Reviews editor Erika Bean sat down with Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King, the writers, directors, and creatives behind the sprawling fantasy animation The Spine of Night.

How did you approach the story? Did you start off intending to tell an anthology story or did it evolve like that?

MGK: I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t going to be an anthology, or at least a semi anthology. We’d had discussions earlier on about the anthology structure of Heavy Metal, which I’ve always liked. But we’re not bringing in stories from other creators, so we wanted an anthology that also wove a single story through time. It seemed like an interesting creative challenge. I’ve also always been a fan of the Walter M. Miller Jr. novel, ‘A Canticle for Leibovitz’ which I was under the impression everyone heralded as a classic, but it turns out a lot of people haven’t heard of it! That’s just my personal canon. I was taking the time jump anthology structure of that and merging it with the anthology structure in Heavy Metal.

Why rotoscoping? Why not recreate the look digitally?

MGK: We did technically do it digitally, we drew it on computers. But it was all hand drawn, there’s no motion capture or anything automated in there. It’s classically animated, but on a computer. We chose rotoscoping because we both just always loved it, and it felt inherent to the story we wanted to tell. I’d been making rotoscoped short films prior to this and building on that aesthetic was baked in from the beginning.

PG: Absolutely, I don’t think there was ever an idea to do it any other way than rotoscoping. Because I think that late 70s early 80s style of storytelling is inextricably linked to rotoscoping, so it just went hand in hand.

When it came to the casting, considering how long winded a process making the film was, and how low the budget was, how did you acquire such big names?

PG: We didn’t start the film with those larger names attached. Around year 4 or 5 of the production, two things happened at once. One was we became aware that we were going to have to re-record, because we’d recorded sync sound with our original actors. So, we had voices in there, and they were the people who had done the motion reference for us, but the sound was terrible and it needed to be redone.

We also became aware that we needed more money. That was a fortuitous collision of realisations because it meant we could take what we had which was large chunks of finished animation and send it to the bigger voice cast and ask them if they wanted to come and be a part of our crazy fantasy adventure. Luckily for us, all the people we asked said yes.

Shudder

I was going to ask you if the voice actors had played themselves, because Betty Gabriel in particular looks so much like her character.

PG: It’s a little bit of a mix of both. Batty Gabriel is the only named actor who played herself. We shot with her the week after she graduated from acting grad school in New York. It was before Get Out, before she was in any of the Purge movies. We were there first!

Does the reference footage still exist? And is there a chance of a making of? In the UK we haven’t had a home release here, it’s only on Shudder so is there something on the Blu-ray?

MGK: There is a lengthy making of, with a lot of the live action footage on the Blu-ray. So hopefully that gets a release there. I’d love to get it online too, maybe there’s some way to make that happen.

PG: It’s a lot of fun, the raw footage. I mean it’s ridiculous to watch, but it’s a lot of fun.

What made you make such a bold choice when it comes to your lead? Making Todz a strong, naked woman, but not a sexualised one.

MGK: We’re both big fans of the genre, as far back as the entire last century. The constant is usually a chainmail bikini for women. In ‘Sword and Sorcery’ and a lot of fantasy works. That always felt so much like they wanted to have their cheesecake and eat it too. It’s a commitment to naturalness, it’s a commitment to sexualisation. But nudity is inherent to the era that these stories tend to exist in. Pre-history, post cavemen. There’s something inherently interesting about them being unshackled from civilisation and portraying that through nudity. Clothes are such a marker of civilisation and modernity, and our distance from our animal past.

I was designing the characters in a sketch book, and my wife walked by and commented that she liked the direction it was going. It was really her support for designing the character as nude, a little heavier set, and naturalistically non sexualised that led us to that place. She encouraged that greatly and I was really excited by the direction it took.

Yes, I got the impression she was supposed to be a mother of civilisation. The large breasts and the hips and her entire physicality is very maternal. So, I thought that was well done.

Do you worry that the gore and nudity will lead the story to be misunderstood?

MGK: That’s always going to happen. I’ve seen people on the internet saying the gore and nudity is fun, but the story is hard to follow. But I think giving it the benefit of the doubt, that it has more going on, than the exploitation quality. Part of what we wanted to do was marry the very high brow and the very low brow. You could have an existential story about the way society organises hierarchies of power. Whilst also having parts that aren’t just the philosopher and the skull talking about the meaning of existence. I hope it can function as both. Because I enjoy both, from the goriest movies to the heaviest Bergman ones. I feel like there’s got to be a middle ground that everyone can get into.

