STOPMOTION Interview: Director Robert Morgan on His First Feature, Jan Švankmajer, Sleeping 24 Hours

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
STOPMOTION Interview: Director Robert Morgan on His First Feature, Jan Švankmajer, Sleeping 24 Hours

Robert Morgan is entering his fourth decade as a filmmaker and stop motion animator. In that time, he’s made some fantastically disturbing and multi-award-winning short films, most of them stop motion, and some live action.

As someone who loves horror and animation, I’ve been an admirer of Morgan’s for years, and his 2003 short film The Separation stands among my favorites of all time. So I was thrilled to have a chance to speak with him about his debut feature Stopmotion. The film mixes live action and stop motion animation to tell a story about a stop motion animator whose increasingly organic creations begin to invade her reality. As I wrote in my review, “Stopmotion is a formally and narratively thrilling feature debut from one of our greatest living animators.”

Our conversation touches on collaborators, other projects, and the more grotesque side of animation. [The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Screen Anarchy: I’ve been a huge fan for a very long time so I’m really excited to talk to you. Just starting off speaking about STOPMOTION, I know that you’ve said [in other interviews] you were inspired by your own experience making Bobby Yeah. But I wanted to ask what it was like turning that experience into a feature and working with a co-writer.

Robert Morgan: Robin King, who’s the co-writer, [is] actually a childhood friend of mine, so I’ve known him all my life. He's one of my best friends, so that was easy. And also he's had experience with stop motion animation too. He's done short films and stuff, so he gets it. And I had been trying to write this film for a while on my own, and I just wasn't really getting anywhere.

So I showed it to him and asked for notes. And his notes were so good, I just said, well, do you want to write it with me? And then we sat down and he brought so much to it. So yeah, it was just a pleasure because he's just a good friend. I just like hanging out with him anyway, so it was just good fun.

It's a challenge writing a feature film. It's difficult, and it takes me a while, anyway. When I read people like Paul Schrader writing Taxi Driver in two weeks, I just go, “what?” It takes a while, but I love the writing process. It was really good fun.

Fantastic. Glad to hear it. Speaking of collaborators, I really loved the score and tried to find some more of Lola de la Mata's music, but it seems like there isn't actually that much out there. So I was curious how you found her and how she got involved.

She has a Bandcamp page. Actually, you should check it out.

Don't worry, I found it.


It looks like it’s just the one album and then another score that she's done.

Yeah, she's got a new album coming out soon, actually. She's amazing. Extremely weird, experimental, amazing, very creative. She's actually the daughter of the producer, Alain de la Mata. But that is not why, I want to be very clear, that is not why she got the job.

She got the job because I just love her work. And Alain himself was very, very clear, like this has got nothing to do with anything other than she's just a really interesting artist.

I listened to her stuff because I never wanted a classical, you know, like traditional score. I wanted something that was strange and abstract, and adds to the psychological dimension of the film and that felt very visceral and handmade, right? It was Lola's idea to do the whole score with acoustic instruments. So everything you hear is acoustic.

There's no electronic music in [Stopmotion] at all. It's mostly traditional instruments that she's playing “wrongly.” There's a lot of cello in there and she's banging the cello and doing all kinds of strange things with it and processing that. Very, very experimental approach. Yeah, I mean, I love the score. When you hear it in a theater, it's like, “whoa,” it’s so good.

Yeah. I had to watch the screener at home. But I'm hoping I get to see it in a theatrical context. Off of that, do you know if you all will be releasing the score?

I would love to. I don't know yet. I would hope it comes out in some form or another, because I think it's great. It's great work.

Very much agreed. So off of that, that kind of feeling and texture thing. I know that you've said you used real meat for animating in the past, but didn't do that for STOPMOTION. Can I ask which of your past projects you did use meat for?

I mean, I've only used it really once. I used a bit of chicken skin and chicken meat in a little short film for Channel 4 TV called Invocation, which was a another film about a stop motion animator, another kind of a meta film. And there's an organic thing growing inside a camera and I used chicken meat for that.

I've actually found, you know, to be honest, meat's not that good to animate with because it dries out. So it's actually not as good as you think it would be.

Nowadays, if I wanted to make something that replicates meat, I would use silicone rubber or something that looks like meat, rather than literally using meat.

Right. Is that what you used for STOPMOTION when you were doing the “meat and wax” combination?

Yeah. In fact, I have [pulls puppet from the film made of “meat and mortician’s wax” into frame]. I keep this nearby in case I need to pull her out.



So that’s silicone rubber, that was made by Dan Martin and his team. The challenge was to make it look like meat but encased in mortician’s wax so it’s kind of translucent. Because the reality is you couldn’t do it if it was really made out of that stuff, it just wouldn’t work and would fall apart.

That makes perfect sense. Off this question about the creation of the puppets. I have a friend who is also a fan and I told them I was gonna get the opportunity to talk with you. And I asked if they wanted me to ask you anything and they said: 'You have such a phenomenal way of creating things on a screen that I can feel on my skin when I watch them. How do you decide what the texture of your characters will be when you create them? And what was the original inspiration to make your creations have such a pimply puss style to them?'

All of these things are sort of organic and instinctive, I think. When I was a teenager I had absolutely horrendous acne. I had this kind of extremely rare form of acne where your skin becomes allergic to the dirt in the air and it was an absolute exposure. It was like The Fly, it was like Brundlefly.

I was nearly hospitalized with it, it was an incredibly overwhelming horror engulfing my body. I never consciously made the connection, but I suspect in my subconscious there is a connection there for sure, must be.

And the other thing is just through experimenting with materials, really. The first puppets I made were made out of papier-mâché. Then I moved onto liquid latex, which kinda got me closer to something that felt more organic which is what I was interested in.

