Chris Sullivan’s experimental short films and theater pieces often begin like the setup for a dark joke: an alcoholic journalist driving a school bus hits a wayward nun and leaves her in the woods to die; a deranged psychiatrist presents a new form of Aggression Therapy ©, designed to send the client through a nervous breakdown and into an emotional breakthrough. The resulting stories, told mainly through dialogue full of quick turns, absurd gestures, and subtle comic asides, swing abruptly from surreal comedy to vulnerable, heart-stopping examinations of emotional pain.
My first exposure to his groundbreaking experimental short films and theater pieces was the 2010 one-man show Mark the Encounter. I was immediately struck by the timing and buoyancy of his complex storytelling, as Sullivan swept the audience through an expressionistic monologue-based passion play as he morphed characters, transforming : from a vulnerable anti-hero feigning grief over his brother’s death to the aforementioned unhinged psychiatrist Daphne Richards, with Sullivan in deadpan drag, to a slick doctor condescendingly explaining an increasingly impossible fatal medical condition involving a “homuncluous” (which turns out to be a Peruvian mountain man setting up camp inside the client’s heart).
Since 2010, Sullivan—a professor of film, video, and new media at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago— has presented the longer theater piece Aggression Therapy along with The Outer Giants and Their Moon, an understated two-person actor play about romantic heartbreak aboard a space station. He’s also continued to produce short animations along with satirical essays and videos that skewer art-world affectations. For the past 15 years, he’s also been quietly on the film that is his most ambitious work to date: Consuming Spirits, a two-hour plus epic feature that combines found images, stop-animation, and multiple hand-drawn and tabletop animation processes.
Consuming Spirits tells an intertwined family saga of characters both utterly grotesque and endlessly loveable, thanks to Sullivan’s dark humor and palpable empathy for outsiders. As with much of Sullivan’s work, the plot is profoundly convoluted and complicated by visual jokes and shifts in tone, character, time, and space. In a generic Appalachian or /rust belt town, an intricate web of characters search, in different ways—whether alcohol, absolution, or simply running away—for transcendence from the banality and mystery of human relationships. It takes most of the film, and many flashbacks, to figure out the basis for many of the characters’ connections, but by the time the narrative comes together in a metaphysical police-room confessional scene, Sullivan has explored and shown new light on themes that are often the stuff of cliché: disappointments in love, the endless permutations of ways our families can damage us, and the particularities of the American soul.
The widespread attention Sullivan has already received for Consuming Spirits has included a Creative Capital grant, which will go toward work on his second animated feature. After earning raves at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival in his hometown, Consuming Spirits opens this Friday for a run at Film Forum. I sat down with Sullivan to talk about the epic timespan of its creation, empathy and humor, choosing mediums for storytelling, and why people hate animation.
Monica Westin You’ve said that the inspiration for the film came from a single imaged of a mummified shaman. How did you move from this image to the finished piece fifteen years later? What was the writing process like?
Chris Sullivan I knew I was interested in the image of Northwest Passage explorer John Torrington’s mummified coffin. I was interested in the idea that when you die prematurely you tend to be preserved in a more positive tone, and if you live out your old age, you tend to get more of a mixed review… Another related inspiration was the shaman exhibit in the Field Museum in Chicago, which is more or less the text that’s in front of the shaman in Consuming Spirits. The explanatory text is really a glorified description of bad behavior; I am continually interested in the ways that people somehow accept bad behavior…. How do you take this remnant of a person and how do you choose to memorialize them, especially from a psychological perspective? I don’t think my film tackles every thread of that question, but that’s kind of the point.
As far as the writing process, I wrote the whole script first, or rather a forty-minute version with different chunks laid out. That’s how my new film is, too, with individual scenes laid out that will eventually fit together somewhere. Usually once I had it down, the improvisation was only in terms of someone saying something like a “yeah” instead of a “yes.” We did the lines with people sitting around the table. We did several takes, and usually the early takes were the best, before people got self-conscious. A lot of the voices really helped the writing through embodying the different characters.
