By Alex Ramon.
I had to invent a style of my own mostly because I am both a director and an illustrator but not an animator…. this is what drew me to think out of the box, becoming aware of both my limits and my strengths.”
The recipient of the Audience Award at this year’s just-concluded Slamdance Festival, Matteo Bernardini’s The Little Broomstick Rider is a short animated series based on Ludwig Bechstein’s 19th century tale The Little Matchstick Rider, about a young boy, Linhard, on trial for witchcraft. As delightful as it is dark, The Little Broomstick Rider was conceived and made by Bernardini during the first lockdown last year, and mobilses silent cinema tropes and influences from paper toy theatres, puppetry and magic lanterns to offer a witty, surprising and politically pointed take on Bechstein’s text that feels both classic and fresh.
In this interview, Bernardini talks openly and energetically about the development of the project, early inspirations, working with Christopher Nolan, Peter Greenaway and Moby, the influence of Angela Carter, and his future plans.
AR: Tell me about your background and how your interest in filmmaking evolved. What films did you grow up watching? Who are some of your favourite directors?
MB: I have no family links with the film industry/world. At all. But I was always encouraged to express myself artistically. Since I can remember, my only shopping interests have been books, music and films. My parents kept saying: “As long as it’s culture, it’s money well spent.”
I can’t say what exactly ignited the ‘fire’ within me, but I started to say that I wanted to be a director when I was eight…. and I clearly had no idea what it meant. However, I stuck to it and luckily it paid off. I used to sing in a children’s choir as a child, and took part in several opera productions and performances. That kind of experience was fundamental because it set the grounds for my love of the performing arts and of music.
As for the films I grew up with, I consider myself very lucky: besides watching what I normally would as a child, I was exposed to great classics from an early age since my father’s favourite filmmakers are Bergman, Chaplin and Truffaut. Titles such as Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, City Lights, The Kid, L’Enfant Sauvage and La Nuit Americaine have been with me for a long time, defining my taste and knowledge of cinema.
In terms of personal favourites, I would rather speak of films than directors, since specific works have influenced me greatly. The Fearless Vampire Killers (the European cut!) is a film I fell for when I was eight. It shaped my taste and love for atmospheric filmmaking, for great attention to detail and for the Grotesque and the Absurd that are typical of Eastern European cinema. It also ignited my devotion for Sharon Tate, whom I fell in love with as a kid and whose terrible fate I discovered only years later (my family didn’t want to upset me, I believe).
Picnic at Hanging Rock revealed to me that atmosphere can be the lead character in a film and it also taught me a lot in terms of the use and importance of music in a movie.
Two films by Bergman are always with me: The Magic Flute (the best film-opera ever made, according to pretty much everybody, and capable of inspiring great love for the stage through cinema) and Fanny and Alexander (a mini-series, I know, but a monumental Bildungsroman on film, like no other).
Three films from the silent era are stunning in terms of visual narrative and are masterpieces of directing: Faust by Murnau and Metropolis and The Nibelungs by Fritz Lang. Also, Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Coppola is possibly one of the most recent examples of a “Total Work of Art” and it should be taken into much greater consideration than it currently is.
You studied in London. How did that come about, what was the training like, and what have been the most important things you took away from your time there?
Yes, I attended film school in London after finishing one semester at Leicester University, where I studied Literature and Film as an Erasmus student. I enrolled at the New York Film Academy at King’s College on Drury Lane (that school has long gone): I did an intensive three-month course, where students would shoot their projects on film. I remember that summer as one of the most beautiful of my young adult life. Up to that point I had spent years saying that I wanted to become a filmmaker, but never managed to shoot a thing. That course confirmed that I could do it, and that I was good at it. After that very intensive course, I started almost immediately to work as an assistant director on both opera and film productions and that has represented, in a way, the completion of my “cinema education.”
You’ve worked as an assistant director to some incredible, diverse filmmakers, among them Peter Greenaway and Christopher Nolan. What have been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had in that role?
The two directors you mention certainly occupy a special place. I worked for Christopher Nolan on the Italian shoot of Tenet. Being part of a production of that scale is always a great adventure. In that case it was also great fun, because the team of ADs (both American and Italian) was wonderful, one of the best I have ever worked with.
