Adapting Murakami & Animation as Reality
Pierre Földes on his new film ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is being released by Modern Films in UK and Irish cinemas on 31 March 2023, and is screening at Glasgow Film Festival on March 2 + 11 and Dublin International Film Festival on March 2nd. https://www.modernfilms.com/blindwillow
It would be a struggle to find an author whose work has been more readily, and successfully, adapted for the screen over the past few years than Haruki Murakami. We’re not quite in Stephen King territory yet, but both writers are prolific enough that filmmakers are unlikely to run out of material any time soon, and as with the best adaptations of King’s work, films like Burning (2018) and Drive My Car (2021) functioned on the screen way beyond the margins of the original short-stories.
Pierre Földes’ new film also builds freely on its source material. Rather than adapting one story or novella, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman depicts several Murakami short-stories, tied together along a loose narrative thread. The resulting anthology is a mosaic of narratives, notable in particular for its idiosyncratic animation style – which involved shooting the film first in live-action and then modelling the 2D animation around the actor’s performances. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is equal parts funny and haunting, often uncanny and sometimes outright bizarre.
We chatted to Pierre about his approach to adapting Murakami, composing the film’s music and what it was like to voice a giant frog.
Hello Pierre, thanks so much for talking to us about ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.’ Can you tell us a bit about how and when the idea for the film first came to you?
I’d read Murakami’s books for the first time in New York, where I used to work as a film composer. After moving to Budapest, I started making my own films, both in live action and in animation. At some point, in Paris, an agent asked me what I wanted to do next, and somehow, inspired by the question and with a sudden vision of what I had in mind, I said I wanted to make an animation feature based on Murakami stories.
Adaptations of Haruki Murakami’s writing seem to be becoming a bit of a trend over the past few years. Why do you think Murakami’s stories are proving so ripe for adaptation in the current moment?
I can only speak for myself. Obviously, he’s a very popular author; as for me, I’m inspired by his storytelling and unique style. I enjoy losing myself in his words. I fall asleep with visions and wake up with scenes in my mind. After many nights and days, I had written a script which I believe is very much in sync with the world I’m living in.
Your film is distinct from other Murakami adaptations in that it is animated, and by extension, it is able to depict some of the more playful, surreal elements of Murakami’s style. What appealed to you about animation as a medium?
Animation allows me to express my vision of reality. It allows me to explore a deeper perception of the world than I could have done with live action. Not to say that live action is limited; I don’t really think it is. Actors, for one thing, are limitless if one knows how to inspire them, but with animation one needs to define everything and that encourages me to use everything that’s at hand to do exactly that: define things; and define what I really have in my mind, not to just reproduce reality, go further, reproduce thoughts, feelings, sensations as well. So in that sense, it is perfectly suited for Murakami.
Orson Welles said “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations”. Did your very specific process of animation – including a live-action shoot, 3D motion graphics and 2D animation layouts – help the animation team to create something visually distinctive?
Yes, it was the only way of achieving what I had in mind. I absolutely needed to make the animation based on live action performances. There is so much one can create when working with actors. The 3D was only there to help the animators, allowing them to concentrate on what was most important for the film: the expressions. Transposing the expressions and subtle emotions the actors had given into the actual characters of the animated film. The animators would look at the video references and focus on giving life to their characters who didn’t resemble the actors. They gave life to them, inspired by the performances of the actors.
When you wrote the script was it important to establish a kind of narrative ‘through-line’ with the characters? Several of these stories come from collections published decades apart but the film links them coherently. How did you pick which stories to integrate?
Once again, I trusted my instinct. I always pay lots of attention to my gut feelings, to my emotions, things that attract me. Every time in my life that I’ve made big mistakes, it was because I decided not to listen to that music that had told me not to go there, not to work with that person and so forth. I feel like I’m a stupid dog sometimes, that sniffs his way towards what he likes. So that’s what I did with Mr Murakami’s stories. I just picked the ones I liked. But to tell you the truth, I’m also attracted to things that I can’t define at once. Things that have depth, so much depth I can’t see the bottom of them. So I let myself be sucked down and go on a journey. On my way there, I hope some people may follow.
It’s fair to say you had your hands full in the process of making this film, serving as its writer, director, animator, the composer of its score, as well as voice-acting several characters. Was this a matter of necessity or choice? Would you do the same again in future films?
Maybe not right away; it was a hell of a long journey! I loved every creative part of it, and playing Frog was lots of fun as well. However, rather than renounce doing all these different things which I adore, I’ll just try and do something a little less complex in the making. I’m also open to offers of collaboration!
And speaking of the score… music is a huge part of the Murakami oeuvre – how did you approach composing the music for the film?
Mr Murakami is in reality attracted to all kinds of music, and so am I. For the score, as in most things, I only followed my instincts. It really makes choices so much simpler. So at first, I wanted to do something very ambitious, that I’ve never actually heard in a film, what I like to call, orchestral sound design. I soon however realised that to write what I had in mind would take me over a year, so having already spent quite enough years on this film, I decided to keep that idea for… another life.
Instead, I did something less cerebral and a lot more “sensorial”, emotional at times, expressionist in a sense. I thought of a specific quality of sound and followed that sound throughout the film as if it was guiding me to its emotional resolution. On my way, I picked up all kinds of instruments, both electronic and orchestral. This resulted in a “sound” made with instruments created in my beloved Reaktor as well as a few other crazy tools I like to use. Then I added to this, a string ensemble and a few solo instruments: a double bass, a cello, a violin, a trombone, a bass clarinet, a clarinet, a flute, a bass flute, a bassoon, a harp and of course, a piano. Most of the time, the music is adding depth to subtle emotional moments. This music, as well as the images, are both kind of fragile. Once combined this fragility holds itself up in a kind of triangular way, creating a combined meaning between the characters’ psychology, the image and the music. At times, the music is a lot more bombastic and participates in the narration, more specifically in the scenes with Katagiri and Frog, where the orchestra at times becomes huge and almost scary. I had lots of fun composing and orchestrating those tracks.
We want to avoid spoilers, but we found ourselves particularly taken by the character of ‘Frog’ and his penchant for quoting classical literature – Tolstoy, Conrad, Hemmingway and Nietzsche, to name a few. You voice the character yourself, so if you had to pick, what is your favourite ‘Frog’ line in the film?
“The highest wisdom is to have no fear!” Fuck yeah.
We like to finish our interviews by asking people what was the last great thing they read or saw – what have you enjoyed recently?
To tell you the truth, I’ve had lots of fun watching Ted Lasso recently. Great writing, emotions, laughs. At times annoying too, but overall positive. My wife is from Richmond so it’s great to see coach Lasso sitting on that bench when I was lying down on her lap just the other day, exhausted from too many film festivals!
Thank you Pierre.
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