Even though I had issues with the found-footage aspect of Frankenstein’s Army, there’s a great anarchic imagination in the film, and it belongs to director Richard Raaphorst. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Raaphorst the other weekend during the Tribeca Film Festival and was immediately struck by just how thoughtful he was about his creative impulses and influences. One surprise early on in our conversation involved the origins of Frankenstein’s Army, which have their roots in the Fight Club soundtrack.
At the end of the interview, Raaphost teased the possibility of a second Frankenstein’s Army (which I’m not against despite my issues with the first film) as well as two new biological horror projects which sound absolutely bonkers/awesome. Whether his next film involves zombie-robots of the Third Reich or not, I can’t wait to see what comes from Raaphost next.
[This interview was originally posted as part of our 2013 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical and VOD release of Frankenstein’s Army.]
[Editor’s note: some of the responses were altered to avoid spoilers. Thanks to Dave of Unseen Films for the photo of Richard Raaphorst after a screening. Concept art from Raaphorst’s new projects are from his website, richardraaphorst.com.]
Can you talk about where the initial idea for Frankenstein’s Army came from?
If you think back, it’s very hard to understand where an idea comes from because most of the time an idea comes to you. Because you don’t expect it. An idea is popping up emotionally out of nowhere. It’s like how a neutrino becomes an electron — there’s no reason why it’s happening.
Ideas sort of like weird scientific phenomenon.
Well, it started with an emotion, really. Very abstract. I think 10 years ago — I’m a big soundtrack collector — and I bought the soundtrack for Fight Club and there was this intro song, and maybe you can recall it. It was very violent, very mechanical: DZZZGH! DZZZGH! DZZZGH! And it was very staccato. [Editor’s note: It’s “Stealing Fat” by The Dust Brothers, and it’s the embedded video above.] When I played it over and over again, I got this feeling of these mechanical claws, ones that are very rusty and with layers of history. I didn’t have a context or whatever, I just knew I wanted to do something with robotic arms made in a clumsy, old-fashioned way.
And that was chasing me all the time until I suddenly saw the context for what the story should be. It had many different identities until I realized that I wanted to make an army of Frankensteins, basically. That was my wish — I analyzed my own wish. And then I thought, “Why not make Frankenstein’s Army?”
I’m kind of… not really obsessed but fascinated with the Second World War, and so I wanted to do two things. I thought, “How can I combine this?” And I thought, “It’s uncombinable,” however you say it, so just do it!
Because it’s illogical. And that’s cool, you know? I’m going to do something which is in fact totally illogical and make the unbelievable believable. That’s what I wanted to do.
You mentioned being a soundtrack collector. Are there any personal favorites, or did other soundtracks inform Frankenstein’s Army?
Yes. There’s a lot of stuff from — well, it’s not really soundtracks but it can be soundtracks — it’s from Jim Thirlwell. He’s from Australia and lives now in England, and he makes really dark soundtracks, but they don’t belong to a film.
Interesting. [Editor’s note: Thirlwell is probably best known for his work with Coil and Foetus, and also for scoring The Venture Bros.]
Do you know what it is about soundtracks? I have a theory about it. Do you have time?
Certainly. Please, yeah.
It’s like paintings. If you paint a landscape, then the landscape is inviting the viewer to step into this world, right? To experience the atmosphere. I’m very into watching atmospheres. As soon as you paint a face or a person in it, the painting doesn’t invite you anymore because the focus is entirely going to the main subject.
The same thing with soundtracks. Soundtracks are inviting you, they’re challenging your imagination. You are really swimming into the music rather than singing along with the lyrics. Do you understand this difference?
Yeah. There’s like this feeling rather than words or a specific image.
You create a cloud around you with an atmosphere and that is feeling, that’s how it works with me. So basically soundtracks, audio, is the core of inspiration, even the core of those visual ideas in Frankenstein’s Army. It all starts with an emotion. Even now when I start to draw, I first try to set down a soundtrack or a tone in a soundtrack. Like Philip Glass in Koyaanisqatsi, there’s a second track called “Organic.” It only starts with one tone, and that one tone for me is focus. It’s an emotion, and everything you can build off of it.
That’s actually and interesting theory, though. It makes sense. If everything starts with an emotion then all of a sudden everything can be tethered to that initial tone that goes through.
And now that I think further, I think I try to create this line also in this movie because it’s first person. There’s not really a protagonist. The protagonist is the viewer, so it’s the same with soundtracks: you have to fill it in yourself. You are the one that is not getting answers but is asking the questions, yeah? You are the one who’s responsible for what’s good and bad. I’m not in charge to say that, so in that way I leave a lot open and I leave a lot of it up to imagination. I don’t know, it’s just that I want to invite.[a beat] You know, the thing with soundtracks is that it’s also thin ice because people always look for the things that are missing. They say, “Hey, there are no drums! There’s no vocal! There’s no lyrics! How can it be music?” It’s the same with any other thing which is new. First they look at the things they are missing, and then later when it’s been approved, they invent a new genre [label], and then it’s suddenly accepted. Once there’s a label, you know.
