In crafting MFKZ, his first feature film, Guillaume ‘Run’ Renard adapted his first comic book for the screen, realizing how challenging feature directing is, and how difficult it can be to translate the essence of a work from one medium to another. Violent, timely and delightfully dark, the adult-oriented animated film follows Angelino, one of an endless number of deadbeats living in the dystopian Dark Meat City. Following a scooter accident, the character’s life is transformed into a nightmare, making him question whether an alien invasion is happening, or he is simply losing his mind.
Co-directing the film with Shôjirô Nishimi, Renard looked to condense a 600-page story arc into a streamlined cinematic experience, that would nonetheless retain the essence of his original vision. “The difference between comics and a movie is that in comics, the reader has control over his reading pace. So as an author, it is easier for me to deviate from the main story, and to get into details for every character. I am free to bring the reader to many different places in each volume,” he explains. “It is a more permissive medium, whereas a 90-minute movie dictates its own rhythm. The continuity of the story has to be cohesive and straight to the point.”
Of course, in projecting MFKZ (or Mutafukaz) onto the screen, the director would need to extract “the main theme,” which appeared to him very clearly. “To me, Mutafukaz is clearly the story of three guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have to face a situation that is way too big for them,” he says. “Once this was clear, everything that had to stay in the story stayed, and we got rid of the rest. It was often difficult, as some pages in the comics would have looked great on the big screen, and others would have helped to give more background to some of the characters. But it was for the best, given the running time we could afford.”
Learning about the teamwork it takes to make a feature film, which is always “foremost the sum of many constraints,” Renard found the entire process humbling, and wishes moviegoers could understand the dynamics of the craft, as he now does. “It would be great for the audience to be aware of that notion, especially in a day when fandoms tend to be more and more nitpicky about big blockbusters,” he reflects. “It doesn’t only take good intentions and ideas to make a good film. It is way more complex than that.”
Crafting the Oscar-shortlisted GKIDS pic’s story almost 10 years ago—which touched on the threat of global warming, and other topics which speak to the concerns of today—Renard couldn’t have known then how politically resonant his film would become when it was finally released into the world. “Even if I don’t have the ambition to [make] social commentary or a strong political statement with MFKZ, I like to set my stories in realistic grounds. The global warning theme, along with the conspiracy theories (which I find very amusing when you do fiction, but very dangerous when you take them seriously), the fear of ‘the other’…Everything was already there,” the director says. “At the time, I just imagined what could be the worst evolution of all this, and here we are, 10 years later, with a more-relevant-than-ever scenario. This is kind of sad, in a way.”
How did the feature version of MFKZ come about?
The Mutafukaz universe wasn’t made for a specific medium in the first place. It began as a website, then a short film, and only after that it became a comic book. The film came about very naturally. Ankama, the publisher of the comics, went to Japan in order to create an office over there. At the time they were very interested in investing in animation. They met with many Japanese Studios, and among them was Studio4°C. When presenting our different universes, Studio4°C reacted to the Mutafukaz comic book, saying that its graphic identity was the closest to what they were used to. They said that if they had to choose one project to work on with us, it would probably be Mutafukaz. The Studio4°C teams were available, and Ankama asked me if I was willing to work on a movie adaptation. I was working on the third volume of the Mutafukaz comic books at the time, but this was a unique opportunity I couldn’t decline.
What inspired the film’s visual style?
To me, the movie is the perfect balance between the original vivid and energetic style of the comic books, with the detailed and poetic style of Studio 4°C. Before even having tangible prospects regarding the adaptation of Mutafukaz as an animated feature film, we always dreamed of having both Nishimi-san and Kimura-san [Shinji Kimura] working on the project, as we thought it would be the perfect match. Their previous film was Tekkonkinkreet, [on which] they worked as director of animation and main environment designer, respectively. Regarding the characters, they share the same main traits from the comics, but the style remains proper to the movie. There was quite a lot of preparation work with Nishimi-san and the animation teams to get the characters right. Not only was it an animation challenge—with Angelino’s big head and Vinz’s lack of a lower jaw—but they also started with different designs, almost futuristic-like for some of them.
What inspired the look of your film’s world, Dark Meat City?
