MADAME TUTLI-PUTLI—Interview With Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski

As part of its "Maker's Dozen" program of animated shorts at the 2nd Annual San Francisco International Animation Festival, the San Francisco Film Society screened the award-winning Madame Tutli-Putli by Canadian filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. Since mid-Summer the Twitch team has been championing the film. Todd writes: "Madame Tutli-Putli is flat out one of the greatest pieces of stop motion animation I have ever seen and should have creators Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski treated as equals of the Brothers Quay for the rest of their days. It really is that good. …An absolutely stunning piece of stop motion animation rendered all the more unsettling by the creators superimposing actual eyes into the faces of their models. Dark, surreal, richly detailed and flawlessly executed."

Kurt Halfyard, in turn, describes Madame Tutli-Putli as "jaw dropping" and claims, "If Salvadore Dali was giving David Lynch a shiatsu massage during an overnight train ride between Calgary and Vancouver, then this might be the film that takes place just behind the caffeinated ones eyes or the cloud of cigarette smoke in front of him. Stop Motion animation has never looked this good…."

On May 28, 2007, the film won the Canal + Grand Prize for best short film along with the Petit Rail d'Or, chosen by a "group of 100 cinephile railwaymen," at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In June 2007, Madame Tutli-Putli won best animated short at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, qualifying it for Academy Award consideration.

The film's official website is a fount of information with some keen videoclips of interviews with Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, as well as the film's producer Marcy Page. Further, collaborator Jason Walker's website fascinatingly details the process of grafting human countenance onto puppet models.

I met Lavis and Szczerbowski for lunch in their Japantown hotel and was completely charmed by their enthusiasm and their intelligence. Despite being jetlagged from a whirlwind publicity tour, the two offered their all.

Guillén: You guys met up about 15 years ago in college, I understand?

Maciek Szczerbowski: Something like that.

Chris Lavis: That's about right.

Guillén: And you were in Near East religion studies?

Lavis: That's exactly correct.

Szczerbowski: Assyrians, Babylonians.

Guillén: I'm familiar with those texts having studied with the Greek poet Nanos Valoritis and with mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Lavis: There's a lot of Jung in Madame Tutli-Putli. We threw in a lot of archetypes from the collective subconscious.

Szczerbowski: The hero's arc.

Guillén: Yes, I was picking up on a lot of that.

Lavis: We're very interested in that kind of storytelling.

Guillén: And the name "Tutli-Putli", I understand, is a Hindu reference for a puppet and a delicate woman?

Lavis: You've done your research, sir! That's a first for us.

Guillén: You deserve no less. But I'm intrigued by what toggled the switch from religious studies to archetypal animation?

Szczerbowski: We're not really graduates of religious studies as much as we met in a religious studies class.

Lavis: I had a minor in religious studies but my major was actually history.

Szczerbowski: You need a rounded education, y'know? A little bit of everything.

Guillén: You're talking to someone who went to college for seven years and managed never to get a degree.

Lavis: I never got mine actually. I think I have seven years in. We were quite conscious of the importance of feeding art from other disciplines from the very beginning; that going to school for art, referencing your film to film, referencing your animation to other animation was an easy choice and was not a way of making interesting new cinema at all.

Szczerbowski: Studying film to make film.

Lavis: To really get interested in paintings, in history, and science, whether it's [C.G.] Jung, or the history of DNA, the story of [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick, all that kind of stuff feeds into our work. We did a comic "The Untold Tales of Yuri Gagarin" for Vice Magazine influenced by the space program.

Szczerbowski: That's been very important to us over the years to draw our new education from sources outside the medium we're releasing them to.

Guillén: That strengthens the creative genetic pool.

Szczerbowski: I think it really does! There is an incestuous and insipid recycling that happens—you study animation; you're involved in the pipeline of animation; over lunch you're discussing animation with animators; and the only people you're actually relative to are within your own medium—and the people in your own medium can have a ghettoized understanding of art. The idea of animation, per se, is a tangent of film. To us it's never authoritative. Film is authoritative. We don't necessarily go to art shows to see the acrylic paintings or water colors. We're not fetishists for any kind of purism like that. We go to see paintings. You can restrict the mental growth of your audience by giving them works that only feed off themselves.