Sort of like– Yeah, the labeling. Once it’s become identifiable it winds up–
It needs a stamp. And I think I need a stamp as well on this one.
I don’t have a name for it yet. It’s a fusion of many things and it’s hard to define which one it is because it’s many. And now at the moment I’ll call it horror-fusion or fantasy-fusion. It’s a mixture with a little of everything.
Amid the mixture there’s the found footage aspect. Could you talk about your decision to make this the found footage of a Russian propaganda movie, or really a kind of war document on a mad scientist?
I took it a little broad, you know? I didn’t do it too literally, but I wanted to create a bridge between film and role-playing/first-person perspective gaming. What I said earlier was that I wanted to make the viewer part of the bad guys or the good guys — the soldiers. I thought, “It’s nice if it really comes close to us, and it’s us to decide if [what happens] is good or bad.” It’s so easy to make a judgment from a helicopter’s point of view, and that’s not how it is in life.
It’s down in there.
We can never pull ourselves above our heads and look around. We are in it, and that’s it. So I wanted it to get a kind of intensity, and I thought intensity and atmosphere were more important than building a character from A to Z, and we can say, “Okay, this is a nice character,” this is the first act and this is how it develops. We are so used to this grammatical form of movie watching that it becomes very predictable.
The pattern, yeah.
And that’s what I don’t like. I don’t like being predictable, you know, because it’s boring. [laughs]
[laughs] I really dug Frankenstein’s army itself. Can you talk about creating the individual creatures?
Before creating you have to create limits first, or else you can create anything and then it becomes boring again. Things become farfetched. So what I did, I made limitations. I call this an oblique strategy, so you take something from outside with which you can control your creativity. What I did, I got very close to the scriptwriter. He made his own monsters, and I’m going to do literally what he’s saying but then in my own way. So he says, “I’ve got here a zombot with four arms.” And when it was designed it looked like shit.
What did it–
It looks weird. [Editor’s note: At this point we both put our arms up at our sides and waved them around at each other.] You know?
And I was wrestling with it over and over and over again until I decided that it could walk on four arms. [The description] doesn’t say it has to have legs. And so, you know, it became the mosquito guy.
Which is such a striking image.
Which is totally different from the initial robot guy with four arms. So this was really working for me, because it brought me further than my own imagination. This is how I work. I always like to listen to other people’s briefs and take it and do my own thing with it. Because if everything needs to come out of your own head, the ideas will be pretty empty pretty quick, you know?
For me it was like a nice play through, yeah.
Do you have a favorite zombot?
Totally. It’s the little walking trash bin.
Oh, that guy’s awesome! [laughs]
Yeah! I thought, “I want to reduce someone to the bare minimum,” you know? Just a walking trash bin with legs. And it’s very unclear what it can do.
Exactly. It’s just this weird presence which shows a madness, but I was always trying to figure what his purpose would be. Like, “Is he just an ottoman?”
There’s a melody line in it, in the designs, because what I did was start organic and I ended robotic. So I started as human I can do, without any attachments. Even when they’re completely naked, the beginning. Then you see a variation with clothes on. And then it goes further and further and further until propeller head. He’s the most extreme one, and you cannot top yourself anymore, so then you have to go into a different kind of atmosphere.
So if you look at the traditional three-act structure, it isn’t there, but I used different arcs, like spiraling down in visual madness, which is overtaken, and then suddenly the whole found footage idea becomes a one-take steady shot, and everything takes place in front [of the camera] like theater. Which is the opposite of the beginning. My approach was totally different from the traditional way, but I think there’s no other way for me.
Was there a particularly difficult sequence to stage? Was there a very difficult–
Everything was extremely difficult.
Everything in the interiors because the takes were so long and everything was practical, it was absolutely undoable. I mean, of course it was doable because we prepared so well, but we could only afford four takes at the maximum. We had 20 days of shooting.
So it’s go-go-go.
It was like a military operation, and no one was allowed to make mistakes. But it was great fun. I became the bigger me. [laughs]
[laughs] Could you explain?
You realize that you are capable of doing things that you are not aware about. It’s you pushing the bar so high that the only way to get there is to force yourself to grow, and it matters for everyone there. It was, “This is the plan and we’re going to do it, no matter what.” And there’s zero tolerance, and there was also this energy that was very addictive with everyone. And yeah, I think it worked very well. We did everything we planned to do. No pages were torn out.
I would have assumed with a short shoot like that you’d eventually go, “What don’t we need?” But you kept everything.
And we did even something extra sometimes.
What was one of the add-ons?
Well, we thought we needed another zombot in the factory sequence. There’s an industrial American thing standing in the corner. We need just an extra detail, you know? Everything is in the details. That’s where I wanted to have it detailed as possible, and sometimes we are running out of details so we created some more. There were some fighting scenes we added, and the zombot with the exploding eye.
That was extra. Just a few hours preparation and we just did it. It’s quite amazing, but of course, last day we were totally zombots ourselves. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, you guys were probably mostly machines.
I really admire the use of practical effects. Do you have any thoughts about CG?
