I’ve made it no secret that I think Robert Morgan is one of the best independent filmmakers working today. This isn’t empty flattery either. His entire oeuvre, in my opinion, is never less than excellent, or at the very least I feel that you’ll never feel cheated watching one of his films. He just has a real flair for making movies that are both relatable and surreal. It’s a hell of a good quality that I think is absent in most people working in the genre.
His Filmography includes:
- Paranoid (1994)
- The Man in the Lower Left-Side Corner of the Photograph (1997)
- The Cat with Hands (2001)
- The Separation (2003)
- Monsters (2004)
- Over Taken (2009)
- Bobby Yeah (2011)
A bit of advice, if you’ve never seen Morgan’s stuff, either go on his personal website or his YouTube page and watch all of the available shorts there before you read the interview. For one thing, you have to because they’re absolutely brilliant and it’s free. Not to mention that if you want to be a proper, genuine film buff you have to see them. It’s one of the rules. For another, we do discuss the finer details of his work and you might be a little lost if you haven’t seen them – and may a great shame fall upon on you if you haven’t.
Every time I watch one of your movies I’m struck by how you manage to make these little “Muppets” evoke so much emotion. For example, I was watching The Separation last night again and I’m still touched by that scene with the two brothers. After one of them is accidentally mutilated by a giant sewing machine, the other one just covers his eyes because he can’t look. One the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
It’s all in the eyes.
Yeah, I mean the title came when I was making it. I was just calling him “bunny man”, but when I was trying to think of a title Bobby Yeah had his own history as a little joke with my friends. It was basically me and a couple of friends just joking and trying to come up with stupid stage names for ourselves – mine was BOBBY YEAH, but when I applied it to the film I just thought: “Yeah, that’s the name.” I think he’s so consumed with self loathing and guilt you kind of feel for him a little bit.
It’s a great looking film. I was watching other stuff like The Separation and it shows you put a lot of care into your work. It’s not something you just toss out there just for fun.
No. 3 years… It took 3 years to toss that one out.
I wanted to ask you about your first ever short, Paranoid, because I watched that one as well and I was like – obviously it’s a VHS camera and some rough puppetry but that’s not tossed out either. You must have put a lot of effort into that. That wasn’t just like a two minute thing there. How long did that take you to do?
When I made that, I did it as a college project so it must have taken at least 3 or 4 months. That’s the nature of animation. It just takes a long time. And as I’ve made more it takes longer each time because I get more and more … you know. It starts out large very quickly and then you get more and more into the detail of it and you’re doing like one second of film a day or something.
One of the things I’ve noticed is your environments feel lived in, even though they’re obviously unreal. Like Bobby’s apartment or The Separation’s hospital room, stuff like that. You see these little glimpses of – I won’t say humanity because that’s not exactly what’s there, but there’s a sense of soul to these places, like people actually live there.
I had a really, really amazing production designer for The Separation. It was a real collaboration and he worked really, really hard on that so everything that’s in there has been very carefully thought out and designed. So that’s a very sort of designed film, that one, and the environments that they were in were hugely important. That particular film, The Separation, had to feel like a cross between surgical and industrial environments so when you have these vulnerable fleshy puppets that are in these environments that are angled and very sparse and hard with lots of sharp edges, subconsciously you’re thinking that these things are going to get cut and bruised, you know. It just puts that in the back of your head somehow that something – it accentuates their vulnerability. The physical vulnerability of those characters.
Well, see, this is why you’re a great filmmaker it’s because you actually pay attention to stuff. Most people they don’t see it. They don’t even think about it.
Well, yeah, to me that’s the name of the game. You have to think about that stuff.
I thought that, for me, that character is just very old and has not got much to look forward for and is close to death probably and is very alone – lonely, really. The maggot thing came from… it was the most pathetic pet I could think of. Like this guy has got a pet but it’s the crappest most miserable pet you could have, really. And also, maggots have a connotation with death and also rebirth. I like maggots a lot. (laugh) They show up a lot in my films in one form or another. I think I really like mixing the body of a maggot with the body of a human. That seems to happen a lot in my films. I don’t know why. I really like that. (laughs)
They consume us, so they eventually become us.
