In mid-December a strange creature emerged from the murky fog that was covering Ljubljana streets. Half dragon, half devil – »The God Devil«, to be precise, with a hint of mysticism and a tie. On every corner it glared on the passers-by from the posters announcing the 12th edition of Animateka festival.
The omnipresent creature surfaced from the depths of Mind My Gap Universe, Rosto’s mixed media project and his life’s work. Filmmaker/artist Rosto is internationally known for his music videos, TV work and independent short films. In December he visited Animateka and – in the best possible way – occupied Ljubljana streets with his many alter-egos.
Rosto’s animated films are encased in a dark, slightly enigmatic shell: they emerged from his graphic novel Mind My Gap (1998–2014), which itself emerged from rock’n’roll songs he created with his band Thee Wreckers, that again take an almost leading role in his films. A frequently asked question is reminiscent of the »chicken-and-egg dilemma«: which came first, the music or the images? After watching Rosto’s retrospective, encompassing not only his films but his life’s work, presented at the 12th edition of Animateka in Ljubljana, we can come to the conclusion that it is not really important what came first.
What Rosto creates with his films: the Thee Wreckers tetralogy-to-be (No Place Like Home (2008), Lonely Bones (2013) and Splintertime (2015)), the short films Beheaded (1998), The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Anglobilly Feverson (2002), Jona/Tomberry (2005) and Monster of Nix (2011,) is a universe that stands for itself and at the same time reflects the very personal depths of the author – the characters he created are his alter egos and mirror of the very archetypical anima-animus relations, fear of death and innocence of life, all combined in an intra-, inter- and meta text that also questions storytelling and art.
I heard that in the early 90’s you were in Ljubljana, playing on the streets with your band.
This was – I think – in 1994. I had been in Ljubljana the year before and I really liked it. I love the city, so the next year I actually took the band here. It was four young guys and we had this crazy idea to just bring our guitars and travel a little bit through Slovenia and try to make some money on the streets making music.
Were you successful?
No, of course not. (Laughs) I mean; it depends on your definition of success. Artistically we were very successful. Commercially – not so much. But we all still have very fond memories of it, we had a great time. It’s like when you get older and look back on your younger years, when you could still sleep only for two hours and the rest of it go crazy: these become very beautiful memories. And yes I have those gorgeous memories of Ljubljana.
Music also stands at the beginning of your life’s project – the Mind My Gap universe. Can you tell us more about how everything began?
In the 90’s I was with my group, The Wreckers, and I didn’t really have a master plan or a concept. I started writing these songs that belonged together. All of them dealt with the landscapes and crossroads. And crossroads is basically the oldest theme in rock’n’roll. The old blues liaisons were already playing with the same idea: that you can go to the crossroad and meet the devil there, and in exchange for your soul you’ll be able to play a mean guitar.
So I was writing all these different songs about landscapes and traveling and I did it in a very intuitive way. And very often the lyrics didn’t even make sense, because for me rock’n’roll isn’t so much about what you are saying, but about how you are saying it. So very often these were very surreal, intuitive lyrics.
Later, I think two or three years later, I started to interpret these songs. I was taking it step by step, going on a journey myself. And in a way it was like an inner journey, I was an inside traveler. I was listening to them, and this is the beauty of music – you know – you can really plug into it sometimes and in your mind you can suddenly go places. There are little hints of names that could maybe be characters and this is basically when Mind My Gap, the graphic novel, was born. It was an interpretation of my own songs.
The world you created is fascinating and complex, all the pieces are connected and intertwined. It also constantly grows. How did you start exploring it and how do these inner journeys work?
When I started Mind My Gap I had no clue that this will be the biggest project that I was embarking on. At the beginning it was just another interesting project, and what I thought was fantastic – especially looking back on it – is that you start this thing: you start traveling inside and you discover these interesting places. And then it starts growing. Well, I am not sure whether it’s growing or am I just discovering more and more of it. You just go there and it’s sort of an interesting place and you stay and it turns out to be so much more and so very real.
