The film noir genre is back with a ultra-violent twist as Stu Willis found as he checked out the all-new adult animated gem FILM NOIR before settling back in a smoky back street bar to chat over a bottle of bourbon to directors Risto Topaloski and D. Jud Jones (aka 'Serge') about the making of the movie…
Stu: Firstly, congratulations on the film. It was thoroughly enjoyable, a stunning and highly involving breath of fresh air.
D. Jud Jones: Thank you for your kind words.
Stu: Can I firstly ask what background each of you comes from, and how your individual experience added to FILM NOIR's success?
D. Jud Jones: One of my biggest goals when writing a script or making a movie is to keep my personal experiences out of my work. The reason for this is simple-I have lead a relatively boring life and am quite sure that, were I to do something based on my own life, the audiences would bored to tears. Still, the influences are impossible to avoid. One of them is that, growing up and throughout the film school, I was a huge film buff, even for a film student. The second is that, for the past twenty years, I have lived and worked in Los Angeles.
Risto: I have been an animator in the classic animation style for over 20 years now. Also my love for comic strips integrated with my film experience (commercials, shorts) produced the style that I applied to "Film Noir".
Stu: The film is clearly in debt to the classic noir films of the 1940s. Which ones were researched and studied most heavily?
D. Jud Jones: The screenplay was based more on my general ideas on film noir than on researching specific films. Still, the story owes most to movies like "Mirage" (Edward Dmytryk) and "Spellbound" (Alfred Hitchcock). The visual style was inspired by anything from "The Big Combo" to "Kiss Me Deadly", "Touch of Evil" and "Mr. Arkadin"
Risto: Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, Detour, plus a lot of clips of lesser-known films Serge researched in la and forwarded to us. Also years of watching old movies in the film archives in Belgrade.
Stu: What did you lift from such films, and where do you personally draw the line between homage and plagiarism?
Risto: Dark atmosphere, to begin with, some technical details (shadows etc.) And as far as homage/plagiarism is concerned, I think more than anything else the pure love I feel for the entire genre of film noir comes through.
D. Jud Jones: We never tried to lift anything directly. If we did, I don't even remember what movie it was from, as I haven't seen any of the movies in question for a number of years. Risto and I were working from general ideas we had about the genre. The story and the look were more a result of hundreds of hours spent in movie houses around the world, then analyzing a specific film and saying "let's take that piece". I did assemble a small collection of various film noir trailers, as I was toying with the idea of using some of the fancy transitions that were popular at the time of the genre's heyday, but in the end we didn't use any.
As for plagiarism, I have a long time ago stopped expecting films-mine or someone else's-to be original. The one thing I have a problem with is when people lift things and fail to incorporate them in what they're doing. My other problem is when people pretend to have invented something that has existed since the silent era.
Stu: Were you at all influenced by modern noir films such as SIN CITY or THE SPIRIT?
D. Jud Jones: Both of those films came out when we were already finishing our film, so there was no time to be influenced by them. I have never seen The Spirit, but I have seen Sin City. While it is a perfectly fine-possibly even exceptional-movie by 21st century standards, it certainly wouldn't make my top one hundred list of Film Noir movies.
Risto: We started the work in 2D on this film in 2000 (see the extras on dvd), these movies post-date us - I knew of Frank Miller's work, I love Ronin, also Will Eisner for example, but mostly I love Johnny Hazard by Frank Robbins.
Stu: What prompted the decision to base the film in a modern environment (which works extremely well, I might add)?
Risto: Because the original masterpieces of film noir genre were not pre-dated, they were contemporary to the era.
D. Jud Jones: I'm really not sure. For some reason, in my mind it was always a modern movie. I was just convinced that there was no reason to have the story happen in the past. I also liked the idea of using the back-projection-like technique for driving sequences and, with our budget, that pretty much meant we had to do it this way.
Stu: The film was originally going to be made in colour, is that right? If so, what changed? And how did the decision come about to retain the odd flashes of red in the film?
Risto: We started in colour, but soon enough gave up to save time and money. The look as it ended up was something our art director Relja Penezic came up with.
D. Jud Jones: We tried to make one sequence in colour just to make sure our decision to go black and white was the correct one. As for the flashes of colour, that was inspired by a Dusan Makavejev's film "Innocence Unprotected".
