Transcending Tribeca: Chris Sullivan of Consuming Spirits
Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Chris Sullivan’s feature drama Consuming Spirits had its world première on Monday, April 23. For more about the making of the film, and more animation from Sullivan, see his Vimeo channel.
Chris Sullivan’s feature film Consuming Spirits feels like a nostalgia piece for the age of MTV’s animation showcase Liquid Television. Like an episode of that show, Consuming Spirits covers a variety of visual styles, from traditional hand-drawn line art on tracing paper to collaged paper characters to stop-motion done with toys and models. And it initially seems like a Liquid TV-style collection of unrelated sequences by unrelated animators. Its opening vignettes in particular seem entirely unrelated, visually and conceptually, apart from the fact that they all take place in the same small Appalachian town.
But over the course of its 135-minute run time, the film comes together into a single, powerful narrative based around the bitter longing for love and the disappointment when it isn’t reciprocated in the right ways, or to the right degrees. There are three primary characters: Earl Grey, whose soporific gardening-advice radio show always seems to have heavy hidden messages about his views on life; Gentian Violet, a single woman who opens the film by running over a nun and hiding her body; and Victor Blue, a newspaper paste-up man with the smallest, pettiest ambitions, like getting his institutionalized mother to grant him the title to the family pickup truck he frequently drives drunk. The film watches them live their lives, but also frequently flashes back to piece together a history of major events in their town—with no clear sense of who the players in those events are. Ultimately, a long criminal confession from Earl puts names to the mysterious unconnected scenes, and brings all the film’s scattered moments together into a tragic story.
Sullivan, who teaches animation and experimental narrative and mentors graduate students at Chicago’s School Of The Art Institute, has been working on the film for nearly 15 years: He calculates that he spent three years on the script and 12 in the animation, working on his own or with students hired from the Institute. He also voiced Victor Blue, recorded the sound, edited the film, played the musical instruments and performed the vocals—he laughs that the band credited with the score, The Islands Of Langerhans, is entirely made up, and is mostly him and a few friends. He was animating right up until a month before Tribeca, but with the film finally done, he almost immediately had his first chance to watch it with a general audience. The A.V. Club talked to him in New York about the film’s themes of quiet madness and misaligned love, and why viewers should trust him and come along for this odd, beautiful ride.
The A.V. Club: How have your Q&As gone? Are people asking good questions?
Chris Sullivan: They did. One person asked the greatest question: “Why are you characters so ugly?”
AVC: That’s one’s on my list too. It’s not so much that they’re ugly as that they’re consciously grotesque—bloodshot eyes, gnarled protruding teeth, veins in their faces. There’s a definite emphasis on distortion in the art.
CS: Yeah. The way I actually answered the question was, there’s the extremely beautiful and there’s the extremely grotesque, and most of us live our lives in the shallows between. But one has to negotiate belonging through either physical, social, or personality kinds of things. So I’m interested in that. Like the scene when Victor is saying [to Gentian], “I know I’m pretty ugly, and you’re pretty ugly, too.” He’s saying something that’s insensitive, but not really untrue. He’s articulating this unspoken thing between them.
When I was writing it, initially, Earl was a secondary character. But because the other characters are all highly imperfect narrators, or not introspective enough, whether they’re protecting themselves, or they just don’t have the abilities to see through… I needed a character who was more aware of all the pieces in play. He’s more damaged by his awareness of what’s happening. It’s funny; even when I teach, I always say that you have to have a character who is at least as smart as you while you’re writing, or you’ll get really bored. [Laughs.] So I think this idea of grotesqueness and physicality—things like Gentian’s mother just hanging around the house naked—I want that as both the ultimate comfort, and the ultimate debasement. I was thinking, actually, there were weird little film references in the film, but like to Titicut Follies, and the scene in Titicut Follies where everyone’s naked. So the idea of that… it can either be sexual, or it can be a complete subjugation.
AVC: How did this film start out? Which came first, a story idea, or an image?
CS: There was one beginning image. It was a very strange one that now you can find on the Internet. This guy named John [Torrington] was part of the Franklin Expedition for these people that tried to go over the North Pole. They dug these people back up, and they had been frozen. So this image of this guy with long blond hair, his nose is black, his lips are wrinkled, but he’s like 150 years old. And if you see that image, you’ll see that’s where [Consuming Spirits’] mummified shaman came from. So I think there were a few images in my head, but then I started writing the story.
