For a flashback to explain the root of his central character’s problems in “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” Milorad Krstić went back to the very start of cinema, recreating with pen and paper Eadward Muybridge’s horse-jumping zoopraxiscope that led to the term “moving pictures.”
“It was my way of humor and to connect all the guys from Muybridge, who made those first movies, to the Lumiere brothers up to Tarantino,” Krstić said on a recent sojourn to Los Angeles from his base in Hungary, taking a sip of an orange juice that was sadly bereft of the Alfred Hitchcock-molded ice cubes that his characters imbibe in the film.
Among the many artforms Milorad Krstić wanted to celebrate in “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” the seventh art was always going to be the first among equals, not only in terms of references amidst a rollicking adventure in which nods to Picasso and Caravaggio are flung across the frame like Pollock splatters and musical styles are remixed so that a blusey cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” feels right at home in a 1920s Parisian speakeasy, but in his ultimate choice of film to bring them all into one satisfying stew. While the animator luxuriated in every piece of art he could cram into the film, he makes it the bane of Ruben Brandt’s existence, confronted with it all hours of the day both in his work and his dreams, thanks to a domineering father who sought to groom him to become a great artist by attempting to burn other artists’ work into his brain through abusive psychological techniques from a young age. Brandt does not grow up to meet his father’s expectations, but does put his unique knowledge of how the brain works to use, becoming a therapist even as he struggles to conquer his own nightmares, stemming from 13 paintings in particular.
Not so coincidentally, those works of art go missing from their gallery homes, attracting the attention of a detective named Mike Kowalsky and Krstić creates a globe-trotting cat-and-mouse game between him and Brandt, as well as his fiendish and thieving associate Mimi, that features chase scenes worthy of an entry into the “Mission Impossible” franchise as if conceived by Wassily Kandinsky. Needless to say, for as many pieces in it that you may have seen before, “Ruben Brandt, Collector” becomes an unprecedented work of art unto itself, fusing together hand-drawn animation with sleek, contemporary 3D design that makes both the film’s many action sequences and centuries’ old artwork dynamic and alive at every turn. In person, Krstić comes off as wily as the wry caper he’s made and as the film has emerged as a prime contender for Best Animated Feature this awards season, he spoke about the many inspirations for “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” from sculpture to music to film, and making art fun for all audiences.
You’ve said this actually began as disparate sketches that felt like they were scenes from a movie. How did you figure out the connective tissue?
All those images existed in my head. I’m a painter and I wanted to make a feature about fine art and of course, I wanted also to have references to the famous movies of the 20th century I liked, so I was thinking how to connect the art and the movies – and not to be boring because to make something that’s one-and-a-half-hour about art, it could be. That’s why I said, “Let’s pack in one good story,” and have some film noir, some thriller and to sometimes combine James Bond and Hitchcock to make this slalom [experience], this surface on [which we could ride] the waves of different genres, but with main story about Ruben and his nightmares.
Ruben Brandt – [the name is] a combination of Reubens and Rembrandt and he’s not stealing the famous paintings because of the value of the painting, but because the characters from the famous paintings are haunting him. [And I thought] those characters should not be some horrible monsters, but beautiful characters. I said let’s bring in the Botticelli Venus, for example – it’s such a beautiful woman, let’s transform her beautiful hair into an octopus, or the innocent girl that attacks [Ruben] on the train, I said, “What could that be?” I didn’t know at first, but then I found that it could be the little princess from Velazquez’s “Phantom Margarita.” [I had to tell others] “No, it isn’t the dog [in the painting] – that’s the fairy princess who will transform into the monster to bite him directly and try to pull him out from the train.
That’s one of many harrowing action scenes in the film where you really get a sense of motion in the film – is it difficult to create that momentum in animation?
It was fantastic. [For the foot chase in Paris] I sketched it and made it in Photoshop – [I thought] there must be some chase in Paris [to introduce] the Mimi character and the detective Kowalsky, so I said, “Let’s make a car chase in three minutes” and in three minutes, a foot chase on the roofs of Paris because I adore those movies, from “Bullitt” to “Ronin” when you have a chase. I got the inspiration from all those movies for how we compose it, using these good movements and just try to make it even better with animation, to make it stronger. [There’s a scene in another film where] the inspector is trying to kick out the windshield after crashing so he can see, so we made the Mimi making the same movement after crashing so she can see, but [we didn’t] repeat this scene. We said, “Let’s make it even more dramatic,” so we put the huge [train] is coming and you can see lights and you can hear the sound, and Mimi at the last moment succeeded not just to kick out the windshield, but to avoid the huge [collision]. [In “Convoy,”] Sam Peckinpah has two trucks and the police car in a sandwich, and it was wild, but by putting the crane on the one track and then to attack from the third side, from up above so we’ll be able to see the helicopter and the crane and the two trucks we tried to make this beautiful action scene from Sam Peckinpah’s “Convoy” be even more dramatic.