Lavis: Animation is a silver bullet in the film gun. It's one of the magical resources. One of the great magician tricks of filmmaking.

Szczerbowski: You fire it at a werewolf. You don't fire it at everything around you. There are other bullets to use for that.

Lavis: It's hard to tell too because it was like four years of fighting werewolves, only using animation; but, in our other work, we tend to let the story decide what the process is going to be. In the case of Madame Tutli-Putli, it wasn't entirely purist animation either because of, for example, the eye technique.

Guillén: You mentioned your comic strips for Vice Magazine, have they been gathered together in a published volume?

Lavis: No. We're sitting on it.

Guillén: Will it be?

Lavis: We'd like to someday, yeah.

Szczerbowski: We're not keeping "Yuri Gagarin." Nobody's asked. If somebody says, "Listen, I'd love to republish [your comics], for sure, you can. We just don't have the time to do it ourselves.

Lavis: Our new management has a comic book bent, so maybe we'll show it to them someday.

Guillén: When I first saw Madame Tutli-Putli, I was reminded of Clutch Cargo where real mouths were superimposed onto the animation.

Szczerbowski: We've done that ourselves.

Guillén: But Madame Tutli-Putli is singularly unique for transposing human eyes onto the animation, engineered by Jason Walker who you brought into the project.

Lavis: We didn't "bring him in" so much as he was a colleague of ours from way back. He was in collaborating with us for many many years and then Tutli was the next project. We all sat around and talked about it.

Guillén: You guys are clearly a little bit crazy, would you agree? [Laughter.]

Szczerbowski: We've become.

Guillén: For four to five years you've been working on a 17-minute animated short, advancing technical ground, and furthering this project somewhat from the inside out. C.G. Jung used to say, "Proceed from the dream outwards" and that's exactly what your film seems to have done.

Lavis: Great quote! We're going to use that.

Szczerbowski: There's another quote: "When you build something from the inside out, you will have no difficulty penetrating from the outside in."

Guillén: That's good too! Talk a little bit about that structure. How did you architect Madame Tutli-Putli? Where did the original idea come from?

Lavis: The original idea came from who knows what; the image of this woman on the platform came from Planet Idea. Who knows?

Szczerbowski: Ideas don't come from any sources.

Guillén: You guys just starting riffing on it?

Szczerbowski: Oh yes, intensely, for a year. It's not a recipe. It's not like you know you're going to end up with a pie of this color [Maciek references my apple pie] or that flavor. You start with salt. You start playing and then realize that—with a little bit of milk thrown into that—it becomes a different consistency. If you keep doing that, four years later you have a film.

Lavis: We wrote it a hundred times possibly and the next to the last time we wrote it was for the edit and the last time was for sound. Everything changed the architecture of the movie just a little bit, y'know? At some point in that process we became frustrated with the linear quality of the way we were thinking and we actually did the old Tristan Tzara trick of putting all the stuff we liked in a hat and randomly writing three new movies and just see how ideas collided….

Szczerbowski: And what kind of tensions they formed when they're strung together. Yeah, we made ourselves three intuitive versions of the film, each completely different, but each having connections and similarities in its accidents, in the serendipities that took place from this kind of arrangement. We never actually solidified that. We kept going with that, knowing that we were not building a narrative; we were [creating] atmosphere.

Guillén: A poem.

Lavis: Precisely.

Szczerbowski: And a poem has a very different structure than a novel does. It isn't necessarily linear. The first line of a poem does not necessitate the second one. And the second line does not force into existence the third line. But the third line informs the two lines that came before it. It works in compounding ideas and compounding metaphors and feelings and, in a way, at the end of [the poem] you're left with a concrete yet ethereal new balance.

Guillén: I would phrase it even more kinetically. Poet Robert Bly has said that when you take two disparate images and create the tension that you're talking about, the act of poetry is leaping over the tension. I would say that the movement audiences are feeling in your film that is so compelling is precisely this poetic act. In some ways the images of Madame Tutli-Putli don't make sense and that's exactly right.

Lavis: Yeah, we're giving you cinema language but without the normal sense of that kind of cinema language, leading from A-B-C-D. It's classic Hitchcock tension for a moment then it's classic absurdist comedy of the chess match and we jam it all together.

