The feature directorial debut of 66-year-old Slovenian artist Milorad Krstić, Ruben Brandt, Collector is almost indescribable in its level of ambition and imagination, an impassioned pastiche of genre elements that pays homage to the hundreds of artists that have consumed the helmer throughout his life. From Sony Pictures Classics, the animated crime drama is infused with thriller and noir elements, centering on a psychotherapist who sets out to steal some of the world’s most iconic pieces of art—pieces that the director recreates in his own peculiar style. For Krstić, the goal with the film was to create an “audiovisual symphony,” overflowing with ideas and subtle nods, such that each and every frame would warrant close attention.
What was the seed of the idea that inspired Ruben Brandt, Collector?
All my life, I appreciated fine art, and I appreciated movies. It came to my mind to make an [animated feature], and the point was to make a film about those two things, which I’ve been occupied with all my life—fine art, paintings and movies. And it came to my mind, “It must not be so dry in speaking about art as a critic,” to make a crime story. That’s why we said, let’s have it be Ruben Brandt, who is robbing the most famous museums and galleries all over the world to get the paintings he wants. Today it’s the Tate Gallery, tomorrow it’s MoMA, the third will be the Guggenheim, the Hermitage the fourth day, and the Uffizi the fifth day. Of course, all the media is following it, and the police and mafia are trying to catch him.
He becomes the most wanted criminal in the world, and it wasn’t enough for me to make him just be the serial thief. Iwanted to put some psychology inside. He’s not robbing the museums and galleries to get the painting he wants because of their value, because he wants money out of it. No, he is forced to rob the museums because he has nightmares, and in his nightmares, he’s haunted by the characters from famous paintings. I didn’t want for those hauntings to be clichés, or stereotypes—to be zombies. No, it must be just the opposite. Let’s find the most beautiful girl in the art, some Botticelli Venus to be the zombie—to transform into an octopus, for example. Or the innocent and beautiful little lady, the princess, five years old, of Velázquez’ Infanta Margarita could transform into a monster. In this way, I developed the story to have inside of it art, crime and psychology.
Did you intend to critique the contemporary art world in any specific sense? In one memorable moment, you seem to satirize the concept of performance art.
It could be some personal attitude that I am free to express in my way, with some humor—not to underestimate the performance, but to somehow get the performance in the right place. If you play with the audience in this way, I will play with the people who are making performances, or like performance, because why not? For me, somehow, I’m old-fashioned, and I think theater, or drama—let’s say, in A Streetcar Named Desire, which I took from Tennessee Williams. My favorite character was Kowalski, and I gave [a character] the name Kowalski. In Streetcar Named Desire, there’s a whole story, a whole drama, moving left and right, up and down, those waves of atmosphere, of emotion—and somehow, I find performance [art] in this way emotionless, or without specific drama. For me, it’s somehow visually monotonous. That’s my personal attitude. That’s why I have tried to build up a very fast-paced symphony. For a moment, you can stop to have a rest, but then you have to be brutal, to be aggressive, to be strong, to be hard—and then stop. Then again, in another direction, and another direction.
Ruben Brandt is the rare R-rated animated film, geared toward an adult audience who can appreciate its nuanced sensibility and many ideas. Can you expand on the intent behind this work?
I think I wanted in fact not to make an animated film; I wanted to make a [live-action] film in animated form, and that’s why it’s not cartoon, without those typical cartoonish exaggerations. That’s why when you have a car chase, the car goes normally—one and a half tons or two tons of car, and you feel it. It’s not like a cartoon; it can go in all directions. I wanted to express my graphical world, which is, I think, a little bit peculiar. It’s not everyday; it’s not a stereotype. I didn’t just want characters in the premier plan [foreground], but also in the background.
If you can see the character just for one or two seconds, I want him to be different. That means several hundred characters that are all different. I don’t want to repeat; I want to give them authentic form, to make a real person. If you stop the DVD and just watch one frame, I want this frame to be full—to say, “At the left side of the frame, you can see that I have an homage to Méliès, to A Trip to the Moon.” I never make just the painting, or the scene from the movie. I always make my remake and they say, “This is for Méliès. On the right side must be Edgar Degas, the Glass of Absinthe.” It’s just one or two seconds, but if you stop, you can see that every square inch of the canvas is used—if not for the character, if not for some strange car, it’s maybe just graffiti on the wall.
