Due to a dreamlike aesthetic and dark themes investigated through stop-motion filming that animates 2-D and 3-D elements, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s The Wolf House often earns the filmmakers comparisons to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jan Svankmajer, Bruce Bickford, and the Quay Brothers. But in conversation with Minneapolis’s Tom Schroeder, León reveals a working process for the film that conjures an unlikely comparison: to Lars von Trier, whose 10-point Dogme manifesto for filmmaking echos León and Cociña’s 10 rules for creating The Wolf House. The result has a style all its own, as a gripping horror fairytale shows paint dripping down walls, pigs morphing into children, and figures made of masking tape seemingly dissolving before our eyes—all in service to a tale of a young girl, Maria, escaping a predatory wolf the audience never sees. (As folklore scholar Jack Zipes has written, the film addresses the nightmarish history of Colonia Dignidad, a German cult commune in Chile in the 1960s that hid dark secrets of abuse and pedophilia by leader Paul Schäfer—the film’s implied wolf—behind a cheery facade). In advance of the film’s September 25–28 Walker screenings, and León’s September 27 post-screening Q&A, Schroeder connected with León to reveal these 10 working precepts and talk, filmmaker to filmmaker, about the making of The Wolf House.
TOM SCHROEDER (TS)
I understand that the film was shot during residencies in 10 different spaces. Talk about the virtues and difficulties in working this way.
CRISTÓBAL LEÓN (CL)
There were more than 10 locations. Having produced the production mainly in exhibitions made the whole process richer and more stimulating, but it obviously made it slower. I think it changed us as artists forever. Now we believe more in processes, change, showing your path, as if these were the goal. It also gave the film a dizzying sense of change and made the house in the film a less logical space, a bit like being in an Escher drawing.
From the first animated short we did we had this idea of doing art pieces that were about showing the process of doing things. In this case, we decided to make it literal: we did a lot of art exhibitions about these two guys making a movie.
Was there any form of storyboarding imagery in advance of shooting?
There was. We had a storyboard of the whole movie. It was not a conventional storyboard, where it is detailed shot by shot. In this case, each scene was represented by an image, a bit like an illustrated children book. We thought of the film as a storyboard that is armed and disarmed, or as the destruction of one image and the construction of another. Our day-to-day work was to find a way to connect one image with the other.
Despite having the full story at the time we started the production, we kept changing the story. It was a dialogue between storyboard, literary script, and animation process, each influencing the other.
Despite shooting in so many different locations, the film plays as a single continuous shot, like the free-associative flow of thought. There is almost no traditional film language used in the storytelling. How much of your structure was created in the process of animating and how much was done through editing in post-production?
Absolutely everything was created in the animation process, and of course in the previous writing and storyboarding process. We had a literary script, with the dialogues of the film, a really simple storyboard, basically with one image per scene, and a Decalogue with rules to animate. The specific actions of each scene were improvised. We like to come into the studio every day without knowing exactly what we will do. It is very important to have that room for improvisation.
The post-production process was merely color correction. There was not much more than that.
What were the ten rules for animating The Wolf House?
1. This is painting on camera.
2. There are no dolls.
3. Everything can be transformed as a sculpture.
4. It never goes to black (there is no black frame).
5. The film is a one-shot sequence.
6. The movie tries to be normal.
7. The color is symbolic.
8. The camera is never in the same position in two consecutive frames.
9. Maria is beautiful.
10. It is a workshop, not a set.
Describe how you approached the sound design. Did you have similar rules as with the animation, or was it an entirely different approach?
Claudio Vargas was in charge of the sound design of the film. In addition to being interested in Claudio’s work, one of the reasons we worked with him was that he agreed to do such a long, experimental, and organic work as we did in animation. The work took five years. And, yes, without asking, he created his own rules:
1. Do not manipulate sounds, just listen or record differently.
2. You cannot use sound libraries.
3. Music is noise, noise is music.
4. The sound of the materials is the sound of our reality.
5. If it becomes very complex it does NOT work.
6. The house is a character, it is a sound environment.
7. The times of the house are only of the house.
8. All these rules must be contradicted at some time.
9. I know they must be ten but I have only found eight.
In the last stage of the design, which was where the most clearly musical elements were added, we got more involved and messed up these rules a bit, adding certain library sounds and certain manipulated sounds.
The camera is always unstable, shifting and hovering about the action. Was this a byproduct of your way of working, or was it a conscious choice, or a little of both?
Definitely both. We always try to turn our problems and limitations into virtues, or at least aesthetic characteristics of what we do. We know how chaotic we are and we know that it is very difficult for us to keep the tripod in a stable position, so one of the commandments we had in our Decalogue was: the camera will never be in the same position in two consecutive frames.