I also noticed in The Man in the Lower Left-Hand Corner of the Photograph – because I’m totally OCD when I’m watching stuff, so I watched it a few times and I noticed there’s a caption beneath the photograph. I think it’s – you can correct me if I’m wrong, it’s “Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of today of the agonies which are have their origins to the ecstasies that might have been.”
Yeah, more or less. It’s: “Either the memory of past bliss is the agony of today or the agonies which are have their origins in the ecstasies which might have been”. It’s a quote from an Edgar Allen Poe story, Berenice, which is a particularly dark story and it’s a quote that sort of encapsulates what that film was about. It’s about a guy who is filled with regret.
He was very Poe-esque, the main character.
He’s remembering too much, you know, happier times when he’s got nothing to look forward to and then also maybe thinking about things that could have been. Yeah, so it’s that very Poe-esque idea.
I really like that. I just thought it was really brilliant to put it there. Again, it’s something that most people wouldn’t have thought about, you know?
Well, yeah, most people don’t notice it actually so well done for spotting it.
(laughs) All your shorts also seem to have, from my point of view, fairly different themes: Like Bobby Yeah is guilt. The Cat with Hands is greed…
…The Separation is longing…
…The Man in the Lower Left-Hand Corner of the Photograph is loneliness. Paranoid is obviously paranoia…
Monsters is… You know, Monsters is the only review I’ve done that I sort of half regret because I don’t think I really got it the first time. I guess I was tired and I saw it as kind of like two kids having kind of a little tiff together, but the more I watch it the more I realize how disturbed that little boy is…
…and I’ve only noticed it afterwards. It’s one of those things I just wish I could go back and just redo it, not because… the praise is absolutely deserved obviously, that’s not what I mean, but I don’t seem to have “gotten the story of it” as well as I should have.
But it is also about sibling rivalry as well, you did get that right. The girl is a complete bitch to that kid and it was semi… I don’t want to say was too semi-autobiographical because I wasn’t that f****d up as a kid.
Yeah, but there’s a lot of autobiographical elements in that. I mean, that is basically the story of me and my sister and how she was horrible to me. I did fantasize… My family moved into a new suburban house that was very near to Broadmoor, which is a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire ripper was in there, and all kinds of other utter maniacs, basically. And it’s just up the road from where we moved in. So, I mean, I was this 8 year old kid and I went out walking around my neighbourhood on one of the first days we moved in, knowing that there’s the lunatic asylum right nearby, and I found this severed goose head in the road. As soon as I saw it I thought “Oh my god!” and this vision just popped into my head of this lunatic in the woods, because it’s a very woodland-y area, and I had this image in my head of this lunatic just eating geese in the woods. That’s where the idea for Monsters came from and I did sort of fantasize when my sister was a complete bitch to me that this maniac would come and kill her and rescue me from her (laugsh). So that strain is actually quite – is based on the sibling problems that we had, so you were right, actually, but it’s also about a kid who is, he’s clearly…
He’s heading down the wrong path, I believe.
That brings up another question I have. We talked about this at Fantasia when we met. The face of the crazed axe killer…
…is your face, and in Bobby Yeah the face of the aborted mutant creature is also your face…
That’s not my face, actually. That’s a friend of mine. That’s my friend Adam who’s got an extraordinary face.
Oh, I thought it was your face. OK.
One thing that is mine in Bobby Yeah is the head of the worm creature that Bobby brings into his– the thing that he steals from those other guys, the head of that is actually made up of my own toenails.
I actually collected my toenails for a year and that head is made up of toenails.
You see what I mean? Attention to detail. Who else would have done that?
That always makes people immediately go back and watch the film again and go “Jesus Christ!” But, no… that is my face in Monsters. (laugh) I’ve got my toenails. I’ve got my face in one of them…
Well you got to make it real, you know. It’s not real unless it’s real…
It’s sort of putting a little bit of yourself in them.
