Directed by Robert Valley –
Hard-living Techno Stypes has been Robert’s best friend since childhood, and over the years, Robert has been amazed by Techno’s ability to sabotage himself. When Techno is hospitalized in China and needs a liver transplant, Robert goes on a wild ride to get him home to Vancouver.
GFM: You have described yourself as working more from memory, rather than being a writer, per se. We would love to hear how you came to this story and what made you decide to turn it into a film.
Robert: I was travelling back and forth between China, London and Vancouver, but I kept being pulled back to China. Things were leading up to the second part of the Pear Cider and Cigarettes story, during which I spent months in China dealing with Techno. When everything was complete, I went back to London. One day, I was in a pub chatting to a friend of mine named Hugo and he asked where I had been. I asked if he wanted to hear a crazy story. He said, “Sure”, and I proceeded to tell him the whole story over about three pints of beer. By the end, he just said, “Wow, man, you should do something with this story, it’s crazy! It’s full of highs and lows and other interesting bits.” He was the catalyst for me to start thinking about turning it into a book and then an animated film.
I always wanted to retain the quality of it being a story told to a friend in a pub – that’s the tone of the whole film. With regard to what you’re saying about being someone who works from memory rather than as a writer, that’s the quality I was going for. There wasn’t much writing involved. I just recalled events in a certain way.
GFM: You have had a fascinating career working on films such as Aeon Flux, Tron and Wonder Woman, but this film is completely your own endeavour, and you’ve achieved something phenomenal. Would you talk about the journey leading up to the Oscar nomination?
Robert: I always knew from early on that if I ever did something with this story, I would first like it to be a book and then turn it into a film – a cross-over from graphic novel to animated film. I spend part of my time working on graphic novels and the other part of my time animating. Previously, it always seemed like I was working on other people’s ideas.
I’m going to be 50 pretty soon and although I was unsure as to what kind of story I would tell, I wanted the opportunity to have my voice heard and to see what kind of story would materialize. It’s got all the classic elements of storytelling, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a bit of pubic hair. There’s some liquor. There’s some music. Stuff like that.
I set the bar pretty low, but I’m trying to appeal to people with like-minded tastes. It’s pretty obvious that this film isn’t for everybody. I showed it to my son, who is six years old and he seemed to like it. I showed it to my mom and she’s 80 years old and she seemed to think it was okay, too.
GFM: Apparently, crossing over from graphic novel to film was in order for the graphic novel to function as a storyboard. Can you elaborate on that.
Robert: Yes, it was intentional because I suppose the idea was to kill two birds with one stone. The book was supposed to function as the storyboard and the art direction for the film. As the panels for the comic book were being drawn, the book was being put together. All the frames for the book had the same aspect ratio – a letterbox aspect ratio. I wasn’t really going for any sort of funky comic book framing. I wanted to keep it as cinematic as possible and also as functional as possible. It was also kind of being formatted for animation purposes. There were various layers: background, character, effects and overlays. When it was time to revisit the artwork for the book, I felt like all the layouts were done – not just the storyboards. In terms of production, from the time I started animating, it got me about 20% down the production pipeline. However, the book has its own purpose because I thought that the book sales would partly finance the film.
GFM: The book is a fascinating read! Would you speak about going from ‘script to screen’, or did you develop the script through the process of making the film?
Robert: It’s definitely a by-product, but what I’ve noticed in my experience is that most of the people that buy my book are students or animation people. They’re quite interested in knowing how the pipeline works and seeing all the behind the scenes stuff. For my Kickstarter, more people ordered the script to screen book than the film itself, which to me really underlined the fact that there are just as many, if not more, people interested in the creative process as in the final product.
GFM: The book and the film are great companions.
Robert: In a way, the story of making the film is a story in itself. I wasn’t exactly sitting around with my feet on the table, laughing about how great things were going. The fucking thing was a struggle!
GFM: The project took over two years to complete. What was that experience like?
Robert: It took two and a half years to do the animation. It was an exercise in self-control, in a way. It reminded me of working on Tron with Charlie Bean, who was the director. We were halfway through production and I remember Charlie coming into my office and saying, “Oh, man. I feel like I’m swimming in the middle of an ocean and there’s no land in sight. All I can do is just keep swimming.” I thought, “Oh, yeah. I guess that’s how you feel right now.” Then I was working on Pear Cider and felt like I was in the middle of the ocean, too. A year and a half into production and the end didn’t seem anywhere in sight. Really, it just seemed like all you could do was wake up in the morning and push the project forward in small increments.
GFM: What are your thoughts on the short film format and its place in your career?
Robert: This film was a long short – 35 minutes. Most film festivals passed on it as a result of its length and because it was neither a series nor feature. It also didn’t really fit a lot of distribution criteria. It was in this weird middle ground where it was just languishing in the unknown. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when until we made it onto the long list for the Oscars, that the film started to get a bit of a second wind. Since the Oscar nomination, it’s regained momentum and is finally getting into festivals. Previously, nobody was really paying attention to the film. It kind of validates the film in a way, as far as most people are concerned. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of content out there. People don’t have time to research everything and then once a list is generated from the Academy, whether it be the long or short list, then people are like, “Okay. All the heavy lifting is done. Maybe now it’s time to check this film out.” That’s where I think it’s at right now.
There was definitely a lack of possibilities for a film of this length because it’s just a one-off. Moving forward, I know for a fact, and this was brought up with me a few times, that if it was closer to feature length, I could have unlocked all sorts of financing possibilities. I think that there’s financing available for feature films that’s not really available for short films or series either. I think after doing this film, I wouldn’t want to do another film on a shoestring budget. I think I’d like to invest my energy in something that I could get a development budget for and hire some staff. It was never really my intention to work on this film by myself, but there was no money available.
GFM: Would you set the stage for us and tell us where you were and what happened when you received the news that you had been nominated for an Oscar?
Robert: I was in London working on the next Gorillaz music video, which is going to be out in about a month. A schedule was released for when the nominations were going to be announced. It was going to be at 12:19pm precisely. So, my producer, Cara Speller, and I went to a bar around the corner from the studio and went upstairs where there was nobody else. The two of us just sat there, had a couple of pints and she pulled out her phone and we just watched the live-stream. I couldn’t believe it. They actually said Pear Cider and Cigarettes. I thought it was hilarious. We just looked at each other and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” The film that started off with such a rocky beginning actually got nominated for an Oscar. It was surprising. Definitely surprising!
Directed by Robert Valley