Greek animator takes on a Verne classic

According to historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, the work of fellow Frenchman Jules Verne was admirable because every novel contained a myth narrated through different, intertwining, dark and controversial voices.

It is the unrivaled allure of plurality that makes Verne, even today, one of the five most popular authors in the international literary arena, second only to Agatha Christie in terms of the number of translations that have been done of his work. From this point of view, yet another film adaptation of a Verne book feels like old news.

However, there is always room for some novelty. Based on Verne’s 1865 novel “De La Terre a la Lune,” “From the Earth to the Moon” is the first animated feature film by visual artist, director and video artist Angelos Spartalis. It was recently screened at the Athens International Film Festival before serving as the curtain-raiser for the International Animation Festival on the island of Syros. It is the second adaptation of the novel for the big screen following a film of the same title directed by Byron Haskin in 1958, starring Joseph Cotten and George Sanders.

Spartalis’s take boasts black humor, clever punch lines, a Pythonesque atmosphere and a series of delightful anachronisms aiding the development of the story. Handmade through the use of collage, the project took five years to complete.

“I came across a 1957 edition of the Jules Verne novel, all leatherbound in red, its pages yellowed and smelling of the past,” said Spartalis. “I bought it and started going through the imaginative dialogues. Almost immediately, I decided to make a film of it. That’s when the tough part began. This is a book where everyone talks endlessly and nothing really happens. At one point in the story a rocket is launched but ends up missing the target. Based on Verne, I had to come up with insane tricks, because there was no point in making the film and leaving the author outside the narrative.”

The story takes place in America in 1869, exactly a century before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Warlords recount past glories and are saddened by the fact that there are no more battles to be fought. That’s until industrialist Victor Barbicane unveils a new powerful weapon that will enable the launch of a rocket to the moon. The new discovery will signal the first-ever communication between Earth and its satellite and glory to the United States of America (which had 36 states at the time).

At one point in the film, one of the characters wears a “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” costume. When another character points out that the year is 1869 and that there is no such thing as the Beatles, the former replies, “Sure, but these things happen.”

“I had a really rough time working on the script,” noted Spartalis. “Before actually starting writing, I watched a Hollywood adaptation of the same book which was made in 1958 – the only other adaptation of the same novel for the big screen. You should have seen the kind of problems they faced and the gimmicks they had to come up with. It’s no coincidence that this particular Verne book has had such a limited screen presence. So I resorted to a few creative twists: The President of the United States, for instance, looks like Doctor No and talks like [Greek statesman] Constantine Karamanlis. In the novel, Verne mentioned how the US was not actually that ‘united,’ as Texas accused Miami of starting a cholera outbreak, Miami accused New York of spreading typhoid and so on.”

In the Greek director’s version, characters in supporting roles speak in several local dialects, to the point where some of the dialogues needed subtitles.

Spartalis’s passion for painting explains his decision to use collage. “I would never have released the movie if the result had not been up to scratch aesthetically. Collage played three key roles in this case: First of all it had to do with the author himself and the fact that in the book he talked about brave US artillery soldiers who were very proud of their missing limbs. They all used peculiar prosthetic devices, such as silver grabbers and hooks instead of hands. In a way, Verne’s characters were themselves collages, so I decided to go down that road myself. The second reason was that the collage technique gave a fine result on an aesthetic level and, finally, the third reason was that it was cheaper.”

A generous portion of quixotism and hard work on the part of the director, coupled with the voluntary participation of all those involved in the project, turned the idea for the film into an actual movie. Naturally, finding funding was impossible. All the participating voice actors – Alexandros Logothetis, Dimitris Starovas and Stratos Tzortzoglou, among others – worked pro bono. Also, a part of the 40-member cast comprised amateur actors from a drama school in Aghios Nikolaos on Crete – the director’s homeland – as well as day laborers such as tilers and electricians. Singer-songwriters Dionysis Savvopoulos and Psarantonis, who interpret the film’s five original songs composed by Zinovia Arvanitidi, also took part for free.

Following all the hard work, Spartalis is currently in discussions regarding the film’s distribution and release around Christmas.

Animation festivals

Once a year both the Athens and Syros animation festivals offer a platform to a particularly lively, vibrating and creative scene.

“Given more favorable conditions, the material would be even richer,” said Spartalis. “There’s plenty of good stuff out there, but the truth is that the most talented part of the sector has been absorbed by the local advertising industry, as it still pays. It’s very difficult to promote underwear in the morning and create art in the evening. One way or another, you end up becoming part of the system.”

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