Stu: Which animators/authors/novels do you credit as the major influences on the film?
Risto: Other than the comics authors mentioned before - Milton Caniff, Jean Giraud, and the king of cartoons - Tex Avery. Also I need to mention Darko Perovic, Harvey Kurtzman and Terry Gilliam.
D. Jud Jones: When it comes to live action films, the influences came from major directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur, Jack Arnold, Tod Browning, Orson Welles, Robert Aldrich.
Stu: Why was the decision to make the film in 3D made? Did this change the storyline at all?
D. Jud Jones: The main reason for switching to 3D was financial. Even though we all loved the 2D old-school animation, the approach was just taking too much time and we were beginning to run out of bodies to do the animation. Still, I met some great people and made new friends because of the change so now I'm happy we did it. The switch to 3D also enabled us to develop and extend some of the action scenes by creating additional camera angles. I would say that's the only change to the storyline prompted by the switch.
Risto: We moved to 3D due to the lack of classically trained animators in the place where we were working. I don't think it changed the storyline, but we were able to do multiple versions of scenes and chose the best. All traditional animators know how hard it is to do "takes".
Stu: Explain the 3D process for the less educated among us. Is it a laborious and costly one? What's involved?
D. Jud Jones: Risto should be able to answer this much better.
Risto: It is fairly easy to do the basic scene set-up, and to see some rudimentary action - we call it play blasts. However, it takes "forever" to see the finally rendered scene in all its glory, and typically it's fraught with glitches and errors that take forever to trace and fix.
Stu: What was the overall budget for the film?
Risto: About 600,000 euros
Stu: How do you go about selling and marketing the film?
Risto: We have a world wide sales agent - Wild Bunch in Paris and they are doing an ok job with it.
Stu: The sex and nudity are obvious talking points of the film. Were they always intended to be so full on, or did you find that things just "developed" in that direction? What was the financiers' reaction to such content?
D. Jud Jones: The sex and nudity was always the part of the plan. The only thing that developed is how those scenes were directed. Risto used a more direct approach than I had in mind when I was writing those scenes. When I saw the storyboard and the direction that he was going in, I loved it, so I pushed it even further. Risto, of course, didn't need much pushing.
As for the money people, the film was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, so there was no one who could tells us to tone it down. Of course, Miodrag (Producer) and I lived to regret some of our decisions, as we were told that some countries passed on the film because of graphic nudity (as is typical nowadays, no one complained about violence, but nudity turned out to be a problem).
Risto: the original tests had even more hardcore sex in it, but Serge (D. Jud Jones) had toned it down having in mind the US market. Since, however, our sales agent wanted more, we came up with a "happy" medium.
Stu: … And was there anything you self-censored, anything that went "too far"? If so, please do tell!
Risto: Yes, indeed, some "penetration" in detail.
Stu: The script is also expletive-heavy at times. Again, was it scripted as such or did it develop that way? Is there any room for ad-libbing in animated films?
D. Jud Jones: The movie was scripted with all the "bad" words in it. If anything, the actors tended to scale the profanity down, not the other way around.
When it comes to ad-libbing, we definitely allowed it and encouraged it. Since the sound is recorded in advance and the animation of dialogue scenes is done to the recorded sound, the animated feature may be an ideal medium for ad-libbing (as sound studio time costs much less than production time). Still, since I was in the room the whole time, the actors were kind enough to stick to the dialogue I'd written most of the time).
Risto: The only ad-libbing happens in "off" - when you don't see the characters' lips.
Stu: Mark Keller was obviously a huge contributor. Can you speak a little about his working relationship within the film?
Risto: He is a good buddy of my co-director's and producer's from the States. I have never met him in person, but love his contribution to the film.
D. Jud Jones: Mark is a great combination of professionalism and talent, which is something you usually don't find in a same person. Before he started working on the music I gave him a list of film noir movies I liked. He took it from there. The way we worked with him was to let him have a first go without too much input from us. Then we would listen to what he did and make suggestions. Mark proved himself to be extremely flexible and able to "translate" our non-educated musical gibberish into great music. I can honestly say that I've never had a better experience.
And then, to top it all off, he also gave us a perfect voice for Sam Ruben.
Stu: How was the film cast?
