The Quay Brothers Talk About Their Singular Vision

You know their world, if only by instinct. It’s there all of the time, but it’s in between the cracks. You spy a shadow underneath peeling paint on a wall and are tempted to peel it back. A fissure between the bricks of a building on a worn city street beckons. You open to a page in an aged, dusty book found in a dark, forgotten corner of a great library.

OK, the library example is their own suggestion, but the Quay Brothers know the terrain of arcana better than almost anybody. Master animators and filmmakers who seem to distill their visions from our unsettled sleep and present them to us in minute detail, the Quays have been gingerly peeling back that metaphorical paint for decades, revealing the nightmare underneath. This month, Sundance Channel presents In Short: The Quay Brothers, an extensive retrospective of their short films, from their signature piece, the 1986 puppet-animated articulation of Bruno Schulz’s masterpiece Street of Crocodiles, to the exquisitely haunting imagery of 2003’s The Phantom Museum. We took advantage of this opportunity to engage the seldom-interviewed Quays, twin brothers Timothy and Steven, in a discussion about their work, its origins, their missteps along the way, as well as their intentions for their future.

The Power Of The Visual

Though born and raised in America, and based in London for nearly three decades, the Quays famously adhere to an aesthetic more at home in early 20th-century Krakow or Prague than to their roots in Pennsylvania. Their genetic background does little else to explain the fascination. “We had a great-grandmother who was from Silesia, which is now, sort of, Katowice [Poland] area,” they say, preferring to be quoted together. “We remember her, as children, up to the age of about 10. She spoke a very, very simple English, but we never, never, never — even our grandfather or father never said where, exactly, was she from. Which city. So we’re still chasing that one.”

Despite the thin connection by blood to the region, the Quays’ early films often leave you with the feeling that that you’re in the vaguely hallucinatory world of Franz Kafka — or in any case, a very long way from home.

The Quays embarked on their filmmaking journey later in life than they might have, but it was a delay that may have worked to their advantage. After studying graphic design, drawing and painting at the Philadelphia College of Art, in their early 30s, the two moved on to the Royal College of Art in London, where the possibilities of film first excited them and sparked their curiosities. “We got a real hankering for some animation, and we did do three films of two-dimensional animation.” (These early efforts are unfortunately lost.) “But then we stopped that, went back to America, worked doing odd jobs and things like that, and then left to come back to Europe with the idea of going to Amsterdam to do book covers.” Their producer had other ideas. He suggested that they might do a film script, for experimental purposes. “At that time, we thought puppets might be experimental, so we wrote a little scenario for a puppet film. And that was how we actually began making films in London for the second time.”

It took some time, effort and soul searching for the brothers to find their proper mode of expression, but it actually had been some time earlier, while at school in Philadelphia, that they first encountered the visual aesthetic that ultimately would dominate their body of work. “When we were at the Philadelphia College of Art, there was, simultaneously, an exhibition of Polish posters,” they recall. “In three [lines], whether they were theater or opera posters, it said the title — House of the Dead — ‘Janacek’ and whatever theater it happened to be at. And we thought, ‘Janacek? Who’s that? House of the Dead? What’s that?’ House of the Dead led us to Dostoyevsky. Janacek led us to other pieces by Janacek, Czech composers, and it struck an entire constellation of stars. One simply led on to the other, effortlessly. There was no borderline — especially with music. … That was possibly the most, we think, conclusive effect upon us — let’s say infection — was the study of music. And it all came from these posters.”

Stirring The Cauldron Of Influences

In the same way that the Quays sourced inspiration from the poster exhibition, the Quays, in their early days, began sifting through the culture around them for anything that might be of use or lead to new inspiration. They mined everything from graphic arts magazines to the more mundane media that arrived on everyone’s doorsteps. “Back in Philadelphia in the mid-’70s,” they remember, “we read in the Times literary supplement an article on [Swiss writer] Robert Walser. The title of it was ‘Portrait of a Nobody.’ And we said, ‘That‘s for us.’ We knew instinctively that we would like this article. It was of the translator of Walser, an Englishman who lives in Austin, Texas, at the university. That was one of those fortuitous accidents that became a feature film [1995’s Institute Benjamenta]. So it took 1975 to 1995 — 20 years.”

