Have you heard of Canadian cartoonist Seth? Whether you have or haven't, Seth's Dominion, Luc Chamberland's documentary about the artist is a fascinating watch. After premiering at the Raindance Film Festival, it screens at the Leeds International Film Festival this week (tonight and again on Thursday 13th November).
I sat down for a chat with the director - who has directed animation for DreamWorks on Joseph: King of Dreams and also contributed to Space Jam - about his pet project, comics and the importance of the cinema experience.
With his French-Canadian accent and flat cap, Luc has a schoolboyish enthusiasm for his work - and, perhaps even more so, for Seth's, which he evidently loves for its inspirational quality and self-deprecating humour, as well as the way it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Luc talks in similar way, saying one thing then undermining it with a knowing joke. He takes himself seriously, but doesn't. (But really, underneath that, he does.)
In the film, Seth says there's an arrogance to artists who produce art about themselves that what they say is worth hearing. Seth's Dominion is, in a way, autobiographical. Does Luc think he's worth hearing?
The director grins.
"I would like to be like Quentin and say this is the beep beep best beep beep film beep beep ever you have seen beep beep in your entire beep beep life. I would like to be like that but I think I'm a little bit… I have an ego, but I'm a little more humble."
He drops the 'h' when he talks, partly because of his accent, but partly because you get the impression he wants to move on to the next sentence as quickly as possible. He doesn't slow down.
"My film isn't as brash as a Tarantino film but if people will make the effort of siting in the cinema and watching it, I think they will not realise it, but they will be taken by the hand and brought into that realm for a dream. And, hopefully, they get a high out of it! I tried very hard to make Seth's Dominion atmospheric and at the same time, a film that is inspirational for people."
The film is a documentary, but it's not the kind of film you'd expect: animations of blue and grey crop out, while there's no sign of vox pops at all. Was that always the aim?
"If I say the film is about a guy in his basement who draws a comic book, no one will want to see it! But it's not just that. There's so much intensity in that guy in the basement and maybe the filmmaker has a lot intensity in himself that he keeps quiet. So instead of having a traditional documentary where you film someone and he's talking and you film someone and he's talking, we go beyond that. He offered me his diary and unpublished comics and said have a look and you can animate these. That would make the film very different, not a film about a comic already published but a film that is an accompaniment to his work. And his comics, in print, are black, grey, blue and white. That's the four colours. And every frame, he draws his characters slightly differently. So I said I'm going to do it the same way. So I forced myself and went against every nerve I had as an animator and said that every time I had a new frame, I would draw them slightly differently and follow his style completely.
When he refers to the filmmaker - in third person, naturally - he smiles knowingly. But for all the apparently autobiographical elements, Luc generously gives to spotlight to Seth. Was he aware of that divide between him and his subject?
"Something that can annoy me a bit is a documentary about a person who is making the documentary. This is a bit of that, but I hide it. You never hear my voice. You don't know that I'm doing this. I try to make the camera disappear. I do have a cameo - my Hitchcock scene! - but that's it. But a lot of filmmakers do do that. James Mason did a documentary called The London Nobody Knows. It's a fantastic film, not just because you discover bits of London that don't exist anymore, but you have James Mason, who has one of the most beautiful British voices ever, talking and explaining to you. And it works fantastically in that case. In other cases, I would be annoyed by a person who wants to talk about that subject but really it's about the person."
So how much similarity did he think there was between him and Seth?
"Look at me, I'm a dandy!" Luc laughs, proud of his waistcoat and flat cap combo.
"I love to wear suits, ties, a little hat… But I met my match. Seth is more dandy than me! Seth is much more sharply dressed than me. People say I work hard, 60 hours a week. Seth works more than me! I met my match completely. It's a kindred spirit, I think. We were made to meet and we shared our passions. I wanted to mix all these things. I'm British, I'm Canadian. I love comics. I love animation. I love live action as well."
He's warmed up now. The sentences are flying past.
