INTERVIEW: ‘The Illusionist’ producer Bob Last

Posted by · 6:44 pm · December 24th, 2010

It’s been over 10 months since I first reviewed Sylvain Chomet’s dazzling new animated feature “The Illusionist” at the Berlinale, and yet it only finds its way to US theaters tomorrow.

A more appropriate film to unwrap on Christmas morning, however, you could not ask for.  Both a loving tribute to the creative legacy of French comedian Jacques Tati and an iridescent valentine to the city of Edinburgh, Chomet’s latest is finally a heartbreaker independent of such associations, covering loneliness, disillusionment and renewal in its delicate tale of an outmoded music-hall magician who takes a naïve waif under his wing.

The crowning artistic glory of a robust year for animation, and among the best films of any stripe in 2010, “The Illusionist” has already taken Best Animated Feature honors from the New York Film Critics’ Circle, as well as a special award from the National Board of Review, a Golden Globe nod and a healthy haul of Annie Award nominations.  And in addition to Chomet himself, the man deservedly basking in the film’s success is its British producer Bob Last.

A former music supervisor turned animation specialist, Last first encountered Chomet at the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival, where the director was presenting his (eventually Oscar-nominated) debut feature “The Triplets of Belleville.” It was a visit that would dramatically alter the course of his follow-up.

“Sylvain absolutely fell in love with Edinburgh then,” explains Last by phone from New York. “I remember one of the earliest conversations I had with him, he told me one of the things he loved about Edinburgh was the constant changing of the light. Of course, it’s one of those things that, if you live there, you’re not really aware of, but it’s very much the case. For making live-action movies, it’s a challenge, but for animation, it was an opportunity.”

Chomet’s fascination with the city led him to a new idea for an unfilmed Jacques Tati script he had been toying with since first crossing paths with the Tati estate, in order to license a film clip for “Triplets.” Where the original script had the titular illusionist moving eastwards from Paris in search of a more receptive audience for his old-fashioned magic trick, Chomet moved things literally in the opposite direction.

“Sylvain changed it to a journey west, very much inspired by his own original visit to Edinburgh. But it parallels the journey Tati wrote: one of the things we discovered, quite fortuitously, was that at the time the film is set, electricity was just beginning to come to the Scottish isles. So there’s an authenticity to that moment, essential to the early part of the movie, when at the very same moment that he finds a public who are not cynical about magic, the modern world begins to arrive there as well.”

It’s interesting that Last chooses to relate this anecdote, since “The Illusionist” itself exists in a kind of junction between old and new technologies: though widely lauded for the exquisite quality of its hand-drawn animation, there are some 21st-century components to its makeup too.

“It’s not about a battle between the computer and the pencil; it’s about performance and storytelling and directing, and using a hybrid of techniques to best serve that,” Last insists. “All of the character performances are hand-drawn in the traditional way: we certainly increased the market for pencils for three years! But then, a lot of the vehicles and props are 3D, and then rendered, of course, so they are seamless with the 2D character animation. And the environments, although all hand-drawn initially, were digitally painted.”

Last and Chomet set up studio in the heart of Edinburgh itself, with over 100 international animators across various units working to bring the director’s intricate vision of the city to life – Last proudly points out that many of the animators would walk to work every day through locations they would eventually wind up animating. “The level of detail is almost hallucinogenic in its intensity, in a way, if you know these places,” he says. “I’m sure it did, in the end, contribute something to the intensity of the movie that everyone was living and working in that environment. And then the Edinburgh weather is kind of the star of the movie.”

Of course, the film is very nearly as much an aural treat as a visual one: given his background in the music side of the business, Last worked closely with Chomet on the film’s highly distinctive score. “I was very supportive of Sylvain scoring the movie,” he explains. “There had been some discussions early on of whether it might be some other kind of score, but I was adamant that it needed a kind of delicacy, that a more overbearing score would ruin the film, and was confident that Sylvain had the ear to generate that. He’s relatively untutored as a composer, but in this case, that brings a kind of clarity to his musical vision which is exactly right for the picture.”

Although the film has been widely pegged as a throwback to a purer form of animation, Last feels unthreatened by the technological advances being made by the big boys of the medium, instead seeing them all as having a place in a current “golden age” for animation.

“Of course, everyone will tell you that it’s never been more difficult to get anything made,” he laughs ruefully. “But in many ways, the work of the big studios — Pixar and DreamWorks in particular — has been a vital part of creating that bigger space for us all, in which it suddenly seems a less crazy idea to make the kind of movie we set out to make with Sylvain. Or ‘Waltz With Bashir,’ or ‘Persepolis.’ We’re now in an environment where suddenly, animation is a valid tool for any film.”

We’re certainly grateful that the medium has expanded to the point where finely-wrought art cinema like this can exist alongside broader but highly satisfying blockbusters like “Toy Story 3”; as US audiences seek out the smaller film for themselves on Christmas Day, Last is keen to stress that the difference between them isn’t so vast.

