Israeli director Ari Folman achieved great success with 2008's Waltz with Bashir, his groundbreaking blend of live action and animation based on his experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. After premiering in the Cannes competition, it won a slew of prizes and was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. At the time of Waltz with Bashir's Cannes premiere, Folman had recently optioned Solaris author Stanislaw Lem's 1971 sci-fi novel, The Futurological Congress, and was greatly inspired by what he saw at the festival. For his new movie, he blended Lem's story with a kind of critique of the film business.
One of the best periods in my life was travelling across the country in my early 20s
With financing from an incredible ten nations, he took four and a half years to make The Congress, his first English-language film. It opened the Director's Fortnight in Cannes this year. Again a mix of live action and animation, the film stars Robin Wright as an aging actress with a disabled child who badly needs funds. She reluctantly agrees to a large payment to have full body imaging in order to create a digital actress who will remain young forever, though she can never act again.
Understandably, while watching the Cannes screening, it came as a surprise to hear some snide humour about Australian actresses. Folman, a burly 50-year-old with a deep gruff voice and an earring in his left ear, has quite the explanation.
You have an attack on Australian actresses in this movie.
Yeah right, I do. This is why we are not in competition because Nicole Kidman is there. Obviously.
Where did that come from?
It's a private joke. Honestly, I love Australia. I travelled there twice. One of the best periods in my life was travelling across the country in my early 20s. This is a joke about Australian actresses. You have a few in Hollywood, right?
Would you like to work with Nicole Kidman?
Yeah, absolutely. Actually, Cate Blanchett was supposed to do this movie but it didn't work out. So this is why the joke stayed. It was because of her. It's nothing against Australians. You are a very cool country. I love the surfing part of it.
Why was The Congress so tough to make?
It's because of the animation part. The live action was really fluent and beautiful. We shot it in Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert two and a half years ago. The animation was complicated because it's all classic technique, hand-drawn. The European system of financing films meant I had to do the animation wherever I got money. Even if they didn't have a studio we had to establish one and we made the animation split between Israel, Luxembourg, Brussels, Liège, Hamburg, Berlin and Poland and then when we got stuck and got help from The Philippines, The Ukraine, Turkey and India. This is ten countries for 55 minutes of animation – only because we couldn't raise enough money to do it in one place, just bits and pieces here and there. Artistically, it was a nightmare because each studio had a different technique and approach, so I had to bring a team of the best animators from Brussels to Tel Aviv so all the characters would be consistent. It took us a year to accomplish that.
Why do you think you had such problems with the financing?
People don't want to invest into animation for adults – and it's a tough project, I think. I still feel lucky that this crazy idea was made at all. I was expected to do Waltz with Bashir II, or to take my mother, who survived the Holocaust, to Auschwitz with animation. When you come from where I come from, and suddenly you say I want to do sci-fi with Robin Wright, they ask, 'What's your problem, man? Why get out of the ghetto? The other film was so good. You won a Golden Globe; you went to the Oscars. Stay put.'
Where did the idea of ageing actresses come from?
I was visiting my sales agent in the Cannes market in 2008 and I saw an old lady and he asked me if I recognised her. I told him no and he told me her name and I was shocked. Because she was this goddess actress from the '70s, top, top, top and no one recognised her. She was a buyer back then. Of course, her face was completely done and it was something really sad and later that day I was walking along the Croisette with my sisters and I saw her again and they were shocked as well. I was thinking about her, I was trying to be her. This is what you do when you are a filmmaker – you try to be other people all the time. And I thought, she is this old lady coming to Mecca, this is the Mecca of cinema, there is nowhere else to go and her films, specifically two or three of them, they will stay forever and she will be forever young, a 25-year-old goddess. But here she is and nobody knows it's her.
So Ijon Tichy from Lem's book is now an actress in my film. I had this image of an aging actress, her young face immortalised on celluloid. This is what you see when Robin's character arrives at the Hotel Miramont in the animation part. She enters the lobby, and her son, with whom she's talking, asks her whether people recognise her as the new trailer is all over the media! And she says, “No, nobody. I'm just an old lady to them.” This place, the lobby, is like Cannes: a market. I just copied the scene I saw five years earlier and put it into wild animation, but the idea is exactly the same.
Do you find it funny that critics in Cannes are saying The Congress is obviously drawing on The Matrix when they don't even mention Lem's novel?
Actually, the Wachowski brothers stole a lot from the book and every sci-fi buff in any blog knows it. I think the book is a huge inspiration. Although Lem wrote it in the '60s in the Communist era and the dictatorship, he made it an allegory so he would not be attacked and he set it in Costa Rica and South America. With dictatorships, it doesn't really matter what it is, communist or fascist, because in the end the idea is always the same. I didn't want to talk about communism, because it was not a part of my life. Lem talks about identity, about who you are, about the way to control your feelings. It's all in the movie. A few particular scenes from the book are in the film. Of course, it's an exaggeration; I played with the material. Every time I got stuck I read the book. It's short. And every time it saved me. I found a solution.
How do you feel about the film's mixed reviews?
I feel good with the reviews. I like that they are mixed. With Waltz with Bashir I had wonderful reviews. This is great but it's not me.
So you were depressed with your good reviews?
No, I loved it. It was the first time it happened to me, wow! But it's not me. This one is more me. It's like when you have kids – that's how it is in my life. One of them is really wild and he causes a lot of issues and problems and all the time you get the call from school and friends. But you know deep inside that this guy represents you best. You will never admit it, but you know your soul is in him. That's what I feel about this movie. Yes, it's wild and maybe some people think it's too much. But okay, why not? At least it stimulates their brains and they are thinking about something.
Robin Wright is credited as a co-producer. How much was she a collaborator?
When you ask someone to do a courageous role like this, she needs to be a partner. It doesn't matter if she co-produced it. She needs to know that she is not only the actress in the film; she is the creator as well. It was interesting because when I interviewed her I realised it's not her in the movie. It's Robin Wright the actress she is playing. She gave her name, she gave her filmography to make the movie believable. Even if she is being abused a lot in this movie – some scenes are really tough – Robin never wanted to change one single word. She knew she was playing someone else.
When did you cross the desert in Australia?
The first time was in 1985 and I worked on a cotton farm in Moree, which is probably the end of the world. This guy had 16,000 acres of cotton and he was allergic to cotton. He'd inherited it. So he was working the fields with a gas mask. You knew that if he didn't pay you, you could just take the gas mask off and he was going to die! He used to come with a helicopter. It was so funny. I did that because I was stuck without money. I'd come with a Greenpeace boat from the Philippines. After the farm, I hitchhiked around for a few months and I moved on to New Zealand.
I came back with my first film Saint Clara  to the Melbourne and Brisbane Film Festivals and it was fantastic. This part of the world is interesting because I like the pace and everything. It's the only place where they really live the intelligent life. The balance between work and relaxation, I love it.
The Congress is screening at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival. Visit the official website for screening details.