Israeli writer-director Ari Folman made his filmmaking debut in 1996 with the live-action feature Saint Clara, which made it to festivals around the world, including the US. As well as directing a second feature, 2001's Made in Israel, Folman has written for Israeli television, most prominently for BeTipul (In Therapy), the series that was the basis for HBO's In Treatment. Now Folman is raking in awards, including the 2009 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, for Waltz with Bashir, a groundbreaking animated documentary feature. At San Francisco's Prescott Hotel, we discussed the film and his planned follow up, a science-fiction hybrid of live action and animation based on Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress.
Groucho: Having innovated with this film, what, I guess, is the first animated documentary—is that right?
Ari Folman: This is what they say, you know.
G: I was sort of surprised to learn that, having done that, you had no particular interest in developing the form or doing something else, but I suppose this is sort of the ultimate expression for you of that form. Is that why?
AF: I think I was stupid to declare it was an animated documentary five years ago, because it gave me so many problems. And the film establishment is so narrow-minded. It is unbelievable. And sometimes they just—you know, I try to raise money, documentary funds—they told me it can’t be a documentary if it’s animated, you know? And then I went to animation funds and fiction funds—[they] said, "Okay, go back to documentary, because it’s a documentary." So I realized how they’re really not open to any new dimension of film. Today I don’t care if it’s declared a documentary or not—it’s up to you. For me it’s just a film. And this is it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first one like this.
G: To tell this story in animation, it seemed to me when I was watching it that it was the right approach fit to the right story, that it was the only way to do it, in a way.
AF: That’s right.
G: Of course, that’s easy for us to see in hindsight, but it’s kind of a stroke of genius to figure that out at the outset.
AF: I don't know. It was natural for me because I couldn’t do it any way else, you know? It’s like, do it like that or don’t do it. And if you look at all the dimensions you have there, which were reality and dreams and subconscious and lost memories and stuff like that—hallucinations and war, which is probably the most real thing on earth: how can you do it in live action?
G: Yeah. And that, to me, was maybe another reason why you wouldn’t do another film in this vein, is that that’s the experience that is surreal enough to justify moving to that—
AF: I’m doing it, but not a documentary.
G: Well, right, yes—we’ll talk about that [The Futurological Congress] later. But another aspect of the visual scheme of the film that maybe animation helps to serve is this perspective, this depersonalized perspective—it’s discussed in the film—of seeing the world as if through a camera. And maybe animation also helps to give that distance, maybe.
AF: Yeah, I heard it, but it was not my intention. On the contrary, I was really obsessed in the beginning that the audience would be attached to the characters and not feel far away from them. This is why we put so much effort in doing it—the designs and the realistic way of drawing and with a lot of details in the faces and contours and shades, which of course makes the animation much more complicated.
G: Yeah. Well, I want to ask you about that as well. The subtlety and realism of the acting in the film is very striking—the acting through animation. And because it isn’t rotoscoped—
AF: No, no, no, no.
G: That seems all the more remarkable. So can you talk a little bit about the process of the animators, or you working with the animators to capture that—
AF: Well, in each character, I tried to mark and define before we started what I [thought was] the essential movement in the face and in the hands that expresses feelings. Because we couldn’t follow everything. Because we did it from scratch. We just saw it and did it. So for one guy—the guy who swam back home, it was the eyes. He was looking to run away with his eyes. For the guy in the Netherlands it was whenever he felt stressed, he moved his hands more. So we just picked out the essentials for building the characters. We worked really hard on those essentials. And although we had only eight animators, which is pretty incredible, some of them were more talented in the action sequences, shooting and that, and some of them were really gentle and they could catch just small movements and motions that express feelings. So I used it. I tried to use it.
G: Yeah, capitalize on the talent of each animator. I’m sure there were some who were—
AF: Yeah. See, this is the advantage that you don’t have two hundred animators. You can pick stuff. That's right, you get to use them.
G: Yeah. I think of that moment very late in the film where the breathing—you don’t think of that normally when you watch an animated film—the breathing of the character that becomes somewhat more stressed or labored shows what he’s feeling.
G: There’s several types of animation as well—the 3-D, the flash, the classic animation. In the same way that you had capitalized on an animator’s talent, I sure you were making specific choices about which type of animation was best for that scene or moment. Can you talk a little bit about how those choices fell into place—about what types you used for different scenes?
AF: Well, the main animation, of course, is just simple Flash animation cut out, but to the extreme point you can take Flash software. Flash software is basically a home software for six hundred US dollars you can buy. You’re not supposed to make feature films out of it—just tiny bits and pieces for the internet. And of course, websites. The basic flash is that you cut to surfaces—each space. But we cut it I don’t know how many times more. We had like eight spaces in the face for surfaces, so we cut each one of them to another fifteen—so it’s like fifteen times eight. And then they have to move them separately. And then it takes time to see the movement, if it works. So it takes time. And then I realized that we had problems with slow movement. Big action scenes, we don’t have it, but with slow movement we have it. Lower part of the body was done—only the lower part—with classic animation, frame by frame. And we used 3-D animation just for spectacular shots: going up from the forest and the snow down to the boat, you know?