Well the thing about animation is that you’re already in that funhouse mirror. So whatever you do is going to be, you know… None of it looks real. It’s already abstract, surreal. That’s not a man running around doing those things. It’s a weird creature with bunny ears. Even in The Separation those are not real twins they’re fleshy puppets that look like twins. So before you even start, you’re already distorting the truth and twisting it into something abstract. So from there it’s a small leap to start really, you know, f*****g up and pushing that further. Making things sprout god knows what and lay eggs or sprout mechanical penises or whatever. It’s kind of a small leap. If you try to do that with f*****g live action – I mean (David) Lynch does it but he does it in a more narrative way, a more subtle kind of way. But with something like Bobby Yeah it’s all kind of completely bonkers.
Do you still plan to do a full length feature? I know we’ve talked about that.
Yeah that… it’s on my list of things to do (laughs).
Well, yeah (laughs).
Definitely, yeah. No, I mean it’s… part of the reason I made Bobby Yeah was because I spent about 2 years trying to get a feature moving in the UK film scene and it just wasn’t happening you know. I got a group of friends, contemporaries who are also very good short film makers, none of us were getting support despite the fact that our films winning loads of awards and being praised everywhere, but when it came down to putting money up they just weren’t giving it to us. There’s a particular type of film that the financers want British cinema to be, and I’m not for one second criticizing those types of films, but it’s just one thing. It’s a social commentary type of film. Realism, very much realist based type of film that the British industry funds more than anything else. They do do other things as well but it’s mostly that, so if you do stuff that’s kind of really out there and very surreal and weird for some reason they weren’t going for it. So as a result of all of that waiting around and getting rejected and stuff I just thought “OK, I’m just going to make another short but I’ll make it absolutely bonkers” – I think it’s just – there was a few years worth of frustration that went into that and I just wanted to make something just completely…
Well, there’s a lot of kinetic energy I’ve noticed in it. More so than The Separation.
Yeah, it was a lot of cooped up, suppressed creative energy in that. In a way it’s about — it’s just as much about that as well. It’s about how things are constantly growing and, you know, transforming and it’s about creation, in a way everything… Visually it’s very creative, but about creation.
Everything (in Bobby Yeah) becomes something else until it becomes almost nothing, like at the end Bobby just ascends. He just transcends all that reality and goes somewhere else.
I’ve now got that out of my system. I’m turning to where I was, which is trying to get a feature made. It’s like I had to just have a break and just go “this is driving me nuts.” Just make something and then get it out of my system. It’s very frustrating and now there’s even less money around so it’s very tricky. It’s a difficult period at the moment for British film. Part of the blame is my own as well because maybe I’m being too ambitious in the feature length project. Maybe, you know, I’ve been trying to do stuff that’s really, really out there but also costs quite a bit of money.
Never attractive really as a first feature. So, you know, I’ve got some projects which look more promising. Although… famous last words. (laughs)
How do you think the rhythm of a full length feature would differ from the rhythm of your shorts? Because, I mean, the pacing is completely different.
Yeah, it is. It’s a different – I mean, it’s… in a way it’s like the difference between writing a poem and writing a novel or something. It’s the same voice but it’s a different use of that voice so yeah, it is much more about a bigger arc.
You definitely have to pace yourself. Like, Bobby Yeah works as a short. I don’t think it would work as a full length feature.
Yeah, it’s something that came up actually, because the way I made Bobby Yeah. I didn’t ever write a script. I only storyboarded in bits. I was in development hell for a couple of years with a feature and I didn’t want to write something. I wanted to just make something really, you know… Get it out and go straight to the production. I didn’t wanna go through the development phase of writing a script. I wanted to immediately be making a film. So I made that puppet, the Bobby puppet, and I made the set and I literally started – I got a camera and I filmed the first shot of the film, and then I filmed the second shot of the film, and the third shot of the film. I had no idea where it was going, and I would just watch back what I’d shot and think of what could happen next. So I was literally making it up as I went along moment by moment, no script, no idea where it was going, and at some point after I got about fifteen minutes of footage chronologically made it did occur to me I could just like carry on for years and make a… (laugh) Just make a, 8 years later, completely insane feature film. I realized it wouldn’t work because, you know, the kind of energy. It’s so relentless that it would just become tiresome because it’s just bonkers stuff going on. So I realized yeah Bobby Yeah would not work as a feature. So it’s a different …
It’d exhaust your mind after a while. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just exhausting and you’re like “Ugh!”