You’ve been working with Joaquin as a collaborator on many projects it seems. Do the two of you have clear distinctions of what you do while animating? Do you ever disagree about what’s working and what’s not working?
For 12 years we have collaborated in, I would say, 95 percent of the things we do. We have almost no distinction of roles. We both like to write, animate, draw, paint, make sculptures, and get involved with all aspects of making movies. We like it this way. I think we have learned a lot from each other. We don’t have big differences at work, maybe the only thing is time, because Joaquin has children and I don’t. Of course, sometimes we disagree, but on small things. In general, we have felt that collaboration makes our work more radical and not a compromise.
I’ve read that one of your influences was Jan Svankmajer. To me that’s evident in the constant transformation between animate and inanimate. You seem very open to letting the materials guide your process of animating.
Yes, I suppose it has to do with our background as visual artists. We are still very interested in animation because it leads us to interesting and unexpected material resolutions.
While I was watching the film, I thought of Bruce Bickford, something like Prometheus’ Garden. The Wolf House has a similar constant evolution, forms organically emerging from the materials and then dissolving away again. It’s almost like time-lapse photography of flowers growing and dying.
Thank you very much for thinking of Bruce Bickford while watching our movie. Bickford is God. And Prometheus Garden makes me almost angry because of how wonderful, magical, and strange it is.
We think our animations a bit like documentaries about material processes. Documentaries about destruction and creation processes.
Has your famous Chilean surrealist forefather Jodorowsky been an influence?
Yes, of course. His films, his comics, and his books are a big influence in the way we think about art. I remember watching his films many years ago and thinking: I have never seen anything like this. Can you really do this? Why is everybody around doing boring realistic naturalistic dramas if you can do films like this?
I also thought of Blu’s Muto in your moving paintings on the surface of architecture. There’s the same sense of surprise when 2D space suddenly enters or interacts with 3D space. When the painted pig on a wall kicks a physical ball, for example. It’s another kind of transformation.
Sure. There is also a similarity. We started working on our first short films (Lucia and Luis) more or less at the same time that Blu made his own. Someone told us then: you should see this type of work.
We wanted to erase the barriers of the volumetric and the pictorial. I think that in some moments of the movie things happen that confuse these barriers and that is when we were really successful in the purpose. We like works that are materially confusing, and we wanted the movie to have a lot of that. There is a scene where there is a kind of flashlight that illuminates the characters, and when it moves, the character moves with it, but leaves its volumetric shape behind. We tried to think of the painting and the volumetric as two different dimensions. I think that these things are very beautiful and have to do with something that filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky does very well in his movies, which is to be very aware that every element you are using is independent, and therefore arriving at the most poetic representations. In the film the narrative and the material are separate dimensions, then within the material there is the volumetric and the pictorial, which are also independent, and the lighting and the camera are autonomous characters as well.
One of the best surprises for me occurs when the painted color on a 3D puppet structure suddenly slides from the surface of the character, leaving it looking drained and empty. Was this something that you also surprised yourself with while working in process? How did you discover that idea?
Haha. Exactly. It’s the same moment I was mentioning. As I said, it comes from thinking about painting and the volumetric as two different dimensions of reality. These things are not present all the time because it would be exhausting and also because as we work we forget these things and then suddenly we remember them again.
The wolf character—Paul Schäfer, I guess—is largely created through the voiceover. The “wolf” seems to be controlling the narrative. But the “house” is the star of the film for me. The house feels halfway between a physical place and a psychological space, as in the work of Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay. What was your attitude toward the house while working?
One of the ways we thought about the movie was as the mental universe of Maria. I think all movies should be thought as mental universes or as dreams. Movies are other universes with their own laws. One of the things we wanted in this movie was to give the feeling that all things are made of the same material. All things, including characters, can mutate all the time. Everything can be destroyed and reconfigured. A film that inspires us is The Way the Things Go by the Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss. We wanted this movie, and of course the house, to be made of that mental matter that moves forward and transforms, like a river or a great current of energy.
The documentary framing device for the film suggests that you are essentially working for the “wolf,” enlisted to make a sort of propaganda film. It must have been a difficult experience at times to enter so fully into this nightmarish historical event from the perspective of the predator.
It was a bit tiring during the investigation process. It was a little more for me, because I got more involved in that research process and visited the place a couple of times. I think that in the process of making the film the idea of the role-playing game ended up being an intermediate point or a third point, since we always end up getting confused and forgetting about the game we are playing. We dressed in Paul Schäfer’s skin, but then we forgot it, and then we took it back again. We think often of art as a kind of shamanism. It gives us the opportunity to embody other roles and to connect with unknown parts of ourselves.