I do have a past of social services and an alcoholic father and things like that, but it’s not anything like the situations in the story—I come from a big family. But there was foster care in my past. And again, I was thinking of that from this place of how love or generosity is almost always misfired. Every once in a while, it hits its target, but rarely. It feels really good when it does, but it’s much safer to say “I hate you” than “I love you.” So that’s this overall theme of how you try to take care of someone, you try to love someone, and three-quarters of it doesn’t quite land right. I have a really positive relationship with my kids, and I don’t think I’ve had great challenges. But when you see a kid who can’t stand to be around their parents, it’s all these things that their parents do to love them that feel suffocating or manipulating. [Laughs.] I’d say that’s the real thread in the film for me, this idea that most of us try to love, and we do it poorly more than we do it well.
AVC: Your press information said making this film was a 15-year process. What was the timeline for that? At what point did you start writing, and at what point did you start animating?
CS: I started writing in ’96 and ’97. I can’t say I really super launched into film until ’98, but I had done work on it, and pre-production. So I wrote it out first as a prose piece, then a script, then kept writing. The last significant writing I did was probably about four, five years ago. And there are certain things that stayed throughout that process, and other things became uninteresting to me, too. Like, Geni taking care of her mother wasn’t initially in the script, and then that became something I liked about it. Once I introduced that character, it started to evolve and more and more to become part of the figurative narrative of the piece. That is one of the things that made it end up being a two-hour-15-minute film. I think that because I’m a writer, I can’t really stop myself. Sometimes I wish I thought more visually.
AVC: That’s a pretty interesting thing to hear from the director of an animated film.
CS: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: Did the length concern you? This film really takes patience, especially at first. It’s like the jigsaw puzzle Victor is putting together—at the beginning, you’re given all these pieces, but it’s unclear how or whether they fit together.
AVC: And the ending features a tremendous payoff, but it’s a long wait of seeing all these sequences and characters with no idea of their relevance.
CS: Yeah, the length concerned me mainly in terms of like pragmatic stuff. You know, longer films are becoming more normal. I have sat in the room to watch it, and I feel the vibe of people’s energy—there’s a point where people say, “Okay, I’m going to stay on this ride.” But it is interesting, too, if people take the beginning and tune in to the absurd humor of it. They’re on the ride a little earlier. That did happen [at last night’s screening]. But I can’t tell if the first 25 minutes, where you’re like “I’m not sure what’s going to happen here,” if that would happen no matter where I started in the story. I don’t know if that’s something about adjusting to the homemade quality, or that’s something I can actually fix as an editor. [Laughs.] I do realize I like films that make the viewer work. I like being like, “Oh where am I now?” But as a maker, it’s a little scary. I haven’t had a situation where I felt like an audience completely withdrew, but I’m sure that will happen sometime.
There’s also the period where you have Victor visiting his mom in the institute, and then the museum kids, and then the death of the mother—a lot of heavy stuff that happens in a row. But there was a point when I tried to put something light in between, and that was worse. [Laughs.] And actually, when Victor gets fired, it’s nice to have that—a lot of people really like that scene, and they say it’s because Victor gets small and his boss cradles him like a baby. But I think it’s really because they needed a break. They needed a little bit of levity, or warmth.
AVC: There are a lot of surreal moments like that throughout the film, where the visuals come from how the characters are feeling. It’s subjective reality. But there are other surreal moments with no clear point of view, like when Earl’s scissors crawl away from him. What for you was the point of the surreal interludes?
CS: I’ve heard people say “That’s when the pixies are there.” [Laughs.] I think those are points of someone reaching a point of breakdown—it’s like when people laugh at a funeral. Where things start to get unhinged, and you need something to protect yourself. There’s a really weird photograph—it’s a famous photograph—of people being lynched during some Nazi war atrocity. And there’s a girl hanging by her neck, and there’s a boy next to her who’s about to get the noose put on, and he’s laughing… and that’s his sister. You get pushed to this extreme, and it brings out some weird, protective thing, whether it’s amnesia or whether it’s… So the hallucinations are like “Oh, here’s a little treat for me when I go crazy.” I think of it something like that. And I am interested in this idea of calm madness. Like, there’s only a few times where people lose their temper in the film, but it’s mainly like “Okay, the house is on fire. What should I get out?” There’s something interesting in that calmness. It’s interesting—a lot people explain or talk about this when they realize they’re going to die. They get this weird calm, like “Well, this is the worst that could happen; here I am.” I guess I’m interested in that mental place a lot. That’s where the hallucinatory images come from.
