Filmmaker Raul Garcia is Telling Extraordinary Tales
“Poe’s not dead. Nowadays he’s more alive than ever.” — Raul Garcia When Raul Garcia says he's spent his life working in animated films, he's not exaggerating. The Madrid-born animator scored his first job--with the legendary Hanna-Barbera animation studio--while still in college. Take a look at many of Disney's animated hits, including Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas, and you'll see Garcia's name in the credits as an animator. But things haven't always been smooth sailing. As he told us when we spoke by phone, after going indepedent, he spent nearly three years making a feature film only to have it come to a crashing halt. To make his way through the ensuing depression, Garcia returned to a childhood love--the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. He decided to make an animated short of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and well, let's just say he got his mojo back. That short turned into the animated feature Extraordinary Tales, which brings to life five of Poe's iconic stories. We spoke to Garcia about working his way throught that initial failure, how he paid homage to his heroes in Extraordinary Tales, and his enduring love for Poe. NEA: Can you start by telling us about the idea for Extraordinary Tales? RAUL GARCIA: I've been working in animation all my life. I worked for big studios but then I decided to set up on my own, and be independent and do my own films. I started making a feature film and, halfway through, all the finances went down. Suddenly after two years and a half of working on the film, I found myself with nothing. Being the first time out, it was very depressing. I decided, "Okay, I'm going to do a film on my own. I will do it myself and I will be isolated from the world for three months.” Here we have my new film." I linked up with Stéphan Roelants and he decided to co-produce it, and that's how everything was started. It was basically a therapy film to make me forget the problem of the other feature. This was a project that I had in the famous drawer of “all of these ideas one day will become a feature but I don't know when.” <laughs> So when I showed [Stéphan] the project, there was actually one short. There was not really a feature yet. [We started with] "The Tell-Tale Heart." When we finished that one and we put it in the festival circuit and we saw that it got 35 international awards, then the light bulb went on, and it was, "Hey, maybe we have something here. Let's try to continue this attempt to make a feature film made of Edgar Allan Poe stories." Because it's horror, it's animation, and no one else has done it before. NEA: How did you select which stories you wanted to work on? GARCIA: That was basically a judging of my all-time favorite stories of Edgar Allan Poe. When I was a kid I graduated from what is now young adult [literature] and I went straight to Poe. And the stories I selected were the stories that I really, really loved when I started reading Poe. There was one that got away and that was "The Black Cat," which is my all-time favorite. But when I started seeing all of the Poe universe, I realized that "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" share a lot of elements in common. They were almost the same story in different ways. So I didn't want to repeat it and have another story similar to "The Tell-Tale Heart." NEA: What do you think this project shows about the work of Edgar Allan Poe that we haven't thought about or seen before? GARCIA: It’s amazing that 266 years after his death, he's still current and people are still drawn to him. [I think it’s] partly about the myth, partly about the mystique of the romantic touch, partly about what he created, the seeds for what the whole genre has become. One of the things I realized when I started making these films is that everybody knows Edgar Allan Poe and there's about a million versions of films and plays made with his works. Most of the time, they're very far from the reading of the works that he wrote. So I decided in my films to be as close as I could to his period and to the manner of the story. In some of them I just took verbatim paragraphs of the stories themselves. I wanted to give a fresh approach to Edgar Allan Poe by being loyal and as close as I could to the period. NEA: The voice cast for this is very interesting and you cast several people that are not known as actors, including Roger Corman and Guillermo del Toro. How did you assemble your cast? GARCIA: Again, the whole idea of doing Edgar Allan Poe stories is a labor of love. [It’s] something that no person with common sense would hope to accomplish because it's kind of crazy. When I started to do the films, I decided to set up certain rules to make the film, for my own pleasure. The first rule was to be as close as I could to the original Edgar Allan Poe stories. The second rule was [to find] a graphic style to define this period for each story. The third rule was to have the story narrated by someone who will mean something in the universe of horror and fantasy films. To that point, obviously Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee represent the past and Julian Sands—remember he was the warlock in a couple of movies—represents the present. Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman are two different directors who have defined the horror genre as we know it today. It was really fun to make my wish list of who I would love to work with and who I would love to have, and I was lucky enough that everybody was very generous with the time and with the commitment to actually join the ship of fools that the movie has been and collaborate and have fun in the process. NEA: You mentioned that each story has a very different look because you really tried to show the spirit of the story in the design. Can you take us through that design process? GARCIA: Everything started with the first [story], which was "The Tell-Tale Heart." That [design] was my special homage to an Argentinian comic book artist whose name is Alberto Breccia. He’s someone I really admire completely. When I decided to keep going and look for other styles, I made a list of all my artistic heroes—influences, styles, and artists—and tried to pair them up and see how I could come up with something different and something funny. This quest was two-fold. One [idea] was to stay away from the typical rendering and portraying that CGI films have nowadays…. I wanted to stay away from that and try to do something more artistic, to look for another way to portray a narrative in animation. I [also] was looking to something art historical somehow. "The Masque of the Red Death" is a more obvious case. That [design] came from my love of Egon Schiele and Breughel. Those two artistic influences are so different, one from the other, but I tried to combine it for that look, which is like oil paintings. So that was the idea behind every segment. I tried to do it in a style that was challenging and different for every story. NEA: Since the stories do have five different looks, how did you then make the film feel cohesive? GARCIA: I established a storyline [through] the whole film. The whole film is the story between Death and Poe with Poe represented by the raven. They have this dialogue in the cemetery that becomes some kind of Scheherazade One Thousand and One Nights story where Poe wants to remain on Earth to keep working and creating stories, and Death wants to take Poe's soul somewhere. They start telling each other stories based on Poe's work to prove their point. When I see this kind of movie, that is like an anthology or sketches, I usually am very reluctant because I just want to cut to the chase and go to the story. So I was very careful to pace that interstitial part in a way that it would be fast and interesting and not dragging. NEA: We’ve touched a little on why people are still interested in Poe in the 21st century. Can you say more about your personal fascination with him. In addition to this film, are there other ways Poe’s storytelling has influenced or informed the way you work? GARCIA: It was a happy accident me running into this small volume of Poe's tales when I was a kid because it really opened my mind to a whole genre of literature. For me it was going from reading comic books to reading Edgar Allan Poe. From Poe suddenly I started reading the original Mary Shelley and that led me to Lord Byron and that led me to Guy de Maupassant and eventually rereading Poe which [led to] Arthur Conan Doyle. It was suddenly like a door opened in my mind and I got this flood of different authors that share the same sensibility. That was one of the things that I thought was very interesting about Edgar Allan Poe. He invented the detective genre with the adventures of [his character C. Auguste] Dupin. He started what Conan Doyle developed into Sherlock Homes. Even with “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” one of the shorts that I did, when Poe published that, he published it [in the style of] a real medical essay so people believed that that was for real. No one bothered to put a note saying that it was a work of fiction. So he was really inventive and really incredible in terms of exploring all these areas in the horror field. He was such a complex figure that I think part of the attraction nowadays is that aura of romanticism, a wild tortured soul, that goes very well with the time we live in. Poe's not dead; nowadays he’s more alive than ever.NEA: Before my final question, is there anything you wish I had asked you? GARCIA: I just would like to mark something very important in this movie—the music. One of the things that making movies has is that it combines all the arts in one place. It's useful to be able to work with drawings and paintings and the human voice. But the music is something very special because it can give the whole film unity. I was very happy to work with musician Sergio de la Puente who I worked with in the past. He truly captured the atmosphere of what I wanted to do. We worked musically in periods that would match the images that we were looking at. "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" was done in the style of a 50's full-color comic book. So the music wanted to reflect that kind of B-movie characteristic of that period of time. We wanted to use a theremin, which I wished I could have, but used a musical saw and that gave that eerie kind of weird tone. It was the same thing with "The Masque of the Red Death." We went for period music that was Medieval/Renaissance. We wanted to try to recreate that musical period and at the same time, you know, bring in the real terrific horrific part of the film. We had a mish-mash of all genres, musically speaking, to carry the message and to be able to explore that special bond that is created in movies where you have music, you have images, and the two things work together to tell a story and to move the audience. That is what you ultimately want to do. NEA: Why do the arts matter? GARCIA: Because we're human. Because being human means creating art, and without art I think there's an emptiness there that someone has to fill. When I mean art, I mean literature, I mean music, especially music. I mean paintings, I mean dance, I mean everything. Human beings need beauty and culture to develop somehow, and I think art fills that need. Want more Poe? Try out Big Read Edgar Allan Poe quiz!