Yeah. I think its right on the edge and I could just get away with it, but I think if it had gone on even 2 or 3 minutes more it would just get boring.
I thought it was just perfect the way it was. I especially liked the fact that Bobby is so fascinated with buttons because, I mean, who wouldn’t be?
You see a button somewhere and you’re like “Wait a minute… What if I push this?”
You know it’s just – I love how he… like you said, the eyes tell you everything because when he looks at that button. He’s like “Oh, gotta push this… No! No! No! Don’t push it, don’t push it…”
Yeah. He knows he shouldn’t, but he just … he has to. It’s like picking a scab or something.
Not much of it, actually. The only film that’s directly inspired by a dream is The Cat with Hands. That was actually my sister’s dream. My sister had this dream about this cat with hands that chased her and her friends around and it was a recurring dream. She had it many times when she was a kid and she would always tell me about it. So that wasn’t even my dream, it was someone else’s dream. So, yeah, none of them really have been inspired by dreams. When I start thinking about ideas for a film, I tend to start off with an atmosphere first. The first thing is the mood and the atmosphere and the space that it exists in. That’s the first thing that gives me the handle on it and that is usually a sort of dreamlike atmosphere. It’s like a not quite real, not quite literal world but off and a bit scary and a bit dreamlike and when I can create that space in my mind, then I start getting ideas. I can’t get ideas if I’m just thinking about someone standing in a bank or something. It just doesn’t inspire me so I have to start getting into a dreamlike feeling in my head in order to come up with ideas. That’s why it feels dreamlike, I think.
So, it’s basically like, place and atmosphere first, then you add characters, and then you get ideas for a story afterwards.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s like if you do a painting. When I went to Art College they taught us the first you do when you do a painting, you just grab a paintbrush and you paint the canvas, cover the canvas in paint first, then you’ve got a mood there even if you don’t realize what it is. You look at it and it’s no longer a blank canvas, there’s an atmosphere to it then it starts kind of speaking to you. It’s that thing. When I do painting now, I always paint the canvas black first. First thing I do. Then I start looking at it and going “Oh! It can be…” start suggesting things to, you know…
Yeah. I like your paintings too, by the way. I’ve seen a few of them.
Thank you. I studied as a painter but I’ve only really gone back to it recently just because film making takes so long I just need something else – another outlet, really.
Yeah, I know. She was just eating it and she looked at me and there’s no guilt in her eyes, there’s nothing, not even surprise. She was like “What?”
Was it dead?
So it died or something and she was eating it, or had she killed it?
I’m not quite sure. (laughs) I can’t tell you.
I’ve never heard of anything like that. It’s horrible.
Well, sometimes they’re sick (the kittens) and the mothers just… they finish them off. I think it probably died and she just started eating it, but it was half gone, so I don’t know for sure. What I saw in her eyes though, was just this completely alien emotion.
They look like they’re happy or they’re smiling sometimes but, really, it’s a predatory mindset. So I was just thinking the cat with hands is kind of like that in the sense that it looks like a human being now, but it’s got that cold and cruel logic of a cat.
Yeah, I think that the human form of the cat with hands would basically be indistinguishable from a psychopath; cold with no conscience. It just wants stuff from you. It started off like my sister’s dream of this cat with hands but it’s such a great image, you know, and so striking. So when I was trying to think of a story, it reminded me of the kind of creature you’d see in a fairytale or something, or like Grimm’s tales. So then I just thought of the well, because that’s another iconic fairytale type ingredient, and then this clearing in the woods. So that was the atmosphere there, and then that leads to the other…
There is an incredible atmosphere in The Cat with Hands. I mean, it’s just an incredible world. You talked about maybe stretching it out to feature length, and I think it could. A lot of shorts can’t, but The Cat with Hands could, because that atmosphere is so beautiful.
