Apocalypsis: An Interview with Eric Leiser

Apocalypsis is the newest film by Eric Leiser, who collaborates with his brother, composer Jeffrey Leiser, to bring surreal spiritual imagery and storytelling to the screen. In years past, I've been invited to interview them about their previous feature films Imagination and Glitch in the Grid.

With their new film, the Leisers have crafted an action-packed psychological thriller that explores the Book of Revelation in a poetic montage of imagery and intrigue. What I appreciate about their work is their ability to combine ingenious sound design and experimental animated imagery with intimate explorations of relationships between characters in an on-going narrative. If you are looking for something out of the box, these are films worth looking for and supporting.

Apocalypsis is out now for viewing on screens large and small (including Amazon and iTunes) so here is my newest conversation with Eric Leiser, what inspires his vision, and what's coming next.

So, let's start at the beginning. What was the initial inspiration behind Apocalypsis?

When my previous live action/animated feature film "Glitch in the Grid" was winding down I began having little visions of the new one. Then came drawings, and storyboarding what I was seeing initially in the earliest stages. Slowly I began picking up on my inner radar new ideas while exploring the film's environment within my imagination. From there I started writing the skeleton of the script and consistently working on it for months on end, but at an unhurried pace that happens within this elated gel period. The core idea was about a woman who was not living for this world, but for the life after, and how that would influence her life by what she did. On top of that I wanted to explore the book of Revelation, wanting to animate it primarily with stop-motion and new techniques developed over the years. I figured the character would start reading it at the beginning of the film, and then start having visions toward a crescendo. So those two core concepts where essentially what interested me while striking a kinship with my most well known feature film "Imagination", which centered around visions and their prophetic nature.

 During this time, I started attending an OCA Orthodox Christian Church in the East Village of New York City where I had lived a few years already. This exposure had a big impact on me. I grew up in the western Protestant church and only had a somewhat partial knowledge of eastern Christianity, although I knew it was not the Catholic Church. I have had a longstanding interest in the early church after the Ascension, and wanted to know after attending a paschal service one evening. As an artist I was also drawn to the beauty of the Holy Virgin of Protection Cathedral and the icons within it. This reminded me of one of my favorite films, Andrei Rublev by master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Inwardly I was looking to further enrich my relationship with God, reaching for an experiential wholeness that was lacking in order to keep growing spiritually. To me it was like coming home after years adrift. It’s hard to articulate other than that all the denominations of protestantism isolated me. I continue to see filmmaking as an amazing process for spiritual growth and understanding as well, so the two are a wonderful pair. So much of this found its way into the script, presenting a type of monastic and communal way of living within one of the largest cities in the world. Living a life built on serving others and focused on spiritual values while going through the process of theosis rather than investing in worldly goals is important and what by God's mercy we all should be striving for.

 As the script progressed I had her, Evelyn, struggling with her albinism, new conversion to orthodoxy, and working in a rare bookstore among other details. In addition, her boss would be an atheist and she would have a close friend (who became the character Michael) who was equal to her in conviction but held a different belief, creating a tension but also a mutual desire to help people in a society being forcibly chipped and heavily surveilled against their will.

Much earlier on in life, I wanted to make a live-action film based on the book of Revelation, the last book in the Holy Bible. Being born in the cold war 80s, I picked up as a young child the threat of nuclear doomsday looming over everything. There was a foreboding feeling that the end of the world was a prescient reality and that the apocalypse would possibly happen within my lifetime. In addition to that, I was introduced to Revelation early on as well, so I internalized it, being both terrified and inspired by its hyper visual nature which in turn set my imagination ablaze. Now after 15 years of animating experience under my belt and evermore inspired by its relevancy, I felt it was the right time to create an impressionistic take on all 22 chapters and structure it within the story. There was a lot of turmoil in the air while I was writing it, between the Snowden NSA leaks and the protests going on surrounding police violence, big brother surveillance, racial and economic injustice and early cyborgian peddling still boiling over from the occupy wall street movement.

During this time I was watching the British television series The Prisoner from the late 60's, Twin Peaks, X-Files and reading books pertaining to those interests. Essentially I was tapping into a mysterious mood, a paranoid anxiety, the supernatural thriller genre and a sci-fi well of imagination.

It’s interesting that you note Twin Peaks, as I was reminded of this show (especially the most recent third season from last year - did you catch that?) in the style of your film, in particular the repetition of certain images, patterns and non-linear surreal imagery. Yet like Twin Peaks, along with these images there are interesting, quirky characters trying make sense of the story they are in. The relationship between Evelyn and Michael was well portrayed. Who were the actors playing them, and how did they come to get involved in the film? 

Glad you brought it up. Yes, the third season was amazing along with the consistency of his vision over all these years. Something special to note was that I attended the Cannes Film Festival last year as a filmmaker for the 70th anniversary. I was in my element watching a ton of films and even screened my own on animation day, which as the mecca of film is every filmmaker’s dream. My new distributor Kinoscope was also there promoting their roster of films, including my short film collection retrospective and acquiring new ones part of Marche du Film.

The energy really did shift when David Lynch arrived, as at that point I had been attending the festival for several days. To be in Cannes for the first time which is magical in itself and for the Twin Peaks premiere of which the first two episodes gave me goosebumps, in particular when David was crying with happiness during the standing ovation afterward. The last time he was there for Fire Walk With Me, they booed him away apparently.