The project has obviously changed a lot as it’s evolved. There are some things I wrote in the first few months, fifteen years ago, that have stayed there, but then there are also some things that emerged a few months ago. One major difference is that the first year I was making it, there was going to be a lot more kind of hard-boiled tropes, lots more detective-y stuff, in which this moment of finding a body was going to be the pinnacle of the film, but then other things started to rise up, and they became more interesting to me. The idea of a short film was not interesting me anymore, and I really wanted to be able to let things unfold in a way that I couldn’t do in performance.
MW I’d like to hear more about that. As someone who’s most familiar with your live performance pieces to date, and given the different styles of animation in Consuming Spirits, I’m interested in knowing how you think about using different mediums in your work.
CS An interesting example that might start to answer this question is in the campfire scene in the piece, in which one of the characters makes a subjective turn towards the camera to address the audience.
That move is only weird in film, not on stage, where it happens all the time. That campfire scene is the only scene where I’m not using a filmic trope to allow for this: a confession, an interview, some sort of imbalance of conversation to create the writing potential of monologue. It’s something I think about—for example, maybe in the next film I make I should just not create the tropes at all, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that.
MW Breaking these conventions like turning to the camera can be really funny, like when David Byrne does it in True Stories—
CS Right, and you can pinpoint examples, like the watch scene in Pulp Fiction. A lot of the humor comes just because Bruce Willis is talking to the camera. But it also happens in terms of the language. In film you have to create something that normalizes and suspends the disbelief of writing that moment, and sometimes it doesn’t work. It’s kind of interesting. You have to create a mechanism for this thing you can just do in theater. And I think that it’s something that’s being challenged a little bit because people are now playing with things like home video or reality TV tropes. But it’s still pretty solid; people want film to be in third person. If someone starts to fly into a soliloquy people are like, “What the fuck is going on?”
Film is also hard in that people can read really fucked-up writing and think, “This is really difficult, but I’m going to keep going”; but people don’t get the same narrative outrage they might in a difficult film. Theater is somewhere in the middle, I think.
MW And animation in particular?
CS I’m treated a little differently because I do animation. I try not to let that happen, like when people emphasize the film as “handmade by a single person,” almost in a remedial way. Having Consuming Spirits show primarily with live-action films in festivals so far has been a real benefit. It’s only been shown once in an animated festival. The expectations of animation are always somehow that it’s going to be for kids, so when film starts to be this dark parable… people tell me they were really surprised when they stopped noticing that it was handmade.
MW That reminds me of the comment Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth as they’re making The Five Obstructions—they both say several times, “I hate cartoons!”
CS Hah, did I tell you this before? When I teach my animation class at SAIC I start with that. I love when von Trier says about the cartoon, “I want it to be a turtle on its back… it’s not going to be anything but shit.”
Animation is one of those forms where you think you hate it because you think you know what it is, that it’s facile or something like that. There’s a mythology about it, and then of course there’s only a small section of the population that wants to go into a situation and be surprised.
I’ve talked in other interviews about using specific styles and techniques for specific intents. For example, the line drawings are so simple, and when the figures are drawn from far away, that can be very powerful for people.
MW The humor of Consuming Spirits is partially what keeps the audience invested, through a film that’s often very, very sad, and in your theater pieces as well. You’ve mentioned that Joe Frank is an influence, which makes sense to me. How do you keep the humor from shutting down the bigger themes, when so often humor can be used to keep audiences from feeling things?
CS This is the first film that I’ve really let myself use humor in. Partly I was trying to get people to think about the fact that within these clever moments, there is an understanding of that humor and what it’s serving. It’s interesting to try to weave those things together, and what people will need when they feel certain ways. When Victor gets demoted from journalist to paperboy in the film, that used to be somewhere else. But because it now comes in after a very dark part of the film, it seems funnier to people than maybe it is… I’m so stingy with certain kinds of comfort. I didn’t let the main characters get a good kiss in before they’re interrupted. So this is one way to give the audience some comfort, maybe.
MW Does letting your characters kiss, or hug, or connect in easy ways, somehow feel cheap?
