Seth Ickerman Interview
With the strike of winter every years comes a festive cheer in the air carried by a wave of anticipation for the holiday season to come, leading up to the dawn of a fresh new year filled with hopes and expectations. Looking back on the last 12 months of 2016, one can definitely say that we’ve had a year full of surprises, not the least of which here at NewRetroWave was the groundbreaking release of Carpenter Brut’s music video for Turbo Killer, a video that hit the world by storm in last February and whose brilliance and impact has yet to fade in the Retro world and Retrowave community alike.
Produced by french Outrun producer Carpenter Brut, Turbo Killer’s explosive, action packed video was signed by Raphaël Hernandez and Savitri Joly-Gonfard, a duo of directors collectively known as Seth Ickerman, a fictional character encompassing both personalities and creative minds. Be it through their impressive visual work on Kaydara, Turbo Killer or the teaser trailer for their upcoming eponymous feature film Ickerman, the duo has pulled nothing short of a momentous prowess with their visual effects through their efficiency and resilience amidst a French film industry too shy to even dare touch upon the Sci-Fi genre.
Like lightning the Ickerman name has struck for the second time this year with the announcement of its newest project, a 30 minute film sequel to Turbo Killer titled Blood Machines whose pitch has every reason to jumpstart our upcoming year on a hopeful and exciting start.
However, having been constrained to work and fight on the outskirts of the film industry as a result of their daring and uncompromising creative approach, Seth Ickerman has opted for Kickstarter to call upon the viewers themselves to help them fund Blood Machines and make this dream project a reality. Being a resident in Paris, I was lucky enough to catch up with Seth Ickerman, who spared the time off of their hectic schedule to talk about their creative identity and to learn more about their current film project Blood Machines.
Let’s start off with some formalities. Where did you guys first meet and how did you end up as Seth Ickerman?
Raphaël (R) : Well we come from the South of France, specifically the Hautes-Alpes region. People there are into sports and we were basically the only two geeks who were into filmmaking. We met through some friends, we hit it off instantly and we started making films together. We made them for fun but we would take it seriously and make sure we did things right. Over time, things became serious and here we are today; it became a career.
Seth Ickerman is basically a fictional character we’ve invented that regroups both of our personalities. Our films aren’t by Raphaël and Savitri but by Seth Ickerman. It embodies both of our creative minds; if one of us decided to make a film on his own it wouldn’t be by signed Seth Ickerman. We each have our own skills and even though we may not always agree, we manage to make movies that resemble the both of us. Ideally if we were to forget that there’s two of us and believe that Seth is real that would be great. As directors we like the idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction, it’s kind of what we do. We create a story and bring our audience in our world.
Where does the name come from?
R: We tried several names before. We don’t like saying exactly where it’s from. We see it as our child’s name. We like the idea that the projects we make help define Seth Ickerman’s character. Without getting into too much detail, our first feature film project Ickerman will be a founding film for us and give some answers behind the name. That’s all we can say for now. It’s not a reference to anything but rather a name whose meaning will be carried by the story we’ll build behind it.
Your work is very much based on a strong DIY work ethic, revolving around very small but extremely effective teams and budgets. You’ve said in previous interviews that you’re not particularly big film-buffs, yet you struggle for years to make Science-Fiction films, a film genre that is seldom solicited in the french film industry.
Where then do you draw the motivation to finish a film like Kaydara after 6 years of effort and set up projects like Turbo Killer and Ickerman?
Savitri (S): It does seem ironic; we’re not really film-buffs yet we keep making movies that reference other movies. Kaydara was based on The Matrix, Turbo Killer was a reference to the 80s’… I think we’re just dreaming of a kind of cinema that isn’t out there yet, we’re just making the movies we want to see.
With that being said, it’s got to come from somewhere. As a kid I never went to the movies and I didn’t have television either, so I’ve got my own perspective on film. Still, we grew up to love the same classic movies of a certain age, and these movies left an impression on us that is still felt in each of our film projects. We’re not trying to pay hommage or delve into this or that style, it’s all unconscious.
R: I often say that it’s in our DNA and we’re not trying to recreate so much as to explore. One of the best compliments we got for Turbo Killer was “Your film doesn’t look like the 80s’, that’s how the 80s’ SHOULD have looked like!”. There’s an idea of renewal. Drive for instance had a similar approach, it’s retro but modern. You’ve got that in music and gaming as well. We’re remaking games with Pixel-art, old arcade games like on the SNES but with our modern day technology and newfound perspective. It makes for even better games.