Guillén: Another quote that Madame Tutli-Putli brought to mind was novelist Lawrence Durrell's comment that "traveling is the best form of introspection." Your film renders introspection as surreal and phantasmagoric with elements of fantasy accompanying a physical journey.

Lavis: That's true. No, you're right.

Szczerbowski: Well, we were trying very much to undig the true meaning of train mythology; of what happens on the night train. Not the trains to New York at 7:00AM; but, a train through the northern boreal forests at night. There's a lot of clichés that come with that; a lot of things you think you know about that from watching films mostly and working off secondary sources of that romance. We knew we would not be able to strike that balance if we didn't totally internalize it, if we didn't absorb it, if we didn't actually take a train and live it. So we bought train tickets to go across Canada for two weeks and just didn't get off the train for two weeks. We talked to lone women traveling. "Excuse me, you slept here on the train last night, yes? Did you dream something? Do you mind telling us? Did anything fun happen? Did anything strange happen? Tell me, what were you worried about as you were losing consciousness? Where does your anxiety come from—if at all—on a train like this?" We gathered interviews. We talked to staff; people who had been on the train for 40 years who told us crazy things—levitating torsos over Lake Superior glowing blue—like almost hallucinations they had had on behalf of that kind of immersion, y'know? It was super. We realized we were fit to address this mood when it took us entirely and it was that moment we illustrated with the train standing still and Tutli looking left and right. For us the exact same thing happened. We realized that was the true dread of the whole situation; the idea that the train—which is supposed to be moving forward, the only predictable thing it can do—stops. It's like a piano that you put a refridgerator on top of. There it is but it's not working as a piano. You can't open it. You can't play it. It becomes frustrating, terribly frustrating. You don't know what's about to happen. We had this thing where we opened the windows and asked, "Where are we?" We looked this way. We looked that way. We knew that looking [each] way was the exact same view. We knew there was a 100 kilometers of absolutely nothing in every direction. It was like the picture of the Titanic on the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. As a dot. We had this radically irrational impulse to leave our stuff on the train, go to the exit, step off and walk that way, north, north southwest, whichever, and walk that way for the rest of our lives and dissolve into this beautiful northern landscape, which was haunting.

Lavis: The landscape was quite specific in the film. It's a particular day of train travel between northern Ontario and northern Manitoba where it's just woods, virtually no towns at all.

Szczerbowski: For three days at a time!

Lavis: As far as introspection goes, that will do. No towns. There's none of the "events" that makes a train trip pass in chapters. It was a singular forest. Little groups of Native Americans getting on the train for an hour going from one little town to another. They'd get on at 3:00 and get off at 4:00.

Szczerbowski: It's such wild country. There's no recourse to the law. The train isn't going to stop and arrest you. [Thus,] wild Indian kids commonly start camp fires next to the train in a situation where the train cannot stop and they whip hot burning coals at the train. From time to time you could be sitting on the train and a window smashes and a burning giant rock lands next to you while you're eating dinner. That's the kind of fun that's to be had in that landscape.

Lavis: It's beautiful but it's not like cottage country.

Szczerbowski: It's wasteland.

Guillén: I would question calling it "wasteland"!

Szczerbowski: No, it's the end of the world actually.

Guillén: It sounds like a landscape that engenders imagination; far from a "wasteland."

Lavis: Precisely.

Szczerbowski: It's like sensory deprivation to a certain extent.

Lavis: In one of the early versions of the script there were mountains she went through and much more dramatic landscapes that we ended up [editing out]. There was something about the simplicity of that singular landscape that stimulated the imagination that [matched] her internal landscape.

Szczerbowski: The landscape became for us a character. It became the soul of Canada in a way represented in that landscape. It's not overtly a Canadian story—of course we tried to make it universal and everything—but, for us, we wanted to ground it in something we understand. Not everybody gets this. The Portuguese have their own word for their own concept of a certain kind of sadness—saudade—and I think in Canada, though I don't know the word for it, I'm sure the [Inuit] must have one….

Guillén: Or at least 10….

Szczerbowski: …but there's a particular loneliness—when you find yourself alone [in a landscape] with a 100 kilometers around you with not a single other person—that is very particular. There's an unmooring that happens. Your soul almost dissolves in that kind of landscape. You're not a character.

