The Cannes International Film Festival gets under way Wednesday with the international premiere of Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," a perfect opening night choice given its already established hit status stateside (TOH review here). And on Thursday the edgier Cannes sidebar Director's Fortnight (or Quinzaine) will open with Israeli director Ari Folman's "The Congress," a live-action/animation hybrid starring Robin Wright, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel and Danny Huston, which is being screened for the first time not only for Cannes audiences and critics but North American distributors as well. (Trailer here and below.)
Folman first pitched me "The Congress," which is based on the 1971 Stanislaw Lem sci-fi novel "The Futurological Congress," over a Sony Pictures Classics dinner at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival celebrating his Israeli animated documentary "Waltz with Bashir," which debuted in competition in Cannes and was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. I found the idea of an actress selling her digital persona to a studio both haunting and timely. We debated who would be willing to play the role: he was interested in Cameron Diaz at the time. We talked again last week via Skype between L.A. and Tel Aviv.
Anne Thompson: Well, you finally got it done. Did it take longer than you thought it would?
Ari Folman: I think it took, mentally, something like 19 years. So long.
It became more current, right? Isn't the world ready for it now, in a way?
I think it is. Even when I first discussed it with you, it was before the "Avatar" film, it was before CGI characters were something in our actual everyday cinema life. When I wrote it, I had no clue that coming to LA I would see this unbelievable scanning machine at USC where we could shoot the scene. It was already there, everything was ready for us.
When we spoke about "Waltz with Bashir," you made a distinction between the animation you created and tracing live action images via rotoscope. What are the differences, aesthetically and technologically, between what you did on "Bashir" and this film?
This film is half pure live action, and half animated. The first part is completely live action where Robin Wright is playing herself, an actress, who gets an offer from a big studio to be scanned into their computers and they will buy her identity for 20 years and they will be able to make any kind of film that they want to do with her, especially all those films that she, in her real life being Robin Wright, never wanted to do, like stupid sci-fi movies, any kind of box office. In the reality of the film, those who do not sign will not exist because big studios don't need flesh-and-blood actors anymore because they can just make them. This is the first part of the movie and it is completely live action, with documentary elements because she is playing herself and it is written from her biography and her filmography. She's playing Robin Wright, and they are buying Robin Wright, the actress that was a huge promise and then something happened in her career, she's a single mother with two kids. It's a very brave part for her to do.
Who did you approach to play this role? I remember you wanted Cameron Diaz.
I was thinking about her, Cate Blanchett once, I started writing, and at one of the ceremonies I attended in 2009, the LA Film Critics Awards, I saw Robin for the first time in person. I was so obsessed with the script, I was stunned with how perfect she was, but there was something really vulnerable in her. Because of the time difference between LA and Tel Aviv, where it was early morning, I asked my illustrators if they could illustrate her while I was sitting there. And they started sending me illustrations of Robin so that by the end of the night I had everything I needed to pitch it to her, and I did. I had the story and on my mobile all the illustrations for the second part of the movie. She said immediately, "I hardly know you, but this sounds so interesting I will go with you wherever you take me." Then we met a couple of months later just to write her personal story.
The part that's live action is contemporaneous with who she is today and the part that's animated is the future, when she's older?
We jump 20 years. The contract is good for 20 years so we jump 20 years in time and she arrives in that city called Abrahama -- in the Mojave Desert -- basically the future Disneyland, what it would be in 20 years time. You drive in the desert, you come to a checkpoint, you get an apple, you break an apple, you sniff it, you become animated and the whole city becomes animated. She arrives to Abrahama first for the Futurological Congress, where they declare the future aspects of cinema, meaning the next era after CGI, after 3-D, and this is where they will sign her for the extension of the contract. The technique I used in the second part is completely not like "Waltz with Bashir." We made a tribute to the Fleischer brothers (Popeye, Betty Boop), which is very tough to do, so basically it's like a 1930s animated style of the Fleischer brothers. It was very tough, today, even just to find the right people.