Accidents have played a significant role in the Quays’ career, from the good fortune of stumbling on the fateful poster exhibition to meeting people who would have a tremendous impact on their films. Even while animating at the hands-on level, surprisingly enough, where one might think everything operates with mathematical precision, accidents are integral to their creative process. But their description of how these accidents occur gives insight into their working method and how truly organic it is, as well as just how time-consuming. “Inevitably, we animate to the music,” they explain. “But it’s when something, a synchronization that you wished would have some quiet epiphany doesn’t quite happen — which makes you then go back for the next week, and you keep redoing the shot and wondering why it doesn’t work. And in the end, you give up. You realize it never will work. It’s something to do with the conception, probably. I can’t think of a good example, but I know we do really go for fortuitous accidents. We sort of encourage accidents to sort of bend the non-narrative into deeper forests that even we hadn’t anticipated.

“It’s true that to occasion an accident in an animation film also is a very slow process,” they continue. “Because even if it happens, you’ve then got to elaborate it. If you’re doing a feature film and something happens with live actors and you touch upon an accident, you react instantly, and the people then have to adapt instantly. Whilst with us, as you’re animating, you’re also thinking about how it will be, this accident, and how to encourage it over the next, maybe, 10 days.”

It’s an indulgent process that the brothers can afford to pursue precisely because they do all of their animation work themselves at their London studio, the Atelier Koninck. But having that kind of liberty doesn’t mean that it can’t be too much of a good thing. “There’s a largess of time, because down here, nobody’s looking. There’s only the two of us,” they say. “It’s full of dangers … not every accident bears fruit. Some of them just go a cropper, completely.”

The upside of that freedom, though, is in their ability to take risks and experiment. The results set their work apart from many of their contemporaries as well as their forebears, like the great Czech animator/filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, to whose films, fairly or not, the Quays’ often are compared, and for whom the Quays named one of their own masterworks. Svankmajer, many decades into his own career, nearly always entrusts the animation in his films to others. By necessity, that deprives his work of the possibility for the sorts of insightful coincidences the Quays seek out, a fact of which they’re keenly aware. “We’ve always thought that, but we’ve always hesitated to ask him,” they admit. “We know that he animated The Game With Stones, which is stunning, so we’ve never thought, ‘He’s incapable.’ But he’s always had great people like Pospisilová, the Czech woman — who’s probably the finest animator — he’s always had access to them. Then he’s got this other guy who’s basically a pyromaniac, with his long, red beard, who basically almost animates left-handed. It’s so brutal. It’s just very different.”

Music: An Obsession

The Quays speak with awe of Svankmajer and the talents that surround him. But they reserve particularly high praise for one in particular: Zdenek Liska, the composer who scored so many of Svankmajer’s most memorable films. So elevated is their admiration for his work that the brothers have on at least one occasion borrowed his scores to use in a film of their own, when it seemed particularly appropriate — 1984’s The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer.

“Invariably, it’s music that’s always the thing that sort of sets our brains afire rather than the visual arts,” they insist. Great music can elevate a good film, of course, and in the case of the Quays’ animated features, devoid of dialogue, they must depend on tremendous music to take them that extra mile into the stratosphere.

One of the principal collaborators responsible for helping the Quays reach their awe-inspiring heights is Polish composer Leszek Jankowski. They met Lech, as they call him, almost 30 years ago. “We saw a performance, in London, of the Theater of the Eighth Day,” they recall. “It was a Poznan theater group, and Lech was their composer. He was actually playing onstage with two other musicians. The performance — as a piece of theater, it was stunning. The music was stunning, and we came back the second night with a tape recorder and sat as close to him as possible and just sort of secretly recorded it” — a practice the Quays admit to pursuing shamelessly even today — “and then asked to meet him the next day with a translator. Amazingly, he said, ‘Why not?’ And we sat down on this children’s playground and we just said, ‘One day, if we get a puppet film, would you stoop to writing music for a puppet film?’ Knowing that great people had stooped to writing puppet film music — Penderecki, Orff, Manuel de Falla; there are quite a few other ones — he said, ‘Absolutely.’ But it was two, three years later, I think, that Crocodiles came on board.”

Street of Crocodiles proved to be a watershed moment for both the Quays and Jankowski, and the work remains one of the most vivid pairings of their talents over the years. Regrettably, the composer and the filmmakers experienced a falling out during the development of what eventually became 2005’s The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes — a fissure in their creative relationship that has yet to be mended, though the brothers remain hopeful some sort of accord can be reached.