CS Many people say this film feels profoundly sad. But that might say something about the way I think. I think the film just ends as it’s kind of the end of that day, not that people aren’t going to see each other again or get another chance. Any film has a certain kind of narrative closure that’s about film, and so perhaps it’s asking too much to have people project that the end isn’t the complete closing of where everything lies right now. But, on the other hand, I also appreciate that as a viewer, and something that I think about when I get doubtful about my work. I like to be left with a bittersweet taste when I watch films, so that’s OK if it’s what I do, but I do think I could have things end more warmly at times. But then again I kind of think, “Is that what I expect?” One of my very favorite films is John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, which ends abruptly and with no resolution, this film also has a similar difficult narrative turning point that I used as a model for how my narrative unfolds in Consuming Spirits.
MW This is where my question about empathy in Consuming Spirits comes in. Despite doing a lot of terrible things, every single character has an unshakable ethos that is totally absent in the performances… I’m thinking about the delicious loathsomeness of Dr. Daphne Richards.
CS I’m definitely interested in this idea of how characters run differently in different medium. In the performances, all my characters are cut off…. Sometimes I do ask myself, “What good does this film do? Is it another condemnation of humankind?” And I hope that it isn’t. At one screening, someone asked me what the film about. I said it is about this idea that we’re all miracle workers and monsters, and I wanted to show that in these people.
One thing I don’t always share with people is that I do understand the crime of hit and run [the opening scene in Consuming Spirits. I’ve never done it myself, and I do know if someone did it to my child it would be very hard, but I do understand you hit someone with a car they’re dead, and you want to get out of there. You didn’t do something bad necessarily. So you’re empathizing with something that is totally horrible yet completely understandable.
MW These are also characters who would never go to therapy, a major focus of your other work… They remain totally nonchalant with one another and almost never get angry at one another.
CS Yeah, that’s definitely something I’m really thinking about, and I’m glad you had that perception. Someone just said to me, “This Victor guy is such an asshole,” and I disagree. I think he’s miraculously repressed in order to protect himself. I do think the question of people who are visible, people who are in control of their lives in a way, is underexplored. It’s all that stuff about class, wealth, and education we don’t talk about. We—you and I— have a certain criticality in our understanding of ourselves that makes us say, “Man, I’m fucked up, I’ve gotta go to therapy.” But that’s a small spectrum of human experience. I also hope I’m not being overly romantic about that. So the characters in my performances—I think they are more a persona of an inner critical figure who’s perhaps haunted by the realization of their repression or the mechanisms that they use. I think in the scene in Mark the Encounter where the guy calls his brother’s widow pretending to be crying—I don’t do that, but when I’m fighting with my partner I’m aware that the fact that I’m crying is going to have leverage.
MW Family is the linchpin of the film in a lot of ways. There’s a monologue I don’t want to spoil, but it involves the metaphor of taming a deer through wounding it that reminds me so much of what you once called “love misfiring” or how bad we are at expressing love within families.
CS The wounded deer metaphor for love is definitely central, and it’s partly in connection to the shaman motif. But the deer is also an animal that hardly ever dies of old age. It either gets shot, hit by a car, or freezes to death, and that’s basically it. But also the idea is that until that moment, there’s just the moment, so in the narrative of their life, they’re blindsided by demise. I think partly the idea is that we are blindsided by the things in our lives that end up shaping us, and also this notion that they are kind of invisible, in the wild.
This is kind of an aside, but deer being in the city has only happened in the last twenty years. It’s really weird. You never heard someone say, “There was a deer in my backyard” in the 60’s or 70s’. It’s something that I think is an evolutionary occurrence, where the deer just said one day, “I think we can just do this.” Some people say it’s encroachment on habitat. I think it’s actually like, “Oh, I think I can just go over there and eat the grass over there.” The idea that Earl is also recognizing this deer in the film as his enemy eating his garden, when it’s just going to get something to eat, is interesting to me.
Partly this is autobiographical. I grew up in a very weird area that has changed a bit now. My hometown Pittsburgh, which Consuming Spirits is based on, has mountainsides that are all woods right in the middle of the city. So when I was growing up I was living in this city, but I was surrounded by these woods all the time, and it provided a protection, which is something that I find ironic. In horror movies people are always in the woods, but the woods was where I felt safe after being in elementary school. If you look at a picture of, like, Wheeling, West Virginia that’s a good model for the size of the town I have in mind. In the film I did want a kind of place that you could run away from and eventually be out of a city, and that sense that nature is still on the border of—in some ways almost challenging the dominion of people, which doesn’t feel like it happens in the city very often.
