INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Randall Christopher

Randall Christopher's animated short film The Driver is Red is as mysterious and compelling as its title. The Driver is Red tells the story of Mossad's capture of Adolf Eichmann in fourteen minutes of fluid yet electric linework from the perspective of agent Zvi Aharoni. Combining the charm of hand-drawn animation with the suspense and drama of a spy film, Randall Christopher's film derives its name from the coded message Aharoni sent to his superiors in Israel announcing Eichmann's apprehension by Mossad: "The Driver is Red."

The Driver is Red was an official selection at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Before he set off to show his work to Hollywood's movers and shakers in the snowy resort town of Park City, Utah, Randall Christopher graciously spoke to me about the process of creating his acclaimed film.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

I was looking at the artist statement for The Driver is Red that you have on your site. Obviously and unfortunately, the subject matter is all too relevant for our time rough now. You're an animator, so what made you think, "I can tell this story with animation?"

That's what I do. That's my trade; I don't make films. I got really interested in the story after reading a New York Times article two years ago that was about historical curiosities Israel had released, including handwritten letters of Eichmann--the handwritten appeal letter. And I was wondering, "what was this guy's story?" I didn't grow up knowing much about any of that. The Holocaust wasn't in my school. It's really awful.

You grew up in Florida?

Yes. Orlando. I think south Florida has gotten a little better [in terms of Holocaust education].

Right, because there's a larger Jewish community there... but not in Orlando.

Right. It shouldn't matter, though!

Right, absolutely. It's just that I'm Jewish, so I learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew school. I think we had one sentence about it in my AP US History textbook, or maybe a paragraph. I knew about it because of Hebrew school.

So I got really interested in this story, and of course this larger narrative. What really drew me in at first was what my film does very well: the exciting "good guys versus the bad guys" spy film. All the spy tradecraft. I read a book called The House on Garibaldi Street, which was written by the head of Mossad, Isser Harel, who was the mastermind behind the operation. And I just got really into the tearing of the banknote, and how they snuck agents into the country.

I've had times in my life where I was interested in the Third Reich and studied what they did, but I've never gone that deep, and I've never gone that deep into the Holocaust. I was blown away. Treblinka really affected me. I realized that it's the most awful thing that's ever happened in human history, in my opinion. And I got interested in that. I draw and I do animation, and so if I'm gonna tell the story, I'm either going to make a film and hire actors or make an animation. It's a documentary, but it's a historical event where nothing exists. You cant even go to the place anymore where all that went down. It's gone.

The buildings are gone.

The nature of the whole thing is nothing was left behind. So you're either going to hire actors and recreate it, or you can do an animation, and I do animation. I don't make live action films. But I was so obsessed. I was watching documentaries and taking notes with no plan in mind of doing anything about it. I was just really interested.

So which documentaries did you watch? Did you watch [Claude Lanzmann's] Shoah?

I did watch Shoah. The film was near completion when I watched it just this past year. A really good documentary is "The Nazis: A Warning From History." It's a BBC series from the 90s. It's pretty incredible, so that's a good one.

But it was very organic in that I just had this idea: maybe I'll do a little animated short. I didn't know how it was going to go, or how I was going to write it--just a little something I can put together and just throw online. I'm always doing little art projects, and I thought maybe this is my next art project. And then there were lots of ways it could go--how to tell the story. But I think was I was most interested in--what really snuck in my head--was the meeting where they met on the other side of the world. To think that these two guys were German! Both these guys were German.

A change in how I told the story came from an article in Haaretz from 2010. Its' a great article about the operation where they interviewed three of the guys who were still alive. It's long, in-depth, and goes into a lot of aspects of the operation. But there was one question deep in the interview where the interviewer asked, "who contributed the most?" And they all said "Zvi Aharoni." And they also said that Aharoni never got enough credit. He's been left out of the history. And that got me curious, and I discovered he wrote a book in the 90s, and I read his book.

To me that was a really interesting angle--that he was German. All these guys that went down there all came from Israel, but they originated elsewhere. Different guys from Eastern Europe. The captain of the team was born in Israel. But to think that the task to find Eichmann--"I'll put my best guy on it"--that would be the German guy. Aharoni says in his book, "I only knew German culture growing up. Brahms and Beethoven were mine." His father fought for Germany in World War 1. And to see the trajectory of his life--every person in his family except for his mother and brother was murdered and slaughtered, and his friends and their families. And this other guy born in Germany was the guy doing that, the guy running the show! And that they would meet 16 years after the whole thing, on the other side of the world, on a dusty desolate road in the middle of the night was something I found really compelling. And no one's really told it that way. They've left Zvi Aharoni out of it.

It's really poignant the way you've done it, because he's not only putting an end to the story. He's not really getting revenge, but ensuring that justice is done for his people by getting Eichmann. But he's also trying to atone for his country as a German. There's that other level, where he's trying to correct his own country's wrongs by trying to get Eichmann.