The experience with Greenaway is something I hold dear: it was a small production (Walking to Paris, still in the making) and a very intense experience. I originally accepted the job because I wanted to work with this great filmmaker, whom I had always admired, and I wanted to witness his creative process on set. I was not disappointed: watching him react very pro-actively to the unexpected, coming up with even more creative alternatives to what he had originally planned, was a joy and a great learning experience for me.
However, I must say that one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had as an assistant was with opera director Robert Carsen. I always considered him one of my mentors, and working on some of his productions has been a real privilege. My most amazing experience was on his production of Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. To this day, it’s the most wonderful work of performing art I have seen. Even though I stayed backstage throughout the whole run, I never got tired of that production and kept being moved and excited by it every single night or matinee. It represented the perfect blend of entertainment’s pure magic and profound intellectual analysis; that production was able to speak to different types of audiences at once, which is also one of my greatest aspirations as a director. I remember vividly the emotions I felt and I frequently go back to them, whenever I need to remind myself what kind of projects I want to do as a filmmaker and the kind of feelings and emotions I wish to inspire in my audience.
You’ve mentioned Angela Carter as a big influence. What do you like about her work?
Sometimes we find writers who seem to be speaking directly to us, and we are under the impression that we created a special bond with them. I am lucky in this regard, since I can say I have this kind of relationship with a few writers: Angela Carter is definitely one of them.
Ironically, I discovered her work through cinema, namely thanks to Neil Jordan’s beautiful film The Company of Wolves. I was probably too young when I first saw that picture, but I instantly fell in love with its blend of fairytale and horror. It has had a big impact on me ever since. Carter adapted her own short story for Jordan’s film, and that process of adaptation became the subject of my final BA dissertation “Screen and Dream – Angela Carter and Cinema.“
Carter’s worlds are so rich, such extraordinary and thought-provoking places of imagination. She was a writer of genius and it saddens me that she is still not receiving the recognition she deserves. In my opinion, she is one of the great European writers (and intellectuals) of the second half of the 20th century, and she should be regarded and treated as such.
How was the experience of collaborating with Moby on the popular “Ooh Yeah!” video?
That experience was one-of-a-kind on many levels and for many reasons. It all started with Moby announcing an international competition for up-and-coming filmmakers on the then-new platform of Vimeo: up to that moment, contests of that kind had targeted mostly fans and, as a consequence of that, the main rewards were either merchandise (t-shirts, badges, bags, signed posters) or backstage tours. Moby decided to do something different: he wanted to give a chance to new directors by letting them produce his next video; the winning promo would become the official music video for the track and on top of that the winner would also receive a cash prize.
One of my best friends informed me of the competition: I listened to the “Ooh Yeah!” track and decided to give it a try. I came up with several ideas, but kept dropping them all halfway through. Until my mind clicked: while listening to the song for the hundredth time, with its late 70s-early 80s disco vibes and the insistent repetition of the expression “Ooh Yeah!”, suddenly it occurred to me that there would be no better setting than the “Golden Age” of Porn. Once this revelation arrived, I envisioned the whole plot and sequences of the video in a couple of days. I still remember that happy creative outburst: it was a great artistic experience.
I carefully trimmed every sequence to specific musical moments and movements, then I set up a crew of young and valiant professionals and we managed to shoot the video in a day and a half.
I cannot describe my joy when I found out I’d won: Moby was known for putting great care into his music videos and for collaborating with great filmmakers. Once out there into the world, my music video was very well received and it still has a very nice following to this day.
I remember the respect and appreciation Moby and his team showed for the work I had done together with my crew: he simply asked me to “add some 70s effects” in terms of colour grading and film scratches; he also asked to insert my name in the credits and to translate the fake porn main titles into Italian (they were originally in English, since my main reference were American blue movies from that era). However, his requests were not too specific, which left me a good margin of creative freedom. When I think back on it, I am amazed by the extraordinary creative freedom that I was given, especially if we consider the stature of the artist and of the majors involved.
Your new animated project, The Little Broomstick Rider, which just premiered at Slamdance Festival, draws on Ludwig Bechstein’s story The Little Pitchfork Rider. When did you first encounter the story and what inspired you about it?
