Charles Burns isn't about reinvention. But he is about taking risks. The 55-year-old Seattle native is known all over the world for his award-winning and ground-breaking graphic novels, comic series and collected works like Black Hole and El Borbah. His work has earned a cult following for its dark, distinctive themes, and Burns himself is one of the most respected cartoonists of his generation.
His first foray into film comes in the form of Fear(s) of the Dark, a French animated import that contains sequences written, illustrated and directed by Burns. Not surprisingly, these moments of black-and-white creepiness aren't a far cry from images found in his extensive array of published work.
As he enters a brand new form of storytelling, Burns says he thinks his film's fresh take on the animation genre will prove one of his suspicions--regardless of whether his images are moving or stationary--audiences' quest for fear will lead them right to his front door.
And Burns doesn't mind that in the least.
Several different animation styles were used in the film. What was the reason behind using contrasting styles?
Before they got into movies, the producers had worked as illustration reps in Paris. They came from that world. I think their intention was really to take some of their favorite illustrators, people who hadn't necessarily worked in animation or movies before, and have them involved in this project. They really were trying to find diversity in the styles and approaches of different artists and have them all come under the idea of the story of Fear(s) of the Dark. The other unifying factor would be that it is all in black and white.
How do the styles compliment each other?
I like looking at the extremes. You have very strong personalities, very different ways of telling the stories that I appreciate, too. My story is a little more traditional, as far as structure. (It's about insects who hide in a boy's mattress and emerge to wreck his life in college).
Explain the reasoning behind using just black and white graphics only.
It was the producers' idea. I've worked in black and white for most of my life. It's something I've always been attracted to. I think its part of the reason they contacted me. Darkness is scary. In the last segment of the film, which was directed by Richard McGuire, there are portions where the story is unfolding in pure black. He does it very successfully, working with that kind of pure darkness.
The sound plays a big role. How did the soundtrack develop into such an important element of the film?
In my piece, there's a voice-over narrative and a lot of dialogue between two major characters. For that, before any animation started, we got actors and actresses and did all the voices. I've never worked in film before, and I didn't realize how important [sound] is. Acting does take place in animation. To start with those voices, and to see what kind of personality comes through in those voices is fascinating. In addition to that, we worked in a studio where we did the sound design. It's extremely important to create this mood and this atmosphere of the movie. It was a world I didn't know much about. It was interesting to go to this studio where, for example, when someone's walking, their clothes make a certain sound, so there was a guy that was recording the sound of steps on the ground and clothes moving. Or picking up a glass off a table. All these are things I would never think about, and they had to work at all those things. Each artist really was involved in every step. For me it was more of a learning process.For example, I had a preconceived idea of how the music would work, but once you reach that stage, it became my idea that my ideas weren't appropriate. They kind of ruined the story instead of making it more interesting. All of those things are just part of the learning process.
Each artist seems to have had his own vision. Did you all have a collective feeling of what this film should feel like?
A lot of the kind of decision-making of who the artists were and what kind of stories would be included was choice of the producers. There wasn't that much interaction between the different artists while they were working. There were points where we sat at screenings and looked at early tests, but we weren't looking over each others' shoulders that much. We'd meet socially and discuss things occasionally, but it wasn't a detailed knowledge of how were doing this or that, it was more just comparing notes. We worked primarily on our own.
What were some of influences for the story you wrote?
My story was based on an early comic I did in 1979. Looking back at it, it seems kind of unskilled as far as the drawing goes and the writing, but I liked the core ideas involved. So for me, it was a chance to go back to an idea I came up with years ago and examine it. I'm coming from a different point of view now. But as far as the influences--some of the look of it is based on the '40s and '50s sort of comics, kind of film noir. I like the very extreme light and shadow you see in those kinds of movies. There was a certain surface look I was going after. All of us were. You're talking about people who are all very accomplished graphic artists, and they're playing. They're figuring out what's going to work on the screen, and how to employ light and dark to tell the story.
What kind of fear does your story play off of?
A lot of them. Part of the film where you've got this insect that gets in this kid's bed was based on having a bed when I was little that had an odd, crackly, creaky sound to it. So when I was a kid, I imagined that there was something moving around in that bed. That was a starting point. But also the idea that this guy's got a girlfriend that's almost too good to be true, and she starts changing--very subtly at first, but then dramatically. So that idea of someone transforming, whether it's mentally or physically, is a big part of it.
That's a common thing in your work though.
Yes it is, yes it is. You've got it.
You realize at the end that your main character is in a kind of hospital, but he isn't being nursed back to health at all. Quite the opposite. Where does that idea come from?
You think about the reversal of roles in a way. Sexual roles--you've got this woman growing this horrible, very phallic thing on her arm and using him as this kind of breeding ground... I like examining and playing with those kinds of ideas.
Why do you think fear is such an important element in storytelling for film?
There are two major kinds of fear. There's the situation where you see someone in a movie where someone's backing up to a window, and you know someone else is going to burst through that window. There's that kind of 'BOO!' sort of fear. But then there's also a psychological fear that can build, which I find much more satisfying. Where dread gets built up slowly through the story. And while my storytelling does deal with a physical manifestation of these horrifying internal thoughts and processes, I'm ultimately more interested in that kind of psychological, internal fear as opposed to this in-your-face external fear. I think a lot of audiences agree with that.
Quick questions for Charles Burns
What you had for breakfast this morning: a coffee and bagel
Favorite fruit: a perfectly ripe pear
Worst job: clearing brush out of a construction site
If you couldn't fail, you would do: What I'm doing right now - being the best goddamn cartoonist in the universe.
Last vacation: Edinburgh, Scotland for a film festival this summer with my wife.
Favorite childhood toy: My Ben Hur set. It had chariots, half of an arena where lions came out of their little cages to kill the christians. It was a pretty amazing little thing to come down to on Christmas day.
What job would you do if you weren't doing this: Sculpture, Photography, something related to the arts.