It’s inside, so it’s not visible for you guys yet, but to me it’s all real, like for example when I decided to do the Monster of Nix it was because of my son was interested in the Langemanne; the characters that live in the forest. The forest creatures basically. And I always knew that there are hundreds of Langemanne stories, I just never wrote them down. I never focused on that, but it was just a matter of going there and paying attention. Like really paying attention. And then there was all this wealth of these ideas and stories that I could just use.
The characters in your films are in a way different parts of your personality, right? What part of your personality do the Langemanne represent?
Yes, we assume that it works like that. (Laughs) Esthetically, the way the characters look, especially the real are visual alter egos like Virgil Horn, »The God Devil«, he literally has my face. The Langemmane is also in a way a visual alter ego but from an earlier time in my life. In every moment in time I sort of make a photograph of who I am as a man and also the way I look, and these alter egos come from it and they stay like that and I continue to decay, because that what’s aging is basically, falling apart very slowly.
But the characters stay in their status quo. So the Langemanne in a way represent a lot more the wildness, the unpredictable, the more animalistic nature – me as a younger man and me being slightly more like a harlequin. There is also a super hero there, but from a fairytale perspective; you know, like forest superheroes. In my early Langemanne stories, children often even saw them as superheroes, because they wear these masks that are related to superheroes.
I never project an element of myself deliberately. I just find it and then I slowly discover what it’s all about. The beauty is always that you are intrigued by this and that there is a certain mystery. So when you embark on something you have to make sure that there is something inside there that you are fascinated by or interested in, but you don’t know yet what it is about. And because you will be spending the next years of your life dealing with this subject matter it has to be interesting and intriguing.
Mind My Gap seems to be predominated with archetypical male elements. Why is there so little female presence?
I had some comments on that in the past as well and it’s true that there are a few female characters and they are mothers, or whores or sirens. And I was asking myself, am I really that fucked up? But then I realized it actually makes sense because it is a man’s world. We are going into, let’s say an animus instead of an anima, because it’s me and you know I am not a woman and my animus has a very limited representation of the feminine side.
And now that I know Mind My Gap world even better and in a more detailed way, it actually makes more sense, because it’s not only about me: it’s also about the main character in the graphic novel who is also a man and arguably it’s his world view and he is unfamiliar with the feminine side of things. But again, these are not designed or deliberate things. I did not exclude women or only included the archetypal female demons.
In your work, especially in Monster of Nix, storytelling feels like a quintessential element, like some sort of subtext even?
I find the word story very confusing. People use it all the time. If you ask people about what is their definition of a story, they are all going to tell you very different definitions. I think most people’s definition of a story is the traditional three act with the character development and redemption in the end formula. That is basically what they mean by story and I am not that interested in that. There are many people who do a great job at that sort of storytelling and there are even more people who do a shit job at that kind of storytelling.
You never know what is going to happen next year, maybe I will be very interested in trying this kind of storytelling, but so far I found it more interesting to use the potential of the medium. For example cinema. It’s such a potent medium, its able of doing so much more than the passive storytelling. And this is why I resent the formula, it has a very demeaning, almost arrogant position: you sit down, I am going to tell you a story and in the end you can sleep very well because I will give you all the answers.
And what Hollywood usually does is that it gives you stupid answers to put you to sleep. And that is what I dislike. I am interested in dialogue. When I make my film there is, hopefully, enough room for people to project themselves into the story. And afterwards or maybe even during it there is this dialogue between the film and the audience and it becomes more of an interactive thing. Sometimes people come to me after the screening and they say to me, I am not sure if I understood what it was all about, and then I ask them what do you think it was about? And what they do is often tell me their stories. Very often these are fantastic stories and then there is communication between the art and the audience which I find so much more interesting like this one-sided communication.
Since we are talking about stories; what were your favorite stories when you were young; what spoke to you the most and was maybe the seed for the films you make today?