PG: It’s interesting to watch people’s responses to it. Because they’re so broad. One of the strangest or most telling responses are people who are offended by the nudity. But not because it’s nudity, but because she’s drawn the way she’s drawn. They’re mad that we didn’t give them Teegra from Fire and Ice. They’re mad that she’s drawn like a real woman rather than idealised. At the same time, to me that seems like they’re getting the point, they just don’t like it. And while I wish they didn’t have that opinion or that we’d helped them see the error of their ways, that response was already baked in.

There is a stark difference between most of the male and female characters. Like the men take and the women give. Was that intentional? Why?

MGK: The underpinning of a lot of the story is about the way hierarchies persist and are carried forward through the social myths we tell. I don’t think you can really talk about oppression without addressing that the patriarchy has been a huge part of that for basically all recorded history. We had to touch on that, we couldn’t ignore it. It’s a fantasy world but it still has to comment on the reality that we all know.

PG: The one asterisk that I’d put by that is, I wouldn’t say it’s unintentional because it was always in the script, but in the original draft the character that Betty Gabriel plays was a man. Then we had Betty read for the character and she did such an amazing job that we ended up flipping them to be a woman. So, the stalwartness that you’ve observed where the men are takers and the women are givers was intended to be a little bit muddied by that. But it got changed because Betty did such a great job. Which isn’t to say it’s not a theme of the film because it is but it’s just notable that we did that.

Did you intend for each segment to reflect a specific era in our history? Or was it more organic than that?

MGK: We were mainly trying to make the world grow organically. But just from our own experience, it’s hard not to because it’s the world we live in. I like a lot of gothic and Victorian horror so a lot of that made its way into the cathedrals of the second chapter. Also, the industrial revolution happened between segments. There are real world things that ended up informing how the fictional world evolved.

Shudder

Does the film reflect your worldviews? It seems somewhat nostalgic but also misanthropic.

MGK: Well I’m wearing my ‘In The Dust of this Planet’ [by Eugene Thacker] shirt which is the most misanthropic book of all time!

PG: My shirt says “Don’t trust the universe”.

MGK: We’re horrible. I see my worldview in the film. I don’t think it’s necessarily always correctly interpreted. But I see how I view the world quite a bit. I’d put myself in the absurdist box. A lot of people might say it’s a nihilistic film, but it’s much more absurdist. That being the non-hopeless version of nihilism. I generally would love there to be a non-hierarchical society, that would be ideal. I’d love to see those illegitimate power structures dismantled. So that’s weaved its way into the film, but I think both of us end up feeling pretty alienated and misanthropic too.

PG: I agree. I think it is ultimately slightly more Morgan’s worldview than it is mine. But we definitely see eye to eye on many things. I tend to view the movie more as a series of questions that we’re asking the audience, but dressed up in fantasy garb, and covered in gore and nudity for them to ponder.

I would say as a fan of open-ended endings to stories, even though an audience can find it unsatisfactory, it’s by its nature not necessarily dark, or light, hopeful or not hopeful. Really at the end of the film to me there’s a question. When this event occurs, not to give spoilers, what does it mean? Given all that we’ve put in the film, what do you think the future of this world holds? Will it be better? Will it be worse? So, misanthropy or absurdist views certainly run deep in the film, but at the end of the day I think it’s an open question for audiences to engage with, or at least I hope it is.

MGK: I’d agree with that too. I wouldn’t think of it as a polemical film necessarily. I’ve always been a fan from childhood of Bob Dylan’s. And I always think one thing that really makes his work so interesting, is how you just cannot figure out what a lot of the songs are about. It’s so interpretable. There’s one line in a song [Visions of Johanna] “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”. I think of that a lot because you could read that in a thousand ways. He clearly had a distinct vision but it’s interpretable to the audience. I think that’s important, that people are able to take away different things from your work. I hope that being a little opaque and a little abstract lends to that more than it obscures.

What do you hope people will take from it? Do you have an overarching message?

