Under the Influence: Richard Hickey

November 18, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The Not to Scale director gives us an insight into the raw materials that form his creative outlook.

Still taken from Richard Hickey's Red Hot 7 film.

It was the great Anton Chekhov who said “there is nothing new in art except talent.” Which is apt, because he was paraphrasing the Bible when he said that. We don’t think originality is dead, but of course everyone has influences. This new series will explore those, finding the sparks that lit the flames under directors’ careers.

Richard Hickey started out as an illustrator, but has since become a bright talent in 2D and 3D animation, as well as more than dabbling in live action. Often mixing CGI with live action, he earned the trust of agencies in the USA as an oddball craftsman. Now represented by Not to Scale across Europe, we asked him to shine a light on the dark corners of creativity where he finds inspiration.

 

German Expressionism

“At 19 I came across Nosferatu. All these [inspirations in this list] are little moments that blew me away, when I’ve realised I’m witnessing something really quite bizarre and, in that case, super scary.

He’s possibly the most phenomenal character ever devised. As soon as he appears round the corner. That character stayed with me for a long time. I think maybe he was the first character that resonated as a full character that was unsettling somewhere in my deep subconscious.

After that I started to look at the way that movement made film – the way they created techniques that didn’t exist prior to that. That was probably the most innovative time in filmmaking because they really were just making it up as they go along. It looks hammy now but imagine seeing that at a theatre in the 1910s. I’d have been terrified to walk down an Edwardian street.

I searched out as much of that as I could and The Golem was the second one I saw. For me they’re like early CG characters. They could remake both of them as CG characters, which could be quite interesting.

A lot of CG characters don’t have much depth when it comes to their personality, or any weight physically, so they don’t feel like they’re present in the scene. You can see that on a lot of big budget movies, like Harry Potter, where there’ll be an amazing character and then something where they’ve run out of time or money and there’s this will-o-the-wisp thing that you could just run your hand through.

Building narrative with ideas is one side of my personality and the other side would be building characters. So whether it’s live action or animation, it’s how you build a character that’s interesting; that will make people want to watch it again, that they can empathise with, love, loathe, make a connection with.

I think that’s where German Expressionism comes in. There’s always a central character that’s super scary, weird, and it’s even weirder because it’s shot on a hand-cranked camera.”

 

Jan Svankmajer

“I’m not a massive Jan Svankmajer expert, by any means, but what was interesting about him is just one of those films that just blew me away – Alice, his take on Alice in Wonderland. It’s bonkers. I think the fact that it’s that story, his take on it, that’s it’s Claymation and that it’s so surreal – it just completely blew me away. I don’t care for the characters, stylistically I don’t even really like it, it’s just so unique.

It’s a touchstone for how far to take things. So if someone gives you an idea, how far do you want to go with it? For me it’s trying to push it out as far out as you can, trying to shine light into every little dark corner – that I’ve thought about every possible execution of how you’d do it. And he epitomises that. That’s the inspiration I draw from him, like, ‘I need to go Svankmajer on it.’

Is it night? Is it day? Is it CG? Is it stop-motion? Is it live action? I think he opens that up. Subconsciously, I think ‘should it be Svankmajer?’ and 99.9 per cent of the time it isn’t, but you come back in degrees from that, according to what’s palatable or correct or what fits the tone.”

 

Flann O'Brien

“My dad’s Irish, so I was brought up with a lot of Irish literature in the house. I picked up Ulysses at an early age… and put it down again. I think a lot of people try. And picked it up again five years later and put it down again. I’ve never actually finished Ulysses. I found The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien and instantly fell in love with it.

It’s kind of absurdist, surreal and packed full of ideas. I think that’s what I love about all of these points of inspiration and his are phenomenal. It’s just a stream of one amazing idea after the next. I don’t know if it makes a great novel, but this journey this guy goes on is incredibly surprising and original. To give you an example, there’s a colour that hasn’t been invented yet and it turns people blind if you ever see it. That’s one snippet. I think he’s incredibly inventive and I don’t think anyone can touch him.

For me characters need to live on paper. If they work on paper you know you’ve done your job properly. To create a CG character without writing any backstory or detail – you can see through those characters straight away. You won’t engage with them. That’s what I like about Flann O’Brien’s characters and that inventiveness of his work.

I think it’s that moment lying on the pillow trying to fall asleep – that’s where I operate. Where things become loose and a little bit surreal. I like that. Flann O’Biren is definitely like that. With my glasses off and one eye open, is that a face in the curtains or not? I think when it comes to sitting down and drawing or thinking about characters, I write a lot just before going to sleep. In my head that’s the visual equivalent to Flann O’Brien’s writing.

The Third Policeman is the kind of film I really want to make. It’s my ideal screenplay.”

 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

“His work is similar [to O’Brien] in that it’s packed full of ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jean-Pierre Jeunet had read some Flann O’Brien. Something like Amelie, when she’s lying on the side of the bed and these pictures come to life. Those little moments – little self-contained vignettes – that’s kind of what I’m all about. I guess it’s like commercials, you’re given 30 seconds to try and mine some nugget of gold, trying to find that moment.

Delicatessen was my first [Jeunet film]. It was one of the light-bulb moments where I thought ‘oh my God, he’s doing everything I wish I was doing.’ He used to direct animation and now he’s brought all his crazy ideas to live action.

 

The narrative always draws me in to start with, but he creates incredible characters. It’s kind of cartoonic. It’s just idea after idea. Even the opening credits [of Delicatessen], where there’s a camera tracking through a sort of bric-a-brac and all the credits are built into a scene. It completely blew me away.

All of his movies, but that and Amelie. Amelie, for me, is unashamedly heart-on-its-sleeve romance, which doesn’t [usually] float my boat. It’s a horrible expression but with his movies there’s a level of charm. His is just seeping in it.

Characters, inventiveness and narrative. They’re things that I carry with me. He just laid it out, doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do (apart from his colour grades, they’re always horrible).”

The Coen Brothers

“They are, I think, my favourite character builders. Those guys nail every movie. Their process is that they write for the actors – they know they can get them – which helps the tone. Even without dialogue, their characters are full-bodied and rounded.

The more you scratch at the Coen Brothers the better it gets. Everything about them. Their whole process. The way they write (I’d like to have a brother I could write with but my brother who used to kneel on my chest and force-feed me Yorkies – that’s not a good basis for a writing relationship). So they have that, they write their characters for actors, they finance their own movies. Everybody wants to work with them.

It’s funny, when you boil it down, their stories can be quite formulaic within their genre. But their dialogue is to die for. It’s interesting because it’s sort of an animation trick. If you can present something in animation that you’ve seen a hundred times, it feels new because you’ve never seen it animated. And they do that with film. They’re clichés but the dialogue is so fresh.

I think the most inspirational point for me with the Coen Brothers was when I saw Miller’s Crossing, which wasn’t a favourite, really. But I heard they took a break during writing Miller’s Crossing because they had writers’ block. They took two weeks off and they wrote Barton Fink, which is my favourite Coen brothers film. It’s phenomenal.

I just think stop making excuses and procrastinating. Just get on and fucking do it. I’m a horrible procrastinator.  So I do think about that a lot. Pull your finger out.

But ultimately the most important thing is their characters and that’s something that’s inspiring. When it comes to taking a very ordinary situation with a couple that don’t have much to say in Fargo. It’s so sparse and the sparseness is the thing that makes it incredible. It says more about the characters and their relationship in that than in six pages of dialogue. It’s super daring and confident.

If I made an animated feature film, it would be my film, but I would like it to feel like a Coen Brothers film.”

Have a look for these influences on Richard's reel.

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