Robin Wright Digitally Preserved in Trippy New Film

Oscar-nominated helmer Ari Folman ("Waltz With Bashir") talks about his new mindbender that explores a world where technology has gone too far.

Ari Folman’s The Congress, much like his animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, is a hard movie to categorize. The film opens with Robin Wright playing Robin Wright, who decades after catapulting to success as The Princess Bride reluctantly sells her digital likeness to the fictional Miramount Studios so that she has the money to better care for her ailing son.

After the 30-minute live-action opening, centered around Wright’s decision to sell her likeness, the film jumps 20 years into the future where the computer-generated 34-year-old version of Wright is Hollywood’s biggest action star, and the 60-something flesh-and-blood Wright travels to an animated world to address a futuristic Congress and decide if she will renew her contract. The animated world of The Congress is part-psychedelic fantasy, part-fascist nightmare, where Folman blurs the lines between what is real and what is imagined.

The film is an adaption of sci-fi legend Stanislaw Lem’s (Solaris) The Futurological Congress, which envisions a worldwide chemical dictatorship that seizes control of its subjects’ emotions. In his very loose adaptation of Lem’s 1971 book, Folman replaces the dictators with Hollywood studio bosses who use motion capture and digital character re-creation to eliminate the need for human actors.

When Folman was writing the script in 2009 he thought he was writing science fiction and could not envision the post-Avatar reality of today. As Folman tells The Hollywood Reporter, he was unaware that digital scanning machines had already been invented and were capturing, tracking and animating an actor’s exact performance — and that many Hollywood stars, including Wright, had already been scanned.

Folman recently talked to THR to discuss his new film, his next film (an animated Anne Frank) and his fears of a digital future.

Is it shocking that some of the science fiction you came up with five years ago has become reality?

I think my film is more of a documentary now than a sci-fi. It's animated-documentary-sci-fi. When I wrote the script, I honestly had no clue that they were scanning actors in L.A. and I thought I had invented something really clever. The original plan for the scanning scene was supposed to be an X-ray machine, but when I came to L.A. the location scout said, "Why would you write a scene about an X-Ray machine if right down the road at USC they've been scanning actors for years?" So I went there and saw this beautiful dome, they scanned me and I went back home and wrote the scenes.

I know that you are concerned that actors will one day be replaced, but are you also fearful that digital technology in general is endangering the art of cinema?

I'd just say that this profession of filmmaking or becoming a director is totally different than the one I chose 26 years ago. It used to be that you as the director had to create this magic in a very limited amount of time on the set, working with the actors, cinematographer, production designer, etc., and if you didn't create this magic on the set nothing would really save you. This was your craft and it was a beautiful craft. I think today the set in many ways is just a platform for the real work that is done in postproduction. This is a completely different profession because they now have it in their mind that it can be fixed in post. Obviously, I think it will change the soul of movies.

When I watch how my kids grow up with technology I don't think that they will mind in 15 years if the cinema they are watching will be completely digitized actors. I don't think they'll care, though I'm not sure.

Is it not fair to say that with Waltz With Bashir and The Congress, you are embracing some of the new possibilities available to filmmakers with the new digital technology?

Yes, of course. Even with the animation in The Congress, which is a tribute to the Fleischer Brothers films from the 1930s, it was not done completely handmade. It still is being done with software technology. 

The Congress has been interpreted as being vehemently anti-Hollywood. Do you think that is a fair assessment of your film?

That's an interpretation. It's not like I sat down and said, "I'm going to make a real anti-Hollywood picture now." I went for a very long journey from the original book about an imagined Communist state and adapted it into the world of cinema, which is entirely different. I treated it more as a fairy tale and I think that more than being an anti-Hollywood movie it is a longing for the lost cinema that I loved so much when I was a young film student. For me the best of American cinema was the '70s — story-driven films by directors and not by big productions. I think it's about that.

What did Robin Wright, both as an actress and in terms of her personal life, bring to the film?

First, she is a brilliant actress. When I first met her in 2009, it sparked in me that she was the one, that this film was made for her. But then something really interesting happened. I pitched her the story one afternoon and she said, "I will go wherever you take me with this story," and she did. Then I wrote the script and I didn't consult with her while writing it. I just sent her the entire script some eight months later, and there were hardly any comments in regards to "change this, correct that" about her as a character. Which at first I found very brave and very interesting.

Then when we premiered the film at Cannes, I heard her being interviewed and I understood that for her it is not her in the movie. She's playing this woman, who by chance is called Robin Wright. She gave me just the name and two titles (The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump) and this is it. I thought she was joking at first, but then I realized this is true.

Why was it so important to you that she play a partially fictional version of herself, rather than a fully fictional character?

The beauty of it is I don't see it like she does. For me, it's not that fictional and takes a lot from reality. And I thought in order to anchor this idea and story it was essential that the actress play herself and use her name. This is the key idea of the movie.

Because of the distinct uses of animation in Bashir and The Congress, which are quite different from one another, can you talk at all about how you plan to use animation in your upcoming Anne Frank film?

This is a great question. We're about to finish one scene from the movie, a four-minute scene which has taken us five to six months to do. What we’re trying is a new combination between stop-motion backgrounds, with sets that are built, and 2D characters. I'm trying to do something new in this film. It might be this, we're not sure. When we finish development we’ll make a decision.  

The Congress  opens in Los Angeles and 10 additional markets Aug. 29 and then in New York on Sept. 5. It is now available on VOD.