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Quay Brothers x Comme des Garcons

Stephen and Timothy Quay show their three-minute short film for Comme des Garcons' new perfume Wonderwood, and talk exclusively to Dazed Digital about working with Rei Kawakubo

Entering the world of the Quay Brothers, Stephen and Timothy, is somewhat akin to the opening sequences in some of their work, you find yourself cautiously, looking in, trying to get a clear perspective on what’s being presented before stepping through. Not that the softly-spoken London-based identical twins from Pennsylvania are not welcoming. On the contrary, they’re great conversationalists, often finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts. It’s just that, like their work, there are countless layers to uncover and numerous questions to ask.

So, where to begin? Their recent commission, a three-minute short for the latest perfume by Comme des Garcons, Wonderwood, is a good place. Known for their visually cryptic and unsuspectedly emotive film making in animation – and occasionally, live action – they construct intricate, darkly-lit, dusty stages where puppets who’ve seen better days and shady characters interact and peer through windows into new worlds shut behind heavy doors. For Wonderwood, a perfume created using solely wood scents like cedar, cypress and sandalwood, they took inspiration from cuts of wood they’d at one time or another picked up and kept under their beds for 20-25 years, for a kingdom where the alchemist is a bird and the peering puppet is…well, us!

Dazed Digital: It’s interesting to watch a film about perfume so I guess the first question that must come up is how do you translate perfume onto the screen?
Timothy Quay: I think it’s thanks to Rei [Kawakubo] and Adrian [Joffe] that they even thought that it has to be a film. They just send off an email saying “are you up for doing a film for Comme des Garcons?” Of course, we said yes. We couldn’t think of finer people to work with.
Stephen Quay: Also, they gave us complete freedom. Normally, when we work for commercials, either they insist on a storyboard or they write the story for you. And Adrian and Rei said, the twins know about the kingdom of wood…
Timothy Quay:…let them run.
Stephen Quay: Let them run with it! So, this is unique in these times, I think.
Timothy Quay: It will be the only time in our life that we had this. Everything else will be downhill!

DD: At the screening, Antoine Lie, ‘the nose’, mentioned you smelled the perfume constantly throughout the making of the film. I’m guessing without a script that was important for creating your own world.
Timothy Quay: Exactly. It was part of the daily ritual to walk into this haze of Wonderwood, to spray it and walk into it.

DD: What was your train of thought and creative process behind it? Did it begin with a clear idea?
Stephen Quay: The initial idea was that it should have a theatrical context for this person, these two eyes that watch. It’s almost like the enchanted forest of wood has a theatrical frame around it and there would be a set number of acts, of scenes, but each one a different forest. And then the idea was that there would be a kind of magical bird as the alchemist that would release the essence of the wood. In the way that if a seed broke open you would get to see what the inner side of it looks like but at the same time it’d make the grain of the wood anointed with its inner oils. It was loose ideas like that that we worked with. We realised that, at the very end of the film when all the elements, all the different grains as thematically chosen by the alchemist, would all fit together beautifully as a floor with 14 different woods and that’s what we ultimately arrived at: the final smell but seen as a parquet floor.
Timothy Quay: It was from disorder to order, by the end. It’s an orchestration and it’s what the perfumer does, that’s their craft, that’s their genius to make. We’re dying to go and see how it works!
Stephen Quay: But then we’d have to make a film!
Timothy Quay: I think there’s never been a documentary on perfume; I’ve never seen one. I’d love to know more about it.
DD: Would that be something of a future project perhaps? A more in-depth foray into perfumery?
Stephen Quay: That would be nice!
Timothy Quay: The one thing we’ve always found that cinema can’t do is to achieve smell. You could probably do an installation where you have a film there with a kind of smell but at the normal cinema it’s impossible.
Stephen Quay: If your film is being distributed around the world nobody can find the formula to make it smell. Like if there’s the smell of autumn leaves burning, how do you do that? You can’t without having a little brush fire in the cinema!
There is a way of creating a tactility where people actually imagine they’re smelling something. But smell and how it creates a path to memory is something, as well. The notion of synaesthesia, when music and the visual elements evoke such an imaginary synthesis that you’re pretty sure you’re smelling it, at least in your imagination.

DD: How was working with a brand like Comme des Garcons?
Timothy Quay: I think it’s because of the uniqueness and the kind of renegade sensibility - even though renegade sounds like it’s disordered when in fact they’re incredibly focused - it’s just a great honour to be pulled in to this maelstrom that Rei has created with Comme des Garcons. We’re just totally enamoured. When she came down to the studio with Adrian she was very quiet, just observing and listening but we felt this enormous intensity.

DD: You’ve worked over different mediums in film, music, opera, theatre. Is there one that you’re much more happy to work in or more interested in or are you always happy to explore different grounds?
Stephen Quay: It’s nice leaping, going from one to the other, because every one pushes another discipline. So, if you’re suddenly being asked to do a documentary film you bring together a lot of the fictional side because that can really inform a documentary. I guess it’s a bit like a perfumer, you balance out the strengths to create, something leads a bit more or one contaminates the other, in a good way. For us, it’s great to do an animation film and then to do a live action film and to work with the ballet sometimes. I think every one exercises a different discipline and we like that. And commercials or a little spot like this is great!

DD: It seems there’s a notion in a lot of your work of peering into a different world, the eye always looking in.
Timothy Quay: We don’t really use dialogue a lot. I guess it puts you, the observer, in the place of a puppet. How does the puppet perceive the life in the film? It’s an avenue, I think.
Stephen Quay: We’re used to saying, ‘it’s live action’. You see another articulated world, highly articulated because something is abstract but also very organised in its abstractness and I think it allows you to think…if the puppet can handle it then it’s up to you!

Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons is available at Dover Street Market and Selfridges from June 24.