But the Quays never limited themselves to working exclusively with Jankowski. To this day, they’re insatiable seekers of new and challenging music, and when the BBC approached them with a commission for a film to be scored by the late revolutionary German composer and theorist Karlheinz Stockhausen, they couldn’t believe their luck. “We imagine there must have been 10 others, but they all said no,” they laugh.

In Absentia came together with a greater degree of mathematical precision due to Stockhausen’s expertise and involvement — though their synchronization may simply have been the greatest happy accident they’d yet been handed. “In a way, you don’t work with Stockhausen,” the brothers explain, emphasizing that they never even met the composer until they were nearly finished with the film. “I think this was back in May [1999], when we found out that we were going to be doing it. We started doing camera tests, anticipating what he was going to do. And he said, ‘The music will arrive 29th of August at 12:00’ — and it did.”

The first time showing In Absentia in its completed form was an unnerving experience for the Quays. They flew to Cologne, Germany, where they intended to present it to Stockhausen under relatively controlled circumstances. It wasn’t meant to be. “He brought 20 of his students and some of his friends,” they remember. “We were frightened to death. … There was a bit of a commotion, because the BBC was there and wanted to film his reaction, live, which we thought was not only a little in-your-face, but pretty crass. But I could see, because they’d commissioned it, they were going to get their money’s worth and see what the reaction was, even if it was horrendous reaction — if he hated it.”

But the composer’s actual response couldn’t have been more unexpected. “Apparently he was in tears. He thought that we had done a portrait of his mother, because we’d only shown the woman in the film from behind, which is one of our strategies,” they recall. “He said his mother was murdered by the Nazis — she was put into a mental hospital and then euthanized or something — and that he only really ever saw her from behind. He thought that we had, somehow, telepathically, caught on to that.”

The Future Darkly

In Absentia was a welcome turning point for the brothers. Prior to it, their last major work had been 1995’s magnum opus, Institute Benjamenta. (Based on the Walser novel, its story tells of Jakob, a young man who enrolls in a school for servants and is witness to — or possibly the cause of — its advancing decrepitude and destruction.) The Quays’ first foray into live-action feature films, Institute Benjamenta is beautifully shot, every frame lovingly composed, each scene a still life in motion. And it easily could have been their swan song. “Benjamenta took almost 10 years to get off the ground,” they remember, not without a bit of anxiety. “The gestation is incredible. And we know that [after] we did Benjamenta in ’95, we didn’t get any work for five years. We felt that that was a nail in our coffin.”

After spending a decade creating Benjamenta, it was another decade still before their second feature-length film, 2005’s The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, was ready for release. It’s a film the brothers discuss with some reservation. “We’re not entirely pleased with that,” they shudder. The film, another scenario of the bizarre, centers on a piano tuner who becomes entangled in the diabolical musical aspirations of a sinister doctor bent on staging an opera with automatons — and a soprano he has recently murdered. The filming conditions under which the Quays were obliged to work didn’t quite meet their ideal: Guidelines were put forth by the producers that contrasted sharply with the brothers’ preferred aesthetics. “We said, ‘We’d like to do it in black and white.’ And they all shook their heads — even the French guy, whom we thought would be so supportive of black and white in Scope,” they recall. “So we said, ‘All right. We’ll design everything in black and white,’ so the only thing that would be in color would be a few costumes. But of course, inevitably, the landscape was partial color. We did as much in post to sort of desaturate it all, but …”

As lush a film as it is to look at, it’s easy to see that the Quays were a bit out of their element. Not in over their heads — just not where they wanted to be. “We wanted to step out of doors to film in Portugal,” they recall of the original plan. “We wanted a bit of the sun and the sea. It seemed right for this piece. It was dedicated to a South American writer, and we wanted that. But of course, it was a contrast, and we sort of tried to be a little more commercial or approachable, but we fell on our face badly.”

If that’s a mea culpa, it’s one that illustrates the Quays’ understanding of what it really means to be an independent filmmaker these days — especially for those whose work exists so far outside the margins. “Guy Maddin wrote to us last night,” they explain. (Maddin is the celebrated independent Canadian director responsible for, among others, 2003’s cult hit, The Saddest Music in the World.) “We’re speaking to someone who’s exceptional, who’s also having problems getting funded. You know, everybody thinks, ‘Of course Guy’s getting work. He doesn’t have to scramble or beg.’ Even we think, ‘You just have to finish one film and already there’s something on the doorstep.’ And we’re sure we’re completely wrong. He’s struggling. We know it.”

