When Jan met Terry

Liese Spencer listens in as Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer have an animated conversation about Surrealism, censorship and sensuality

A man walks into a newsagent, buys a porn mag and hurries home to pore over it. Not what one would expect from Jan Svankmajer, a director famous for erudite animations such as Alice and Faust. But the opening scene, none the less, of a new feature-length work from the veteran Czech film-maker. Mischievously released here on Valentine's Day, Conspirators of Pleasure is a web of perverse love stories, a voyeur's view of the obsessive and sometimes violent desires that seethe beneath the surface of everyday life.

In fact, although often seen as verging on the esoteric, Svankmajer has always filled his films with practical jokes and a fiercely imaginative bad taste. His work has always been infused with a kind of black magic, a relish for the grotesque. Vomiting heads, cannibalistic dolls and bleeding marionettes have all featured in Svankmajer's shorts, bizarre journeys through the murky reaches of the subconscious, constructed from found objects, clay-models, conventional drawn animation and stop-frame special effects.

Originally trained in puppet theatre, Svankmajer began his film career at the time of the Czech New Wave, whose aggressive antagonism towards the totalitarian state he shared. Early experiments with the commedia dell'arte of marionettes gave way to Surrealist attacks on a repressive regime. In 1968 the censors clamped down on this dissenting voice and between 1973 and 1981 the director was "forced to rest from the cinema". Since he resumed film-making, he has been introducing more live action into feature-length movies such as Faust, but his Surrealist sensibilities remain undiminished - Conspirators of Pleasure is dedicated to Max Ernst.

Born six years after Svankmajer, on the other side of the world, Hollywood director Terry Gilliam is known these days for big-budget movies such as 12 Monkeys, but began his screen career animating the gaps between Monty Python sketches. Like Svankmajer, his work is obsessed with dark fairy-tales (both made films called Jabberwocky within four years of each other) and his visual imagination has, in the past, given rise to baroque spectacles such as Brazil and Baron Munchausen.

Here, the two film-makers discuss symbolism, censorship and the end of civilisation as we know it.

Terry Gilliam After the Russian invasion of 1968 you were banned from film-making for seven years?

Jan Svankmajer Yes. I planned the scenario for Conspirators in 1970, but the censors said sadomasochism had nothing to do with Socialism. They were wrong, of course, because all relationships are sadomasochistic, even if this isn't manifested in a sexual form.

TG It's interesting that you've made a film about sexual aberration at the same time that David Cronenberg's Crash is causing such a furore.

JS Yes, but Conspirators of Pleasure is very different. It's an erotic film without copulation. Or dialogue. It's the story of six people whose lives are shackled by sensual pleasure, shot in a style I call the "black grotesque". It's a mixture of realism and trick photography. Animation is used for fantasies seen through the eyes of the characters.

TG Faust was a quantum leap from your early work. Are you becoming more comfortable with live action? It certainly makes your work easier to interpret.

JS A full-length live-action film meant I could view my subject from more angles. My films deal with real stories but they're filled with symbols, so your imagination constantly metamorphoses reality. Familiar objects take on a different meaning. For some viewers this is liberating, because it opens up a long-forgotten childhood world; others find it disorientating and reject it.

TG It's a dangerous vocabulary. When inanimate objects start moving, the world becomes a very slippery, uncertain place. Your work is magical because it makes reality mysterious. So many Hollywood films are more like religion, because they reassure you, tell you there's a reality which makes sense.

JS That kind of American cinema seems very gross to me.

TG I agree. I was at a film festival in Prague recently and everybody was talking about the censorship of the old regime. It made me think about the economic censorship we live under in the West. If a film doesn't make money, you can't see it. It seems strange that these different systems can have the same result.

JS Unlike many artists, I never thought the change of regime in Czechoslovakia would effect a big change in the arts. Both the totalitarian and commercial systems stem from the same civilisation. Arts must be targeted at the roots of that civilisation rather than at the systems it supports.

TG Did animation give you more freedom in the previous regime?

JS It wasn't so sharply censored initially because it wasn't thought to be dangerous. There was this idea that nothing "really" happens. However, when the censors visited film clubs and saw the reaction to my films, they realised how eager audiences were to read metaphorically.

TG I don't think people understand symbolism in the West.

JS They're not forced to live in primitive repression. In a totalitarian system people are hungry for the slightest hint of truth, attuned to viewing imaginatively.

TG With the change of regime, do you think younger audiences understand symbolism, or is that language disappearing?

JS I understand that in Prague much of the audience was made up of young people. At one theatre it sold out, but was shown for only a week because there was an American film waiting to be shown.

TG People don't seem to understand that huge marketing budgets give American movies an unfair advantage. When I visited the Czech Republic recently people loved the fact these American movies were coming in. What was depressing was that young directors didn't want to make Czech films because they'd only be seen by 10 million people.

JS Young people look down on their forefathers as collaborators, but they're just collaborating with the Western system. The new generation of film students are snobs. They won't use a trick camera because it was made in the 1930s. They won't touch anything they think of as old and Russian, even in their first year! They want expensive equipment and belly- ache when they can't get it. This so-called professionalism is just laziness. TG The interesting thing I felt about 12 Monkeys was that it was made within the system, but dealt with what's outside it. Young people would see it and get into arguments afterwards about what it meant. They seemed excited and grateful to have a film they could do that with. In the 1980s, even college kids didn't want to think any more, they just wanted to concentrate on their careers. I think that conservatism is beginning to wane.

JS That's because the failure of this civilisation is obvious now, and they're beginning to realise they have to live in it for another 50 years.

TG But their view of the future is much blacker than adults'. I'm always accused of having a pessimistic view of the future, but I don't really. I think there may be a cataclysm, but humanity will always come back somehow. One of the scripts I'm working on at the moment is based on trying to make a pagan film, set in the time before Christianity, in a society which accepted magic. But I'm trying to make it as an adventure movie. I want to cast Bruce Willis or Brad Pitt to get regular people to see it, but then twist the way they perceive the world.

JS That's interesting because, many thousands of years before civilisation, animals and objects were partners in communication. We didn't need technology then to make objects live in the mind. Now this civilisation has come to an end we've had to bring back, or rather invent, that relationship. So I suppose, in that way too, animation is a modern form of magicn

`Conspirators of Pleasure' opens this Friday (St Valentine's Day) at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647). It will be reviewed on our Film pages on Thursday

Your chance to win an original Jan Svankmajer etching and/or free annual membership of the ICA (plus a crate of Czech beer)

The first 10 readers to ring the ICA box-office today, quoting the codeword "Erotic" before booking a pair of tickets to Jan Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure (opening this Friday), will each receive one free annual Impressionist membership of the ICA, plus a crate of Zmek Czech Pilsener.

Of those 10, the lucky one to have their name pulled out of the proverbial hat will also receive an original etching by the Czech Republic's most famous living Surrealist.

All other readers booking to see the film by phone (quoting the codeword "Erotic") or in person (carrying a copy of this coupon) will qualify for a 10 per cent discount on annual Impressionist membership of the ICA (paying pounds 22.50 instead of pounds 25).

Annual Impressionist membership of the ICA entitles you to pounds 10 worth of ICA vouchers, invitations to private views, and free entrance (with guest) to all ICA exhibitions and bar and club nights, plus ticket discounts and the monthly ICA Bulletin

ICA box-office: 0171-930 3647 (open 12 noon-8pm)

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat