As embodied in his animated feature debut, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, Salvador Simó is no stranger to navigating the boundary between cinematic mediums. He’s worked as both a VFX artist for live-action (with titles like Skyfall and The Jungle Book on his resumé) and an animator, and his film is acutely interested in what new angles the animated world can give a story.
Based on the graphic novel by Fermín Solís, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles tells how legendary Spanish director and surrealist Luis Buñuel went about making his famous documentary Las Hurdes: Land without Bread (1933). Simó tells this story with a hand-drawn animation style, observing events with intense realism and portraying each character with intimate naturalism. We caught up with Simó to talk about his new film, and how animation relates to the real world.
When did you first come across the graphic novel that the film’s based on?
The producer, Manuel Cristobal, sent me the graphic novel around 2014 or 2015, and asked me what I thought about it. I told him, “go ahead, let’s do it!” Then we started to work with Eligio [R. Montero] on the script for almost a year. There were some things in the book that Eligio, Manuel and I would not agree with. You only see one side of Buñuel – you read the graphic novel and you think, “this guy is an asshole.”
So we wanted to explain the rest. We talked with Ian Gibson, a biographer of Buñuel, and [Jean-Claude] Carrière. We talked with his son, Juan Luis, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. But we tried to get our own vision of Luis Buñuel and communicate this without any sweetener. He had his good side and… well, let’s just say he had his contradictions.
Was your impression of Buñuel always one of a contradictory man, or did that change when you started working on the film?
The first time I heard about Buñuel, I was nine. My father came back from seeing The Exterminating Angel (1962). He was saying, “there are these people who can’t go out of the room because there are no doors.” I couldn’t understand at nine years old. Buñuel was someone who was quite present in my family because my father is a big fan. I didn’t have the chance to go deep in knowing him so it was like a discovery for me, to know the person, to know his surroundings.
In that sense, 2D hand-drawn animation feels like an intimate form to do that with. Is that what drew you to it?
Manuel and I agreed that this was a film that needed to be done this way because it allows us to get into the head of the character. Sometimes CG, or even live-action, creates distance with the audience. We tried to make everything really connected with the story, so the style of animation is not soft like Disney, it’s more rough because the story is rough. The lines are not clean lines, the lines are broken. It feels more natural. Even the movements of the characters, we tried to make more subtle. So everything was done in a way to connect to the audience as much as possible.
Speaking of naturalism, I’m wondering about your inclusion of actual clips from Buñuel’s films – in a way it’s an intrusion of the real into the world you’ve created.
It was an early decision. There is no better way to show what film was like at that time than with the proper images of Luis Buñuel in the 1930s. We thought, “okay, let’s try this in the narrative,” so you can see these images appear when they are looking through the camera. So we see what they are doing but also those images on another level allow us to ground the film and say, “the story we are telling is real, it happened.”
I think it brings this nice punch of reality to the audience. It makes you connect to this frontier of the imagination in the animation; that it’s like “well, it doesn’t exist.” But this is saying, “no, this world existed.” We’re just drawing it.
It has its own parallels with Land without Bread. He’s trying to tell a real story through surrealism, and it seems you were doing the same.
When he was doing Land without Bread, it was a very curious moment of his life. He had Un chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’or (1930), and they were poisonous successes because after that, he couldn’t find money to do anything. Then Ramón [Acin, the producer] won the lottery, so he had the chance to do this film. But what he wanted to do with that film was change the world, to have a punch of reality.
The people who went to the cinema at that time – the bourgeoisie — weren’t used to seeing [Buñuel’s films]. It was like a slap in the face. That created conflict and that was what Buñuel wanted, to provoke the audience, make them think.
When he did all of that, he was using as a script a book by Maurice Legendre that’s called… let me show you. [Simo retrieves a copy of Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine] It’s not exactly the same book, but it’s the same 1927 edition of this geographic study. All of the things that are written in this book are worse than what Buñuel showed on screen. So when he was trying to film all of that, he was making a representation of reality. He mounted cinematographic images to show what was happening for real, even if it wasn’t happening in front of him.
Do you see animation functioning in the same way?
Exactly, that’s what we tried to do. This movie is not a documentary – we try to represent a reality to make audiences believe all of these things happening within an hour and a half. At the end of the day, most directors are manipulators, we manipulate the audience to make them feel things.