You can see graffiti on the wall [that’s an homage] to a Godard film, Number Two, when he experimented with video and film in 1975. Probably just one in a thousand people will notice this Godard graffiti, but you have twice, the same graffiti. The first time, you can see the graffiti with Kowalski, as he is jumping over the billboard. It’s a very short time, but the second time is very long. It’s a slow zoom out, but because we have another action—because we have mystery, whether they survived the huge explosion or not—we are watching the entrance of the tunnel. We are watching the smoke and expecting the car that’s coming, and don’t pay attention to this graffiti on the wall.
It seems like this film is a tapestry of all the artists and works of art that have really left a mark on your mind.
I already had all this stock in my brain because all my life, I’ve been drawing. I draw everyday, and when I was a child, I appreciated vintage posters, for example. When I see a vintage poster of Venice or Paris or L.A. during the ‘50s and ‘60s, you can see that the author made it deliberately. It’s the essence of not a photograph, but a drawing or painting. For me, in this way, this painted world, it’s even more attractive than the real world. When I see a street, for example, in Google Street View, I’ll say, “Okay, I will use this. But I will take this as a basis and make it better. I don’t need this building; I don’t need these trees here. I need to first use the energy of Google Street View, and then start to build up the painting.”
What inspired the looks of your central characters, which often have multiple faces or other surrealistic traits?
It would be from Picasso, for example, but there are [other] surrealist paintings, or Dada paintings. I’m a painter, and in paintings, you can start to make the painting the world. There are so many generations from Egypt or Altamira, the hunters from 17,000 years ago, and all the history of art—everything from Goya, talking about brutality, or the shadows and light of Caravaggio. Or, I’ll go to the double faces from Picasso. In this way, I have tried to form all the characters to be very specific. For me, it’s all the same, whether they have two noses, three eyes, two faces, or a long neck. It’s a pleasure to play, to show the diversity of man, and to say, “I’m not talking just about this one [kind of person].” We are different. This is a beautiful world, and this difference doesn’t mean that they are strange. No, they’re normal.
Was it challenging to balance out the film’s tone, its mix of genres, its pace and all the elements it incorporates?
I have tried, as I said, to make this audiovisual symphony, and in this symphony, you can have some parts be slow, and very easy, and sentimental. Then, you can have this crescendo, and the grand finale, or be very aggressive, even be brutal. I like to use all those genres. I do hope that this film succeeded in [benefitting] from this diversity in tempo, diversity in genre. I do hope that this swimming left and right—this slalom, or surfing on the waves—could be in three or even four directions, but you are still in the surf. Just using different waves.
With regard to your action sequences, you mentioned your desire to transcend the typical limitations inherent to animation. What was your approach in lending them that extra bit of reality?
We used very famous car chases—like, from French Connection, or Ronin, or Bullitt. 10 or 20 of them. We wanted to say, “It’s a good one. Now, we still need better camera movement.” I like to use the energy, but I don’t want to make a copy. I want to make a remake; I must upgrade it to make it even more dramatic, I’m thankful for the ideas, but I jump [further] into the air to develop the ideas of those great movies.
While you’re clearly someone who is very passionate and overflowing with ideas, it took you until your 60s to make your first feature with Ruben Brandt, after working as a lawyer, and then as an artist for many years. Why is that?
It was written in the stars. It was. I maybe work in cycles, every 20 years. I made this short animation [in 1995], and then I made a lot of other things. I don’t make so many [dististinctions] between [different forms] of visual art. I’m obsessed with all types of art. It’s all the same for me, to make some drawings with a pencil, or an oil painting, or some stage design, or a book, or comics, or a good photograph. To express yourself in a visual way, there is no need to keep just to one technique. All of them, I will do to make a good-looking [piece].
What’s next for you? Is there another film in your future?
I’m working already on the next thing. Now, it’s a challenge for me to make an animated movie for the family, for the kids. No blood, no nudity—nothing. Because we got this R rating. I want to do PG-13, or for kids, even. Just adventures.