Something that was a traumatizing thing in my personal history was the fact that my dad had an 8mm projector and a camera that I started to use later to try to make my own films. What he did was he showed me Disney films. Black and white, 8mm, but without sound. And he completely did not realize that with these cartoons the comic relief is always in the sound(track). Because if you look at the visuals it’s horrible violence – the characters get anvils on their heads and sometimes get torn into two parts and all this, and it’s quite horrible, but the music sort of tells you that it’s fun and that it’s OK.
But with the 8mm projector this relief is gone. It only has this very dead trrrrrrr (mimics the 8mm projector sound) and then you are watching as a little kid, 3 or 4 years old, and you are watching all this violence going on. It’s like watching a snuff movie basically, an animated snuff film. And that gave me nightmares, which now are fantastic; like some of the very important seeds have been planted there. The Langemanne for example, one of the things that often happens to him is that he loses his head. My very first film Beheaded is about that, and it’s being referenced in some other films as well and this is actually from the earliest nightmare that I can remember where all these Disney characters were beheaded and still continue to run.
How was it then for you to make Monster of Nix, a movie for children? Did you approach the material in a different way?
It was not really a film for children, although I liked telling this to people, who were familiar with my work, that now I was to do a film for children, just to see the expression on their faces. But, the base was that I made a film, not for me but for my son, assuming that there will be other children as well, who would maybe be interested in it.
I would often show my son the stuff I made and talk to him, asking: »Do you think this is too horrible?« or »Should I be gentler here?«, and of course the answer was always no. So for me, it was a very interesting journey, because usually, I get things from my own demonic depths and now I had to take more from his demonic depths and this was an interesting experience.
Although, when I made Monster of Nix, I felt I was somewhat neglecting my own ideas. In the end, this is why we make art. We have stuff inside that has to come out. So, after I had finished Monster of Nix, I did feel that there was so much black matter, which had been collecting in me for years, that Lonely Bones had to come out and I knew that this was a very tough piece and possibly my most inaccessible film, but I didn’t care. These things just had to be squeezed out, this darkness, because there was so little room in Monster of Nix to deal with more grown-up darkness.
Since we are talking about Monster of Nix, could we maybe go a bit deeper into your work process?
Monster of Nix started with my son Max. He was six years old and he was my biggest fan. He knew everything about the Mind My Gap universe, he could give lectures on it, but he was especially interested in the Langemanne. And I felt »all right, I can tell you many stories about them«. So, I first started writing and then developed a storyboard. If you read it, you will see it is very different from the actual film. It has many different elements since it very quickly fell into production and development hell. It was a tough film to get financed and it was a tough film to get a team together. It was 30 minutes long: too long for a short and too short for a feature. There were several moments when people asked me why not make it into a feature film; it would have been easier to finance.
After a long period, we finally had all the financing in order and I had my team in order. And then I learned that the best thing for me to make a film would actually be to do an animatic. I wanted to keep the process as simple as possible. Storyboards do not usually work for me. Storyboards are nice to sort of make a head start on a project and they are especially nice when trying to sell the project, trying to get it financed, because the »money people«, they love it. A comic book version of a film, basically. For me, it doesn’t work, because there is no time – it doesn’t have rhythm, it doesn’t have timing, it doesn’t have sound – it could be anything – and it has no important elements, like for example the camera and editing elements, which for me are equally important as the characters and the design.
An animatic is very useful to catch the original idea. Although it often looks stupid – it is a very easy 3-D animation, such as a cube or a sphere –, but I know that the cube is character A and the sphere character B; I can already play with it, very quickly, and have the camera in as well and then start editing it until things start to resonate. And once you have this, then you can fix things a little bit, you can use it as a blueprint for the project. And then the next step is usually the live action shoot, so shooting actors in fat suits or prostatic masks in front of a green screen. The animatic will also tell you a lot more about what you need. For example, when the camera movement is an integral and important thing in your scene or shoot; with the animatic you now already know how to shoot this and that, so that it will still fit in in postproduction. It is so much easier to make a proper breakdown with it.
