We can argue just how Israeli his new film is. The cast of "The Congress" is American, the language is English, and the plot takes place far from the Middle East. Still, Ari Folman's latest release is definitely the biggest cinematic event in Israel for years.
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In 2008 Folman's ground-breaking animation-documentary "Waltz with Bashir" was nominated for an Oscar. That excitement over, he announced that his next film would be a sci-fi movie – and that he'd be using animation and flesh-and-blood actors. The project was carried out in the darkest secrecy.
The secret's coming out Thursday, when "The Congress" opens the Directors' Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, last week Folman was in Holon, as guest of honor at the Design in Motion conference. His performance there kept the audience riveted.
Folman's long journey with "Waltz with Bashir" has turned him into an experienced stage animal. Still, most interesting at Holon were the slivers he revealed about "The Congress," which is based on the book "The Futurological Congress" by Polish sci-fi novelist Stanislaw Lem.
Folman was introduced to Lem's 1971 book when he was 16, he says. It's an allegory about the communist regime: a dictatorial state that feeds its citizens drugs to control them more easily. He reread it as a student, and when he was looking for an idea for his new film, the book sprang to mind.
"After 'Waltz,' when I was contemplating what I wanted to do next with my life, I knew I wanted to do something that would be 180 degrees in the opposite direction from what I had done already," he says. "'Waltz' was demanding from my perspective. True, there were zero expectations of it and working on it was intimate – just me and a few animators – but the tour I embarked on afterward, during which for months I didn't stop talking about myself and the movie, was exhausting."
After the animation of "Waltz with Bashir," which sent him on a consciousness journey into his vague memories from the first Lebanon war, the idea of a science-fiction movie seemed a refreshing change. He tracked down the holders of the copyright to Lem's book and set out to acquire the movie rights. ("That could be a university course in its own right – how to purchase rights from two Poles whose father was a writer," he tells the audience, drawing laughs.)
But even when he had secured the rights, Folman still didn't know what the film would look like. Only one thing was clear: This time he would combine animation and live action. "Because I really missed directing actors," he recalls.
At that stage he obviously didn't have a clue what a fabulous group of actors he would get to work with, like Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm and Danny Huston. But even before casting, Folman had to finish working on his ideas for the script and write it.
An important step in that direction, he says, occurred at Cannes in the final days of the 2008 festival, where his documentary had just premiered. He was wandering around the Marche du Film, the business segment of the Cannes festival where buyers and distributors from all over the world look for interesting commercial movies. Folman says his agent pointed to a woman around 65 or 70 and asked if he recognized her. When he said he didn't, the agent said the woman, an American, was a former actress who was once incredibly famous, a veritable cinematic fantasy. Decades later, she was in the business of buying movie rights, and no one even recognized her.
"I realized that thanks to her films, which continue to run and be screened, she remains forever young. But in practice, the woman who stands behind these films is in a completely different world, and even at the Cannes festival she's no longer identified with the divine figure she once was," Folman says. "I had no idea how to connect this to my film, but I had this picture in my head of an older woman who has to deal with the picture of herself."
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place thanks to a quote by Jon Landau, coproducer with James Cameron of the 2009 movie "Avatar." Landau, Folman says, claimed he couldn't see why the blue creatures in that 3-D blockbuster weren't Oscar nominees as well. The contention that characters created by computer animation could act just as well as flesh-and-blood actors came together in Folman's mind with that aging actress back at Cannes. The plot of "The Congress" began to take shape.
Lovely but sad
"I fantasized about the names of all sorts of actresses," Folman says, discussing his leading lady. "During the American awards season I was in Los Angeles, and at one event I saw Robin Wright sitting with her ex-husband, Sean Penn, and there was something lovely, poignant and sad about her. I said to myself, 'There, the film's about her.'"
He phoned his cocreators on "Waltz with Bashir," who continued working with him on "The Congress" – animation director Yoni Goodman and artistic designer David Polonsky – and asked them to prepare a few illustrations of Wright. Armed with the drawings and a synopsis of the film, Folman showed Wright the materials. She agreed to star in the movie.
Folman's "The Congress," then, is a loose adaptation of Lem's book and takes plenty of liberties deviating from the source. Wright ("The Princess Bride," "House of Cards") appears as herself. She plays an aging actress who receives a surprising offer from a Hollywood studio: They offer to build a three-dimensional figure that would look and sound exactly like her, and send that figure to act in films. That way she would stay eternally young. They offer her a generous payment, but she would have to give up her acting career completely.
At the conference in Holon, Folman showed the scene where Wright meets with the representative (Huston) of the fictional Hollywood studio Miramount. The smug studio rep predicts to the pretty actress that cinema will undergo a dramatic change, and suggests that the studio preserve her likeness by imaging her face, body, feelings, tears and laugh. But after he talks about the roles he plans for her virtual figure and tells her she'll never act again, Wright gets up and storms out of the room.
That scene is from the first half of "The Congress" – the first 55 minutes of which were shot in California and star flesh-and-blood actors. The second half is set 20 years later and created entirely with animation, based on the gorgeous drawings by Polonsky (who also served as artistic designer for the live-action sequences). "It was a big challenge because you're watching a 55-minute film with real characters, and then all of a sudden the whole world turns animated. We had to convince the viewer to go along with us," Folman says.
In contrast to "Waltz with Bashir" – for which Polonsky had to draw Folman and his friends as they looked both in 1982 and nowadays – for "The Congress" he had to produce drawings of the protagonists as they might look in 20 years. To ensure continuity, Folman used a similar technique to the one he employed in "Waltz." He shot the scenes in a studio with the actors and created the animation based on that footage.
The only animated scene Folman showed in Holon presents a conversation between the two characters who star in the live-action scene he showed Wright and Huston. The pair meet after 20 years, this time at a futurological conference on the future of cinema. Polonsky's illustrations in this scene create a dark, ominous and claustrophobic image, though the characters move much more smoothly than in "Waltz with Bashir." The reason is the decision to replace flash animation with classic animation. The latter demands many more illustrations per second filmed, but it looks a lot better.
The important parts of the animation were created in Israel – "It would have been much easier for me to do it abroad, but it was important to me to work with my people," Folman says. Still, the more technical parts such as the coloring were done in other countries such as Poland and the Philippines.
"The Congress" is a coproduction between Israel, Germany, France, Belgium, Poland and Luxembourg. Fellow Israeli Eitan Mansuri was one of the coproducers. Several other members of the team responsible for "Waltz with Bashir" also collaborated, among them Nili Feller (editing), Max Richter (original music) and Aviv Aldema (sound design).
Recruiting the film's dream cast was made possible only because they loved the project and agreed to ridiculously low pay for actors of their standing, Folman says. It seems "Waltz with Bashir" impressed them so much they were willing to endure the minimum rate required by the screen actors union.
Work on "The Congress" lasted four and a half years, and now the gala screening at Cannes is stirring great interest. It appears fans of "Waltz with Bashir" – and there are lots – are intrigued.
So after five years Folman will dive back into a round of film festivals all over the world, not to mention an exhausting deluge of press interviews. He still doesn't know when the film will reach Israeli theaters, but the sneak peek of "The Congress" in Holon certainly increases the anticipation.