When your background in painting, is it difficult to get a style that doesn’t look overly digitized and get the texture right?
Yeah, it wasn’t easy for our animators and they have shown a great ability to be compatible with my characters because they are not the standard. They are really talented and I also made some compromises of making the bodies of Kowalsky and Ruben [because] I play a game with the faces and the face of Kowalsky, it looks like the face of Ruben Brandt, but without glasses, and [other characters] have some deformities. Marina has two faces or Fernando has three eyes and two noses and it was difficult to turn them [into animation], but I’m glad and thankful that in Hungary we could find such talented animators and to make both 2D and 3D. I’m very, very proud of them.
You also have a lot of fun with the soundtrack, creating classical versions of contemporary pop hits like “All About That Bass” and “Oops, I Did It Again.” How did that mix come in?
That’s my way of thinking about the art. I don’t separate and say I’m just a graphic artist or just a painter or just an architect or I’m a stage designer or I’m a photographer. I’m all those – visual art is for me the same. With the same energy of making a photograph, I can make a drawing with a pencil on the paper or an acryllic [painting] on the canvas. It is similar with the music. I don’t think that one’s soundtrack must be one type of music. It wasn’t cheap in Hungary for us to pay the copyrights, but I wanted to use Brian Poole and the Tremeloes’ “Do You Love Me?” because I knew it from when I was growing up in the ‘60s and it had to be in the chase scene because Mimi is a femme fatale, Mimi is provoking [Kowalsky] in this way, or the opening scene [has] my favorite symphonic poem from Arthur Honegger because it was the poem about the locomotive. That’s why engraved on the rail, it says “Pacific 231” [the title of the poem], just to know “A-ha, this is Honegger.”
I didn’t think about making [Ruben’s] dream of Mimi but when I hear [composer] Tibor Cári’s music, it’s so good and so sentimental, I was following [what I saw in] my head for the drama. It follows the music. It’s much more difficult to compose the music to follow the rhythm of the animation, but when you have the melody, we can make the animation. I always wanted to tell a story, but it’s an audio/visual symphony for me and what may be [in the film] for the moment or two, [I want you to] just enjoy the slow camera movement and the song and that’s enough. But then it goes in waves — a little bit slow and a little bit hard, a little aggressive and then we have a rest and this way it was a pleasure to make.
Art therapy seems like a relatively new phenomenon. How did you become interested in it? [SPOILERS AHEAD]
Because Ruben Brandt and Kowalsky and both are collectors, and what I was thinking is that if Ruben’s father Gerhardt Brandt experimented with 16mm and putting such a famous paintings into the 25th frame of [a film strip], trying to make little Ruben to be the great artist with subliminal perception. He didn’t succeed at it to make a great artist out of Ruben because it’s not moral to engrave something by forcing it into your brain. That’s why you have nightmares as a result, not a successful art life, after 40 years because they come back and attack you. But Ruben still is a great psychotherapist, and I wanted to show this doppelganger structure of Ruben Brandt, [where] he is the thief but a detective [Kowalsky], who is after him, is his conscience. When you see them [together] at the end with Kowalsky and Ruben sitting in the train [with Ruben] reading the book, watching the outside, you don’t know whether it’s a dream or not, but [when Ruben] can’t pull up his hand when he wakes up, it was Kowalsky who was catching him at the last moment, and he’s like, “That’s me. My other conscience.”
Is it true there may be some subliminal messaging in this film? I’ve heard you may have to freeze frame the movie to get every single reference.
Yeah, we plan to make this DVD with my commentary on every single frame. If you see it several times, you’ll have [these references] in your head without noticing. [laughs]
What’s it been like to travel around the world with this?
I enjoy to being behind a camera, to be in the studio and to paint or draw or write the script or discuss the FX or the animation and to create. Now I must go to the festivals and everything is not my piece of cake, but it’s my baby and like a mother, I must follow it and I’m thankful to the people at the festivals because you can see the reaction of the audience. I see young and old people enjoy this movie and I’m curious whether it will be well-accepted all over the world, but I do think that we succeeded to make a film which is attractive for all the nations, all the cultures, and all the ages. I can even see they profit from an unconventional touch with the art. Art is not so serious. You can play with art, and there is no need to know who Van Gogh or Andy Warhol is. You can always learn this one day, but [I hope audiences can] relax and enjoy the action.
I also hope the fantasy and the rhythm of the movie will be there in the first place to [carry you away], and [perhaps initially] let [the story] be uncatchable because it’s good to have the story [where] after watching the movie, you must sit with your friend in the cafe and you [think], “I don’t know exactly why I like it,” [but you talk]. In this way, as Jacques Tati said, [it’s] after people leaving the theater, the movie starts. I like the people to speak about it, not just to have them say, “Well, it was one-and-a-half-hours of fun and forget it.” Well, for at least 15 minutes, let’s speak about the movie.