"There's the Gerry Anderson influence at play with the puppet work. There's the Avengers, John Steed, there," he indicates his cap and waistcoat again. "There's all these elements that I mix with my French-Canadian upbringing, so it's why the film is… it's not just looking at Seth, we go inside him. It's not a simple documentary. I'm trying to go beyond what we ever do usually in documentaries. I'm very ambitious."
It's clearly a very personal project for Luc. How big a team was there working on the film?
"I had a team of people - it's too much work for one, come on! - but I storyboarded everything and had a team of people who helped me. It's been an eight year process! I did a little bit every year. My favourite pastime was making my film. I direct commercials, I'm a director for hire, but I wanted to do something that was exactly the opposite of what I'd being doing. You know, fast! Quick! Explode! Car! Bang! Boom! Zing! Bang! No. I wanted to do something that was contemplative."
Was that long period frustrating, or rewarding as it gave him something different to go back to?
"I prefer to do something faster, in a more efficient way. Like a commercial, you sit down, you have a schedule. Or like a feature film for DreamWorks, I had a contract for one year to direct the animation. But money-wise, the pet project doesn't always get the finance you want. So you can only put time into it, if you don't have the money. So every week, I would do something on the film. In the summer, from the end of May to September, I would be working with two to three animators for seven summers."
Was Luc ever hesitant about taking these images on the page and making them move? That he would somehow lose its Seth-ness in adapting them for the screen? Luc came up with a clever solution…
"When you read comics, a reader puts his own timing. You slow down here, you have your own rhythm. But [in animating them] I impose a timing on the comics. I chose my timing. And I wanted my timing to be true to Seth. So I got Seth to do his own voiceover and read his own comics and with that I was able to get a pacing, which is really a pacing of what he wants. Then I felt confident to tell those stories."
While it took the director forever to make, the film is surprisingly short. How hard was it to show such restraint? Did he reach a point where he knew the film had done its job?
"I'm just scratching an iceberg! But I wanted to do that. I wanted people to have a feeling when it finished of "Already?" We're scratching the surface. There's so much more. In the film, we see bits of a puppet play, but the full play will be on a DVD a year from now. There's two or three animations not in the film that will be on there in a year too. But the actual experience of seeing the film, I insist on it being in the cinema. It makes a complete difference. I cut the film for four or five months and then I did the mix and the screen was maybe big like the wall here - it was a big screen. Then, it was projected at the Ottawa Film Festival [where it won grand prize for best animated feature] on this giant screen! And it was like a truck went over me. The experience of sitting in a cinema watching a film is duplicating [sic] a hundred times fold the emotion I tried to put in the image. And the music! I got 32 musicians for the soundtrack. It gives it a whole different feel on a big screen."
So just how well-known is Seth?
"If you ask the elite and the big heads of the comic book circles, if you ask them for the 10 most important artists, one of them is him. Maybe some will put him at the top of the list or the bottom, but he's definitely one of the 10 most important alive right now. I grew up reading a Belgium magazine called Spirou. All the best comic artists in Europe work on that magazine. It's weekly. It's been going on for 77 years now. It's a tradition. I grew up reading that. I was crazy about it and I had a sensibility for European comics. Then I went to Europe and met my favourite comic artist at Spirou and they invited me to their house and it was like "Wow!" And I ended up working at London. In London, there were no French-European comics available. There were the American ones and the British ones. There was Alan Moore. I love Alan Moore! Reading Vendetta was a watershed event for me, a new experience. Anything Alan did was a very intense thing to read. An incredibly comic book artist! It's a different sensibility. It's one I like."
How did he first discover Seth?
"I discovered Seth in London! There is the store Gosh! Comics, near the British Library, now on Berwick St. In the Gosh! store, I came across Seth. "What is this guy?" It was very European, but he was American. That was weird, but I really liked it. I started to read everything, then I realised: he's not American, he's Canadian! When I went back to Montreal, by sheer coincidence, Seth was doing a conference there and I went to see him… and the rest is history.