Guillén: The brilliance of Madame Tutli-Putli is not only that you have an idiosyncratic Canadian perspective on a particular landscape; but, it is the journey itself, the experience of her journey, that becomes this invisible character and anyone in the world is going to relate to that character. We have all traveled and have all experienced that introspection that is defined by landscape, light, the time of day, all of which you have captured in your film.

Szczerbowski: Time of day is light. For us that had very much to do with Edward Hopper and the school of how to light with oil paints, not to mention the penchant he had for painting lonely mute ladies traveling alone, caught in a moment inbetween things.

Guillén: I frequently think of Edward Hopper when I'm riding public transit—our MUNI or BART—but public transit anywhere in the world really. Watching passengers, I am amazed by the unbelievable amount of variations on where the eye can focus within a crowded space to preserve privacy. Nobody violates each others' dotted line of vision. I'll look around in a crowd to see if anyone is making eye contact but more often than not no one is and they carve out a private niche for themselves by looking where no one else is looking. I find that capacity of the individual within the crowd to be fascinating. And no one more than Hopper has captured the sadness of that modern alienation.

Returning to Madame Tutli-Putli, and the passing landscapes glimpsed through the train windows, I was struck by a comment you made on your website that one of the aesthetics informing this film is your usage of found objects. Can you talk about the value of that aesthetic in your work generally and specifically for this film? It's my understanding that your artistry before this film involved tableaux assembled from found objects?

Lavis: Yeah, we come from a school of building things in cardboard. You can make anything look like you want it to look with a little paint and a little ingenuity.

Szczerbowski: We have a back room in our studio which is filled with what we call space Lego. Every day when I walk to work, I'll see a rusted spring or the inside lining of a construction hat and I collect this stuff. I don't know what it's for. A broken rear-view mirror from a van which is cracked in a unique way. We have 20 boxes of that stuff. Broken F-16 fighters. Things you find at the art sales. Bits of fur. You never know [when they will come in handy]. Art is basically solving problems as creatively as you can, trying to come at it from a different direction every time. We have object fetishes. We like touching things. We like understanding our materials. Our elementa, so to speak. It's good to sometimes work in an instinctive way where you think that you're building a character but the feel of this fur [for example] has a lot to do with that character. It's some kind of synesthesia: where this sense is giving me a confused idea towards another sense.

Guillén: As if you're seeking out the inherent text in texture?

Szczerbowski: Yeah, precisely.

Lavis: [We're influenced by] the serendipity of finding things. The fur on Tutli-Putli's collar was from the floor of a furrier's. Her fur was going to be whatever was on the floor that day. It was time to get the fur collar and there was a store with cast-offs that day and we were going to find it that day, without getting too precious about it.

Guillén: In my training in Mayan studies, I was influenced quite a lot by a concept they have where—when you are out and about in the world—things are given to you. Coins on the street. Touchstones on the beach. A brightly-colored leaf that catches your attention. Little bits of detritus in the gutters. Those are things that are being given to you and—if you don't take them, if you don't use them—things will not be given to you. I've long liked that concept. It's like an early recycling aesthetic that Amerindian groups have long been into.

Lavis: In a more abstract way, I think that's how storytelling works as well. Ideas when they pop up, if you use them they will keep coming. Stories and inspiration work much the same way for us and it is that feeling like you've been given [something]. You take a woman standing on a platform, then the next thing that will come to you is a night train, and then you realize, "Ah, if I put those two together, we have the beginnings of something very interesting and all that implies."

Szczerbowski: You're creating parameters into which you're inviting a whole bunch of accidents. Within those parameters, the accidents balance. For example, you then get on a train and see what that woman would experience. But you're prepared for anything. You're not [just] prepared for what that woman is going to experience; you're prepared for the unknown. And one of the things that happens is that your train parks in Jaspar and you get off the train and in that hour when you're off the train something happens in that town. Some kind of Biblical infestation of moths. I don't know what happened. When we came off the train it was totally normal and—within the hour—there were billions of moths everywhere.

Guillén: Ah, an instant hatch.

Lavis: Right.