S: It’s the way we fantasise about an era and movies that we’ve loved and how we transcribe it into our films. We don’t go in saying we’re going to recreate these movies. We draw on the way we dream of these things, their essence, the most important aspect is how we process and regurgitate it all back.
It’s drawing on our present day conception of the 80s’, which is different from 5, 10, or 20 years ago.
S: Exactly, it’s really how you dream it up, it’s not real. We tend to think to only remember the classic movies but in reality there were heaps of terrible flicks. It’s the same as nowadays really, only it’s harder to realize that from our perspective.
As I was watching your film Kaydara and your behind-the-scenes videos, a weird synapse knot lit up spontaneously that reminded me of Nick Park and Aardman studios (the meticulous work, the miniature models, the machines, the humorous animated sequence with animals). Does this ring a bell to you by any chance?
(Raphaël looks over to Savitri)
S: That is true, the movie does start off with a 6 minute animation sequence. It does give off a Wallace and Gromit vibe. They were little masterpieces in their own right. That is indeed where I started off because that’s what allowed me to make my first films. You don’t need anyone else and animation allows you to do things on your own, without actors.
R: Savitri made a lot of films on his own before I knew him, and it did revolve around clay animation. Well spotted!
So it’s not just me. The comparison just jumped to mind when I saw that shot with the food machine and the mug.
S: Oh right! Yeah I see what you mean. You’ve got all the mechanics and whatnot…
R: It does have an Aardman feel to it, then again you can also find that kind of thing with Docs’ inventions in Back to the Future.
S: We love that Star Wars-like retro-futuristic look with all the bolts and cables sticking out.
R: If we hit the switch to make the jump to light speed we like it when it doesn’t kick in the first time. It’s not as much fun.
S: It makes it more realistic and interesting to see a place worn down by history with cables and screws rather than an immaculate decorum .
R: With that being said, Kaydara was more of a “youth experience” kind of thing. We’re trying to forget it a little and move on. We’re not ashamed of it but we see it more as a first draft. I usually recommend people watch the making-of which deals with the filmmaking process rather than the movie itself.
Let’s get to your current project : Blood Machines, which is a sequel to your music video to Turbo Killer. How did the music video come about?
R: Well we happened to really dig Carpenter Brut, his music and imagery spoke to us. We got in touch with him to ask for the rights to his music for one of our projects. He looked up our work and he expressed interest in having us direct a music video for him and he later sent us a track he wanted to make a video for. It may sound crazy but if we’re into really something we really go over the edge and blow things out of proportions. Furthermore, there’s no money in music videos, if you want to earn money don’t make music videos. Going completely over the top in our ambitions for a music video was completely absurd and Turbo Killer was a project that made little sense on paper. Production-wise no one would have made it because it would be way too costly, namely in terms of special effects. We had 170 shots of special effects.
S: One shot of special effects can range from 1000 to 5000 euros.
R: So yeah, we figured things would be complicated. Post-production took 6 months. It was a fun experience and Carpenter Brut was really happy with it.
S: It wasn’t just a “job”. If theres’ no money in it and we jump into the project we go all in because we’re going to be investing our time and earn nothing. We do it for ourselves. What little money we got was used for technical specs on the set for actors, cameras, car rental…
R: You can’t cut down or make any compromise on the technical aspect. On the other hand, we knew it would be complicated to build a set or to have a large crew. Thanks to our work on Kaydara we learned tricks on how to operate more quickly. Our philosophy is to bridge the gap between how we work and what we’ve learned while making our “garage movies” and the more “rigid” professional world.
S: You’ve got to pay everyone, limit work to 8 hours a day with a 2 hour lunch break… you can’t get anything done on that model. (laugh).
R: The movie industry has this immaculate outer image of everything being done comfortably. We make some compromises but we keep trying to figure out ways to get things done faster and well done. Turbo Killer would not have been possible under “regulated” standards. It would have costed way too expensive, no one would have been interested in producing it. As soon as you start making something more “artsy”, subversive or lengthy you’re on your own.
