When you sit down to supper, what do you see before you? A healthy meal, perhaps? The four food groups equally represented and neatly sectioned off on your plate? As appetizing as it all can be, it is a rather limited view of reality. Why see things as they actually are when you can imagine them any other way you would like? While this may not be a chosen philosophy for the young, twin protagonists at the center of independent filmmaker, Eric Leiser’s latest feature, Imagination, it is certainly a much closer interpretation of their reality than the otherwise black and white existence you and I know. Dinner for these girls might feel like a bad acid trip for supposedly normal folk but for them it is an animated experience where the contents of their plates dance in a stormy frenzy and thus provides not only nutritional value but enlightenment as well.
Anna and Sarah Woodruff each suffer in the real world – one is legally blind and the other is afflicted with a rare form of autism. Their misfortune has opened a door to another realm where their kindred spirits meet, allowing for their suffering to fall away, left behind in the mundane real world where their parents live. The creative duo behind Imagination is made up of another sibling pairing, Eric and Jeffrey Leiser. While these California natives are not twins, they certainly do try to spend the majority of their time on a more imaginative plain than the Hollywood hills that surround them. Their artistic outlets are vast – Jeffrey writes and composes while Eric writes and animates (to say nothing of their various other dabblings) – and spending time in their creative spaces allows them that much more chance to make sense of the world.
Imagination has played in various North American cities at a number of festivals and will find itself released on DVD internationally on February 26, 2008. After a number of years paying their dues, it would appear that the Leiser brothers are sitting on the cusp of a new horizon of their developing careers. The film’s director, Eric, was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions in an effort to help me see things a little less rigidly.
Joseph Belanger: IMAGINATION tells the story of two twin girls who are ostracized from all around them because of their ability to live on a more imaginative plain. It seems fitting that the people at the helm of the project are brothers. How did you and your brother Jeffrey first get involved in collaborative filmmaking?
Eric Leiser: We had always done creative projects and shared a very close bond growing up in Northern California. I had been gestating very raw, spiritual and emotional feelings stemming from childhood. I could no longer contain what was deeply rooted and had to express it somehow. I found the perfect communication vessel in which to be understood, the art of filmmaking. Jeffrey was a musical prodigy who would play piano is his room all day and in through the night constantly. I always encouraged him and would hang out in his room for hours listening and dreaming up ideas to his music.
You certainly are a creative duo. You wrote the screenplay together. Jeffrey composed the score. You directed and animated the film. The two of you must have big plans ahead. Perhaps the Leiser’s are gunning to be the next Coen’s?
I directed and animated the film but Jeffrey was definitely present for much of the production, both live action and animated. We have worked together on 17 shorts and two features now and feel like we’ve just begun to understand how to make a compelling narrative film.
We have two feature film scripts we are finishing up on, one live action, the other is a stop motion feature that I developed for two years while I was at Nickelodeon that we are moving ahead with. The important thing though as young filmmakers is to keep the momentum going and begin the journey of a new film while hoping the right dedicated people will join us along the way.
The Coen brother’s latest film [No Country for Old Men] in particular is a film a lesser filmmaker would seldom achieve. We must remember that they too started small. Masterful filmmaking is a hard wrought process, from what I gather.
Now, I love my brother but it’s all I can do to stop myself from punching him in the face at times. After working so closely together for such a long time now, do you ever want to kill each other?
Well, we have definitely wanted each other to disappear for a long time! We both have strong personalities and are passionate about what we do; this can lead to long heated arguments at times. There is something of a Nordic temperament to us coming down from our wonderful grandmother but we usually get along especially when creating. We are a team and that goes with the territory.
IMAGINATION is diverse in style, jumping back and forth between animation and live-action. Even within those two divisions, there are further subdivisions – time-lapse photography, stop motion animation, 3D visual effects. Did all this chaos cause any difficulties during the process or did it make it all make much more sense?
Since I was given a vision for the film I literally tried every method I knew in order to capture what I saw play before me. Luckily, I had been experimenting with many different techniques in my films that came together and culminated to tell this story. I’m always trying to push animation and myself into new territory, artistically and technically. This did result though in an incredibly taxing and time consuming effort that pushed me past my own limits.
Are you more passionate about animation than live action?
That’s a difficult question that leads to a complex explanation so I’ll try to simplify it. I have a more experienced background with animation and certainly view it as the perfect medium to express my own ideas. There is something though about capturing reality and working with actors that I still want to develop even though my strength is in animation. Our next two features are a live action and a stop motion animated film so that will be plenty of practice.
As much as the ability to tap into one’s imagination is glorified in the film, it is also a frightening, isolated place. Do you feel that people should strive to live on a middle ground between reality and the fantastical? Or would grounding it be the ultimate death of the imagination?
I know real freedom exists within our imagination. I believe we are most like God when we are our using our imagination for good. The fact is that we live in reality and living largely on the middle ground is essential to keeping a healthy balance. Not driving off the road or talking to imaginary people and the like is, the last time I checked, important. I dedicate huge amounts of time going through the nitty-gritty of reality during pre production in order to allow myself to embark to on the road to realizing that which I first experienced in my mind. We should use the freedom of the imagination to transform reality into a more enriching healthy place. Even if a human decided not to develop their imagination, the brain will always have dreams to swim and breathe freely within.
It seems to me that the film’s own imaginative nature is itself a commentary on the lack of imagination expressed in much of Hollywood film. Do you feel that many contemporary filmmakers are not pushing the potential of their third eyes?
Even though I live in Los Angeles currently, I am both completely disgusted and intrigued by aspects of Hollywood, as I am with America in general. The work ethic is incredible and people from all over the world come here to chase after their dreams. I find that commendable but can’t wait to leave when the time is right. I personally have found that executives are largely to blame, backed by non-creative corporations with big pockets. Hollywood is imploding and losing their monopoly over filmmaking; it’s a sign of the times. This really does feel like an incredible period to be an independent filmmaker. Not enough filmmaker’s are stepping out and creating films that are outside of the formulaic way to approach cinema though. I’m a big DIY fan but you must be willing to work hard and sacrifice many things. Measuring the worth of a film by its means to make money alone is a mistake.
Do you think IMAGINATION will find its audience or is it perhaps simply too imaginative for a general public obsessed with fluff?
“Imagination” has done really well since its completion and we are excited about every new invitation to screen the film. Luckily Vanguard Cinema International has picked up the film for distribution and will release it February 26th. It is sad though when we have to compete with Oscar season “independents” in order to promote the film. True independent films really have to struggle to be seen. “Imagination” breaks away from conventional narrative and walks the fine line between story and art piece. Anything new is often met with resistance from the general public but I feel people are opening up and are more likely nowadays to be immersed in a new world with it’s own rules presiding.
“Imagination” was a gift given to me and now I’m giving it away to everyone else to enjoy. Some may just think it’s plain weird. It’s hard to say in this day in age without a laugh track going in the background!