He wouldn't have agreed with that. He was very anti-German, and he was a bitter dude. He just passed away five years ago. In his book he writes about a school from his hometown in Germany that asked him to come. They invited him to come and speak, and I thought, "what an amazing opportunity to really continue the healing and making this right and bridging the gap." And in his book he says he had no interest in doing that. Which is totally understandable! So many people who fled Europe got to Israel and were happy to never see a non-Jew ever again after what they'd been through. So many people had that attitude, and Zvi Aharoni had that attitude.

When I was making the film, it continued to morph into this bigger sophisticated project without any planning. It just got better and better. It was a miracle of fate how I met the actor [who played Aharoni] and he was just incredible. It's a pretty crazy story how I met that guy. It turned out to be perfect. It was just a chance meeting in a coffee shop where I was talking to someone about this project, saying, "I don't think I'll ever make it because I can't find a voice actor to pull it off." And this person overheard me say that and just tapped me on the shoulder: "if you're looking for someone... I'm the head playwright at San Diego Repertory Theater and I know the guy you need to talk to."

Mark Pinter is a New York veteran actor. He'd been on Mad Men; he's been on Law and Order. I said, "here's this project I'm thinking of doing." The first thing he ever wrote back to me was, "this is important" and "I want to be on this project." I was completely broke at the time and literally had no money. I almost got evicted. Mark who is very expensive, said, "you don't even have to pay me. Of course, I'd like to get paid if you make money from this film," and I was able to pay him eventually. I still owe him a little money. He's been great and been very open--"look, don't let any payments to me hold up this project. You gotta get this project out." It's been great having him as a real support for this project.

And then my buddy Jared [Callahan] came along. He makes films; he's a producer and he actually owed me a favor. I did some animation for him on his last project and I did it for free. I didn't expect anything but he really saw where the project was going and really liked it. He said "Look, I owe you a favor. Let me come on board, let me produce it, let's do film festivals." I was thinking I was just going to put it online, because I wanted a lot of people to see it. He said: "if you want a lot of people to see it, the worst thing you can do is put it online. It''l get lost in the white noise and it'll get a thousand views and no one will see it." And now it's going to have a gigantic reach at Sundance.

In terms of the style, when I was looking at the animation, it really made me think of William Kentridge. Is he someone who inspired you in terms of style?

Yeah. I taught college drawing for 15 years and I always show Kentridge in my classes. Its funny; I started thinking about the story and I was writing it, and there were lots of different directions it could've gone, but I eventually landed on the idea of making it about Ricardo Klement, and making it this mystery that would have this reveal partway through. There's a friend of mine named Ken Garduno. I love his illustrations, and I started thinking of having him do the illustrations. I started to sketch some of the scenes in my sketchbook, just to get a running inventory of how many drawings I was going to have to hire Ken Garduno to do that I would animate eventually. And the first drawing I did I looked at, and thought "it should be like that style: sketchy black and white. And it'll save me a lot of money!"

I have sketchbooks from floor to ceiling going back to my undergrad in the 90s where I was just honing that black and white sketchy style. I'm really aware of how that stuff works. That is really my wheelhouse, that kind of drawing. And even thinking of the New York school of the 1950s, Pollock and particularly Motherwell--the idea of the line, and the idea of the mark. It's pictures of things, but theres other stuff going on there and I have a really sophisticated handle on that kind of drawing. But for me it's not imaginative. If you look at Ken Garduno, his drawings are super creative, and I could just see him doing these amazing drawings of some of these scenes. But I realized that it would take you out of the story a bit if you start to get focused on these imaginative drawings. With mine, they still looked cool but they aren't really "imaginative."

Especially with a mystery--you have to pay so much attention to the pacing and the story, right? You can't really risk getting distracted.

So it just worked out that that's the kind of drawing that I do a lot of! I just sit around sketching people in coffee shops and it worked. It just worked for this story. Better than anything I think.

What comes after Sundance? Do you hope people will show The Driver is Red in schools or museums?

A couple people--a couple of teachers have approached me a lot about that. And that would be one of my dreams. I think teachers see that and just light up: "I can't get my students to be interested in World War 2, but they'll watch that, and it'll get them interested in it. It's like a graphic novel." So I think it's got a real hook to it. I definitely know there's going to be an educational component. I'm going to try and get it into schools as much as possible, and maybe develop it into something else. I haven't thought about it a whole lot.

For me, my goal was to make a really good film, and so anything else that happens from that is icing on the cake. I was able to pull off what I set out to do. I had a great team. Mark's incredible; I was so lucky. Spencer [Rabin] is a good friend of mine, and he was really busy and reluctant but I talked him into it, and he's really excited now. He did the music for it. He comes from the band world--he's an artist, and he comes from an art perspective. So I think that's a really good component of the film, that it's not a traditional Hollywood string section by Hans Zimmer. It's this guy from a cool band who made that music. So that's a big part of it. It just worked out. The story is pretty amazing, too. I like how I spun it, and I think it's really interesting, but the actual story is really incredible.