Risto: Serge, Miodrag and Mark Keller did it in San Francisco, using the commercial voice-over people they knew. But before that, Serge had recorded the pilot track for the entire film himself, excelling as a little girl who had just lost her daddy.
D. Jud Jones: Casting was another thing on which we owe a lot to Mark. As the sound was recorded in his studio in Sausalito, most of the actors came from the San Francisco area, and Mark knew those people much better than any of us. Mark would send us sound samples of various actors reading from the script and we would choose the ones we liked. The entire process was surprisingly easy and stress-free.
Stu: The theme of the film is clearly identity. Can you speak a little about the central plot and the concepts that drive it?
D. Jud Jones: Well, it's one of the oldest and least-original plot devices in storytelling. I don't know what we would do if amnesia didn't exist, but fortunately for writers and filmmakers it does. One thing that always attracted me to these stories is that a man who doesn't remember anything is in a way as innocent as a child. The obvious question that comes to mind is what happens once he realizes his past life is filled with horrendous mistakes. We all fear we are much worse people than what we hope we are, so this kind of storyline resonates really well with audiences and sucks them right into the story.
It has to be noted, however, that the original treatment didn't even feature amnesia. The story was simply that of a down-on-his-luck detective who is hired to find the elusive David Hudson. Unable to do so, and desperate to collect a huge reward, the detective decides to pass himself off as David with the help of a plastic surgeon. What the detective doesn't know, however, is that the man who hired him is looking for David to have him killed. The rest of the story was supposed to be about the detective eluding hired killers while desperately trying to prove that he is not David, while continuing to search for the real Hudson.
Anyway, as I wasn't happy with the first version of the script, I added the additional layer of our hero having amnesia and the story suddenly started to click.
Risto: I don't know who said it, but I loved the line we used in pitching our project: "in the world where everything is for sale, most people have only themselves to sell." Also the idea that no matter how bad a person you are in the eyes of others, it is very difficult for you to agree with their perception.
Stu: Femme fatales have always been a major ingredient of film noir and FILM NOIR provides a couple of the most memorable I can think of. Were they based on anyone in particular, real or fictional?
D. Jud Jones: Actually, most women I met in my life were wise, kind and nurturing to me. It may not be fair to them, but in writing the script I just did what the genre requires (an old Billy Wilder quote on women in films comes to mind-"If she's not a whore, she's a bore". Curiously enough, this "rule" seems to apply only to Hollywood films and the rest of the world seems perfectly capable of creating interesting female characters of all kinds.
In any case, the character of Angela was based on a woman I used to know in New York. I just gave her a hopeful ending the real woman never had.
Risto: All the female characters represent a fabulous contribution of our beautiful and super talented head animator Jelena Jovanovic.
Stu: Some of the character names are intriguing. Do names like Krumb, Stern, Da Vinci, Kaplanski and so on, hold any significance that may be lost on an uninformed viewer?
D. Jud Jones: Da Vinci's name was, for some reason, based on a young woman I was friendly with at the time. Stern may have been based on Howard Stern. Kaplanski just came to me for no apparent reason (there is a country singer named Lucy Kaplansky, but i've never heard her sing). Krumb is the only real reference (to a famed cartoonist Robert Crumb).
Stu: What are the benefits and pitfalls of co-directing?
D. Jud Jones: I am not sure what Risto will say but I saw only benefits. As luck would have it we are mostly interested in different aspects of directing so there was very little back-and-forth during the process. While Risto is the expert in animation and loves things visual, I love storytelling, developing concepts, editing and so on. The best proof that we both enjoyed the experience is that we plan to do another movie as co-directors.
Risto: No real pitfalls, except for the fact that Serge spent more than 90% of production in L.A., while I was in Belgrade. Thank god for high speed internet. Benefits were many because I learned a lot from a co-director whose entire previous experience was live action.
Stu: Are the parallels to DARK CITY intentional? The look, the pace, the man waking with amnesia that may or may not be a killer, the noir scenario relocated to a contemporary setting?
D. Jud Jones: I certainly wasn't aware of the parallels when we were making the movie. I even forgot that I have seen the movie. Now that you ask me, I remember watching and thoroughly enjoying the film. I especially liked the Keifer Sutherland character. Who knows, the film may have influenced me without my knowledge.
