Making Beetle Trouble, how much were you interested in mental disorders neuroleptic and antipsychotic drugs?
I was particularly interested in mental health and its relationship with greed. I tried to represent that idea with the main character, John, who finds himself speaking to entitled and unreasonable insects. Early in production, I decided that I had to almost ignore the element of psychosis, and tell the story from John’s perspective. I felt that a discussion about whether or not the beetles were real would trivialise John’s experience. At the same time, I wanted to continue acknowledging the theme of mental obstacles with visual surrealism – such as when nails fall out of John’s stomach. Once I knew I wanted to tell the story from John’s point of view I became more interested in his treatment. This let me explore self-medication, and how we can become passive towards negative influences. The latter became a defining part of the film for me. I imagined that John had read David Hume’s writings on utilitarianism and, like myself, was deeply influenced by the idea that we should choose actions based on what will deliver the greatest benefit. But John feels the situation is hopeless, and so he does nothing – even when the beetles steal his shoes, and whisper horrible things to him while he’s sleeping. From there it became an exercise in understanding what would be the catalyst for John to realize that he can impact on his surroundings, and therefore make positive steps towards his treatment.
How did you draw the pictures? How long did it take? Is it charcoal, pencil or something else?
I drew the images with red wax pencil and charcoal, on natural unbleached paper. Some scenes were drawn frame by frame, while for others I employed a cut-out technique. The process took about 14 weeks, and approximately 800 hours. I came to the idea of predominantly using red after seeing Louise Bourgeois’ “Insomnia” collection. I had been searching for a colour palette for the film, and when I saw her work in the Museo Picasso Málaga, it immediately spoke to what I was trying to express. The film’s story had been written when I didn’t sleep much, and so I felt a very visceral connection to Bourgeois’ work.
Why were you interested in nails, bugs, flowers and bones as metaphors?
Beetles are everywhere! Their living order, coleoptera, includes the most species of any in the world. Sure, they can be a very useful part of the ecosystem. Ladybirds eat the parasites off of wine grapes – that’s certainly something to be grateful for! But I was thinking about how claustrophobic the world would feel if we were completely surrounded by irrational creatures like the narcissistic beetles in my film. I viewed the nails, flowers and bones as the emotional narrative of the film. They show up primarily in the negative spaces, such as around the house. This allowed the hand-drawn animation to advance the story, while the stop motion told us how the main character was feeling. These objects, and how they shifted, were simply my personal emotional interpretation of what the character was experiencing.
How much do you think a pet can help a human to relax?
I think we can learn a lot from pets, and animals in general. I have one very talkative cat that likes to chew on electrical wires when it’s not time to feed him. He’s not the most relaxing of pets, but I still love him! He doesn’t worry about whether I think he’s strange, as long as he gets a good backrub when he’s lonely. And he has his own irrational fears – like the sound of my concertina. It’s good to realize that we’re all just silly animals, and there’s no need to give ourselves a hard time about it.
What is your opinion on ritual and on ways we take to move into another stage of our own existence?
That’s a great question! “Ritual” is an interesting way to describe the process of moving into another stage of our existence. There is a connotation of repetition there. When it comes to our wellbeing we can be undisciplined. We’re passive, and hope problems will go away by themselves, or that a singular act will solve everything. But if you want to be good at anything – playing the trumpet, riding a bicycle, or consulting on tax accountancy – you have to practice it. I think it is the same with a positive existence. You have to practice living positively. How to do that will vary from person to person, but I think it needs to be a frequent ritual.
What sort of freedom would you say the short format allows?
The short format is great for experimenting with new techniques. Beetle Trouble was the first time I began combining stop motion and hand-drawn animation. I had also never employed negative space the way I do in this film – like when the outside of John’s house turns from flowers to bones. If I’d been working in a longer format, I may have just done a test and then never shown it to anyone. But with the short format people get to see these steps. I also love the short format as a viewer. Some stories take less time to tell. I don’t think that makes them less valuable – I always prefer wishing there was more of something than less of it.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
This will be my first time at Clermont-Ferrand. I’m interested in seeing the film with a new audience. It’s fascinating to hear people’s interpretations across different countries. I was at Message to Man in St. Petersburg in September, where one audience member told me that there’s a Russian saying that goes “everyone has their beetles”. That’s amazing! I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Are you taking part in other events during the Clermont-Ferrand film festival?
I’ll be participating in a meeting between the audience and the directors of films in the Lab competition. That should be interesting! I really enjoy hearing about other directors’ processes, and also the often unique, personal interpretations that the viewers have of my film. It will be taking place at the ESACM after the 3pm screening on Monday, February 5th.