Yeah, I think it could, actually. I think there’s definitely… it’d make a good monster.
There’s other stuff going on in that world, you know…
Yeah, yeah… I’ve just never had the time really to go back and seriously think about that, but maybe I should… When I made that film I did actually write a chronology of all the body parts that it had amassed over the years, a little biography of each of those people. Like, say, he got… you know, the hands were originally stolen from a thief, a pickpocket. So those are actually a pickpocket’s hands, and we see how he gets the tongue, and we see how he gets his face from that boy.
That’s an amazing image by the way…
Then there are those other ingredients: I think the legs were from some sort of sportsman or something, I can’t remember, but I wrote the whole backstory… You know, there was a reason why that cat stole each of those bits, because of what it wanted. Of course the guy whose tongue he steals is a storyteller…
You know, I never thought about that. That’s true!
The idea is that he steals things that are attractive to it because, the original idea in the short, the cat for me was a sombre, pathetic character. He wants to be human but he could never be human. So it was that once he gets all of the ingredients to be complete, to be a human, and he’s still there standing in the forest reciting somebody else’s story, because at the end of the film he sings that same song from that guy whose tongue he’s got. He’s not even speaking with his own voice. He’s speaking with someone else’s voice. So he may look complete, but he’s never gonna be the thing he wants to be because he’s still a cat inside.
We’re as alien to it as it is to us.
Yeah, yeah… exactly.
The atmosphere in that short is just… it’s very thick in the sense that you get a sense that the woods are deep and there’s more stuff out there so to see. My idea was that it would make a good longer work.
Yeah, maybe I should seriously think about that, actually.
You’ve also talked about wanting to redo Monsters?
Yeah, it didn’t quite come out how I wanted it. I don’t hate the film. I think it’s a good film, but maybe I’ve done better, though. The main issue for me is that I had the atmosphere in my head – which is how I always start, with the mood and things and the atmosphere, but the lack of money we had…. We had a small budget to do it. We were very limited by the choice of locations we could shoot in. Basically, we needed an empty house which we could convert into this family house and the house didn’t look like how I imagined it to look, you know, and I tried to shoe horn the original look that was in my head into this house that didn’t quite fit the design, that didn’t match in my head. What I should have done was adapted and redesigned the look to suit the house and that would have given me the atmosphere. Because I think, for me, the atmosphere was wrong and that threw me. When I don’t have that mood going on, the pieces of the puzzle don’t feel like they quite fitting so I’m sort of struggling a bit. There are moments that I really like, but I think overall some of it like the stuff downstairs in the lounge and it’s all brightly lit and the kid’s watching the TV. All that stuff, I think it’s a bit crap. I mean just the look of it is a bit… I don’t know, doesn’t quite… I think it learned a lot from it. That’s the important thing.
You feel like you haven’t translated your vision onto live action just quite yet?
Exactly! But I know how to do it now. I learned what not to do by doing that film. I think now one of the films, the features I’m wanting to do – we started shooting it already but we’ve been shooting it on no money and the plan is as we go along to try and get some money because I’m so sick of waiting for money so we started seeing what we could do with a cameraman and a couple of actresses. We would just try to make a feature on pretty much nothing, with a Canon 5D. I don’t know if you know that camera.
I think I’ve heard of it. It’s kind of like the XL1 right?
It’s a stills camera, but it’s got an HD video function on it. The video functions amazing like really, really high quality and you can use film lenses on it and stuff. So we started making the feature in my flat on no money and we’re gonna try to get money as we go along and it just looks so much better than Monsters. Immediately it feels like one of my films already.
Oh, yeah (laughs).
I liked it a lot. I thought if it was something that, in anybody else’s hands, wouldn’t have worked at all. It would have either felt too comical, too farcical. The surrealism and the comedy wouldn’t have worked. I mean, but this works.
Again, it’s testament to the idea of making a film in 48 hours.
Because you can’t second guess yourself at this point.