As he says, the film leaves you wanting to find out more about Seth and his work. What would he recommend as a starter?
Luc pauses, not because it's hard to think of one, you suspect, but because there are too many for him to name.
"There is The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. That is the history of Canadian comic books. It's a lush book! It has all the professionals working in Canada who create all of these comics and reading that is incredible. Seth talks about 25 maybe 30 authors in that book. But only three exist for real. So he mixes reality and fiction completely. That is an amazing book. But if you take the book It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, it's one of the best comic books ever. It's just Seth, a comic artist who questions himself and his career, and he discovers another artist, who is doing illustrations in cheap comic books and ends up having an illustration in the New Yorker. And his style is very similar to Seth. Seth is curious and wants to find him. So it's this journey trying to find this guy. It sounds very mundane, but it becomes this Citizen Kane epic!
Those mundane details are the foundation of Seth's Dominion, which follows the artist's clockwork routine to the minute, including his 1.30am bedtime.
"I really think it's an intense film. You don't realise it, but you get a sense of real privilege getting close to his life. And you realise: everything is important. He's not switching off or relaxing. He's always working and thinking really hard to do everything. He wants to sit on his table in the asement every day and work. And the drive nd the professionalism, he has on his own; the person he wants to beat is himself. And it's always your best inspiration is trying to be better than yourself. And I try to capture that when you discover so many layers and you discover this guy is extremely intense. And you will have, yourself, maybe some personal experience you can feel in parallel. He's talking about memory and I try to focus on that; the older you get, the more memories you have. And people don't realise those memories are very important. The more you have, the more your nurture those memories. The more you learn from those memories, the more you have a better life in the present. And that's what Seth is trying to explain and something I believe in.
How hard was it to get that access to his life? Was Seth hesitant? A guy comes up to you at a conference and says "Hey, I want to make a film about you…."
"I would be very wary of that person! Seth was very generous. We had a long conversation about what the film could be about and that went on for a very long time before we felt confident about memory and his personal diary. That reassured him a bit, but I went to see him once a year for a weekend and filmed a little bit, or a puppet play, or filming him with his city of Dominion…"
And has he seen the film?
"I showed Seth a rough cut with no animation or music so he had an idea of what was going on and he was very worried he would be depressed for two weeks after seeing the film and would stop working and would just question himself. But he came back to me and he said, now I feel more energised to go back to the drawing table. And that's the best answer I could have!"
It is a strangely inspirational movie, although one that does have sad bits too.
"It's melancholic," agrees Luc, "but an uplifting kind of melancholy. He was worried I would never manage to do that - I was worried I wouldn't do that!"
I congratulate Luc on his achievement, but the conversation still isn't over.
"Stay until after the credits," he adds, "because there's an important sentence that comes up. It's something Seth said to me during the middle of filming, when I was wondering whether I should continue or give up and stop. But halfway through production, I started to show him the animation and he completely stopped doubting."
You can tell from the way the director's face lights up that Seth's confidence meant a lot to him - and how much his own confidence is already driving him to consider what he might make in the future. The humble ego of an artist.
"Seth did give me carte blanche," Luc continues. "He said in writing: 'When I'm hired to do a project I'm hired because I'm Seth and I want carte blanche to do whatever I want. This is how I work, so I will give you carte blanche.' So I had this incredible confidence from him to do what I thought was right so he could focus on his comic. Me, I'm a nerd filmmaker who can't wait to do another film, a James Bond movie, a Doctor Who… and all these things are not Seth. Seth is about everyday life. And everyday life is wonderful is intense. And we don't notice it. I hope when you see my film you will notice your life and that life will be more satisfying for yourself."
"That's some good bullshit, isn't it?"
Seth's Dominion screens at the Leeds International Film Festival on Sunday 9th November and Thursday 13th November. Read our review here.