And so how did this all evolve into Blood Machines, a project for a 30 minute movie sequel to Carpenter Bruts’ music video?
R: A lot of people asked us the meaning behind various elements from Turbo Killer and what it’s about, it strikes a chord with people and we really like that. We did it with a pretty visceral approach and we like it that way, especially with music videos. To connect things up to Blood Machines, we ended up imagining a whole world and an overall plot. We like to just let our inspiration run free and we had a larger vision beyond Turbo Killer. Some of the references we like to name is Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555, our project will be similar to that in terms of runtime and development although less “music video” based than what they did. Take that and mix it in with Captain EO, Michael Jackson’s music videos and the golden age of Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal comics anthology) and our personnal touch and you get an overall idea. Turbo Killer was successful and we’ve received a lot of comments from people wanting to see a feature-length version. The video did feel like a “clip” taken from a larger piece, and it did indeed fit into a larger work we had thought about. We tested the waters with the video and we saw people’s reception and so we decided to carry on with Blood Machines. We thought about making it in our “garage” but it would take us years. It’s very tricky, even more so than Turbo Killer since the project doesn’t fit in any form of standard and recognised “format”. Turbo Killer stil looked like a modern music video but Blood Machines reaches out into the territory of Michael Jackson music videos like Bad or Thriller. Bad was a real short film in the vein of Taxi Driver. We want to create a real plot with real cinematic elements and dialog along with fully choreographed musical sections that will extend what we had done with Turbo Killer. The format doesn’t fit into any “norm”, making it impossible to produce, and so we figured Kickstarter would be the most logical path for us. The regular film circuit doesn’t produce these kinds of works but there are a lot of people that would be potentially interested in seeing this project come to life. If you want to see it, please help us make it!
The Turbo Killer universe was born from your visual translation of Carpenter Brut’s music. Being that this is a film that further extends this universe with the help of a score by Carpenter Brut, how is the collaborative process going to be like this time around? Are the roles going to be reversed?
R: I’d say that they’re balanced out this time around. For Turbo Killer we had indeed based our work on the music but this time we’re going to be working on the project together. He’s going to be writing the music in collaboration with us.
Did Carpenter contribute to ideas in terms of story or cinematography?
R: Not really. With Turbo Killer it was us that suggested our ideas. We share an instinctive and natural artistic connection with him. We don’t need to say much to each other to understand our ideas, we’re on the same page. We drew our inspiration from some of the illustrations by Førtifem, who does the visuals for his records, and we made our own thing. With Blood Machines and hopefully on our future projects, we want music to play an extremely important part. To be honest we’re big movie score fans but we don’t really like today’s movie scores, they simply serve as background distraction and they’re not really our thing. In the 70s and 80s with composers like Ennio Morricone with Sergio Leone there was a much stronger collaborative process between the movie and its music. On Blood Machines music is not merely an illustration but will be another character in the film. Carpenter Brut loves the project and has been keeping up, lending his feedback. We’re doing things ourselves but we’re giving him this place in the project as a real creative actor. We haven’t started working on the music but we’re talking about it and if all goes well it’s going to be great!
The music will be written around and according to the plot and visuals in that case?
R: In a way, you can say that.
You chose Kickstarter to fund the project for reasons you have mentioned earlier, but would it be fair to assume that it also stems from weariness from larger production companies? Would you have considered the offer had a major producer come your way?
R: We definitely have been always been suspicious. It may sound pretentious but we don’t make movies just for the sake of it. We have a lot of respect for the concept of “art pieces”, which isn’t always easy to keep in the film industry. This is what we aim to keep. You always start out with an “artistic” story concept, then you need to start convincing people to work with you, lay down money… all you’ve got are constraints. You’ve got to explain and sell your project over and over again. We try to protect our projects as much as possible.
Our goal is to make ambitious movies with constrained budgets in order to keep creative control. With that being said, we make our movies in english in order to not remain stuck within our borders, which would limit us on many levels. There is a form of profitability when you make a film, otherwise you just wouldn’t do it.