Szczerbowski: They just hatched. All their pupas burst at that moment. And it was nuts! They were crawling all over us. I was standing there with a video camera watching my body crawling with moths. You were walking the ground going, "Why is the floor crunchy?" It was precisely that. And one of [the moths] got on the train with us. The next thing we knew, it got itself trapped in one of the light fixtures. It was a beautiful, poetic moment visually for us—not just visually but on many dimensions—where you're on this train, which is a kind of impulse of modernity, you know that when this thing was built at Expo '67 or something like that it was a hint to the future, to progress, to a new mode made by us humans, perhaps unnatural but an evolution for us. All right? You plan that hermetically. This is what it's going to remain in your mind. But then life always finds its strange ways. There's a gap that big between the lighting fixture and the ceiling and—once a moth gets in there—it can't get out. It dies within a few minutes and then you have a black dot staining that beautiful clean modern light fixture forever. It's never going to be opened. It's never going to be cleaned. It will be there in 2025, if the train still exists. That was a beautiful moment for us. And that was what happened to Tutli-Putli essentially. We realized, "That's it! This is the metaphor."

Lavis: Also then you start to notice a woman and a moth started appearing everywhere. Once we put those two things together we realized we had tapped into another collective archetype.

Szczerbowski: Something got revealed to us, like a triangle, like a mystic trilogy between a woman, a train, and a moth. We came to trust that. We came to recognize that model in all sorts of works. Believe it or not, that model exists in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams apparently wrote Blanche, who arrived by train, as a moth.

Lavis: That she had the soul of a moth. We had written our story, we had made the connection, and it just kept appearing over and over again.

Szczerbowski: Which confirmed something for us.

Lavis: Virginia Woolf also had an obsession with women and moths. Then we knew that the plot didn't really matter because we felt we were on the right direction. There were these archetypal signposts leading us towards our story and—if we were just sensitive enough—it would all reveal itself.

Szczerbowski: Then great things happened. We went to the entomology department at the Royal Ontario Museum and talked to "moth men", talked to people who think that moths are more interesting than humans. [Laughter.] They can be! The whole idea of a moth going towards light is a misfiring of synapses. This is a confusion that is taking place. A moth is triangulating its navigation through the moon. The idea that it hits your light bulb is because it thinks that that's the moon or it confuses its navigation. We realized that that also matters for the woman. That also matters for the whole arc. Ultimately that flying towards the light bulb is an irrational, self-destructive impulse.

Guillén: What I've been taught about light, especially a flaring light that one dissolves into, is that it's an image of undifferentiated consciousness, which is completely threatening to the self-understood identity of the Ego. Your film is textured with so much detail and Madame Tutli-Putli is dealing with all these phantasms that are partly real, partly imaginary, and she's trying to gain her bearings off all this stuff, all these signifiers, that the final light frees her from.

Lavis: Precisely.

Guillén: Let's talk a bit about Madame Tutli-Putli's femininity and how the two of you constructed her sensibility. Her femininity borders on the archetypal. I would say that every person who watches this film….

Szczerbowski: Knows that woman?

Guillén: No. Is that woman. That's its archetypal valence.

Lavis: I don't know. I think it's a certain kind of woman. She's the kind of person you see on the bus who is a deer, not a lion, and it's not just women. There are men like that too. It's that personality of someone who's afraid and not a predator.

Guillén: And yet she's fierce.

Szczerbowski: She's forced to contend.

Lavis: Deers have some guts to them too when it comes down to it; but, she's on that side of the equation. We worked with her quite a bit and then we found an actress Laurie Maher who played both the eyes and improvised for the animation of the gestures. Laurie describes herself as a muse to Madame Tutli-Putli and in some ways that was true. Though we directed her fairly specifically, there was some quality that she had that gave us all the nuance that we didn't have by simply writing the character.

Szczerbowski: Or referencing ourselves in the mirror.

Lavis: Laurie was the final piece of the puzzle with regard to the femininity.

Guillén: Was she who brought in—what you discussed so eloquently on the website—Madame Tutli-Putli's hesitancy?

Lavis: Exactly. Her gestures, like when she waved at the boy, I don't know how we would have filmed that without Laurie.

Szczerbowski: We would pay attention to how she said good-bye to us at the end of the night. We would have drinks with her and—when she would go to the washroom—we would say, "We're sitting at the table with our puppet! Pay close attention."

