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Sunday, March 10, 2024

Interview: Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan has been one of the most important filmmakers working in recent years. He is a master of the short stop motion animation film. He has directed such masterworks of the form as The Cat with Hands, The Separation, D is for Deloused, Bobby Yeah, and many others. You see his name mentioned in the same category as the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. And now he has a feature-length film, Stopmotion, out from Wild Bunch and IFC Films. Playing in select theaters now and coming to streaming platforms in Spring 2024. Finally, he is getting the exposure he deserves. 

First off congratulations! I know we die hard Robert Morgan fans have been hoping for this moment! I think I am not alone in saying this is exciting seeing you get the chance to direct a feature film! I understand you won Best Director at Fantastic Fest and won the Special Jury Award at the  Sitges Film Festival! This being your first feature film, I am sure there is a lot of pressure and stress having so many eyes on your work and so many critics and reviewers talking about it! How are you dealing with the stress of having a feature-length film out there in the world?  

Thank you! I feel good about it. The most important thing is that the film exists and that it exists in a completely pure, uncompromised form. Stopmotion is exactly what it was intended to be. I can’t ask for more than that. Everything else is just noise. 

How did the idea behind your film Stopmotion originate? Was it a film that you have been wanting to make for years or was it an idea that came together after the possibility of making a feature length film presented itself to you?  

Yes, it’s been years in the planning. I first had the idea to make a film about the process of stop motion itself sometime after I finished Bobby Yeah (2011). My first idea was about a living organic camera, which ended up not really being a feature-length idea, so I made it into a short (Invocation, 2013, which ironically stars Stopmotion’s co-writer Robin King!). After that, I felt that the feature should be more of a character study, following around this stop-motion animator as she goes through a crisis. That was the starting point. And this idea married to a second idea that was inspired by the making of Bobby  Yeah, where I had the sensation that the film I was making had taken on a life of its own and I didn’t have much say in its direction. That’s really the core of what the film Stopmotion is about: creativity as a hostile entity that’s separate from its creator. 

Films that explore the obsessions of the filmmaker and/or the filmmaking process itself, self-reflective works such as HItchcock’s Vertigo, Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Bergman’s  Persona, Powell’s Peeping Tom, are almost a genre in themselves. I think Stopmotion may fall into this tradition, with a filmmaker primarily known for making stopmotion animation films making a film about a stopmotion animator. What is it about using cinema as self-exploration, as confessional, that draws filmmakers to use cinema as a mirror? 

It’s just a world I know very well. I strongly feel that the process of stop-motion animation contains within it mysterious ritualistic aspects and occult energies that I wanted to explore. I wasn’t really trying to make a confessional film, I just thought it was a fascinating, unexplored subject. I was more conscious that the main character Ella was a “tortured artist” archetype if you like (as in Magic or Black Swan for example). Peeping Tom was an influence for sure, as was The Last House on Dead End Street, another horror film about filmmaking. 

I feel we are really seeing a revived era of horror cinema. There seems to be a renewed vitality to horror cinema that has finally escaped from the banal meta-humor of the 1990s or the lame 1970s nostalgia/retreads of say 2000 to 2010. Horror cinema has found its way again. What role do you feel horror cinema plays in our present reality of pandemics and political uncertainties?  

For me, horror is just a perfect way of exploring the hidden worlds that live inside people. I’m not so much interested in political or social influences in my films, my stuff is more internal and insular. I can’t really comment on how the current world would or should be reflected within horror. I suppose the films will inevitably reflect something of the world we live in, but for me at least, it’s not conscious. I like Edgar Allan Poe’s idea that terror is “of the soul” and that this is its legitimate source. You’re right though, horror cinema seems to be in a good place right now. I don’t know why that is.  

The use of surrealist and transgressive humor is a hallmark of your work. I feel that this kind of bizarre humor has become a subgenre unto itself and a lot of the most interesting work today is being done in this realm. I would point to artists and filmmakers from David Firth to Tim Heidecker as examples of people working in this genre. And I feel your works are a vital contribution, works such as Bobby Yeah and D is for Deloused are masterworks in this genre, This kind of ultra reality that satirizes our expectations of what we call the real. This immersion into body horror and laughing at what is found there in the abject and the charnel. There is a kind of unleashing of a primal chaos at the heart of surrealist humor. How do you feel the use of humor is intended in your work and what is it you are exploring? 

I think it’s about the absurdity of existence, and the horror of our inevitable decline and death.  We’re all heading there… You can only laugh at it. Underneath it all, we’re just writhing blobs of decaying meat that are trying not to acknowledge the fact that we’re writhing blobs of decaying meat. That’s pretty funny if you think about it haha. 

We have talked privately about our mutual love for the fiction of Thomas Ligotti. I am waiting, and certain that it will happen, that a wave of films based or influenced by Ligotti will hit theaters in much the same way H.P. Lovecraft became a cinematic trend in the 1960s and 1970s. It does seem that the best Lovecraftian films are works influenced by the work and not direct translations. Like Carpenter’s The Thing or Scott’s Alien. I think one of the films that I really don’t think is a direct adaptation but certainly captures the feel of a Ligotti tale is Kurosawa’s Cure with its hypnotized characters and its mysterious shadowy cityscapes. Was Ligotti and his malicious puppets in any way an influence on Stopmotion? And would you like to adapt a film based on his works and what works would interest you the most to adapt? 

Ligotti was certainly an influence - the puppet theme in particular, and the main character’s lack of agency against these malignant forces, plus the setting of the empty building. We did briefly discuss the idea of adapting The Red Tower as a stop-motion short, didn't we? I think that one would lend itself well to a semi-abstract film. The problem with directly adapting Ligotti into live-action features is that so much of his power comes from the prose. The characters are mostly ciphers and the plots are often barely there.  There are exceptions of course, like My Work is Not Yet Done and The Last Feast of Harlequin, maybe The Small People too, but often, the most powerful aspects of his stories come from their vagueness I think, which is tricky to translate into a 90-minute live-action narrative film. The prospect of a wave of  Ligotti-esque films is an exciting one though. The vibe is so strong in his work. I haven’t read the screenplays he co-wrote but I can’t wait to get my hands on Crampton and Michigan Basement that  Chiroptera Press are publishing.  

Lastly, what is next for you? Do you have any projects you are working on? What can we look forward to next from you?  

I’m always working on stuff, but I can’t really talk about them yet! Making films is so hard and unpredictable. Announcing things before they happen is never a good idea in my experience!

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