Then I finally took the plunge and started working with silicone rubber, and silicone rubber was the thing that really liberated me in terms of making stuff that really feels like I wanted them to feel. To push it closer to the puppets feeling like they are real, which is what I wanted.

Two questions then. For STOPMOTION, why do you have Ella [Aisling Franciosi’s character] using mortician’s wax instead of the silicone that you actually use?

Because mortician’s wax is just sort of dramatically more interesting. It has connotations. Mortician’s wax is a real thing, they really do use it to fix up the faces of dead bodies so the idea that she would start with something that has such a macabre connotation to it is much more interesting than “oh, I’m gonna use some professional special effects!”


She goes down a dark route with it, so it had to start from somewhere that already was imbued with something macabre.

Continuing from that, when Caoilinn [Springall] introduces the piece of raw steak [as a material for animating] I was expecting something like Švankmajer’s MEAT LOVE. But then you end up doing this combination. Where did the idea to combine that mortician’s wax and raw meat come from?

The steak comes from Meat Love. I mean that was an exact like, the idea of taking a steak, literally a steak, and that you could use that. I love Meat Love. I saw that when I was a student, when I first just dabbling with the thought of doing animation, and I just thought “you can do that? You can animate meat?”

Just philosophically, that idea hangs over the entire feature film. Just the idea that you could animate meat, that you could literally take dead meat and animate it, that to me was mind blowing.

And it was a natural thing. The idea of mixing mortician’s wax and meat was more that you create a more interesting character. Because if it’s just raw meat, it’s just gonna look like a bloody mess. So I like the idea that you’re replicating, that you’re using the mortician’s wax like skin. There’s meat and then you cover it in skin, so it’s like a mini body.

With innards, yeah. So again in terms of using unique materials for animation, I’m curious if you’ve seen Caleb Wood’s YIELD and what you think if you’ve seen it.

What’s it called?

YIELD, it’s by Caleb Wood, it’s about a minute and a half and it uses photos of roadkill to create animation. And it’s this really strange mixture of revolting, beautiful, and even kind of cute because they’re animals. I would be very curious to hear what you think. I hope you enjoy it if you end up looking it up.

Cool, that sounds good. I will definitely check that out.

Off talking about Caleb Wood and Švankmajer, are there any animators currently working, or general surreal, avant-garde, strange filmmakers whose work you really enjoy and are maybe inspired by?

In animation?

In animation, in the broad world of filmmaking. I’m most curious about animation myself because I want to know what you’re enjoying and go watch it.

No. To be honest, this is gonna sound really weird, but I don’t watch much animation, actually. I went through phases of going to a lot of film festivals when I was making a lot of short films and putting them into festivals.

I went to a lot of festivals and watched a lot of films and I did see some interesting stuff. But I’m kind of out of the loop actually with what’s going on in animation, so I should probably dip back into it again.

But I find myself as I get older, I find my taste in animation, I really only like weird shit, you know?

Yes, absolutely.

And you go to animation festivals and there’s not that much weird shit. You get a lot of very cute stuff and a lot of family stuff and I’m not that interested in that stuff to be honest. The thing you’ve mentioned sounds really good and I’ll check that out for sure, but I’m a bit out of the loop.

Very fair. Are there any non-animation people working right now that you like or are perhaps inspired by? And if not, I know Švankmajer’s a touch point for you but are there other touchpoints in stop motion?

For me, I see films that I like but I don’t really get influenced by modern films. My influences go back to my childhood and things I’ve seen that stuck with me and shaped me. There are lots of things that I’m thinking of in the back of my head.

With this film, there’s a little bit of Peeping Tom in there. There’s a little bit of Repulsion, a little bit of The Tenant, some of those Roman Polanski films. There’s a bit of Lynch, there’s a bit of David Cronenberg. There’s a lot of Francis Bacon’s paintings. That sort of stuff. And then a certain kind of archetypal tortured artist films, like Magic, the Anthony Hopkins film. 

So there’s a bunch of things. It’s hard to pick out any specific things, but there’s a bunch of stuff. You go through a life of watching stuff and there are certain things that stick in your throat. so to speak, and those things then come out later on, I think.

Absolutely. I know you’re on a press tour for STOPMOTION, but like I said, I’ve been a fan for a long time and THE SEPARATION is one of my favorite films of all time, short or feature.

Oh, thank you.

I’m wondering if you have any fond recollections of making that or any stories. Just feel like I need to pick your brain about it while I have the chance.

Yeah, my memory of it is that it was a very tightly scheduled film. We had a good budget but it was tightly scheduled. I was the only animator on it and it was originally a three-month production and then it became a four-month production of shooting. 

The most dramatic memory I have is being so exhausted. I remember one day, I was animating animating animating, the schedule was insane. It’s very, very, as I’m sure you know, energy draining to animate all day and when you’re doing it day in, day out on a schedule, it can get quite tough. And I remember walking into the set one day and I was like a zombie. I was so slow and sluggish, and the producer looked at me and said “have the day off, go to bed.”

She sent me home, and this was like nine in the morning. She sent me home. I went back to the place where I was staying, because we were shooting in Cardiff and I had lodgings nearby, I went straight to bed, around nine o’clock in the morning, I woke up about nine o’clock the next day. So I slept for 24 hours. I’ve never done that in my life. I’ve never slept for 24 hours before. It was draining, that’s my main memory from it.

I appreciate all the work you put into it. I’m sorry it was so draining.


Is there anything you wanted to talk about for STOPMOTION that you haven’t had a chance to speak about yet?

Not really, no. You know, it’ll go out there, it'll do its thing, I hope people like it. And I hope it sticks in people’s throats the way that some films in the past have stuck in my throat.

Stopmotion opens Friday, February 23, in select U.S. theaters via IFC Films. Visit the official site for more information.

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