Lavis: One of the reasons we hired her actually was she showed us a film she had made, an amateur but quite great B&W 8mm silent film where she played a Jacques Tati character, like Chaplin, and there was a single gesture in that where she [bats] away a fly and that was a key to our character. We stole it actually. But that one gesture was probably the reason we hired her because it nailed what we wanted.

Szczerbowski: There was physical comedy in it as well.

Lavis: And a charm.

Guillén: Plus it initiated a distinctive arc in the film, from her initial dismissal at first, batting away the moth, to her subsequent obsession and fascination with the moth by film's end.

Lavis: Exactly.

Szczerbowski: Coming to terms with the idea of destiny.

Lavis: I love that scene at the end because it's a really unusual scene in the movie; this meeting of woman and moth. Whatever passes between them, I'm not even sure; but, it's really powerful for me still. I've seen the film about 200 times and there are still a couple of moments where I don't feel like I made the movie and that's one of them.

Szczerbowski: For me that's the only one that's left.

Lavis: That first segment of the train after the moth still gives me a visceral thrill.

Szczerbowski: It's that moment when she relinquishes her anxiety. It's a frightening moment because she knows—if she stands up now and goes—this is the final walk. This is the walk towards the next state of being. It takes massive courage and it gives me shivers watching it. It's like one of those dreams where you die and you wake up with a weird feeling of almost a loss of yourself? I feel that's what's happening to her at that moment. She's realizing that she has lost herself and that is her freedom; that is, in a way, what allows her to stand for the first time with confidence, having dropped all her weight. She's essentially naked at that time.

Guillén: I'm assuming this film is on a gradient towards an Oscar nomination and a possible win for animated short. But I'd like to leap over that gradient to ask what's coming up next or what you're working on now? Once you can get out from under the grip of the PR machinery for Madame Tutli-Putli, what will you be doing?

Lavis: We're going to probably begin a project within a week but—if we don't do it—it would be horribly embarrassing to [discuss it] in print.

Szczerbowski: So we'll be cool on that one.

Lavis: But it's really exciting.

Guillén: Well, without giving away particulars, can I ask what attracts and excites you about the prospective project?

Szczerbowski: The fact that its story has revealed an axis to our work. Ultimately, we've realized a journey of loss and dissolution.

Lavis: It's an adaptation of a popular children's novel.

Guillén: Recently, I was speaking with Wes Anderson about criticism levied at his most recent film The Darjeeling Limited, which in essence revolves around the repetition of themes. I find this a spurious criticism because it strikes me that any artist, any creative sensibility, has certain themes they wish to address and that they will use their projects to address those themes. Thus, it's interesting to me that you mention this new project reveals a thematic axis to your work.

Szczerbowski: But everybody has that though. In every single Stanley Kubrick film, you'll notice that every window to the outside is a white-lit panel. There is no view to the outside in a single one of his films. Every one of his films has white glowing windows with no details behind them. All those films develop a dialogue because of that. You realize that every one of those films is about isolation and man losing his mind in some kind of unnatural confinement, whether it's the Overlook Hotel buried in snow or whether it's the Discovery on the other side of Jupiter, or whether it's a soldier in Viet Nam. The theme is the same. An artist moreorless makes the same story over and over again his entire life because it's probably their story.

Lavis: You'd probably find that through line even in David Hockney. Even if an artist appears to be going everywhere, once you get the 70 years of work there's a lot of themes that keep [reoccurring].

Szczerbowski: The idea of working on a film for four years and addressing simply that one idea gets to a point of sort of banging your head against the wall because you're daily coming up with new ideas. Something funny happens. You invent a new character and a new title and you feel like there's a new story; but, you can't address it until you're finished, which sometimes can take four years. So, in a way we're sitting on four notebooks of ideas, which we are presently throwing out there to anyone who will listen to see if we can get some money to make the most crazy, perverse things we have ever come up with. Hopefully somebody will give us that money, though I doubt it.

Guillén: Another thing I wanted to discuss: it's my understanding that at Cannes you received the Petit Rail d'Or audience award from a group of railmen, is this correct?

Szczerbowski: A group of 100 French railroad workers/cineastes. That was the most awesome blue collar prize we could have ever gotten.

Lavis: They had the thick, strong hands of French railway workers when they congratulate you. They had gruff voices and were a little shy with their wives at Cannes.

