A film that anyone who sees it isn’t likely to forget, The Spine of Night is a labor of love for writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. A 2021 SXSW Film Festival premiere, the movie’s placement in that festival’s Midnighters section is incredibly fitting, as this is the type of film that feels destined for a cult following who will fill up midnight showings at indie theaters for years to come.
A hand-rotoscoped animated epic fantasy, Gelatt and King bring their influences from Ralph Bakshi and Frank Franzetta to their first feature as a duo, one that feels like a complete and fluid vision from the opening moments. The striking animation will draw you in, but the attention to detail in depicting this universe will leave you wishing that you could spend more time in this world after the credits end.
Before the film’s premiere, I was able to sit down with Gelatt and King to discuss how their paths came to meet, and why they wanted to bring this story to the world. We talked about their love for Bakshi and films like Heavy Metal, along with future possibilities of us getting to see more of this world. It was a lively conversation with two guys who have clearly made the kind of movie that they would love to watch.
Read on for my conversation with Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King.
Mitchell Beaupre: It makes sense that The Spine of Night is playing in the Midnighters section at SXSW because watching it immediately gives you that image of being in a movie theater with a huge crowd of people at a midnight showing where everyone is losing their mind at every scene. Is there something a little bittersweet about having your movie premiere at SXSW in a year where there isn’t that theatrical experience?
Morgan Galen King: For sure. It’s an unusual setting, but I think we’re both really trying to embrace the weirdness of 2021. The whole process has been long and bizarre, so it almost seems fitting. This is already going to be a niche thing, so it makes sense for that to be true of the experience of everyone watching it individually at home too. I can’t wait for the raucous theater experience that I hope happens for it someday, though.
Philip Gelatt: That’s what I was going to say. I also have thought to myself that this is the kind of movie that one should see in a theater with people, and I’m still hoping we’ll get there. I’m such a fan of theaters, and I hope that they start to reopen more. There’s so many off the wall indie theaters across the United States, and it would be so awesome to have us play in them. So yeah, it’s bittersweet, but we’re taking the bright side.
MB: Morgan, in 2013 you had made a short film called Exordium that people can still watch for free on YouTube (here). That short feels like a proof of concept for this movie, utilizing a lot of the same imagery and themes. Where did the idea for that short come from, and could you talk about the journey from Exordium to Spine of Night?
MGK: I had done a couple of other slowly building proofs of concept leading up to Exordium, where I was using sort of a traditional Flash style animation, and it was all really just for this one shot where Mongrel – the barbarian character who is also in Spine of Night – whirls his cloak around. At a certain point I realized I should just rotoscope it because it’s very hard to do in Flash. What I really wanted to be capturing was that Ralph Bakshi Heavy Metal look anyway, so I figured it was time to dive into that. The world really grew out of planting those seeds along the way from the short films to then Exordium. Phil saw that and we felt like we had a real foundation to explode the world out into new ideas and directions.
MB: Phil, you’ve directed a few live-action movies by yourself before now. How was it coming into this collaborative experience, and what was the process like for the two of you working together?
PG: I don’t want to make it sound too dreamy because then you’ll think I’m lying, but the collaboration really was great, to be honest. To pick up where Morgan left off, I sort of immediately fell in love with the short film and wanted to find a way to work with Morgan and to make something in that realm of action and fantasy. So much of movie making is collaboration, and finding people that you share a vision with and can communicate with. I’ve worked on so many projects before where you think everybody is on the same page, and maybe they are, but they’re not on the same part of the same page and you realize that they’re talking about something totally different. That never really happened on this. I’ve never really been a dictatorial director. To me the role of director is this central collaborator, where you want to get people who can work together and collaborate. That’s really how the experience has been from my perspective from the very beginning through to now.
MB: Morgan, you mentioned Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi earlier, who has been cited as a major influence for you guys. You can certainly see that in the style of the filmmaking here. Where did your love for his work come from?
MGK: Bakshi was very formative for me. I was born in 1979, so I was in exactly the window to be growing up in that era. The public library had the Bakshi films because it was in the early days of VHS, and they would only stock films that had literary ancestry, so they had like his Lord of the Rings and everything. Then I also loved something like He-Man, which is sillier but it’s a similar thing, there’s a little bit of rotoscoping there. By the time I saw Heavy Metal a little later it was the most awesome thing that my prepubescent mind had ever witnessed, and I think it all baked in my mind really early for influences.
MB: This kind of adult animation is so striking when you see it because, at least in America, it’s something that we haven’t really seen in quite a while. Back at Sundance there was a movie called Cryptozoo which was a different style of animation but in the same vein of adult fantasy. Do you feel like now is a time for this resurgence in adult animation?