Stu: There was also a feel of a nod to modern computer gaming in the film. Is this acknowledged, or am I way off the mark?
Risto: Honestly, nothing while I was working on it, but I see how people can see some similarity to Max Payne.
D. Jud Jones: You are correct. The idea, however, came from the animators. Since several of them have worked on a number of games, that's only natural.
Stu: FILM NOIR comes across as a labour of love. However, in the DVD extras, you suggest that Serge (D. Jud Jones) never wanted to make an animated film. Can you elaborate on how you all became so immersed in the project?
D. Jud Jones: I just love storytelling and filmmaking. I never thought of doing an animated movie before, but once we started I was almost immediately hooked. I just loved everything about the process. I loved the people we worked with. It was like a family was working together.
The film comes across as a labour of love simply because it is. There is not a single frame in it that wasn't done for the purest of reasons. I don't know that many films get made with more freedom and fewer compromises. Our producer Miodrag Certic is first and foremost a film director and a film buff. In all the years we were working on Film Noir a sentence like "but how will this affect the sales?" Was never uttered by anyone.
Risto: A lot of things came together in 2000. I was working in Belgrade for a California company doing animation for the internet. Serge and Miodrag (Producer) were partners in that company. When the internet work slowed down, I suggested we try our luck in animation. Serge had a script ready, Miodrag went about finding the money and so it happened.
Stu: Something you don't really hear of with animated films: are there any anecdotes from the recording/making of the film that you can share?
D. Jud Jones: The one I remember is all the ribbing I got for performing all of the dialogue in the original edit of the storyboard. To this day some people make fun of me for my performance as a little girl in the beginning of the movie.
Risto: Having had no previous experience with 3D, when I designed my first animated character - Sam Rubin, I put him in the environment, which had been designed by a background artist. Sam was 10 times the size of the house he was about to enter. I then expressed my rage by animating him pissing on that house. We all had a laugh, but then spent the next 10 days trying to do it right.
Stu: Do you envisage a sequel to FILM NOIR? If so, how would the outline read?
Risto: Having regained his personality, Sam now goes about getting his real face back, and with it come unimaginable burdens and complications. Something like this…
D. Jud Jones: Actually, I don't think I would be interested in doing a sequel. To me the story ends with the last frame and the sequel would end up feeling forced. Of course, one could always invent a story about Stern escaping from jail, or being freed on a technicality, and going after Sam and Angela for revenge. This would, of course, force Sam and Angela to have plastic surgeries, which would lead to all kinds of interesting possibilities, like trying to make love with every part of their bodies aching. Another possibility would be to have a man who looks like a real Sam Ruben claim that he is the real Sam Ruben, which would lead our hero to question his identity all over again.
Stu: Having toiled on FILM NOIR, do you envisage making more films in the same style?
D. Jud Jones: Absolutely. Risto and I are already working on the next project.
Risto: While Serge and I are working on "Western" as a natural sequel in "the genre series", I'm also involved in some very abstract - non story line driven animation projects with Mladen Miljkovic as a producer. I'm working on my creative schizophrenia, so to speak.
Stu: How have audiences responded to the film? Do any particular screenings or reactions stand out?
Risto: Since I rarely travel outside of Serbia, I really enjoyed the opening nights in Belgrade and Novi Sad.
D. Jud Jones: I attended screenings in a number of countries and am amazed by how well the film is received wherever I go. It is almost as if the good will and love invested in the making of the film is felt by the audience. Strangely enough, for a film with this much sex and violence, the conversations I had with audiences after the film were the kind of feel-good conversations one would expect after a children's movie.
Stu: What's the best way to watch the film?
D. Jud Jones: This film was made with TV in mind, so watching it on a good TV with surround sound is an excellent way to go. Still, being old school myself, watching a movie in a half-empty theatre was always my favourite way to go.
Risto: On the big screen, alone in the cinema
Stu: What's next for all concerned?
D. Jud Jones: Risto and I are moving on to the next genre on our list: Western!
Miodrag, I know, is working on a live-action film that he plans to direct himself.
I am also working on a script for a live-action film about the world's kindest man and his amazing influence on everyone he meets.
Risto: "Western" is currently in preproduction.
FILM NOIR is out now on DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment.
Special thanks to Risto Topaloski, D. Jud Jones and John at Optimum.