Szczerbowski: It's absurd comedy. They gave it to us pretty much unanimously and we kind of went, "This is ridiculous. There's a prize from railway cineastes?!! Has this been invented for this film?"

Lavis: It's a lovely prize.

Guillén: Is it given out every year?

Szczerbowski: Yeah. And do you know what the prize is? This is the cool thing. Right down the track a few miles from Cannes along the Mediterranean is a little train station where the Lumiere Brothers set up their camera and made that first film with the train coming into the station, which—when it played in Paris at the Cinémathèque Française—everyone ran out of the cinema thinking they were going to be crushed because they didn't understand the abstraction of two-dimensional projection. They thought the film was going to come through the screen and kill them. But that [was filmed] right down the road from where we were. Also, you'll notice that we stole that moment. We did the train coming into the station just like the Lumiere Brothers in the beginning of the film. The third connection to that being that the prize they gave us was a slice of that rail.

Lavis: Spray-painted gold and put on a glass base, which was promptly smashed into a million pieces being Fed-Exed from France.

Szczerbowski: But the rail itself, though beautiful and romantic, while you're traveling through France is not something you want to put into your suitcase, this chunk of train rail.

Lavis: It's 60 pounds of ore. But I talked to the director of XXY, the film that one Best Feature at the International Critic's Week and which also won the Rail d'Or. She told me afterwards that her favorite prize that day was the Rail d'Or, that there was just something so fun about it, because it was so pure. There was a great little award ceremony right by the water.

Guillén: Of course. That's your audience.

Szczerbowski: For that to happen in tandem with recognition from your peers, recognizing you as an auteur at ground zero where the word comes from, this was a fantastic balance. This was an induction into the world of art and at the same time understanding that somebody's grandpa really dug it!

Guillén: You're making me laugh because when I was reading one of the write-ups from Cannes, you were talking about when you won best animated short and how you both were jumping up and down as if you won the Miss American pageant.

Szczerbowski: [Laughing.] Yeah, it was ridiculous! Do you know how high we were?

Lavis: There's such tension over the 10 days, partying every day, and we didn't expect to win. We forgot to thank the National Film Board of Canada.

Guillén: I'm sure they understood. My final question: Will you be animating Bruce McDonald's Ed the Happy Clown?

Szczerbowski: Listen, Ed the Happy Clown seems to be a very difficult project to get off the ground for Bruce McDonald. He's had the rights to it for more than a decade. We heard about the film for the first time when we were in high school. I think I was in the first year of college when I saw the postcard for Yummy Fur with Ed's legs and the severed hand. It's such a crazy movie to try to unload on people and convince them to be made, not just in terms of addressing the plot points; but, how do you do that film? How do you do the pygmies? How do you translate a comic book into a film? Would it betray the auteurish nature of the comic? Because it's not like a Marvel comic; it's an underground punk rock comic and its aesthetic is deeply rooted in that. How do you make a movie out of that? It's not drawn by CG; it's drawn by Chester Brown. All the lines have a particular sensitivity. How do you get that look onto film? They haven't been able to figure it out yet. They've thought of CG. They've thought of full animation. And it's the kind of thing that—no matter however many times they've attempted to raise it off the ground—it raises and then it goes back into slumber for another five years and then it raises and then it goes into slumber. For all we know, this is the latest time it's raising.

Guillén: Is that possibly because they think—if anyone's going to figure it out—you two are going to do it?

Lavis: Maybe. And we'd love to do it because it's really great. We would love to do it.

Szczerbowski: And we are uniquely crafted to do this. We can do it. Except there's a few things. [First,] it's not our story and we have a kind of conceit for our own stories taking the trump on our time. There's the idea that we're not really certain whether we're being asked to direct it, or art direct it.

Guillén: So, bottom line, it's just an idea that's out there floating?

Lavis: We've talked to Bruce about it a lot, actually, and we would love to do it.

Szczerbowski: I honestly don't know where we're at with that project. Maybe it will happen and—if it did—we'd love to have something to do with it. It's a wonderful story and we have a great relationship with Bruce except that this is a monster of a film to try to get made.

Guillén: Well, I look forward to whatever new projects get greenlit for the two of you. Madame Tutli-Putli is a beautiful film. Congratulations and thank you so much for your time.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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