Bechstein was an early 19th century writer and folklorist, a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm. My first encounter with The Little Pitchfork Rider came through the short story collection it is part of, titled Hexengeschichten (Witch Tales). I came across the volume in a second-hand bookshop and, because of my general love for fairytales and folktales, I ended up buying it. However, I didn’t read it for more than two years. It was only during the 2020 lockdown that I was reminded of that volume sitting on the shelves.
I decided to give it a try, since at that point I already knew what I wanted to do but I was still looking for a good story. The vast majority of the tales included in Hexengeschichten belong to the gothic and horror genres, but not The Little Pitchfork Rider: its sharp humour, liveliness and strong political message genuinely set it apart from the rest of the collection.
I instantly connected with that type of humour, which happens to be my favourite. I loved that it was a thought-provoking story: beneath the fairytale surface, there was a disruptive anarchic spirit bubbling up to meet the reader. Also, I found the story shrouded in ambiguity, especially when it comes to its very young protagonist. On one hand Linhard is cute and disarmingly childlike and outspoken, yet he emerges as utterly uncanny during the trial, when he cheerfully and carelessly confesses (and brags) about his demonic worship.
I decided to keep that element within my series, and I believe that the audience will love him till the end, that they will keep being on his side. However, if we analyze the story from a classically moral perspective, we will have to admit that this is not a typical Good vs Evil narrative, rather a story focused on two different types of Evil fencing back and forth against one another. I consider it a little gem and I am surprised it is almost completely obscure.
Did you do much research into the historical period and witchcraft trials?
I already knew quite a bit about the historical period in terms of the aesthetics that I wanted to recreate within the series. I also knew vaguely about the witch trials, which had happened in several Bavarian towns during the first half of the 17th century, namely Bamberg and Würzburg.
I started getting more and more information as I was working on the episodes: in spite of the deliberate fairy-tale-vibe, I wanted to add some historical context that had to be precise. So, well into production I discovered some details about those witch hunts that surprised me: they were extraordinarily similar to the story told within The Little Pitchfork Rider. Unfortunately, the critical literature about Bechstein’s collection is almost non-existent, so I can only make conjectures.
However, what we know for a fact is that many children were senselessly accused, tried and executed. Scrolling the list of the victims of the Würzburg witch trails, for example, one can find the following, blood-curling line: “A little maiden nine years of age”. Right below it, an even more shocking one: “A maiden still less”. It implies that she must have been even younger than nine, as if the those involved suddenly felt some (hypocritical) shame, refusing to report the actual age of the little victim.
Taking all these details into consideration, it’s possible that Bechstein was inspired by such events and plausibly created the character of Linhard to ideally avenge those innocent victims. At least, this is what I like to believe.
You developed and made the series during the first lockdown. What were the challenges and the advantages of working alone as a “one man band” in this way?
I must say this has been an extraordinary learning experience for me, as a filmmaker. Working on The Little Broomstick Rider meant that I had to create from scratch anything that I needed, that what I was putting on the page as I was adapting each episode had to be drawn and physically created by myself, from the tiniest detail in the background to the features of a lead character.
I know that people working with animation are used to that, but I wasn’t. This can be considered a challenge, although it undoubtedly fortified me as a filmmaker. I belong to the school according to which anything that appears in front of the camera has to be there for a reason: in that sense, it was an extraordinary experience.
Another positive aspect of being a ‘one man band’ was that I was in complete control of the project, which is also one of the main reasons why I embarked on this journey. I had been asking myself for quite a while whether one could give life to a film entirely on their own, and still producing a decent cinematic piece of work. The pandemic was what allowed me to focus on this question, and eventually to turn it into an answer.
Finally, a shoutout to my father: I worked mostly on my own – that is true – but my amazing dad helped me with the construction of the sets that I had previously drawn and cut out. His craftsmanship and engineering made sure they wouldn’t fall apart during the shoot.
The look and style of the series is so distinctive, drawing on various traditions to create something that feels vibrant and fresh. What were some of your inspirations?
