An extremely unique film created by a Montreal duo, and produced by the National Film Board’s Marcy Page.
What was your first contact with Chris and Maciek (the filmmakers)?
They came to the film board to visit Brian Duchscherer. Brian was working on a puppet film and they wanted to share some alchemy secrets of latex casting and silicone, all of the finer points of doing the puppets. And in the course of it all, Brian brought them by to meet me, saying I thought I should meet them, and I agreed once I met them. At the time they had not done much animation, but they were just starting to do some things that were bringing them to our attention. They have a little company and they were doing posters for Montreal groups, and some advertising. Then they moved to Toronto where they did some station IDs for the Space Channel. They had done comic books. They had a lot of animation sensibility and tools in place but they hadn’t ever done a short animated film per se. I looked at their design work and thought it was incredible. They had a real gift for creating provocative images and they were obviously completely inventive using things together and in improbable ways. For their poster work the developed three-dimensional maquettes – like scenes—that they would just shoot. The work was incredible. Once you have a scene or maquette developed it’s not so much more work to take a bunch of images of it and have animation happening. So anyway we just kept in touch and finally they came back with the proposal and I thought it was quite interesting. So the first seed of the proposal was an image of a woman on a railway platform waiting to take this existential train journey. That was kind of what took to me…
So it’s been an interesting relationship, just trying to challenge them. To tell them, “okay you guys obviously know your way around the still image, so do you think you can animate? Show me something.”
So they would show me something that convinced me they could animate. Then I said, “well, can you do something special with the animation?” And they showed me this mind blowing composition with the puppets, with live action eyes. “Well, okay, that’s pretty interesting. You know if you try that and there is any flaw with those eyes it will give the illusion away. Can you maintain that perfection?”
This was their first professional film. Why take a chance on novice film makers?
It’s part of our mandate at the film board to help emerging talent. We’re part of the Canadian cinema scene, and in effect, it’s kind of the job of the National Film Board to take risks that commercial companies maybe can’t in order to increase the language of cinema, the possibilities of cinema and just to try things other people can’t afford to try, in hopes it will yield results which will push the envelope and could have an effect in the industry. All of these things are part of an ongoing conversation with cinema. I think it’s a really important part of the NFB’s mandate. We’ve been trying to achieve it in several different ways.
But I don’t think I’m exceptional in that respect.
But you have had a slew of awards for films you’ve produced…
Okay, maybe I’m a little bit lucky. (laugh)
Is that it? (laugh)
That’s a big part of it really. (laugh) All of the producers of the film board, they’re all out there trying to locate great emerging talent.
But how do you go about finding that talent?
I try to talk to people when I can. We take in a lot of projects unsolicited. I try to go to end-of-semester screenings at schools, go to festivals to look at student work… The usual ways. There’s nothing too magical about it.
But also I guess with the case with Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (the makers of Madame Tutli-Putli) it was kind of unusual, just having an instinct that from the still work they’re generating they would do something quite special with whatever they touched. And that’s been proven true by them.
In an interview you did with Frames Per Second (a Canadian animation magazine) a few years back, you brought up the idea that the nurturing part of your personality was “hard-wired”, and so women can make excellent producers…
(Laugh) I just think there are a lot of women producers and, I don’t know, we could be using some sort of perversion of that part of us that would otherwise be nurturing families. But I find it quite easy to elicit that part of me in the service of production. I don’t know.
So as a producer you’re looking after the practical aspects, so a creative person can do what they can to the best of their ability…?
That’s part of it. These productions themselves they have their own needs. It’s not just trying to create a nice environment for a team to feel supported, but to almost look at the needs of a production as if it were an offspring, a child who is occasionally doing okay, but sometimes he’s screaming. A lot of producing is problem solving. Things come up. You’re trying to deal with a lot of multi-tasking…
There are some really amazing women producers that are able to tap into a problem-solving ability that I think women often have. There are a lot of really ego-centric women—I mean that generally, in terms of leadership styles. But when I’m on a committee with a group of women, they tend to be pretty efficient and there doesn’t seem to be a need for a whole lot of posturing. I think they just want to solve the problems and get on with it.
In the case of Madame Tutli-Putli, the NFB took these two guys and basically funded their full-time project for more than two years… Is the NFB unique for supporting first time filmmakers like that?
There are certainly other organizations which at least for a brief amount of time were comparable. What’s so great and amazing is the film board is still around. It’s been doing this sort of thing for over 60 years.
I really do think a lot of reason it’s been able to maintain this incredible history has a lot to do with Norman McLaren. If our animation division had been founded by any different kind of person we may have had a whole different kind of legacy, but because he was an artist and an experimenter and a filmmaker who believed in the primacy of the artist/auteur, it was really a tradition that was totally embraced. It’s in the walls here now, because, despite many efforts to shake that or revise that, or question that, it seems to come back to that. It’s good, and it’s strong. We just have to be forthright about holding onto that idea.
Did the recent federal cuts to arts funding affect what you do?
I think it’s no secret that there is a more conservative climate in government. Not necessarily that there is censoring from outside, but people have started to censor themselves…
How do you mean?
Like, “oh maybe that project is too radical,” or whatever. So I think people’s response to a kind of what they would describe as a narrowing of the vision or a government atmosphere that might not be supporting culture. I think there could be a tendency to self-censor which I think one has to watch out for as much as the actual constraints, and actual budget cuts that might come. We’ve certainly been affected by some cuts, and I’m hoping we won’t be hit again. We’re not the film board that was around in the 70s. The NFB has certainly shrunk. If you recognise that our allocation has not been significantly increased to keep up with cost of living, then you have to recognise that the film board is trying to do as much with less money. And the cost of everything going up. It’s just a formula for shrinking. But I think people try to compensate by working harder. You can only sustain that pace for a certain period of time before it has an institutional impact. People start to burn out.
I think we’re doing the best we can.
Madame Tutli-Putli will play on Wednesday, Oct 15 at the Off the Beaten Path screening. 9pm. The Majestic.