about the intangible, to find a way to write more musically. You have to suggest and not just hammer nails into a subject, give it a category, fit it into a nomenclature. We do it ourselves in a certain way, but you have to know when to hold back and let it speak for itself. Knowing how not to know, to a certain degree. We’re always amazed when we listen to musicians talking, or dancers. How do they know where their body is in space and what it’s doing. What are they feeling inside them? This is different from the actor, who is half the time working with his brain, thinking about the role. Dancers really are a unique species. We were talking about those things the other night with Kim Brandstrup and with some of the dancers. They can’t come out of their bodies and watch what their bodies are doing in terms of space, décor, music, because they’re attached to the whole picture. The picture is inside them, like a secret inner picture. And musicians have that too. I guess that ultimately the work we want to go for is like music. You just have to sense it, you don’t have to think it too much. You just have to sense it and just go with it because it will take you on a great journey and a very moving one. There is music you can just listen to again and again and you never tire of it. There is also music that is just for privileged moments.

AH: The Arvo Pärt piece you used for Duet, Fur Alina, is one of them.

Quays: We knew all the other Pärt but we had never listened to this piano piece. Will Tuckett’s a great lover of music. He chose Janacek and did it so beautifully. Hats off for him.

AH: Hmm… We could go on forever.

Quays: Are you available later today?


  1. A translation in French of this interview has already been published in the Montreal based online journal Hors Champ, on the 15th of January 2002.
  2. The author would like to thank the Cinémathèque Québécoise and in particular Marco Deblois, who made this meeting with the Quays possible. It is also through their initiative and efforts that the Quays retrospective in Montreal turned out to be such a widely acclaimed and attended event.

About The Author

André Habib is associate professor in the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is the author of L'attrait de la ruine (2011) and La main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (2015) and he also coedited the following works: Épopée. Textes, Entretiens, Documents (2013), L'avenir de la mémoire: patrimoine, restauration, réemploi (with Michel Marie, 2013) and Chris Marker et l'imprimerie du regard (with Viva Paci, 2008). He is also the co-editor of the web Journal Hors champ. His recent research has dealt with the aesthetics of ruins, found footage filmmaking, cinephilia and the archive.

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