You may not know about Stephen and Timothy Quay, but you’re probably familiar with their work they’re identical twin animators best known for stop-motion shorts that bring together the strange, the beautiful and the grotesque, and that have been ripped off by countless music video and art directors. Though not always the most accessible of artists, the brothers Quay have plenty of fans among critics, cinephiles and the other filmmakers Terry Gilliam selected their 1986 “Street of Crocodiles” as one of the ten best animated films of all time.
“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” is only the second feature-length film from the Quays it tells a Jules Verne-inspired story of the mad Dr. Droz (Gottfried John), who abducts a beautiful opera singer (Amira Casar) and takes her to his island filled with Victorian-style automatons. A piano tuner (César Saracho) summoned to care for the mechanisms becomes obsessed with rescuing her. I spoke to the Quays on the phone from London, where they live the two tend to speak for one another and finish each other’s sentences, and so have been treated as one entity below.
So “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” is your second film, and like your first film (1995’s “Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life”) it’s mainly live action. Is this for practical reasons?
Oh, we would never enter into doing a feature-length animation. You know, you need a team of people for that. We don’t invite people to animate for us, it’d be a labor of love and it’d be foolish, too big for us. It’s like three, four, five years out of your life. I don’t think anyone would trust us with a [full-length] film that wasn’t live action with live action they’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt now and then. Well, two times in our lives.
How was this experience versus “Benjamenta”? Do you feel like you’ve come in any wiser?
Well, “Benjamenta” took eight, nine years to get off the ground. Then this one took another eight, nine years…it’s not like you stay in practice. You have to start all over again. It’s a shame we really like going between animation and live action. We work in the theater, we work in the opera, we work in the ballet, on décor, so it’s very nice to move back and forth between these difference disciplines. It’s something that we find very important and you bring all those elements to bear when you make a feature film.
Clearly, working with actors is a different experience…
Well, when we do a puppet film, we impose the performance upon that puppet, it’s our performance. We have a kind of secret collaboration with the puppet we bring out what’s living inside it, what its potential is. With an actor, we invite the collaboration. We do not impose a performance, nor do I think do they impose a performance upon us. It’s a kind of woeful collaboration, where each is trying to divine each others secrets.
How did you approach the narrative process with “Piano Tuner”? Did you feel a need to shape the film differently than you do the shorts?
You do try to shape it in some way a lot of people say they’re not happy about the way we work with narrative, but you know, that’s always going to be something of personal taste. We don’t make classical Hollywood narratives; otherwise we’d be in Hollywood making them. And life doesn’t follow Hollywood narratives, so either way, you know, it’s kind of irrelevant.
In the US, your work is constantly grouped with Jan Svankmajer’s. You’ve never hidden your admiration of his work, but how close of a relationship do you have with him?
We made a documentary, and basically this documentary [1984’s “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film”] delivered him to the West. We never studied with him in fact, apart from the documentary, we’ve only met him a handful of times. Our greatest influence has been a Polish animator, Walerian Borowczyk, which everybody seems to ignore. It’s easier for people to traffic us with Svankmajer because we made that one little documentary for Channel 4. We have the greatest admiration for this man’s work, but he’s not the only one, and people tend to forget that.
Do you consider yourselves Surrealists, à la Svankmajer?
The thing about Svankmajer is that he’s a militant surrealist, he claims it, and it’s very important to his entire body of work. We’ve never subscribed to being a part of the Surrealist school. We talk about poetry the way a poet uses his language doesn’t just make him a Surrealist. You use a much kinder work, you might say it’s poetic or lyrical, but everything is put into this easy camp of the Surrealists, it’s a good catch-all phase. We’ve never said we’re Surrealists, never once in our lives, and I don’t feel that we could qualify for that club. I think there are genuine Surrealists, and Svankmajer’s one of them. I don’t think David Lynch would subscribe to Surrealism either. People just see him as dark, nightmarish, but you never see people really throw the word Surrealism at him. It seems to overweight the situation.
You’ve managed to fold some stop-motion animated sequences into “Piano Tuner,” for the automatons. What’s the enduring appeal of the medium for you?
I think what we like is that it’s just the two of us here, we’re on our own in the studio. It’s a long journey; you’re using the stop motion because it has fantastic control. You build the puppets, you build the décor, you do the lighting, you do the editing, you do the animation, you animate the camera. It’s a very humbling process you get down on your hands and knees and you push the camera one little millimeter, it’s all part of trying to equip the idea you have about what each film can be. I think we like that journey, that sense of control. We very much think of our studio as a laboratory, it’s there to make discoveries. It’s a thing that you miss on a live action set, that sense of freedom to discover. With the animation films, they just leave you alone, they forget you: “Oh, when was that film supposed to be ready?” One and a half years roll by, and it’s for us to make the decisions of when that film is ready.
With films like Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped “A Scanner Darkly” at Cannes, this seems to be a new age for animation to be taken seriously, to be intended for a grown-up audience.
That’s not exactly our notion of animation; you can see the motion, and it’s like putting a blueprint on top of something and pushing the render button. Those people aren’t animators. It’s an appearance; I wouldn’t be duped by that. It’s just another effect. I mean, no offense to them.
Do you feel the same way about CGI?
You know, when it’s good, it’s great, the same thing with traditional animation. When it’s good, it’s fabulous, when it’s bad, it’s crap. Each has its greatnesses and each has its miserablenesses. We’re great admirers of what can be done with CGI.
So is there anything you’ve seen lately, animated or not, that you’ve liked?
There’s this Hungarian film called “Twilight”  by György Fehér it’s absolutely stunning, it knocked us for a loop. In terms of animation, we’re both very impressed by the Miyazaki films, “Princess Mononoke” and the like, we finally got a chance to see them and they really hold up…
You know, we haven’t really been to the cinema recently.
“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” opens in New York on November 17th (official site).