The new film Ruben Brandt, Collector is an unusual spin on the heist thriller: a movie about stealing famous paintings, rendered in the styles of different art movements.
The Hungarian animated feature centers on Ruben Brandt, a psychologist specializing in “artistic therapy” whose clients are a cadre of hackers, disguise experts and thieves coping with their addiction to crime. But when 3 famous paintings haunt Ruben’s dreams, he instead enlists his patients to help him steal the works to “conquer” them and put his mind at ease.
No other film looks quite like Ruben Brandt, Collector. To learn more about its conception and creation, Polygon spoke to director Milorad Krstic about the film.
Polygon: Did you want to make a film about art, and found that the heist genre naturally fit with this, or was it the other way around?
Milorad Krstic: I’m a painter, first and foremost, and I wanted to make a film about paintings. I knew that must be packed into the proper story, something audiences would follow for an hour and a half. A crime story was good for that. Having Ruben Brandt — his name’s a combination of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn — rob the most famous museums and galleries in the world was a good framework for this. But I also wanted this third element of psychology. Ruben does not steal for the money or the prestige, but because of his nightmares. The crime, the psychology, and the art, these are the three pillars of the film.
Ruben’s nightmares, and thus the heists, are focused on 13 real paintings from a variety of time periods and styles. What spurred you to structure the film this way?
I didn’t want Ruben to be haunted by some generic zombies or monsters. Goya or Hieronymus Bosch, for example, painted so many horrible creatures, but that wasn’t what I was interested in seeing. I wanted beautiful, innocent creatures and human beings, and then to dramatically reimagine them as something sinister.
How did you choose which paintings to incorporate?
Sometimes I was inspired by the paintings themselves, and built scenes around them. For example, Botticelli’s Venus is this beautiful girl, and I thought it could be a fantastic turnover if she became monstrous, her long hair reaching out like an octopus. In a similar way, Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, Elvis drawing a gun, provoked me to write a nightmare built around a duel.
Other times I had a specific kind of scene in mind, and had to find an appropriate painting that would work for that. In one dream, a little girl tries to pull Ruben out of a train compartment. I had to figure out who the girl would be. For some reason, I got it into my mind that it should be a princess. So I settled on Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress by Diego Velázquez.
Besides fine art, what other influences were there on the film?
I wasn’t thinking too much about existing cartoons or crime films. I thought of it mainly as a feature in animation form. There are film references, though. The whole reason there is a heist at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is to do an homage to Eisenstein’s October. A character walks up the stairs, and it’s the same location as a scene from October, the same action, shot with the same camera angles.
There’s a lot of obvious artistic influences in the look of the movie. What styles did you draw from?
My favorites are Dada, the Surrealists, German Expressionists, and Pop Art. The character designs use a lot of Cubist and Dadaist inspiration. And I wanted to put them all together in the movie’s finale, which is why it’s in Tokyo, at this international Pop Art exhibition. I enjoyed recreating or remixing Roy Lichtenstein and other Pop artists in my own way.
What sort of process did you use to plot the film? Was it scripting first, or storyboarding, or a combination of both?
I didn’t separate writing, dialogue, and images. I can’t just write some text and then illustrate it. I start with the drawings. I start with making several comics, you know? I take the story as these little scenes, 20 seconds at a time. And then it goes on like that. If I put together one good scene, now I need a view of the landscape or whatever, and then will come the next idea. I think and write in pictures the best, not in sentences.
So I’m working with the animators on the storyboards and animatics. In the full animatic, you have an outline of the whole film, from beginning to end. The finished dialogue, sound, and music comes later, but with this we can tell whether the rhythm is good or not. That’s where you cut or change scenes, not later. Animation is very, very expensive, after all.
This story literalizes the whole idea of art having power over someone, with Ruben driven by his fixation on these paintings.
For me, it’s more about sharing my love of art with younger generations. Thinking of them, it would be boring to speak like a critic about art, to just show the museums. People who enjoy some good action, thriller movies, this can help them take in the art. The film could technically be about something else, anything could have this hold over Ruben. But I just wanted to consecrate my own love of fine art.
Ruben Brandt, Collector is now playing in select theaters.