As I mentioned in my review, I’ve been friends with Phil Gelatt – one half of the filmmaking duo behind The Spine of Night – for a few years now, so I knew that he and Morgan Galen King had been working on an epic, rotoscoped sword-and-sorcery picture long before I ever saw the finished movie.
But the project itself dated back farther than that – from even before I knew Phil, before his work on the phenomenal Laird Barron adaptation They Remain. So, one of the first questions, when I sat down to talk with Phil and Morgan about The Spine of Night, was how the project got started more than seven years ago.
“I had been doing short films for a couple of years,” Morgan started off, which only felt right, since I knew the project had originated with him. “Teaching myself the rotoscoping process, trying to reverse-engineer the Ralph Bakshi look from Fire and Ice mostly.”
Throughout the interview, Bakshi’s work on Fire and Ice and Heavy Metal came up often, which was also no surprise. I knew Morgan to be an aficionado of the rotoscope animation style used in The Spine of Night – in addition to the “talking points” document I’d been sent by the film’s publicist, I’d read an article on the history (and future) of rotoscope animation that Morgan had written for Unwinnable.
He went on to tell me how The Spine of Night had started off with a short film called “Exordium.” That’s where Phil came in. “I saw ‘Exordium’ because a friend recommended it and thought it would be to my taste,” Phil interjected. “And indeed, it was not only to my taste, it was exactly my taste.”
From there, the two began collaborating on what would become a seven-year project of getting The Spine of Night made. For those who are unfamiliar with the process, rotoscope animation is a time-consuming method of animating that relies on first filming live-action sequences and then painstakingly animating them by hand, allowing the creation of more fluid and realistic action sequences.
Was there anything that the two of them had to do to stay focused and passionate about a project for so many years?
“I think it was one of those things where, once you’re halfway in and you aren’t done, failure is no longer an option,” Morgan said, laughing. “A bit of a sunk cost issue. We just kept going until it was done.”
“Maybe I just haven’t evolved at all as a human being in seven years,” Phil chimed in, “but watching the movie now that it’s done, I’m like, ‘F*ck yeah! This is amazing!’” While noting that he’s not usually so “bullish” about the things that he has worked on himself, he went on to say that what kept him enthusiastic and committed was that he had confidence, at every stage, that it was going to turn out to be the movie they had set out to make.
From there, the conversation pivoted to the film itself, rather than the process behind it. For those who haven’t already seen Spine of Night, its story, while interconnected, also isn’t as continuous as you might expect. Instead, each segment of the film jumps ahead considerably, crossing vast gulfs of time between mini-stories, even while all of them are linked by phenomena and even some characters. I asked Phil and Morgan if that was something they had always intended to include in the film, or something that evolved over time.
“I don’t remember at what point I started thinking about how there clearly was room within the anthology film format to do other kinds of storytelling,” Phil said, “but it was before Morgan and I had sat down to work on the script. So, when he first brought me the structure, I was immediately like, yes, this is an interesting way to do an anthology film, but make it more than an anthology film, and bring viewers into the history of a fantasy world.”
“I’m a huge fan of A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Morgan added, referring to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s century-spanning science fiction novel, originally published in 1959, “which does a very similar thing where it takes a single bit of knowledge and then takes these century-long jumps between each section where half the fun is figuring out what could have happened in the middle.”
As for other influences that found their way into the finished picture, the two filmmakers seemed to hardly know where to start. “I think we both just dumped a lifetime of being fantasy and horror nerds,” Morgan said, referencing everything from Hellraiser to the raft sequence in Creepshow 2 to a specific explosion from the movie Witchboard.
At the same time, they were emphatic about the tropes and attributes of these kinds of narratives that they wanted to avoid. “We looked at all of our favorite things, and wanted to sort of modernize our love of ‘70s and ‘80s fantasy, which itself is so in love with ‘20s and ‘30s adventure fantasy stuff, and didn’t really grow out of a lot of the bad habits of the turn of the century,” Morgan said.
Among those were the “cheesecake imagery” that’s so often associated with Frank Frazetta’s iconography and, through it, much of the ‘70s and ‘80s sword-and-sorcery. “With the Tzod character, who is nude throughout the film, we wanted to make her not coy about, like, ‘What if this chainmail bikini slipped an inch,’ but just purely naturalistic, purely human, and almost entirely desexualized in a way that I feel is really primal.”
Nor was it just about not pandering to the male gaze. Both filmmakers talked about the importance of bringing to life a fantasy world that was visibly diverse. “We wanted to represent people in a way that we weren’t just making a faceless horde to be murdered,” Morgan said. “I mean, there’s a lot of murder in this movie. But I wanted everyone to feel like people.”
“We wanted all races and genders to be represented as they were being murdered,” Phil added, laughing. “As much as people will engage with this as a nostalgic film,” he said, “I don’t. Instead, I view it as taking something from the past, really digging into the things that we all loved about the genre, and discarding the parts that no longer fit the way we think about things in the 21st century.”
Which seemed like a good place to end the interview, butt before I let them go, it turned out that Phil had a question for me: “Were you disappointed that we didn’t have more monsters?”
“I mean, a little bit,” I confessed.
“I tried to put more monsters in the movie, and Morgan told me no,” Phil said. Morgan was quick to his own defense, however, with a tidbit that should encourage everyone to help make The Spine of Night a hit: “There’s more monsters in future concept art, if we ever get to do stuff again.”
‘The Spine of Night’ will be in theaters, on demand and digital Friday, October 29, 2021.
Review: ‘The Spine of Night’ Brings Cosmic Horror Back to Sword and Sorcery