Stephen and Timothy Quay are identical twins who finish each other’s sentences and make eerie stop-motion films out of dolls and ephemera they find at flea markets. While their work remains both literally and figuratively obscure to many, their uncanny puppetry and hand-hewn style have trickled down into pop-culture consciousness; whether it’s music videos by Nine Inch Nails and Tool or the films of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, chances are high that you’ve seen something made by some artist influenced by them. Including, as it turns out, Christopher Nolan. And when you’re Christopher Nolan, you can do pretty much whatever you want in Hollywood, within reason, from releasing holiday season blockbusters in 35mm and 70mm to convincing notoriously press-shy artists like the Quays to, well, talk to the press.
Nolan handpicked three of the Quays’ short films — In Absentia, The Comb, and Street of Crocodiles — and had new 35mm prints made to screen in selected cities, along with Nolan’s short documentary about the brothers, QUAY. Nolan and the Quays appeared in New York recently to kick off the tour with what turned out to be a gleefully geeky chat between the gob-smacked director and his heroes. Nolan will also be appearing at selected screenings in Los Angeles. Capping it all off is a fancy new Blu-ray release of the Quay brothers’ work by Zeitgeist on October 20; the high-def collection comes with 15 shorts and Nolan’s QUAY. Here’s the trailer for Nolan’s film…
The brothers prefer to be interviewed as a single unit and referred to simply as the Quays because, as one says, “Half the time, people try it and they get it wrong.” And though they may be press-averse it should be noted that they offer journalists like me who interview them plastic cups of Prosecco.
I didn’t realize that Christopher Nolan was such a fan. How did he get in touch with you guys?
I think he talked to Zeitgeist… He surprised us. He came out of the blue and basically said he’d like to subsidize a Blu-ray edition, and then do a program of certain films in 35mm. And if he could do a little documentary. So he arranged a telephone call; we spoke on the telephone — him in L.A. and us in London — and we hit it off very quickly. He’s very, very warm, very open, incredibly sharp and focused, and we liked him immediately.
Were you at all skeptical because of his Hollywood background? Obviously, he’s a huge proponent of 35mm and incredibly intelligent, but he’s got this big Hollywood fanboy thing happening.
Well, I think it’s probably something he never expected, but I think for films like, for us, The Prestige — we knew Memento, but The Prestige very much impressed us, deeply impressed us, and we told him, yeah, we liked it. I think that… Well, not to pass judgment on Batman films, but Interstellar too, the opening and the closing are terribly moving.
And what about the process of opening your studio to him? Were you at all skeptical? I could watch an entire – I don’t know, not even a feature-length documentary, like a day, a week in your studio. Did that necessitate a certain amount of trust? I can’t imagine he’s the first person who’s wanted to make a documentary about you.
Well, some tend to violate it, but we knew he wouldn’t. But also we turned off half the lights. He came down a day before, too, just to chat, and I think he got the lay of the land, the studio, and then we just felt very relaxed with him and felt so – the whole shooting process was very intimate. I think we really liked the fact that he handled the camera, did all the filming himself, and was very curious — you could see him, the eyes were everywhere. He knew exactly what he wanted. It was a very, very nice surprise. And you didn’t feel raped.