So then you go home with a bunch of green screen shots and you start cutting this again. And the beauty of live action instead of animation is that things never work out the way you imagined. That is fantastic. As a younger man, that was really frustrating, because you wanted it to be exactly how you imagined it and you kept wondering why it doesn’t work, why people aren’t like robots and do exactly as I programmed them, and when you get older, you start to enjoy it, because you get bored with your own vision and you get bored with the fact that everything goes exactly as you’ve imagined it and you start to enjoy the happy accidents, the fact that things are alive and suddenly other things happen that are interesting and you follow on that.
So, from that moment on, live action actually becomes the blueprint, you make new edits and you discover new things and new rhythm in a way. I always allow myself the freedom to adjust the music to this as well. From this moment on, things start to react with one another; they start to find each other. Instead of having two elements and trying to glue them together, you try to create one beast. That’s basically it. And then animation and postproduction starts. You have this live action edit. From that you now know which elements are still needed, how they respond to other sequences, to the entire film. This is basically when the tunnel vision happens. Often, as soon we are done shooting, I disappear. I go into the tunnel, close the door and you won’t see me for the next year or so and eventually I come out on the other side.
Monster of Nix was one of only a handful of short films that were actually released as a stand-alone in cinema.
It did. But it had a very limited release, let’s not get excited. But in Holland, it did have a 30-minute standalone release for a half-price ticket and I was really happy about that.
It’s a real problem with short films, because they don’t get a lot of opportunities to get shown in cinemas.
I was lucky in the past, because lots of my films actually had distribution with feature films in Holland as a supporting programme. But now, my last one, Splintertime, didn’t, although, people have been really willing and we were looking at the possibility. But we are increasingly faced with, let’s call them »cinema exploiters«, the people who own cinemas and who make money from them, they prefer to use the slot for commercials and trailers then for shorts. So even if you get your short in the theatre, often, in the past, you had to pay for this, especially in the days of 35mm. Who is going to pay for the prints – certainly not Pathé!
They sometimes allow you a slot or they had allowed me this in the past, but then we had to make sure that the prints were covered and that they were all in the right place. And it happened that although it had been announced that there would be Anglobilly Feverson (op. The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Anglobilly Feverson) with Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2002) for example, that was a nice marriage, you would come to the theatre and they would actually cut it off and put commercials and trailers in its place.
To conclude, what is next? I heard there is a fourth part of Thee Wreckers?
Yes, that was always supposed to be a tetralogy, four films that follow up. I don’t necessarily have one big story to tell, but they do, in a way, connect. The final episode will be called Reruns. With the Thee Wreckers films, it was always like a little game I was playing with myself. It is inspired by a song, I sort of a have to choose one of my songs. It will feature the characters of the Thee Wreckers, sometimes as leads, sometimes hidden somewhere in the background, but they will always be there and the other thing is that it always starts where the previous film ended.
So, when I finished No Place Like Home, I basically had the situation, where this guy was leaving and going to the fountain, that was the only thing that I knew for sure, when I started Lonely Bones and when Lonely Bones ended, the only thing that I knew for sure was that the band just left with the dancing nurse into the wide world. And other than that, I didn’t know anything. So this is how I started on Splintertime. So Splintertime now ends with the ghosts of Thee Wreckers floating off and it starts to rain. That’s all I know. Now I am exploring, I have many ideas, but I am not going to tell you.
What about a feature film?
I am developing a feature film at the same time, yes. This will be the Mind My Gap feature film. I have always known that one day I will make an adaptation of the whole graphic novel into a linear feature film form. And for four years or so I have been trying to do this, but it never really happened. But sometimes you just have to admit that you can’t give birth if the baby isn’t ready yet. So you have to be patient. It was only two years ago that I felt »Uuu, I think my water just broke!«
I have not done a feature before, so the writing process for me, so far, has been amazing. I feel like a student. I am discovering all these beauties. It is a whole new game doing a feature and I absolutely love it. That is the beauty of the work that we do. So many new adventures, so many things that we don’t know, still to explore, to discover, to learn and to have fun with.
By Anja Banko and Ana Šturm // The interview was first published in slovene language @ Ekran Magazine, Year LIII, 2016, Februar-March, pg. 9-13