AVC: You mentioned the film’s rough handmade look. I’ve talked to big-budget stop-motion animators who say they do stop motion for that handmade, real quality. I’ve also talked to small-scale stop-motion animators who say they do it because that’s what they can afford, and they’d rather be working in a slicker medium. Where do you fall on that scale?
CS: I fall to a place where I like the way it feels. I didn’t like some of the cinematic limitations that you wouldn’t have if you were doing, like, 3-D puppets. I really like it when I feel I’m on top of the actual craft of the animation. There are some scenes I still would like to take back in terms of, I didn’t animate them as well as I would’ve liked to have. There’s other ones that I’m perfectly comfortable with. And my assistants—the two other animators who did a good 40 percent of the film—I liked their work. Sometimes I think their work is more careful than mine. I guess I like cracks in the reception of the piece. My only downside is that I don’t like the cinematic limits. My next feature has three-dimensional spaces, but then it’s going to be drawn animation. I’m not really interested in exploring CGI, just in terms of, I don’t want to take the time to get good at that. [Laughs.] I would do a cutout thing again if something seemed to be right, or seemed to work. I did like the fact that I could just sit down and do this thing. I like the fact that I’m going to make you feel [a certain way] despite what the animation looks like.
I always think of Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies, the Brothers Quay film. There’s one character that’s just an eye on a piece of dough and a wire, and you don’t feel like anything’s missing. I wish I’d made certain things about the film more beautiful in terms of gestures and things like that. But I like the quality of it. I like the texture of it. I like the feel of it.
AVC: The film has several different distinct animation styles. It seems like a hand-drawn scene indicates something taking place in the past?
AVC: But then there are photograph composites, and stop-motion with physical models and toys, and the segmented paper cutout characters. What determined which method you used in other scenes?
CS: The physical models became this exterior-space idea. I didn’t realize I liked it more than I thought—I left some of it on the editing-room floor beyond the point of regaining it, because I had to transfer the film, but the physical models, I like the fact that it’s the most unbelievable material, but there’s something beautiful about being in that spatial realm. So that was exteriors of the world. You had like the car. You had the drive-by. Some of it was pastiching around. But I think my delineations of “This style is this material, and this style is this material…” The edges were not, perhaps, as hard as they could have been. I think I got so into the idea of camera movement and the puppets and the models that I didn’t shoot enough exterior shots, establishing shots. But that was a space that was another weird—it falls into the uncanny, in a way that the cutouts or drawings don’t.
The hand-drawings have a certain emotional quality. There’s a possibility of what I can do with very small figures and landscape that only works in the drawings. It even works better than live-action, for this very tiny, kind of [Ingmar] Bergman silhouette-on-the-hill kind of scene. Many people say the most emotional scene for them is when the kids are being taken away [from their family by social services, in a sequence drawn as if it’s a long way off in the distance]. Cinematically, if you say “Okay, the main actor is going to be about 70 feet away from the camera…” [Laughs.] It’s not going to work in live action. I’m not sure why it happens, but there are so many interesting things that happen in the drawing world.
AVC: Well, so many of our emotional cues from other people are taken from facial expressions, and with a camera 70 feet from a person, you can’t see the face. But those drawings are so expressionistic and simple, and they don’t have faces to begin with. Seeing them in silhouette, you get all their emotions from their postures and movement.
CS: Yeah, it is one of those unique moments where people say “Why did you animate it?” That definitely is a scene that only worked that way.
AVC: Did you have a favorite scene to animate?
CS: I think the confession scene, I enjoyed a lot. The campfire scene feels really right to me, though I still can’t tell how other people feel about it. All this stuff has happened, and Earl is explaining how he’s going to survive in the woods. I really enjoyed it. That scene was just shot about a month and a half ago, because I shot it in September and had a terrible camera disaster. [Laughs.] I had to completely re-shoot it. So that’s the last thing that was shot in the film. I very much liked shooting the scene when Victor breaks back into Earl’s house, because it was one of the only non-language-based scenes. In some ways, I do want to find a way that I cannot be as dependent on language in my work. I mean I know I’m a talky guy, but there are times when I want to shut up, and I need to figure out how to do that.