My main artistic inspiration were 17th century Baroque engravings from Germany, which I subsequently elaborated through my personal touch. I deliberately created a mix of historical accuracy and fairytale extravaganza. After all, Bechstein’s short story constantly flirts with these two opposites, to great ironic effect.
As for the animation, I had to invent a style of my own mostly because I am both a director and an illustrator but not an animator. Instead of spending the lockdown learning a craft such as classic animation, I wanted to develop, produce and eventually finalize a new work of mine: this is what drew me to think out of the box, becoming aware of both my limits and my strengths. It was an exciting creative process, which led me to the creation of a personal style, which is what you see throughout the series. I would describe the final result as “book illustrations coming to life” rather than classic animation. In this sense, shadow theatres and paper toy theatres, puppetry and magic lanterns are all passions of mine which had an inevitable impact on the creation of The Little Broomstick Rider. I didn’t necessarily realize it as I was working on the series, but their influence on my work is undeniable.
The film also draws on silent cinema aethetics, and I couldn’t help but think about Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc when watching! Was that film a direct influence?
I’m so glad you noticed that! Dreyer’s masterpiece was indeed a reference of mine, although not an explicit one: I did not reproduce/recreate specific moments from the film, yet there are quite a few similarities, especially during the sequences depicting the trial. Dreyer notoriously utilizes exquisite visual tools such as victim and accusers (almost) never appearing together within the same frame, thus underlining the extraordinary moral and virtuous gap between Joan and her accusers. He also decides to show us the jurors through a series of grotesque close-ups, whose distorting effect suggests their monstrous nature.
Such visual choices underline the tragedy of the moment and the folly of the Inquisition; I certainly had them in mind whenever filming little Linhard being interrogated. He is the one accused of witchcraft, but the members of the court – with their big heads, grotesque features and Nosferatu-esque hands and fingernails – are the ones looking like actual monsters in spite of their conviction to act in the righteous interest of law and religion.
Why did you choose to structure the piece in short episodes rather than as a short film?
The trial narrated by Bechstein lasts a few days, so this is what made me think of dividing the story into a six-part series. I had never dealt with episodic content before as a director, and I wanted to explore this peculiar narrative form. I approached it with a good dose of cheeky and playful irony: I wanted the anarchic spirit of the story also to be reflected upon the structure of my series, which is why the episodes vary in length quite extensively.
Indeed, the series combines cheeky, subversive humour with darker themes about abuses of power. How easy was it to strike this balance?
Surprisingly easy, I must say. That type of humour is very dear to me and I’ve already used it elsewhere. I am a fan of ambiguity on film and in art in general: I believe that the majority of interesting or great artworks are shrouded in it, and that it contributes to the longevity of such works. Asking your audience to question themselves about what they saw, debating about possible meanings is what opens up for different interpretations: as time, taste and popular beliefs go by and change, so do the artworks, and they keep receiving new and different analyses which help to re-define them and put them in fresh perspectives.
Tell us about your protagonist, Linhard. How does he differ from the protagonist of the original story? Did you change much in his characterisation?
As I said, Linhard’s ambiguous nature and his very unconventional attitude within the context of the trial are what make him so peculiar. He is such a great character to work on. I must say I remained faithful to Bechstein’s original depiction: his jolly spirit and cheeky responses in spite of the situation he is getting through were already on the page. What I had to do was to give him a visual shape, to provide him with a tangible identity. Therefore, big round eyes, freckles, a gap-toothed smile and an over-sized stereotypical wizard robe became his distinctive traits.
He had to be the embodiment of adorable cuteness, in order to contrast with some of the darkest, most outrageous stuff that comes out of his mouth during the interrogation. But also, in order to contrast with the stiff rigour of the inquisitors: he is the only character whose expressions change, and it was a deliberate choice. I wanted him to appear vital, multifaceted, and eventually decided to suggest this through a varied range of emotions. The jurors, on the other hand, never show any facial expressions, as absorbed as they are in their despotic ideology of religious righteousness. With them, I adopted more of a ‘Kuleshov Effect’ type of approach: the way I moved them and their title cards around, and the pace of it, was what eventually suggested different emotions and states of mind.
