It’s been no small frustration for feature animation fans that, in a year which saw radical leaps and bounds for the form, from the French horror compilation Fear(s) of the Dark to the Israeli war memoir Waltz With Bashir, the Animated Feature Film Oscar went to the Pixar-produced, kid-friendly WALL-E, with its toy-tie-in ready robots. And the runners-up were the talking-animal movies Bolt and Kung Fu Panda.
Back in January, before the nominations were announced, there seemed a very real chance that some truly groundbreaking films might have a shot, among them Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, a stop-motion feature based on the short stories of Israeli writer Etgar Keret. Keret, whose work has previously been adapted into such movies as Wristcutters: A Love Story and Jellyfish (the latter co-directed by Keret and his wife, Shira Geffen), had been impressed with Rosenthal’s animated adaptation of some of his work while she was still a student at NYU.
Mistakenly referred to by many as a work of “claymation,” $9.99 (which was released for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles last December and reopens locally next week) actually features puppets made of silicone, occasionally augmented with CG.
Made over the course of 10 years, with a budget of less than $5 million and a skeleton crew, $9.99 was not the easiest pitch in the world to sell. A series of wry vignettes set in and around a single apartment block — a homeless man kills himself and returns as a cantankerous angel; a boy saving up to buy a toy can’t bear to smash his piggy bank; an irresponsible boyfriend is consoled by pint-sized stoners; a 20-something who lives with his dad buys a mail-order book that promises the secrets of life — all done with puppets, isn’t really comparable to anything else.
“We used to say it’s like Altman’s Short Cuts, only with puppets,” says Rosenthal, whose day job is working as an animator for Nickelodeon, “and when we were trying to finance it in the U.S., we were told that the film had to get made for less than $1 million, or else it’s not economical to make it; it’s too risky, it’s a niche film, all that stuff.”
The project finally came together when Australian producer Emile Sherman, also a Keret fan, contacted the author, who in turn pitched the script he had developed with Rosenthal. Sherman was anxious to make the film an Australian-Israeli co-production, which meant throwing out some initial footage that Rosenthal had shot to help pitch the project, including a version of the film’s opening scene, which featured the voices of actors Philip Baker Hall and Tom Noonan. “We actually recorded their parts for the entire feature,” says the director, “and once we went the Israeli-Australian coproduction route, we were not allowed to use American actors anymore, and we had to redo their entire performances.”
Not that the final cast is anything to complain about — Sherman assembled an all-star Australian ensemble that includes Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, Claudia Karvan, Leeanna Walsman and Joel Edgerton. Rosenthal suspects that a big plus was the fact that “the time commitment for actors was not very big — one day or two days, three days maximum. Everybody said yes!”
Asked if audiences have resisted the idea of such an unconventional animated film, she says, “The biggest criticism from people who find it not to their taste [is that they] think that the script is such an adult drama, it should have been done live action.” But, Rosenthal adds ,“it’s a better film in stop motion, because there are fantastical elements, and there’s a certain level of conceptualism or symbolism in the characters, in the behavior and conflict, and putting everything in one world that is a little bit fantastical and has its own rules makes the piece more cohesive.”
Indeed, upon hearing the synopsis for $9.99, one might wonder: How do you layer a story about a boy who doesn’t want to break his piggy bank with a far more twisted tale about a man who removes his bones to become a living beanbag chair for his supermodel girlfriend? But Rosenthal sees no conflict, saying, “I think Etgar’s stories all have a dark undertone to them … I mean, that dad [in the piggy bank story] is so oblivious to his child’s needs, and there’s such obtuseness in the story that [it] lends itself to a dark interpretation, and I think melancholy pervades the film. There’s humor, but it’s just this bittersweet mix that organically happened.”