AVC: Earl Gray’s soothing voice and country stories tend to draw the film together, especially early on. Was he inspired by Garrison Keillor at all?
CS: No—that’s interesting, though. I think the tone of Garrison Keillor is definitely part of it. I’m a big Joe Frank fan. I don’t know if you know his work, but [his radio play] Rent-A-Family is an incredible piece of work. As soon as I got Robert Levy [the voice of Earl]—he’s a photographer friend of mine. Once I had the first recordings, that drew me to write a lot more. I knew where I was going. So he really became the accidental protagonist. But it also allowed me—there are things you can do in theater in terms of jumping between first person, second person, and third person, that are really hard to do in film. I had to have a trope, which is that Earl is on the radio. So the tropes you need are monologues, confession rooms, therapists, doctors, radio shows, or whatever. It’s funny—the whole subjective limit of film doesn’t exist in theater. I can’t articulate why that is so, but it just is.
AVC: The folk and roots music that runs throughout the film gives the story a feeling of being bound by tradition and history. Does that relate to your personal feelings about small rural towns?
CS: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is like a weird city/small town, partially that’s because of the mountainous landscape, so I had what seems as a rural existence. There was even a farm behind my house for many years, before they built a high school there. But there’s something about in these cities—and New York’s like this—where you have this whole history of being Indian, and Pittsburgh was French, and then it became British, so it has these layers of history that pile up. So that’s why I think the songs dig some of that up. I do also think there’s a certain way, as individuals, we’re in these landscapes that seem to have some historical trajectory. They’re being swept by this historical potential of themselves and of the landscape they live in.
AVC: You’ve created a variety of short pieces that are available online, but have you ever attempted another feature like this before?
CS: I did. I made one that I’m probably going to actually revamp. I made it in, like 1987. I made a series of animations that went from six minutes to like seven, nine, 11, 24. My last film that I finished was in ’94. The film Rooms was a feature I didn’t show around much. I got disillusioned from some rejections. I was young. I shelved it, as people do sometimes. But I have an interest in bringing it back to life. I might make a revisiting of it, using me—I’m in it, but I’m 27. So adding my 52-year-old me in it, that might be a weird little project while I’m working on another feature.
People say “Do you want to work on something short now?” and I don’t. I think it’s like, when you write a novel, it’s hard to go back to working on short stories. And I do really believe in people sitting in a theater together and watching something together. It’s different, and something I really want to defend as long as I can. People say “Are you making work for the Internet?” and I say “No, I’m not.”
AVC: Who are you making this work for?
CS: Hopefully for open, smart people. Right now, I think the majority of my audience is overly academic. It was really nice having a room full of normal film viewers last night. Which I think is the first time that’s been the majority of my audience. I’ve been seen mainly in educational or avant-garde festival circuits, so it was really nice showing my work to people who were just coming to see a movie. There are limits to which people will be able to get into this film. But I have had teenage kids see it and say they loved it. It seems to have some breadth for some people.
AVC: Has there been any distribution interest yet?
CS: I’ve heard from distributors, but most of them are sight-unseen, just “You’re in Tribeca, and I saw your trailer, and I love it, so…” I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens at Tribeca, because there’s a lot of interest from a lot of festivals that should be telling me right now [whether I got in], and they’re holding up. I did have an interesting conversation with this one person who distributed Triplets Of Belleville—although three people have told me they distributed Triplets Of Belleville, so I’m not sure who’s telling the truth. [Laughs.] But they said “As far as commercial distribution goes, the audience would be tiny.” Which I disagree with. I think it would be small, but not tiny. She said “…so we will not be distributing it.” It came across as a little mean-spirited. I do think there’s this element of—and I don’t like this about the film world—there’s a sense that things need to be vetted. Tribeca will help with that. No one wants to be the first to say “I love this film.” I wish that wasn’t the way the world works. People at a studio have seen it—seen a screener, an older version—but they said “We’re interested, but we want to wait and see what happens with other festivals.”
AVC: The vetting process may help, though, with the need for patience going into the film, with waiting for it to come together. If there was a message you could give to anyone before they see this movie, what would it be?
CS: I think I would say “Try to trust me.” That’s all. [Laughs.] Like the one scene where Earl says “Gentlemen, I know that I ramble, but all that I say is vital.” Maybe something like that. I do know that trust is a big thing to ask.