MGK: In the fiction of the film, it’s a lot about how the human structures that we adhere to are all voluntary. They are made by humans and can be changed by humans. The things we accept as normative and the way things are, don’t have to be, if we’re able to push back against it. And it takes systemic generational efforts, well beyond the lifetime of one person.

In a more meta sense, I hope that people take away that there’s a whole big world of what’s possible with independent animation. Because there’s just not that many features. We’re lucky to be releasing in the same year that Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo came out, as two western, independent, feature length animated films for adults. I hope that this is just the beginning of an era where artists finally have the tools, and the access to audiences, to push that even further. That’s exciting and we need people tracking that stuff down and checking it out.

PG: I’m going to answer more from a genre perspective, I hope that people engage with the film as a ripping fantasy yarn but also as an example of the fantasy genre doing something that it doesn’t often do. It’s not Tolkienesque high fantasy, it’s not historically based George R. R. Martin fantasy, it’s ‘Swords and Sorcery’ in this way that isn’t often seen on screen. So, I hope that if people aren’t aware of that part of the sub-genre, that they take away an appreciation for it and see that it’s cool too.

What’s next? Will you work together on another project? Will that be rotoscoped again?

MGK: I very much hope so. We’ve written a mountain of outlines and scripts. We’ve got a lot of things we’ve been playing around with. I would love to do more. If we were to rotoscope it, I’d like to expand this world. I think that we would need a bigger team, I don’t think I’m down for another seven years of being chained to my computer every day. So, we’d need to find a bigger team, and be able to get the film delivered much more quickly. I don’t think most people would have the patience that we were afforded on this one. I hope to tell more stories in this world, and that we’ll get the chance to dig into that before too long.

PG: Yes, I am confident that we’re going to work on something together in the future. I don’t know if it’ll be more rotoscoped fantasy or if it’ll be another kind of deeply misanthropic human hating fantasy! But either way, there’s stories to tell.

I’m here for it either way!

One more thing I wanted to ask or sort of comment on. Looking at the recent Oscars, is it difficult looking at the nominations and the recognition and seeing that 3 out of 5 were Disney. It must feel a little bit soul destroying at times that you’re up against this behemoth of animation. And it’s all just for kids. But there is this niche of adult animation with your work and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal among other things, so there is a market for it. But you have to really dig and search for it.

PG: Yeah, it sucks. But it’s also defining in a way. I hate to put it in militaristic terms, but your enemy is clear. To take a historical perspective on your question, adult animation in other parts of the world is not so strange. Japan obviously has a huge market for it. Europe also does, not a tonne but it exists. I think it’s an American cultural problem, but by nature of what American culture is, it exports that problem across the globe. So more and more of the perception is that animation is just for children. It is a problem that plagued us, through the entire production. When we tried to get a sales agent for the movie, we were talking to people in Hollywood and one sales agent didn’t understand and said “oh adult animation that’s really big right now, that’s great we’ll be able to sell that”

So, we’re thinking “oh this isn’t what we thought”, and then she asks if she can watch it with her daughter. And her argument is that she’s seen Pinocchio.

Well Pinocchio is pretty disturbing.   

PG: Pinocchio is a beautiful Disney film, one of the best. And it is disturbing, but it’s not what we’re talking about. These are two very different things.

I don’t know if it’s soul destroying exactly, but it is annoying. Deeply annoying.

MGK: The misanthropic part plays way into it too. I grew up in Southwest Virginia, in the peak of the Satanic Panic era. Every institution around us was trying to take away our ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ books. We had mandatory lectures about how evil Heavy Metal music was, and by that they meant Kiss. So being opposed to that was a defining aspect of my youth and I clearly can’t quite get over it. Having Disney’s evil Empire as the opposition is motivating in its own right.

PG: I could go on about my dislike for Disney, but I probably shouldn’t. Evil Empire is certainly how I think about them.

So they’re like The Sith, and you’re like The Rebels?

PG: Yeah but you know what I wouldn’t even use that metaphor because they fucking own it!

But that’s the irony! They don’t know they’re the bad guys!

The Spine of Night is available to watch on Shudder now. You can read our review here.

 

By Erika Bean

Blogger at screeningviolets.wordpress.com Occasional guest and host on the FILM & PODCAST. New cohost on Mondo Moviehouse. Likes arguing on the beach, long walks on the internet, intersectional feminism and neurodiversity.