Yeah, it’s pure inspiration and no thinking. No thinking in that film at all (laugh). It was just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot… We were given a title: “Overtaken”. We were given a genre, which was western, which I failed miserably. It’s not a western at all. And we had to have a reference to a Jersey Cow in it. Those are the ingredients and then off you go, 48 hours later you deliver a film. The Branchage film festival invited, I think, 6 or 8 film makers to do the challenge, and all the other filmmakers went back to their tents and started writing scripts. They all wrote scripts the first day, and then the second day they shot and edited. We just decided “No, let’s go shoot stuff. Not think about it at all let’s just shoot stuff that has a nice atmosphere to it that we like and then cut it all together on the first night see what it seems to be saying to us then go out on the second day and shoot more stuff to make sense of it.” That’s what we did, we shot loads and loads of material and then at the end of the second day try to look at it and go “What the hell have we made?” and try and edit it into some coherent form. Actually, we cut it together and it didn’t make any sense so I just quickly improvised that voice over, and that’s me doing that voice.
I like it. I can recognize your voice. I like the weird vibrating quality of it. Like I said, it shouldn’t work. By all accounts I should be telling you “Oh sorry, I think you might have screwed up there.” I should be telling you that, but I’m not because I liked it.
I was watching all of your shorts a couple days ago, to get ready for the interview, and one of the things that struck me was the sound design. It’s very intricate. Do you build sets based on the sound design or do you do the sound designs based on the sets?
Sound design is based on the sets. I work with a really talented musician, Mark Ashworth, he actually used to be a drum and bass producer in the 90s, was well known, in that world and he’s been in various bands and he’s really prolific. He’s always making music but he goes under the name ZnO and he’s done the sound for all of my films with the exception of The Man… and Paranoid, I guess, as well. So from The Cat… onward I’ve worked with him on the sound, and basically the process is I film everything and I edit everything, I do my final cut picture lock and then I take that to Mark’s studio and then we watch the film with silence or with the dialogue track and then we basically just start creating a goodie bag of sound that fits the world of that film so like atmosphere, drones or atmosphere noise or strange…
Because I mean it’s very crucial to the atmosphere of your shorts it creates an entire world sonically.
Yeah, it’s like making the film all over again, but sonically. It’s that detail. We usually spend about 2 weeks to a month creating a bag of sound like a mood board and then I go away and edit it and the editing of that and the track laying takes another 2 or 3 months of solid work to make. So it is like creating the film from scratch, remaking it in a sonic form. Really, I think sound is so important. It’s 50% really.
I don’t really have any more questions. I do have an observation, though. Like I said, I watched all of your shorts and I watched Paranoid and I can’t help but say that I’m so impressed by it because I see your entire career in that first short. I see every other film that you’ve done because even though it’s crude and basic, it’s not cheap. You don’t get the sense that this was done by somebody who had no idea what they were doing. You did have a vision. Like for example when the puppet is frightened you know it’s frightened. You get that sense. When the devil creature appears behind him, you get a sense of fear and menace. It does exactly what it’s trying to do. It doesn’t fail at anything, ever.
Well, thank you. Yeah, it’s pretty crude and basic.
But that just gives it a kind of flavour to be perfectly honest. To me it should be just right up next to your other works.
God, really? I don’t normally show it because it’s so crude.
You probably see more flaws in it than I would.
I’m not saying it’s as good as your other things. Obviously, it’s basic stuff. It’s a first try and you’ve improved since then, sure, but there’s no sense that this is you just faffing about.
I remember I took it very, very seriously at the time, yeah.
It is totally serious. As far as I can tell you put as much thought into this as you did in anything else you’ve done since.
At the time, yeah, I was very consumed by it.
I like it. I felt it was very functional, like when the character is frightened or worried you sense it, and that’s something that’s carried through in every other one of your shorts. Because every single one of your characters no matter how bizarre or deformed or whatever, you get a sense of humanity in them. They act as a mirror, in that you see how they feel and you empathize with them.
Even Bobby Yeah, he’s got little crazy rabbit ears but that’s okay.
There’s definitely a little bit of Bobby in all of us, I think.