MGK: I certainly hope so! I mean, I love animation of all stripes, and of course in Japan adult animation has been in style for a really long time, but it sort of lapsed out of favor in the U.S., at least outside of Adult Swim. This took a really long time for us to make, but the technology is getting to the point where it’s a lot easier to experiment with adult animation like this. Ralph Bakshi probably had 100-150 animators on his films, and on this most of the time we had about 4. I think the technology has allowed us to really scale up in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before now.
MB: The crux of the story in Spine of Night is centered around this blue flower that gives power to whoever possesses it. In a lot of stories this would be a generic MacGuffin that simply drove the plot, but I found much more meaning in it here, particularly in the way that it morphed over time. At first it seemed to represent the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and then later I felt as if it represented life itself and the way that we all strive for life while also peeling away at it until there’s nothing left. Did the flower represent anything specific for you guys, or was it designed to be this ambiguous representation of different things depending on how the viewer sees it?
PG: I think the reading of the subtext of a movie is always a very individual experience, but I’ll speak for myself and Morgan can maybe add on to it. You’re right in that the flower is meant to represent all of those things. I’ve always sort of thought of it as not quite an empty signifier but one that sort of mutates in the context of the movie.
MGK: I think too that within the film it means different things to different characters. Every single character I think they’re approaching it as a different sort of metaphorical idea, but I hope it has enough intentionality to it that the audience will be able to pull out the themes they want to see in it. I feel like I have really specific ones, but I don’t want to rob the audience of having their own experience with it.
MB: The way that the story jumps from one character to another is quite interesting. When it begins it feels like we’re going to be following the Lucy Lawless character the whole time, but then she gets sidelined and we start seeing the focus shift several times throughout the film. Could you speak about that episodic nature of the storytelling and why you chose that structure for the narrative?
MGK: Part of what we were talking about when we were first starting was that I love the idea of an anthology film that sort of ultimately ties together. As much as I adore Heavy Metalthe framing device is sort of incidental —
PG: How dare you.
MGK: (laughing) And so I think the thought was that we would approach it in an anthology format, but with something that had a thematic and narrative connective tissue in a way that I always wished Heavy Metal did. You’re with the characters for a moment and then there’s a huge time jump and then you’re with new characters for a moment. These also aren’t necessarily the most important moments in each era, so you’re sort of intentionally leaving a couple of dangling ideas or characters are left in a sort of ambiguous situation. It’s a kind of middle ground between anthology and straight narrative that I was really excited to explore.
MB: Those dangling threads are very interesting because you come out of the movie feeling like you got to know these characters while also wanting to spend more time with them, and more time in this universe. Are you guys interested in exploring more of this world in the future, to pick up on some of these different stories and see where they go, or develop entirely new stories in this universe?
PG: The answer is both yes and no. We’ve certainly discussed the sequel, we’ve discussed doing spin-off stories, but I also think that designing this narrative and this world in this specific way was intentional. Part of the fun for me and for Morgan, and hopefully for viewers, is exactly that we’ve left some things unanswered and in shadows, so you can use your imagination to fill in those blanks. That’s part of the fun for me with fantasy and this type of narrative. So, yes and no, we might or we might just leave it for people to ponder.
MB: Yeah, you don’t want to make a movie where you’re explaining how Han Solo got his name.
PG: (laughing) I know, why would anybody do that? It’s a terrible idea.
MB: I mentioned Lucy Lawless before, and you’ve got a stacked voice cast across the board here. Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello. How did the cast come together for the project? Were you animating with the knowledge of who was going to be voicing each role?
MGK: Betty Gabriel was there when we shot the live action, and then she came back to do her own voice work. Other than her though, the bigger name voice cast came on towards the end of the process. We would show them ideas or approach them in a sort of curatorial way. Like, Joe Manganiello just made sense as Mongrel, so we approached him and it’s totally his type of thing, so that’s how that all came together. We were very lucky to get the people we did.
MB: For my last question, I wanted to ask you about something I noticed in the credits of both this and Exordium. You dedicate both movies to someone named Megan Fuller, saying “thanks for everything”. If it’s not too personal, could you tell us who Megan is?
MGK: Megan Fuller is my wife and she is a saint among humans for giving me the time it took to learn how to do this. She sacrificed so much because this film took 7 years to draw, and that means we couldn’t really go on vacation or do much of anything. When I was making the short films and everything she had to take care of the rent and do all of the real adult work while I sat at my computer and drew pictures all day. It never could have been possible without all of the support she gave us. She’s just a champion.
The Spine of Night premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]