S: Our strength comes from our ability to make our own films and keep our efficiency in “standard” productions. The challenge is to keep the same efficiency as we have when it’s just the two of us, especially when we’re talking about science-fiction, which is a genre that calls for a specific vision and complex work in the visual effects department. The goal is to convert our duo work into the professional world where everyone gets paid. Our strength is our ability to make a lot of savings thanks to our specifically outlined vision that allows us to work faster and get rid of certain positions (laugh). We’re not job creators but we’re able to find ways to cut down on costs and keep creative control on our film. I think it’s precious ressource and we’re trying to develop this model. We’re way under these numbers but in the US they say that with a budget under 10 million you’re free to do what you want and over 10 million dollars it’s not your movie anymore.
If all goes well, when can we expect to see Blood Machines?
R: We should be aiming for a release date around the end of 2017, so in a year. Once the financing will be over there will most likely be some procedures to complete it. We don’t intend to merely rely on the Kickstarter funding, it’s very ambitious project so if we get the 75 000 euros we’ll have proof that we have a significant audience and it will allow us to access other funding sources. With that being said with the 75 000 euros we’ll still make the film one way or the other in the best way possible, we just want to gain a little more comfort to be able to pull off some the ultimate experience artistically speaking. We’ll have to take some time to find the rest of the funding all the while starting to cast. We can aim to shoot before the summer. Post-production-wise there will be a lot of work but we won’t be handling it alone this time. Like we’ve said before, Blood Machines is this “experimental” project based on a hybridation of our “garage films” and the professional world. We’re meeting up with bigger special effects companies and they’re very much interested in what we do. It’s very interesting and cool to get their feedback, they’re really glad to see that we’ve got a clear vision of what we want because it’s going to save them an incredible amount of time. We included some 3D models Savitri made on the Kickstarter page. We’re able to already hand them material that is likely to end up in the finished product. So with post-production in mind we should be done by the end of 2017 if all goes well.
As a quick side note. What is to become of Ickerman. Your producers were allegedly aiming to shoot during the first half of 2017. Is the movie on standby?
R: Yeah it’s definitely not on standby. I think our producer is always extremely optimistic, a lot more than we are. You need to take these dates with a grain of salt. It’s a very ambitious project. We’ve been working on it for a while and we want to make things right this time. Kaydara was something we had outlined in a few days and worked on for 6 years and we’re aware of how unbalanced it was, we want to make things the right way this time. If we really didn’t care we’d have already started it on our own in our garage. It would be far from done but we’d have a few more developments. Right now we’re just waiting to be ready. It takes a lot of time, some may say too much time, but we’re doing things right. We might be able to work on some concrete things for Ickerman in parallel with Blood Machines, which is totally possible with regards to what we need to do (i.e. previsualizations). Ickerman is a huge project compared to Blood Machines since it is a feature film and it has to go through the regular film circuit. Things are going really well. It’s our main project and for filmmakers like us the feature film is the holy grail. We hope to be have an opportunity to talk more about it. In any case we’re never going to let it go! (laugh)
To finish things off with my trademark closing question: could you each name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
S: For books I’m gonna give a shootout to my friends and say Lastman by Bastien Vivès, Balak and Michaël Sanlaville. I went to art school with these guys. It got made into an ambitious animated TV show cut and even a video game.
In terms of movies I’ll go with The City of Lost Children by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It pretty much sums up the aesthetic, given that even The Matrix drew from it. There’s actually that “Nick Park” look we were talking about earlier with the machines and screws. It’s one of my favorite movies so I’ll go with that one. Also it’s french !
Music-wise I love Philip Glass so I’m going to go with his soundtrack to the Qatsi Trilogy.
R: My answers are going to be more standard. One of my favorite movies is Once upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone, his work speaks to me.
In terms of music it’s going to sound cliché but i’ll have to go with the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis. What’s interesting about that soundtrack is that they thought of the music as part of the sounds, noises and ambiences. You’ve got the voice effects, the ethos… the music just seeps into the films’ sonic universe. They actually included some of the dialog on the tracks of the record. It’s probably one of the best soundtracks of all time with those done by Ennio Morricone.
In terms of books I’m currently reading A Life of Philip K Dick - The Man Who Remembered the Future by Anthony Peake and it’s fascinating!
Once more, we at NewRetroWave cannot urge you enough to check out Turbo Killer, which will clearly and immediately outline every reason why we should help Seth Ickerman break new ground once more with Blood Machines.
Interview conducted and translated by Robin Ono
A huge thank you goes out to Alexis and Seth Ickerman for making this interview possible.