MW The whole film feels like it’s on that borderland.
CS That’s another thing about animation; there are things you can do in terms of landscape with animation that are hard to do with film, and that’s one of the things I want to explore in the next film.
MW What else will you explore? Are there things you won’t touch because you’ve done them here in Consuming Spirits? Will you do tabletop animation ever again?
CS With the new film, The Orbit of Minor Satellites, I want it to have a similar weight, but I do want it to do some things differently. I think mainly I would actually like to have some more even relationships, but also some relationships that are more fulfilled. There’s a sense I have that longing, which is central to Consuming Spirits, can also be an easy way out— in terms of these characters never getting to see each other so they never have to deal with the aftermath or the petit mort of having to get past certain moments. I want to go past this place of longing to a place of acceptance.
I would say that I want to work with a full cinematic spectrum, which was difficult to do with cutouts, though I don’t feel disappointed. I want to take advantage of the limitations that I have. There are people who asked, “Why did you have to animate Consuming Spirits? Why didn’t you have actors?” And I don’t have a complete argument for that.
I also want the next film to be less language-dependent. I don’t mean it’s going to be a silent film, but to give you an idea: I just did the subtitles for consuming spirits, and there are 2,200 of them. That is a Lot. So I think that visuals, non-language -based visuals, function like humor in terms of giving plateaus, but it can also be a different kind of plateau, a more contemplative plateau, and I want to do some more of that. And it’s all going to be drawn. There might be live action in it, but I’d have to do some tests to figure that out.
Right now there are tangents from both Aggression Therapy and The Outer Giant and Their Moon. The idea would be these two different worlds colliding, so there’s the hermetic doctor’s office and the hermetic space station. One of the themes would be the notion that strangers don’t have as much of an effect on your life as you would like, and your life is really shaped in rooms with usually one person. People always sense that the outside world is somehow going to upend all this stuff I have, but it’s probably the people around you who are probably going to be responsible for you feeling disappointed or left out. I’m just on the edge of deciding whether I’m going to use that structure, and use a lot of things that happened in there, or whether I’m going to go completely green on it… so I’ll see.
I hope to continue the dual endeavors of performance and film, as I believe there are things that can only happen on a stage, as well as things that can only happen in the cinema. I have no interest in internet formats. Assembly is something I love about the human condition and intend to present my work in public settings, with a collection of people experiencing the work, and each other’s presence.
Oh, and I’m not going to have someone push a cart full of stuff, which I did in the last four films I’ve made, and I just realized it.
MW That metaphor of carrying around things gets taken up all the time by literary theorists as a model language—the burden of having to represent yourself with all these symbols. Is that how you see writing, or animation?
CS Well, it’s the idea that you have junk. You have this stuff to dispose of or that you must move…This might be only partially related, but I have these whaling songs, these sea shanties that I’ve been working on for the new film. And one of the things I love about sea shanties is that they’re all about people doing something for years and years and they come back and they have squat. And you’re like, “Oh boy I’d never do that—oh wait.” It’s what I do all the time; I give my life to this stuff, but that’s what everyone does. But because it’s on a boat chasing whales it’s different… the counterpoint to a cart full of stuff.
So writing… when I was a sophomore in college at Carnegie Mellon I took a poetry and an animation class. In both those classes people were like, “OK, you can really do this.” With animation, I liked its concrete focus and temporality. I did paintings and sculptures and things like that, but I always had a wishy-washy relationship with static art. I know if I hadn’t decided to transfer, I may have gone in the direction of writing. I meet people who knew since they were twelve that they were going to be animators, and I never had that sense at all. I sometimes feel really trapped by being an animator…. Sometimes when drawing I feel an impatience about it; sometimes I can really enjoy it, and other times it just feels like I’m going to be working on this one thing for the rest of the day, and then the day is gone.
MW Writing can definitely be like that—
CS It is, but not in the same way… with writing, you’re often working at the pace that you’re thinking. When you’re drawing, you are drawing a one-second thought or a five second thought. Your mind’s like, “Come on,” but you have to do something like draw a shirt. And perhaps that’s one thing that attracts me to live action… But there are times when I feel completely tied to it. Your things define you. There are the skills you have, and then you end up doing that thing. I thing life is for more accidental than we propose that it is.