It’s an entirely different world than when the brothers began making films in the late ’70s. And even with their considerable experience, the changes in film culture haven’t made pursuing their peculiar vision any easier. “It most certainly hasn’t gotten easier. It’s gotten harder,” they insist with perhaps just-detectable bitterness, even scoffing at the idea that their past work might be of any help in securing their future. “It’s irrelevant. It absolutely is irrelevant, because in a way, you come at every project as a complete novice. We know people in Hollywood — even when they do a failure, they go immediately on to another film. Whilst on the marginal side, if you do even something successful or a failure, the struggle is just as great to do the next film.”

Funding is the ongoing difficulty for their projects. Rather than spend their lives writing appeals for grants or waiting by the phone for a mythical benefactor to appear, the Quays have, from time to time, put their talents to work for commercial purposes. Some, like the odd Fox Sports Net ads they produced, playfully worked against their severely avant-garde reputation, likely to the chagrin of many of their fans. “We always said it was the kind of gentle bet with the devil that you would do one or two commercials a year to buy that freedom for the other 48 weeks of the year,” they say. “But that’s since vanished. Since 9/11 — that’s when everything caved in.”

The Quays still appear nonplussed about what exactly changed in the culture at that time that caused clients to shy away from them — they just became aware that their opportunities for ad work suddenly dried up. “Advertising must have become conservative, so the first thing that was eliminated was that side of puppet representation,” they muse. (They affect a sense of humor in the face of this particular adversity, but it’s characteristically of the dark variety.) “We really don’t know. … Even when it’s cleared up since that time, never in a moment did we think that, ‘God, how presumptuous that puppets could be interfering in all that.'”

A much bigger concern is the evaporation of large-scale funding for truly independent films like those that the Quays produce. Hefty commissions, like the BBC’s that yielded In Absentia, are a thing of the past. “We sort of lament the fact that there’s not a [BBC] Channel 4, for one. That’s a private lament. But it just unequivocally happened that they no longer commission short films. BBC doesn’t do anything like that. So you’re out on a leash of trying to find independent funding.”

Turning Their Future To The Light

In time, the funding issue forced the Quays into other artistic spheres — something they’ve managed to turn into a positive. For a while now, they’ve been designing and realizing decors for ballets, theater and opera. But as of late, they’ve been making the most of opportunities to pursue interdisciplinary work that capitalizes on all of their specific talents. Wherever possible, they try to leverage these situations to continue their film work. “We don’t do it adamantly,” they suggest, “but sometimes, like recently, we’ve got these commissions for doing installations, which we say to ourselves, ‘Let’s incorporate film.’ That’s the crucial matter that’s part of the budget in creating the installation, is that the film is the accompaniment and the ultimate end-all to it. In a way, it’s how we can continue the animation or the live action, or mix the two together.” One of their most recent efforts was commissioned as part of the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo. For it, they constructed a piece that they describe as having featured an optical box into which they set a decor, their version of the Underworld from which Orfeo hoped to reclaim his wife, Eurydice. Ultimately, the installation managed to fuse their settings with music, film and dance, all suffused in their ever-present, uncanny sense of the dramatic.

At the time of this writing, the Quays had just ventured into another, louder realm. An extension of their now-established talents for staging and mise-en-scène, the brothers are working with the avant-pop group Pere Ubu on a new production. “They’re doing Ubu Roi right here at the South Bank, like, 15 minutes away from us. We’re doing projections.” So far, the project and its focal point, manic singer Dave Thomas, have impressed them mightily. “He’s quite a force,” they report. “Gently visionary and still kicking the boundary lines. He still puts so much youth to shame!”

If it sounds like the Quays are, by necessity, getting pushed farther away from the Atelier Koninck, where they make their magic, it’s equally obvious that they’re anxious to get back to it: They’re becoming more aware of their own mortality. “We sort of know, now,” they say, gently alluding to the subject and quickly moving past. “We’ve got a new one now, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz. We’ve written the script. But that’s the next thing we’re hoping won’t take 10 years.”

And so their journey back into darkness begins once more. The peeling back of the paint flecks. Opening to another page in the library of our collective subconscious, ready to transfer further indelible impressions on film. Decades into their career, it’s still this almost childlike, intense curiosity that propels the Quays to pursue their vision with such insistence. “What’s at the end of a very long library, where the light gets even dimmer?” they ask, rhetorically, conjuring an image as mysterious as it is familiar. “It’s all that whispering at the corners of the library that really intrigues us.”

In Short: The Quay Brothers airs on Sundance Channel late night May 12.