Among the Academy Award nominees announced the other day was “Head Over Heels”. MercatorNet caught up with its director, Timothy Reckart, and asked him a few questions about his lively 10-minute claymation film.
MercatorNet: Do I get a prize for guessing that you’ve been doing some serious celebrating lately?
Reckart: I haven’t had much time for celebration, actually! I went out for a drink with some friends in Brooklyn the night of the announcement, but since then it’s been a scramble to get everything organized for the event! Of course, all this chaos is very welcome and it’s a really exciting time.
MercatorNet: The trailer of “Head Over Heels” has so many awards on the opening frame that I can hardly see what’s going on. What have audiences like about it?
Reckart: The crew and I have been so fortunate with the success our film has had on the festival circuit. Audiences have connected deeply with the characters, identifying with their predicament: he lives on the floor, she lives on the ceiling. A lot of married audience members have told me that this rings true for certain moments in their marriages.
And the metaphor is not only about drifting apart from a loved one, but also about a failure to communicate with someone who has a different point of view. In the US, I think this resonates with our frustrating political climate, which seems to confuse intellectual disagreement with personal hostility.
This is a film about people who see the world differently but still find a way to live together. I’ve also been struck how well the film has played to international audiences. The film has no dialogue, and this makes the storytelling universally accessible. The response has been great: we have won prizes for “audience favourite” in places as different as Hiroshima, Japan, and Austin, Texas.
MercatorNet: I just can’t connect the dots between Harvard and Hollywood. Tell us a bit about how you got into animation.
Reckart: I discovered animation at Harvard, actually, and it was quite by accident! I went to the introductory meeting of the wrong course and instead of leaving, I decided to sign up. I kept doing animation alongside my studies in history and literature, and eventually I got hooked. I decided to pursue animation seriously, and after a couple internships, I attended the National Film & Television School in the UK to get a master’s degree in directing animation. Head Over Heels was the film I directed in my final year at the NFTS.
MercatorNet: What draws you to animation? Can you say things that you can’t do with film?
Reckart: Computer animation is so widespread in live action films that Hollywood can tell a lot of stories that were once impossible for live action — I’m thinking of Spiderman, The Lord of the Rings, Life of Pi… So animation no longer has a monopoly on fantastical stories. I think this reveals the real strength of animation, which is that it evokes a more symbolic mode of viewing in the audience.
An animated character is abstract in a way that a live actor isn’t. The old man in Up becomes a symbol of adventure; the rat in Ratatouille becomes — more than just a rodent — a figure of noble ambition; and the husband and wife in Head Over Heels can become an image of conflict. Because these characters are abstracted from reality, they become less specific and more universal. That does affect the kind of meaning you can deliver with a story, and that’s what I find attractive about animation storytelling.
MercatorNet: This is a film about repairing a broken marriage. What inspires you about this theme? Twenty-four’s a bit young for thoughts of reconciliation and mending relationships, isn’t it?
Reckart: I’m 26 now, actually, but still not married! I have been lucky enough to grow up in the shadow of some wonderful married couples in my family: my parents, my grandparents, uncles and aunts… You learn a lot by observing, and these marriages have survived because they’re built on a spirit of sacrifice.
That’s really the theme of Head Over Heels, and it’s a message that doesn’t get enough attention. I also drew inspiration from the experience of being in a transatlantic long distance relationship with my girlfriend! The pain of separation translated into the performances of the animated characters.
MercatorNet: A ridiculous amount of work goes into claymation. How did you get a team together to create “Head over heels”?
Reckart: The wonderful thing about making a film in film school is that you don’t have to find your own team. The school did it for me! The NFTS has courses in producing, cinematography, production design, editing, and basically every other discipline you need to make a film. With one student from each of these courses, we had a complete crew. Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative process and stop motion animation is even more so. At the beginning of our production, we had around forty people helping with the set and puppet build.
A director can only guide the creative work his collaborators, and I was fortunate to work with very talented artists. The film couldn’t have been made without their dedication and wonderful ideas.
MercatorNet: Did I hear right that Rembrandt inspired the brilliant idea of two people sharing a house with two different gravities?
Reckart: Yes, Rembrandt’s painting “The Philosopher in Meditation” has a spiral staircase that’s really striking: when I saw it, I thought someone on the ceiling could use it to climb to the floor, just as easily as someone on the floor could use it to climb up.
That image piqued my interest, and it sort of formed chemical bonds with all the other ideas floating around in my head — political hostility in the US, separation from my girlfriend, the virtue of sacrifice — and I thought that this image of a husband and wife separated by gravity embraced all those ideas. It was a long, systematic process of writing and rewriting to figure out exactly how to tell their story, but I discovered the characters in that one moment.
MercatorNet: What’s next? I understand that you are working on an animated feature and a TV series.
Reckart: I’ve been freelancing as an animation director in New York since graduating from the NFTS, but I’ve stayed connected to members of the Head Over Heels crew for other projects. I’ve been developing a couple ideas with Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, the producer of Head Over Heels, and we’re hoping that all the attention our last film is getting will help us get another one off the ground.