G: Yeah—or what would be a tracking shot in a live-action film.
AF: Yeah. All the track shots. Those are 3-D. I’m not fond of current 3-D animation too much. So it’s a matter of taste. But it’s good for—we needed this break in the film with some 3-D shots. So we tried to be eclectic.
G: Well, drama is, they say, the art of change. So if you change it up, you’re grabbing the audience in a new way—like the use of the video footage as well.
AF: Yeah, definitely.
G: I wanted to ask about David Polonsky. I admit to ignorance about his work, and so I wonder how did the two of you come to work together, and what is it in his style that appealed to you?
AF: Well, I think he’s a genius, personally. We worked on a previous documentary project, The Material That Love Is Made Of, and I tried there for the first time animated scenes, documentary [scenes]: scientists talking about scientific aspects of love. So he designed that, and it was really basic flash but I loved it. It’s something really fresh, and this way I knew the next project would be a full-length feature animation. I think David in many ways—okay, he’s very realistic. This is why he was good for the film. And he’s very Russian. He’s very strict. And he doesn’t allow himself really big freedom. The more free scenes in this movie, he didn’t draw them. The giant woman coming out of the water Tomer Hanuka did. But there’s something really exciting in the way he draws. I mean, it really affects you emotionally very, very strongly. And I saw it in a lot of kids’ books that he was illustrating. And I saw my kids referring to it. It’s something that really touches you. And I needed that because I knew that I wanted the film to be beautiful—that although it’s horror, it’s beautiful—and he’s the guy.
G: Yeah. That beauty that you’re talking about—it seems like it relates to those things you mentioned before: the subconscious and dreams and like a drug trip or whatever, that our brain kind of creates beauty even out of madness or confusion. It seems your career has always come around to these psychological levels. I wanted to ask about the nature of the mind—it’s flexibility and it’s capacity to protect itself—all those things are kind of themes that come out in the film. Can you address how the film to you is an expression of the psyche?
AF: I think it's life—it’s not the film. I mean, life is a constant use of imagination. I met a very respectable psychiatrist, before I flew here, for my next project. And he told me something that I found so amazing because [the new film, The Futurological Congress] will deal a lot with drugs. And in the next project, it’s a Stanislaw Lem story. And the world is controlled by free manufacturers of psychopharmacology drugs. And they control all your feelings. Love, betrayal, guilt—anything you want, they can fix it. So I try—now I'm writing—and I’m trying to build a world that will make sense according to what we have. And he has this theory—he’s a big professor, and he’s now healing post-traumatized soldiers, with ecstasy. He got a—the government gave him—
G: A grant?
AF: Yeah. License to do it.
G: Oh right, yeah.
AF: And he got some probably very good stuff from here. And so he does it. And he thinks that the only breakthrough in psychiatric drugs will be when they start using drugs. But they ignore this world of drugs because they can’t license it...you know? This is their problem.
G: Right. It’s like a producer not wanting to fund an animated documentary.
G: It’s outside of their frame of reference.
AF: No, no. But its [in] terms of money. Because if they—I may take use of ecstasy, and it’s good, it works, Pfizer does it, next time Fisher does it. Because they can’t list it as their thing, you know. It’s not like Viagra, you know what I mean?
G: Yeah, right.
AF: So this is the main problem. Otherwise they would have used it. And there would be a huge breakthrough in this world. So he said something strange, he said, "Listen, you think that if people use drugs, a lot of things from their subconscious will be out and it will be a great thing to draw. But most people are so shallow that it doesn’t matter what they would take, nothing will get out." And that was astonishing. I couldn’t understand why he said it. But I think that in my everyday life and most—the border between reality and hallucinations and fantasies is very narrow. And I walk on that border, because I think it’s the most interesting. And all filmmakers really big, you know: Fellini—
G: Yeah, yeah.
AF: Lynch: it's a different scale of time in Lynch. It’s not measured in the time we’re used to in many films.
G: Right. And it is. It’s very fluid from reality to—
AF: Easy. Easy-go.
G: Yeah. To hallucination to vision to—
AF: Yeah, but now he’s meditating, right?
AF: That’s what he does.
G: Right. Exactly. Yeah, he’s promoting that. I want to talk a little bit more on this same subject of psychology. I think some might be surprised looking at your body of work that you’re actually skeptical of—
G: Psychotherapy. Why is that? And why is it that you think that the Israeli reserve said, "We’ll release you, but first the therapy." What was their reasoning behind that?
AF: They were making an experiment.
G: Of you?
AF: Not me.
G: Of everyone.
AF: Yeah. They had this—they said, "Okay, now, in the next six months, we’re going to interview people and see what they remember. I don't know what they were thinking. But I was nothing special. Probably, they were using us for some experiment or something.
G: And had they not been on that whim, you might not have gotten your release.
AF: Definitely. They wouldn’t have given it to me. Only if I faked and pretended to be lunatic. You know, I didn’t want to do that. It’s cheap.
G: It’s a lucky break, I suppose.
AF: Yeah, yeah, it was great.
G: But, by the same token, you found it not useful for you, I take it.