David Lynch early on made experimental animation films and has always been a painter, which is a key connection for me doing the same. I've seen all of his work available and even met him, along with my brother Jeffrey, at one of his art openings in NYC a few years ago. There is a certain kinship there as surrealists who grew up in a more suburban atmosphere as budding creatives who later went to art school then become filmmakers. I think we both don't shy away from creating worlds where weirdness and otherworldly aspects are freely explored and prominent. There is a lot of subtlety, contemplation and symbolism within the worlds we create that need repeated viewing in order to mine through the unconscious speaking elements.

The visual language, syntax and non linear surreal imagery within my previous films carried over and evolved within Apocalypsis, inside the more constrained story structure I wanted to explore this time around as a larger audience was a goal. Showing visually the characters spiritual experiences, dream life, psychologically horrific moments, while presenting breaks in the story to meditate on nature and the passing of time is important, as well apart from the visions themselves which literally are chapter break meta narratives.

 As you mentioned, there are eccentric characters who only appear for a few scenes that clearly carry their own stories within themselves, while trying to make sense of the larger one they are in. That is part of the human condition and also presented a challenge to the Evelyn-and-Michael intertwined narrative. Michael was played by Chris O'Leary, an artist and actor that my wife thought I should work with once we moved to New York City. I shared my idea for the Michael character when we were hanging out and read aloud sections of the script, which he immediately loved and wanted in. This interaction really propelled me to make the film happen. I wanted to work with him as well, and found writing for him very easy and exciting. It is essential that there is a certain feeling that pervades when you meet people, along with a sense that they are rock hard dedicated to the project.

For Evelyn, I knew it was going to be hard to find an actress with albinism, along with the time to do a feature and aptitude for a taxing project. Most people have no idea what they are getting into working with me, so it’s vital that they learn to understand the how, what, where, why of how the films are made and to stick them out to the very end. No actresses with albinism appeared after a long search, which was frustrating. After a stalling period, I made the concession to have an actress play the part in make up and so began auditioning again when I met Maria Bruun. She felt like the right person with her dance and acting background to pull off this intensive part.

Once I saw the chemistry between Chris and Maria it was a lot easier to write for them and imagine the film with them as the foundational characters. The shooting was long, intense and a few times life threatening, so I give them both a ton of credit for sticking it out with all the ups and downs and giving it their all even after many hard wrought sections were on the floor so to speak, once the final cut was locked. It’s strange and kind of sad when you work so intensely together on a project, then seldom see them after the shooting is complete, but that’s the way it is sometimes. My next project is an all-animated one, so it will interesting dealing with puppets.

As you mentioned the cutting room floor, is the way you interweave the animation sequences and the live-action sequences determined in the editing process? Or do you have a blueprint before shooting through a script or storyboards? Can you tell me more about your "all puppet" project? 

Visualization is my primary mode of working through the film in my head. Lots of edits go on up there before the actual writing, storyboarding, shooting, editing .While I was writing the script, things started to solidify a bit in terms of the structure. I knew that there would be all 22 animated chapters of Revelation chronologically placed throughout the film, but made an effort to condense them so that it would not throw off the balance with the driving storyline of the live action.It was nice to see in editing how scenes prior to the animation and afterward would create new meaning and relationships so that dialogue between them was a nice gift.

 About half of the live-action was loosely storyboarded; sometimes I storyboard just to understand the scene or sequence, then improvise off of those ideas to keep a sense of organic spontaneity within the film. The animation is almost completely storyboarded, but again, once I'm shooting, things always take new directions. It’s in the editing that I can really craft the work and find new relationships to strengthen and spotlight.

I'm excited to announce that my 14-year old animated tv show idea Twilight Park will be my next project and first fully animated feature film. I pitched and developed this idea at Nickelodeon long ago, but it was shelved after a couple years of development at the studio. I took it to Cartoon Network and they thought it would make a great animated feature. I've been trying to raise funding for it over the years, but truthfully I was daunted by the idea of an animated feature for so long. I do want to be a part of the history of animated features, as there really are not that many made and its a true feat to achieve. Many of my animation heroes did at least one fully animated feature.

Finally, I feel ready to take it on and want to attempt a move to the next level and not stagnate. It’s a really heartfelt and personal idea that will allow my most imaginative ideas to flourish without any real world juxtaposition for once in full length format. It will incorporate every technique of animation known, though it will be predominantly stop-motion animation. It is a about a boy who goes into his grandpa's mind to save him from Alzheimer’s disease. My grandfather has recently been diagnosed with it, and he has been the base for the story long before he had it, along with my grandma. Very spooky, sad and heart rending. I decided to animate it myself to keep the style consistent and thankful for however many years it might take that I am still young enough to hopefully physically do it. There will be some ideas that I'm going to tackle that involve huge life size stop-motion puppets and large scale land animation, but also diorama sets, pin animation, etc.

 Check the Twilight Park FB page and look out for updates regarding the new website and blog! On second thought, look out for posts about needing assistants! Thank you so much for this chance to air out the film a little Ken, and for your passion and dedication to animation!

Thanks Eric....all the best with your continued animated projects!

Check out more at the Albino Fawn Productions website: www.albinofawn.com

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