To me, Dark Meat City is like the evil twin sister of Los Angeles. This city has always fascinated me; I love the dynamism coming from LA. The city’s graphic identity, with its tall palm trees and wide streets, has always thoroughly fascinated me. Like all little French kids who grew up in the ‘80s, I was raised on American movies and television shows, [so] this scenery has always seemed very familiar to me. DMC allows me to explore all of the fantasies inspired by Los Angeles’ varied strengths and weaknesses, and it is also a concentration of everything wrong with postmodern cities: horrendous traffic, pollution, lack of pedestrian areas, division among communities. And in the middle of all that, we have the three main characters. The fact that they are graphically so different from the other inhabitants emphasizes that they don’t belong to any particular community. Since the trio is so out of phase with the world around them, we end up identifying with them.
To reconstitute the Dark Meat City I envisioned, I had hundreds of reference pictures I took myself in LA. All of this research was classified and provided to Studio4°C so they could work based on this precise raw material. We had a solid two years of pre-production during which I made sure to explain everything, and then the production teams were ready to go.
The film’s score is also very distinctive. Was that inspired by the work of any particular artist?
The movie itself has strong influences from John Carpenter’s movie They Live. I wanted to bring the typical electronic vibe we can hear in these movies to the soundtrack of Mutafukaz. Of course there are many other influences, too—film noir, classical music, reggaeton—but as for the scoring itself, there are two major styles, and the idea was to have these two styles progressively colliding as the story unfolds. Traditional music scoring, on one hand, symbolizing the world as we know it, with its very “down-to-the-earth” threats, and electronic music on another hand, symbolizing the threat coming from the sky, the “invaders”. The first strong occurrence of full electronic music is when Angelino’s flat is attacked by the Z7 section: it is the “no-return” point of the story, and from that point, the two styles keep being mingled.
We had two composers on the soundtrack: Simon Delacroix, also known as “The Toxic Avenger”, who is a French electronic music artist. I was familiar with his work and I knew it would be perfect for the movie. Guillaume Houzé is the second composer, [who worked] on the more traditional tracks. He was an old friend of mine, and already had been composing for movies and animated series at Ankama. I knew he would be able to find the right sounds for the different influences I wanted to have throughout the movie, and we were very pleased to win the Best Original Soundtrack award at the Gerardmer Fantasy Film Festival.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film, from financing onward?
The movie was 100% financed by Ankama. That means that no network, no major distributor or broadcaster was brought into the process. I’m convinced that in other circumstances, the movie could not have been done—at least not the way it is now—so it was a kind of benediction, in a way. But it also brought a lot of uncertainty to every aspect of the movie. During production, every potential friction due to the distance between France and Japan could be the breaking point. During post-production, the film’s distribution was still not secured, and when you’re not even sure if the movie is ever going to meet an audience one day, it is a hard act of faith to keep injecting funds to finish it properly.
It’s been eight years between the start of the pre-production and the release of the movie. During these eight years, I had to be very tenacious and had to convince people a few times in order to keep things going. And if it was not for Ankama’s trust, the movie would not have been finished. Then we had the chance to screen the movie at the Annecy Animation Festival in 2017, and progressively, we screened in many different festivals across the world that helped get distribution in the US, Germany, the UK, Spain. Japan was one of the first countries to take the movie for distribution, but funnily enough, France was one of the last. I think that this is a unique situation, and this is also what makes the movie so special.
MFKZ is the rare film that defies what we often see in animation—an experimental, adult genre film. What has it meant for you to be able to bring an uncompromising vision into the animation world?
Even if animation is still considered a children’s thing all over the world—except in Japan—especially when it comes to feature films, I hope MFKZ will play a modest part in changing things. There’s never been so many broadcasters desperate to create original content, so it is an opportunity for creators to try new, different things. And maybe, just maybe, with the proper [exhibition], and if the audience follows, then it can open up new paths as a countermeasure to all these sequel/prequel/shared-universe blockbusters, that, if they remain very entertaining, tend to narrow a bit the range of content that could be offered to audiences.
What has been the most gratifying response you’ve had to the film, taking it around the world?
I was very worried that U.S. viewers would not approve of the project. The film remains an homage to American pop culture, and I wanted it to be perceived that way. Furthermore, having an American city as the main set for our story was a challenge, as every detail needed to be credible and authentic. I took specific care in making sure this was tangible, while keeping some fantasies there too. So the most gratifying response was to meet with a wide variety of American viewers during festival screenings in Chicago and Los Angeles, and hear them telling me that they loved the movie. Some viewers came and told me, “It felt so American,” and I was relieved at this point.