Yeah, of course. I do a lot of CG in commercials, but only when it’s not visible, because I think it’s misused a lot. Nowadays, every nice shot looks like a postcard: beautiful clouds, the perfect sky, you know? It’s like a painter is making all the shots, and I don’t like that at all. I like eye candy myself a lot, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be painted [and look] dead. Practical effects feel physical even when it’s with foam and it’s puppety, it’s real-made.
There’s a presence.
Yeah, and digital is out of computer and it doesn’t have any charm. And I wanted to make a character movie. Every zombot needed to be a character and also I thought for the soldiers it was important to distinguish themselves from each other, but also I wanted the location to be a character, and each room needed to be a character, and also the movie itself needed to be a character. So there’s no way for CG. If I would add CGI it would be characterless. It’s the difference between an oil painting and an airbrush.
Or a Photoshop. It looks even more perfect, but you don’t have texture. Texture is what gives you charm, that’s what I believe anyway. I can only speak for myself.
On the note of texture, I guess, or charm, one of the moments of film I liked so much involved the scene with the brains toward the end with Frankenstein himself. It’s such a kooky, mad idea, but maybe it’s also utopian in a warped way. [laughs]
It was one of the– The most difficult thing of this movie was trying to define the character of Frankenstein, because I didn’t want to do anything that was the same as we’ve known him. Everybody who was thinking of Frankenstein saw this distinguished gentleman.
Like Peter Cushing in a Hammer Movie.
And I was constantly hammering that this was not the case. I only got people [auditioning] who were fitting into this Peter Cushing kind of stuff until I met Karel Roden, and then suddenly I realized, “You are the guy. You are so out of the box.” He has this mysterious aspect. It’s the same thing that you cannot really define who he was, and this is what made him very interesting.
But also he was so critical of why Frankenstein is doing the things that he does. And he’s just a guy who wants to end the war, but he’s a very simple guy. His father did all the science, so he doesn’t need to be intellectual or smart.
He like a mechanic almost.
It’s like a car factory worker!
Or a plumber. “Oh, this works. Next!” And it was more like that, and I thought, “Now that’s a Frankenstein I never have seen.” And you know, I don’t really want to make it too serious, I want to entertain. I thought, “You know, it starts maybe a bit serious, but then we can add more and more humor, and I think it worked out pretty well. When you see too many monsters, they will be boring, so I needed to boost up just a real human being.
Who himself is just fascinating to see on camera.
But you know, when you hear him talking, he’s even crazier than the craziest zombot. There’s another twist. And… [a beat] Oh you were talking about Frankenstein and the brain. We had this back and forth about what he wants.
He wants to end the war.
He wants to make the sides understand each other.
And that’s how the brain came about! [laughs] It’s brilliant!
[laughs] It’s like a mechanic who doesn’t know anything about neurology going, “Yeah, why not?”
But it’s the heart of things… or it’s the brain of things.
I wanted to have this like a pictogram, just as a symbol almost. This was a shot that was not in the script at first, but created it in two weeks before wrap. The special effects guy, he said, “I don’t have any budget anymore!” He used everything he had. But we found a way to make it work by re-using old material.
Repurposing old brains! Nice!
But that’s the Frankenstein way of thinking again.
Not only did you create zombots but–
We tried to use everything. It’s an extra shot, but it’s my favorite shot.
It’s the moment in the movie where everything about Frankenstein kind of makes sense. It’s like, “Ah, that’s why he’s doing it… Oh god, that’s why he’s doing it?”
And how he’s doing it is like– Obvious almost. [laughs]
[laughs] What’s next for you? Any projects down the pipeline?
I’m developing two scripts very seriously and I’m going to shoot two trailers for both projects, and I’m going to the market at the end of this year. Also I’m very open-minded to do a sequel to Frankenstein’s Army.
There’s a lot of potential there.
As a matter of fact, we have an outline already, and it’s… Well, I cannot say anything but I can’t wait too break it out. I have keep myself, or I have to control myself not to work it out too early. [laughs]
Can you say anything about the other two scripts you’re working on?
Ummm… They’re both biological horror. And one of them is more science fiction and it’s about the Higgs boson.
And the other one is based on Dutch legends in which there are children who are buried in the soil. They come back. Their hands grow above the surface, and the hands are in the shape of mushrooms begging for mercy. And when you eat those mushrooms, those kids are going to haunt your head.
That sounds incredible! [laughs][laughs] And the Higgs boson is about the discovery of the Higgs. Do you know what the Higgs is?
I’m not familiar.
They call it the God particle.
They discovered it in Geneva in the CERN. The particle has no mass but it’s… Okay, the Higgs boson goes like this. [Editor’s note: Raaphorst demonstrated a path with his finger traveling through a Coke can on the table.] And it goes slow, slow, slow, and because it’s going slow here that this can materializes.
So [the characters in the film] fuck up the Higgs boson, so you can imagine what will happen with a Coke can like this, but also human beings!
That sounds awesome! Both of them sound awesome. [laughs][laughs] So I’m making designs right now, and I want to try to be as original as H.R. Giger in Alien.