“What I think really works about the film is this,” he offers in conclusion. “Even if you know nothing about Jacques Tati’s work, don’t even know who he is, it’s no barrier to appreciating the film. That kind of very physical, visual performance style that Tati himself had has been reanimated here, into something that new audiences of any age can discover and enjoy.”

[Photos: Zimbio, Sony Pictures Classics]

→ 3 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Interviews

3 responses so far

  • 1 12-25-2010 at 4:54 am

    Dillon Green said...

    I have not had the pleasure of seeing Chomet’s latest film, but I am very excited about it. After seeing “Belleville Rendez-vous,” I was extremely fascinated with that mode of animation. The natural, surreal sort of beauty of the animation, that simultaneously seems real and unreal, is mesmerizing to me. It ALMOST makes me hate that Toy Story 3 is pretty much guaranteed the win on Feb. 27. ALMOST. Toy Story 3 is quite a brilliant and entertaining film in and of itself.

  • 2 12-27-2010 at 2:44 am

    Alberto said...

    The Illusionist is an absolute masterpiece. I have included it in my Top Ten list of the year.
    Actually, I consider it a better film than Toy Story 3 and would love it to be nominated and (in an ideal world) to win the Oscar.
    Compassionate but painfully human at the same time, this films works the miracle of bringing back to life the great Jacques Tati.
    Thanks for the interview. Here you can read why I think it’s a better film than Toy Story 3.

  • 3 1-02-2011 at 8:00 am

    Torres said...

    To the unaware & uninitiated I would like to draw attention to the script controversy that has continued, rightly, in this observers opinion, to blight this adaptation. Details of which can be found here in Jacques Tati’s Grandson’s heartfelt and sincere description of his family’s plight:

    Sylvain Chomet’s hard-line stance throughout the publicity rounds and interviews regarding The Illusionist – a story packaged and branded as ‘an apology from a father to a daughter’ – continues to discredit the notion and very real possibility that The Illusionist was in fact the author’s heartfelt apology to his eldest daughter Helga whom he abandoned in infancy never to see again, and not, as Chomet would have us believe, Tati’s youngest daughter Sophie as I will continue to explain.

    For my part, I find it acceptable for Chomet to purport the supposition that the script is an apology to the younger daughter (Sophie), whom, according to some (including Chomet), Tati had neglected during her formative years. However, this possibility, when held against the plight of his elder daughter (Helga), whom Tati abandoned in infancy somehow fails to hold any volume of water by sheer weight of comparison.

    It must be noted, as Richard McDonald has taken care to explain that not only was Sophie not neglected during her formative years, she was actively encouraged by her father to work closely with him during many of his works. This information is freely available online or elsewhere and speaks far less of parental neglect, and more of a close and loving paternal bond between a father and a much doted daughter.

    I accept too that everybody has the right to be wrong, including Chomet, but to be so wilfully obtuse in the face of such unremitting evidence to the contrary, and yet still persist in pedalling a fatally flawed supposition whilst simultaneously and persistently railroading an obvious truth and a far more tangible possibility regarding the true intent of the script, seems somehow perverse in the extreme.

    So the question is this; why has Chomet (a clearly intelligent individual) persistently and angrily continued to eschew the very notion that Tati’s intended apology could be for anybody other than Sophie? How inconvenient would it have been for Tati’s remaining family to be involved in some small capacity, no matter how nominal, and not as they have been, relegated to an inconsequential footnote at the arse-end of the Jacques Tati myth. Would it not have been a poignant and symbolic gesture in respectful acknowledgment of Helga, if, for example, she had been allowed the simple honour of treading the red carpet on The Illusionist’s opening nite in Edinburgh? This, we remember, being a film not only based on an un-produced script by her father, but one whereby the very real possibility exists that the script was wrote for her in the form of a highly emotive apology for her abandonment as a small child. A film for which Tati himself felt too sensitive and emotionally frought for him to complete in his own life-time.

    It is Chomet’s failure to address Helga’s plight , churlishly dismissing it out of hand during many of his interviews that has opened him to criticism and ridicule. Both this, and the far more serious allegation that Chomet, in conjunction with Deschamp’s and the Tati Estate are complicit inasmuch that they both have something to protect and to hide. Chomet’s myriad of conflicting accounts as to how he came by the script, all freely accessible on the internet if you know where to look, is revealing in itself and leads one to wonder why it is, in Helga’s case at least, they are seemingly and pathetically intent on running away from an old lady like mugger’s in the nite.

    By way of conclusion, I for one applaud McDonald’s David & Goliath stance throughout this entire episode, hailing him as an inspiration for anyone wishing to upset the establishment’s apple-cart of belligerent half-truths and intricate lies. It is refreshing therefore that someone is prepared to take a stance against this, so whilst McDonald may not have won he war – Sylvain Chomet certainly knows he’s been in a fight.

    For further reading on the Tati script controversy, and somebody else who’s been in a fight of late, please refer to here: Film Four reviewer Anton Bitel’s, seconds out, points dismissal: