Meet The Quay Brothers, Christopher Nolan’s Favorite Filmmakers And The Subjects Of His New Documentary

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.

Do you enjoy doing press?

No. No, not particularly. No, not at all.

That’s what I figured, so I was very excited to have this opportunity!


Is it because people want to know how you do what you do, or the psychological underpinnings of it….?

I guess it’s just the feeling that, if they’re there just to pump you and they don’t know your work or they don’t know a lot about it, then you know it, you feel it, and you just close down. If somebody knows something about the work, then we’re open to a good dialogue. It just depends. Also, there are certain points where you connect… [laughs] That doesn’t answer the question.

I think the first time I saw your films was probably a VHS from Kim’s on Avenue A, so seeing them on the big screen was fantastic. Your work is so beloved but also hard to find, and so sometimes the only way we can find it — it’s a double-edged sword because we’re seeing these things on YouTube and it’s degraded and it’s awful, but how do you reconcile that?

Well, we do the same thing, because we research for certain rare films, and you end up – then YouTube has them, and you’re very hungry and you’re willing to – you’ll accept that version — that degraded quality — that scale. For us, it’s like we always say, if the puppets were this big, and then you see them on TV and they go down to here, or on an iPhone they’re down to here, but on 35mm, they abolish scale, and I think that’s where the films win, is [in] abolishing scale and 35mm does that immaculately. But even for us, this was a rare occasion, to see something, three films in 35mm. It’s wonderful.

It seems like Christopher Nolan just wanted to do it for himself, and we’re all invited!

Oh, it’s fantastic what he did.

Do you pay attention or are you interested in the people who reference your work or pay homage to it? Do you guys pay attention to that? 

I don’t think it’s something we would pursue, and we never have. It’s a waste of time. Some people send us stuff and say, “Did you do that?” Of course we didn’t, but you have to put it to rest. You can’t police that kind of thing. It’s like we said to Christopher, you know, if it’s a bad imitation, that’s a shame. It stinks and it’s very obvious. If somebody has been influenced by us and they do a good job, we don’t notice it because we figure they found their own language. But, you know, we know that between ourselves, we too have our heroes, and we makes homages all the time, so I don’t think we look so much in the rear view mirror as forward, towards the ones who, our heroes, through history. Like, we can go back to the 14th century, or ahead to the 14th century, whichever.

Coming in here, there’s a certain amount of intimidation, like, oh, I didn’t read enough Bruno Bettelheim or the history of the metaphysics of puppetry and all that. There’s a place for film criticism, of course, and analysis, but I also know that the feeling of watching In Absentia, even if I didn’t understand the linear narrative, I knew it was …

What the subject is, yeah. We don’t read books like that either. They’re intimidating. We know puppets from the other side. Not from the outside but from the inside, working out, so it’s a very, very intuitive language. But we would never — we get a little bit pissed off about overly intellectualized things writing on puppetry or — yeah. [laughs]

I think, and maybe this is just the state of film criticism or how I feel like there’s a lot of male fanboyishness, where I have to come in and I have to prove I know what I’m talking about. Like, oh man, I couldn’t find Bruno Schulz’s books in time! What am I going to do? You guys are gonna see me as a fraud. And it’s really more about the emotion behind it, right? The communication.

Yes, because we can’t expect everybody to have read Bruno Schulz. But it might lead them to Bruno Schulz; that’s fine. Or, for instance, [watching] In Absentia might lead you to investigate other films on — outsider art — yes, exactly. The art of the insane. And that’s great, because in that sense, the film In Absentia becomes a footnote to reveal — it lays eggs for future investigation. It was interesting that when we did In Absentia, the man who runs the Prinzhorn Collection, which [is where] we saw the exhibition with Emma Hauck’s drawings, you know, he bought a copy of In Absentia for his archives. They have it there in Heidelberg. So we think that’s a nice round journey that has been made.

One of the words you used in the Nolan Q&A in the Times was crepuscular, and I love that word. It’s delicious. And it’s exactly how I feel watching your movies. How do you tap into that sort of limbo?

Well, it’s creating climates, and it’s how to create that sense of a climate for which an object might just barely reveal itself. And so what you’re left with is the imaginative leap into what you see or what you barely see, and I think you augment that with either silence or the hint of a sound, so you can push, gently push that, those parameters. And I think it’s like, things that happen in a kind of half-light, which is crepuscular, where the shape is probably – you only see a portion of the shape, so it’s very, very suggestive, so in that sense, you have to supply a lot because we’re not going to give you a lot, but you also realize that that object that might be trying to announce itself…

So for us, it’s like, you’re trying to snag these elusive forms that just sort of, for a brief moment, a flutter, they’re there for your eye just to capture. It’s impossible to know, so you have to evoke these shadowy moments. Hence the crepuscular. Because they don’t happen – you turn on a light, they’re not there. They’re like cockroaches. They run for it.

Using things you find at flea markets and things like that have a sort of echo, they have a history to them that you can’t, that’s impossible to get from special effects.

No, I don’t think so. You’re right. It comes back to Bruno Schulz, when he wrote that beautiful essay, that treatise on mannequins’ dummies, where he says that it’s the poetic ascension of the everyday — it’s very true. That’s what’s hard, to find that poetry, and a lot of the elements in Crocodiles, whether it’s saliva dropping or rubber bands breaking, dust or screws or whatever it might be, a dandelion depillowing itself or whatever you want to call it, these are things that you couldn’t pull that off with special effects. And I think because the reality is there in front of you — you know that’s an ice cube. You know that’s a dandelion. It’s not a CGI dandelion. And then it’s actually coming up close to the insect kingdom, the entomological universe, and you say, ah, I’ve never gotten that close to a dandelion before, or what the insect kingdom can do, and you just keep moving closer and closer and closer.

I love the idea of honoring the people who made the things you use, like in the documentary where you have the beautiful little Victorian boot. Who made it?

Who made it? Yes. When we’ve gone to these doll festivals, and you see some of the — we had a beautiful umbrella, about that big, absolutely immaculate working condition, totally anonymous. I don’t know if it was ever mass-produced. You just don’t know. You don’t know how to even credit that, to the anonymous woman, no doubt, who made this. On Sunday the 5th of 1893. “I knocked off three umbrellas, and then I made lunch.”

And now her beautiful object has found another life.

It’s another life. Yes, exactly. It’s like passing the baton.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.