Intense artist Milorad Krstić is making his feature film debut only now, at age 66, with the delightfully surreal animated thriller “Ruben Brandt, Collector” (opening Friday). What took so long? In town earlier this month to attend the Annie Awards, for which “Ruben” earned an independent animated feature nomination, Krstić does not order coffee in the café of his Beverly Hills hotel. He does not need coffee. As his producer wife, Radmila Roczkov, observes quietly, Krstić, crowned in a shock of bowl-cut brown hair, jabs the napkin as if drawing invisible sketches, barely stopping for breath as he explains the genesis of his late-blooming masterpiece.
“I am painter,” Krstić begins. “Since 4 years old, I’ve been painting, drawing, and my world is visual, so to me it’s all the same, whether I’m directing an animated film or making some painting, or drawing pencil on paper, or making book, or putting acrylic color on canvas, or making stage design, or making documentary, whatever it is, I must always express myself in some visual way.”
“But even in my paintings, I always have some story. Before I sign it, I give the painting a title, which means there is some little story inside every painting. I do think of myself as a poet, but a visual poet. Sometimes I make this poetry to be very short, like one drawing or one painting, and sometimes I have a longer story.”
Longer story ideas don’t come around all that often for Krstić . Fifteen years after his 1995 animated short “My Baby Left Me” won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, he crafted the character that would kick-start “Ruben Brand, Collector.” “I made a sketch portrait of a long-necked girl,” he recalls. “Her head was extended as a head of a horse, but still she was beautiful. I knew her name must be Mimi, and I immediately knew she must be the femme fatale in an animated feature action-psychological thriller. The film will be about art, and Mimi will steal the paintings from the famous museums all over the world. Then I sat down and wrote a story about the guy, Ruben Brandt, who is forced by his nightmares to rob museums to get the painting he wants. And Mimi will be a leading member of Ruben’s gang.”
Backed by the Hungarian National Film Fund and a team of about 200 artisans, Krstić populated his heist plot line with paintings by 13 of his favorite artists, including Botticelli, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, whose gun-slinging Elvis Presley twins terrify Ruben in his sleep. “I’ve visited most of the museums you see in the film and use these locations to make Ruben Brandt feel like a James Bond movie,” Krstić says. “We’re jumping all over the world, from the Louvre to Washington, D.C., to New York, St. Petersburg and the Uffizi in Florence. This is a film about art, and I wanted to show that art belongs to the globe.”
Krstić, who moved to Hungary in 1989, grew up in Slovenia watching Hollywood westerns, Fellini flicks and Russian silent films at the local movie house. A devoted cinephile, he crams “Ruben Brandt” with references to such auteurs as Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa. “In Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimba,’” Krstić notes, “There’s a dog with a human hand in his mouth. David Lynch made an homage to Kurosawa in his film ‘Wild at Heart,’ and in ‘Ruben Brandt,’ I paid homage to both directors with a little cardboard dog with a human hand in his mouth hanging from the interior rear-view mirror in the car of the bad guy, Barutanski. By the way, his car is a Lincoln Continental Mark III, a tribute to William Friedkin’s ‘French Connection.’ I wanted to steal from the best by putting these images into my film and hopefully giving them fresh shape. This is how art and science go forward. All the time, we are standing on the shoulders of somebody else.”
A cavalcade of nightmares, car chases, demonic paintings, film-noir suspense, and CIA backstory, peopled by characters with strange faces, “Ruben Brandt” favors dream logic over photo-realistic rationality. Ruben Brandt’s Picasso-esque nose, for example, takes a different color from the rest of his face, while a two-dimensional thief flaps in the wind like a piece of paper. “Creating this diversity of forms was a really precious task for me,” Krstić says. “A character might have three eyes or two noses or whatever, but you need to believe ‘This a real human being.’” Pointing to a dessert on the table, Krstić observes, “Hitchcock said film is not part of life, it’s a slice of life, exactly as in your slice of cake here. We know what is chocolate, what is vanilla. It’s about how you combine the layers. And this movie is my slice.”