AF: Psychotherapy, no. I think it’s a religious cult. And if you’re a believer, fine. It will work. But if you in a way don’t believe, you’re not there. It won’t help you if you don’t believe in this kind of relationship between therapist and [patient]. Making films is much more therapeutic. A thousand times more. Any kind of arts, I think. I went through therapy, of course, a few sessions in life—a period of time. I just—I can’t eat it anymore.
G: I want to talk a little bit too about working with actors. I know that, for you, that’s not really your cup of tea, I guess—
AF: No! No!
G: To work with actors.
AF: I did. I did. I had films. I did.
G: Right, right. But I read something you said somewhere about—what was it? "I don’t have any passion for actors."
AF: Not now. Not now. The next film will have an actor. I will put an actress.
G: Yeah, an actress, right.
AF: But uhhhhhh—
G: Is it—you find them high maintainance, or why is that?
AF: No, no, no! I just say "Some of my best friends—". No, no. Listen, I’m now hooked to the magic of animation. I think adult animation is something that I just can’t understand why it’s not being done.
AF: It is like so obvious to do it. And because my mind is running really fast, I feel that I can do it there. That’s for me. But I'll be back with actors, and you know, the next film’s gonna be with an actress, and she’s going to act. I mean, because the first twenty minutes are going to be—
G: Live action.
AF: Live action. Then we will jump to the future, and she will be animated.
G: Mm-hm. And you’ve used a similar technique of shooting—
AF: We want to adapt it. We want to do something real.
G: But you would still base the animation on live reference? Or not?
AF: Yeah. Yes, because what we did here [in Waltz with Bashir]—that going backwards in time with the characters—we will do there [in Futurological Congress] going to future time. So we will have to predict how she will look when she’s sixty.
G: Right. Right.
AF: It makes sense that if the world in the future is controlled by drug manufacturers, [animation is] strong. It’s obvious.
G: Yeah. In going back to friends in developing Waltz with Bashir, what were some of the most surprising or moving revelations that you discovered about your friends, by discussing these times with them?
AF: First, my best friends from childhood ran away. They got cold feet, and they didn’t participate in the film. All we had to bring actors to replace them. I live in a community mainly of filmmakers. We studied there together the same year in film school. And I learned that—I mean, we have a very intimate relationship. Our kids grew up together, did things together. It’s like living in a small community. But we never discussed the armed service, because it’s not very cool to be a filmmaker and a left-wing liberal extremist and then, you know, Friday night say, [adopts gruff voice] "I remember we were going out to capture this village, there's shooting here and there"—you don’t do that. You talk about Japanese mafia movies from the '70s, Kinji Fukasaku, and if Suzuki was better when he started in Japan—you’re not talking about your war experience. First time I heard what they did was after this film was released.
G: In one of the interviews that you did, I read that you said, "When you about this stuff, once it’s out, you have to deal with it."
G: And for you, the years that you spent making the film were a process of dealing with it. Do you have a sense of how the others that you interviewed dealt with it after these things came up?
AF: Very different between one to another. I think the most tough experience was going over [with] Dayag, the guy who swam back home. He felt a lot of guilt because he stayed alive and everyone around him died, which is a common feeling that we diagnosed through the research from a lot of ex-soldiers. He took it hard from the very beginning, from the premiere—he couldn’t be there, he ran away. And the others, I mean, Ron Ben-Yishai, it's just another show for him, for the journalist. And [for most] it’s very personal.
G: Yeah. It seems to me that modern ground warriors share a common experience of what it’s like to live through that kind of warfare. Do you find that that’s true, that you hear from people who see the film or from other people who you’ve talked to who’ve been in different wars that it’s roughly the same even though the details were different of the conflict?
AF: Yes, definitely. I think it’s a very universal story. It could have been told by any ex-soldier. Someone who woke up and realized "What the fuck am I doing here. It has nothing to do with my life. This place here is a different country, different place. It has nothing to do—I’m not defending my sisters here," you know? And we went to the war, it was [adopts a gruff voice] "You gotta defend your little sisters there." You wake up in Beirut and say, "It’s a capital city somewhere." People sit and they eat in restaurants, you know, and you walk like stupid dung with forty kilos of armors, and why? You know? "I’m defending my sisters here." So think of how many soldiers are asking that question right now: "Why [are we] here in Iraq?" I heard Bush yesterday. I saw it. Did you see that?
AF: Isn’t it incredible?!
G: It’s embarrassing.
AF: [As Bush:] "Well, maybe we made a mistake. We were not ready for that. I didn’t plan that." [To Bush:] "What did you think?!"
G: Yeah, he’s able to be very disconnected and casual about it, isn’t he? I know we’re out of time here, but I want to ask one more question. I read that in developing this film, you did the video interviews and all, but you also did a ninety-page script right at the outset. How did that fit into the process?
AF: After the research, having read all the hundred interviews, I had to write a storyline. So basically what I did in the script, I predicted what the people would answer according to the research.
AF: Some of them were really exact, and some of them, of course, gave completely different answers, but it was like a plan.
G: Right. Yeah, a scenario.
AF: More a plan than a script.
G: Very interesting. All right. Thank you so much. It was great.
AF: Thank you.