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Tales from the Brothers Quay
By Jonathan Marlow
November 17, 2006 - 10:50 AM PST

"It was contact with a living tradition that really pushed us."

Stephen and Timothy Quay's first live-action feature in eleven years, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, is, among many things, "a tragic fairy tale drenched in otherworldly visual splendor," as Nick Schager has put it for Slant. Jonathan Marlow spoke with the Quay Brothers at their London studio in February; this is the first part of their conversation. As Piano Tuner opens wider, more will follow.

As I understand it, your escape from America was not a thing that was necessarily planned but something that evolved.

Timothy Quay: We were at the Philadelphia College of Art and a visiting professor asked what we were doing after we graduated. He said that we should apply to the Royal College of Art in London to get a Masters degree and venture into more film work and animation. He said, "They have a film department and you can apply as illustrators," which we were, "and then transfer." We were accepted but the film school wouldn't let us in. They wouldn't let anybody else transfer into the department. As we hung around with other filmmakers, they would loan us their cameras on the weekend. That's when we shot a couple of our animated films on the fly.

You were using a 16mm Bolex?

Timothy Quay: Yes. We were creating cut-out collages. We set up two lights on our kitchen table and just shot it that way on the weekend. Then we came back to America after those three years to pay off our debt and ended up completely unemployed. We were dishwashers and waiters in a café in Philadelphia and we said, "We've got to get out of here and get back to Europe." So we took all of our savings, thinking that it had to be better over here.

Was it during this time that you became familiar with [Jirí] Trnka and other puppet animators?

Timothy Quay: We first started seeing those people at the end of 1968 or '69 at a festival in Philadelphia. It was much easier to see them over here.

You were initially interested in cut-out animation?

Stephen Quay: I think that we had a hankering for it. I think we probably felt more at home with cut-out.

In any case, it's definitely design-based...

Timothy Quay: Having come from illustration, we did a lot of collage work. The first couple of films that we made were all collage cut-out animation. I think that we ended up getting frustrated with the "frozen image" when we did our drawings and paintings. I think what we really needed was depth, to make use of light, sound, music. I think that's what really pushed us towards puppets, having seen a few puppet things. When we came back to Europe, we were living in Holland and we went down to Belgium to see the Toone Marionette Theater. That really galvanized us. Although we had seen a fair bit of puppet work by then, I think that it was contact with a living tradition that really pushed us. We then applied to the British Film Institute to do experimental films, but our idea was to make a puppet film. Keith [Griffiths], who was at the Royal College with us, was at the BFI at that point and we were living in Holland. He called us back and told us that we got a grant, so we returned [to London] in 1978 and we've been here ever since.

Several of your films from this period were documentaries.

Timothy Quay: There was Punch and Judy [subtitled Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy], [The Eternal Day of] Michel de Ghelderode - he wrote for the Toone puppet theater and that all very neatly tied itself up. And we did a 55-minute documentary on [Jan] Svankmajer for Channel Four [more].

I had no idea that it was originally quite that long.

Stephen Quay: Nobody knew. It was very interesting because we used a lot of extracts.

What happens to these early films? The Janá?ek [Leo? Janá?ek: Intimate Excursions] appears on a Japanese laserdisc collecting some of your work - that's the only way that I've ever seen it - but what of the Stravinsky [Stravinsky: The Paris Years], Ghelderode and Ein Brudermord?

Stephen Quay: We didn't get the music rights for Brudermord. Ghelderode was just rejected out of hand.

Timothy Quay: Well, it was rather long. It was a 28-minute piece.

That's not a problem for me.

Stephen Quay: They were really apprehensive of us trying to work out how the puppets would do things. We were still a little intimidated by these techniques. I think, for us, it really started with the little Svankmajer film.

You were able to lose a certain level of tentativeness with the way that you were working?

Stephen Quay: Exactly. Going to Prague to make a documentary which talked a lot about the tradition of Czech surrealism, as opposed to French surrealism, and [we] gave Jan's world a context and a lineage, following through from the earliest days of the Czech surrealists [and the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group]. It's a good history lesson, too. We're trying to get Keith to put it out as an extra because the BFI are releasing the films on DVD, over here, for the first time [on November 20]. And I think Zeitgeist will be putting out a new edition that will have In Absentia and The Phantom Museum and the two dance films [Duet and The Sandman]. We remembered this the other day and suggested to Keith, since Channel Four own it, that they should just give us the rights to the full 55-minute Svankmajer film. It is great because it shows clips of Svankmejer - we're familiar with him now but, in the beginning, nobody was.

The exchange of Q's and A's with Jan Svankmajer that Jonathan Marlow and the Quays are referring to here took place during a roundtable discussion at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in early 2006.

You can read that conversation about Lunacy and Svankmajer's other work here.

Was it always the case, when you were preparing for the Svankmajer film, that you would use the music of [Zdenek] Liska?

Stephen Quay: We thought that it was necessary to have his music [since Liska scored many of Svankmajer's short films]. Keith had bought the rights to these films so we were able to use it. Through a friend, we were able to get tapes of Liska's music from other films. We cut The Phantom Museum to this music and then his widow said, "No." We were all prepared. "We'll pay. We'd be happy to pay." But she said no.

What was her issue with the use of his music?

Stephen Quay: We don't know. She said that apparently people had ripped her off, and we said, "We have every intention of paying you properly." We had it beautifully cut to the music but then we had to suppress it and get somebody else [Gary Tarn] to compose the music. He did a nice job but, of course, it's not Liska.

So you have a "subversive" version of the film?

Timothy Quay: Terry Gilliam was telling us that it could be an egg.

An Easter egg.

Timothy Quay: Yes, a hidden thing, and we thought, "Let's go for it." Let's do it. Knowing Keith, he'll be against it.

Particularly if Madame Liska got a hold of it.

Timothy Quay: And, you know, it's to the benefit and glory of Liska as a composer.

It's very sad because I've hunted for little pieces of his music here and there. One small company in the Czech Republic has released a few pieces of his music for television, for instance. He is absolutely deserving of a relatively complete release of his work.

Timothy Quay: It's easy to be obsessive about these things, actually. Was that you who asked the question of Svankmajer [about Liska in Rotterdam]?

Yes, yes.

Timothy Quay: Brilliant, because we were going to corner you afterwards.

Well, I was going to corner you afterwards!

Timothy Quay: He really took some recompense and agreed, with his head down slightly, that he overlooked that major little detail.

Stephen Quay: It was very generous of him. We've always pursued him about Liska and he doesn't want to talk too much about Liska with us.

next >>>

"It was contact with a living tradition that really pushed us."
"'Portrait of a Nobody.' That's for us."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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