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[SXSW '21] An interview with 'The Spine of Night' filmmakers Morgan Galen King & Philip Gelatt

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[SXSW ’21] An interview with ‘The Spine of Night’ filmmakers Morgan Galen King & Philip Gelatt

Violence, religion, and magic.

The Spine of Night stands out from other South by Southwest premieres. The fantasy movie uses rotoscoped animation and is incredibly violent. These are not the things that are found in today’s animated releases. The movie is a throwback that will appeal to older fans’ nostalgia and the younger audience’s yearning for something different. AIPT spoke with filmakers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King.

AIPT: How would you describe The Spine of Night?

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Philip Gelatt: I would describe it, I’ve got so many adjectives right now. I would describe it as a psychedelic, ultra violent, quite naked fantasy epic done in a rotoscope animated style. And those are my adjectives. Morgan, did I miss anything?

Morgan Galen King: No, no. I think that pretty much covers the spectrum of what we’re working with.

AIPT: My next question is kind of a two part question. My first part would be what was your inspiration behind the story of The Spine of Night?

King: I mean, I think the story really, I mean, I’m sure it came out in a lot of both our influences, wanting to tell a story within a sort of psychedelic low fantasy genre of that you don’t see a whole lot of. In terms of the actual story, I feel like it takes a lot of social issues and political issues that I think have been, and philosophical issues too, that have been on my mind over the years and building up to creating this. And then we were able to expand on it together in a way that was just, where it grew into something.

Gelatt: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would say along with what Morgan said, there are an array of sort of specific genre reference points. When I look back at the movie now, where I’m like, “Oh, I see.” Some of them aren’t even conscious, until you see them, when we were like, “Oh, I know where we got that and where we got that.” I mean, ones that come to mind are certainly like Conan the Barbarian. I had forgotten this, Morgan. I was going to bring it up earlier, that there are some relatively specific Hellraiser references in the movie that I hadn’t really even remembered were specifically Hellraiser references.

King: Oh, yeah, with the bricks line up.

Gelatt: Yeah, the bricks and the bell is very Hellraiser. Which I don’t want to go through every specific movie that inspired us, but I think generally, there’s a lot of, I think sort of like a meat grinder of the specific types of sub- genres that we both like that sort of went into this, and then out came this thing.

AIPT: What inspired the look of the movie?

the spine of night

King: I mean, it’s very consciously looking back towards the late seventies and early eighties work that Ralph Bakshi was doing. And Heavy Metal, for sure. 1983’s Heavy Metal was a really big influence on me as a young man. And so, trying to capture that very specific aesthetic was, a, you know, we spent a lot of time trying to reverse engineer it so that we could create a pipeline that would hopefully evoke what made that so magical back then.

AIPT: There’s an overarching story, but it’s told in an anthology. What made you decide to go with that route with the story?

King: I mean, we talked a lot about, I mean, to reference Heavy Metal again, as much as I love that film, by its structure, it sort of has this, it’s an anthology, but the through line is cool, but doesn’t really make any sense. And then at the end you’re like, “Oh, okay. I guess that was what they were doing.” So, I think we consciously thought, how do we tell an anthology that sort of functions like Heavy Metal, but actually where the framing device is actually thematically and narratively tied into all the individual times and chapters within the larger work?

Gelatt: I mean, I’ve often thought that anthology movies, and now I guess series too, that there are narrative opportunities in them that haven’t really been explored in terms of finding other ways to interconnect anthological stories. So, this movie was just an example of that that I hadn’t really seen before, where your anthology is going, jumping forward in time in a way, and all set in the same world. I don’t know, it just felt exciting to me as an opportunity when we started writing it.

AIPT: Would you be interested in revisiting more stories from this world?

King: I mean, we’ve certainly discussed the different ways you could take a lot of it. Although I think we both hope that we laid just the right balance of foundation there for the audience to want to explore more and to infer more and to tell their own stories within sort of drawing your own conclusions as to how the setting got where it was. I think of when I was a kid and I was watching the old, the original Star Wars, it felt like all the background characters had these rich internal lives. And although we’ve now seen them all fleshed out in their own movies and many series in the intervening years the magic of where did IGADA come from was actually, I don’t know, it was just really exciting to me as a kid. So, I wanted to imbue this with hopefully that kind of sense of creativity from the audience.

AIPT: And you mentioned earlier in the story, it deals with a lot of issues. There’s religion and knowledge and love of earth. What do you want the audience to take out of it?

the spine of night

King: Hmm. I mean, it’s a big question. I mean, I’d like it to be thought provoking, and I hope that there is enough of coherent themes that an audience could look at it and draw conclusions about how do we share power and information as a society? How do hierarchical structures even really benefit us and where are they hampering us? And how does that go awry? But I hope that there’s enough there that the audience can put together something that feels true and interesting to them.

Gelatt: Yeah. I mean, from my perspective, I think that there is a, I mean, not to get too into where movie making and movie writing is, but I think a lot of times, people think about movies as your characters have an arc. At the end of the arc, they’ve learned a thing. And whatever that thing is is what you want the audience to take away from the movie. It’s sort of a way that people think about screenwriting. I don’t necessarily, I mean, that’s a fine way to do it, but I don’t think, it’s not my favorite way. I like to think about things I work on in terms of what is the question that the movie is asking, and whether it provides an answer, a definite answer or not, or provides a certain number of answers in its context, that I think is the, what I always want the audience to walk out of a movie with isn’t necessarily an answer to a question, but it’s a better defined question and a way of thinking about that question, and which is what I hope.

So, that’s what I hope people get out of this movie, is like, oh, here’s this movie that posed this interesting question about knowledge, about the things like power and knowledge and environmentalism in some sense, and then wrap them in this interesting package and explore them through these different characters. And now it’s on you, the viewer, to sort of parse that for yourself, after you experience this incredibly violent fantasy film.

AIPT:  You mentioned one of the adjectives was ultra violent. You mentioned again extremely violent. Did you ever think it would be too violent?

Gelatt: That’s not a thing, is it? Does anybody ever think that’s a thing?

King: I think there is a tipping point where you’re not showing how horrible the violence is, but where you’re sort of, you don’t want it to be miserable. I feel like there is a line where it’s like, there’s some extremely cruel horror films out there, and it’s like, I wanted the violence to feel very tangible and weighty and meaningful, but also not be, I think totally, it wouldn’t really work for us to drag out a lot of it in a torture sense or a necessarily sadistic sense. I think that is one of the things that divides the violence in this from on the horror fantasy line. I think we wobble on that line quite a bit, but I think there is a point where we push it so far, it became unpleasant and you didn’t want to see the rest of the world unfold. So, I think there’s a little bit of a line there.

SXSW is March 16 – March 20. Tickets and a full lineup can be found here.

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