Another thing that differs from the original is the ending: in Bechstein’s tale we have a rather delightfully ironic finale, but I thought it wasn’t enough. I told myself: “It cannot end like that. This story deserves something more, something stronger.” I believed that my finale had to be quite a blast in comparison, and it was.
For a piece drawing on silent cinema, the series is also very “talky” as it focuses on the back-and-forth between Linhard and the court representatives, using title cards. Was it fun to write the dialogue and contrast Linhard’s perky, often contemporary-sounding responses with the very different style of speech of his interrogators?
It was such fun! Bechstein’s short story is filled with dialogues and they are very sharp and witty. I decided to maintain as many as I could, but at the same time I had to deal with six episodes. It meant I had to add a lot more in terms of interactions, and these had to maintain the vibe and the pace of the original. Since I was relying on an Italian translation of The Little Pitchfork Rider and had to translate everything into English, I decided from the beginning to use the language as yet another form of divide between Linhard and his inquisitors: the little boy’s idiom is fresh, colloquial and modern, in opposition to the old and rather pompous dialect the elders use to express themselves. They are the voice of privilege and bureaucracy, of intricate and rigid schemes.
I am happy I came up with the title cards idea as a mean of expression; not only it is a direct and ironic reference to the silent cinema I love dearly, but I believe it also adds further meaning to the whole “literary adaptation into film” process: it was as if part of the written text, of the literary nature of the piece, survived on film because of this style I had invented.
How did you choose the music, which adds so much to the series?
The choice of music is pivotal to me, it is such an important part of my job as a director. I have always worked as my own Music Supervisor on projects of mine, at least from a creative point of view. Also, having a solid background in Music History, Opera and Musicology (the subject of my final MA thesis was Mozart’s musical theatre adapted into film) helped me enormously. To me, it is all about how you use music and why you choose a piece rather than another to underline a specific cinematic sequence. As a director, I think my main responsibilities with the choice of the right track need to deal with both an emotional aspect and an intellectual aspect at once.
With The Little Broomstick Rider, I decided to rely on melodies from the German tradition, since my story is set in 1620s Bavaria. The opening and closing titles tracks are characterized by a folk dance by Michael Praetorius, a German composer more or less contemporary to the action narrated in the series.
The rest of the soundtrack is largely characterized by religious pieces, mostly cantatas by J.S. Bach: he clearly came much later, but the texts he put into music are extrapolated from late 16th-early 17th century litanies. Some of the religious compositions were used with a clearly ironic, subversive effect. Also, the constant juxtaposition between the joyful, recreational dances of Praetorius and Bach’s profound religious gravitas help me underline the constant tonal swings of the series, where Linhard’s cheeky and freshly childish attitude contrasts deeply with the stiff and rigid morality of the inquisitors.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the series? And how was it to win the Audience Award at Slamdance?
I hope that this series will not only entertain audiences, but that it will also make them reflect on a few serious topics. Witch hunts (whether literal or figurative) and the abuse of power against the poor and the harmless are all tragedies humanity has witnessed through the ages. It doesn’t matter that my series is set in 1620s Bavaria: everybody will be aware of the implications and twisted dynamics at play within the narrative.
The win at Slamdance was incredible and a wonderful surprise: I have such respect for this legendary festival that the award feels almost like a badge of honour. The series has just started its festival journey: there are exciting plans for the future, but unfortunately I cannot reveal anything yet.
Do you have any new projects in development?
Yes, I am currently working on three different projects at once. The first is an animated psychedelic gothic adventure set within the opera world, with author E.T.A. Hoffmann as the protagonist.
I am also working on my own adaptation of the Peter Pan story by J.M. Barrie. It will be different from everything seen until now, much closer to the original material: a decadent dream/nightmare for a grown up audience.
The last project is a ‘chamber ghost story’ with a very interesting mix of lyricism, eeriness and mystery. It’s an intimate tale and an interesting challenge because of the many different registers at play. Will these projects showcase the same style I used on The Little Broomstick Rider…? Possibly… Stay tuned for more.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has published papers on Guy Maddin, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers, and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, Samuel Adamson, François Ozon, and Claire Bloom. His current projects include a collection of critical pieces and a book of interviews with actors. He writes for BFI, Sight & Sound and other outlets, and blogs at Boycotting Trends.