Review and Interview by Bears Fonte
Not surprisingly, the film that took home the narrative audience award at Slamdance is the most spectaculous independent film I’ve seen in some years, DAVE MADE A MAZE. A triumph of design and creativity, Bill Watterson’s film taps into failure anxiety that so many people in the mid-thirties feel, the desire to want to achieve something remarkable. Nick Thune plays Dave, a man whose flight of fancy has hopped from project to project until Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) leaves for the weekend and he begins to construct a maze in his living room out of cardboard. Obsessed with the details of the corridors inside, Dave loses himself in his own labyrinth, which somehow has grown impossibly large, far bigger than the living room could allow in a Mark Z. Danielewski House of Leaves sort of way. His past pursuits and failures begin to haunt the maze and make it way more dangerous than the creator intended. After Annie holds a party round the maze, she and all of Dave’s friends (including a would-be documentary filmmaker) venture inside to try to rescue Dave.
DAVE MADE A MAZE is the kind of film that only comes around once in a decade (and more than likely once in a filmmaker’s life). Handcuffed by budgetary restraints but blessed with total control and willing (and often free) collaborators, Watterson incorporates every crazy thought he can into the film, producing a collage of filmmaking styles that echo’s Dave’s own mind all in service of a beautiful unified goal. As the friends search Dave’s handiwork, they are attacked by origami guardians, bleed silly string, turn into paper bag puppets (fandango!) and venture into corridors of Dave’s mind that can only be expressed using stop motion animation. It is true Gesamtkunstwerk, a ‘total work of art,’ a term I learned in grad school that I never thought I would see in independent film.
Is that enough hyperbole? Are you read for the interview? Let me add a little more fuel to the fire of the desire that must be burning in you to see this film. DAVE MADE IS A MAZE tackles the metaphysical meanderings of Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK far more effectively, all the while embodying the imaginative design of Kaufman’s ANOMALISA.
I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Bill Watterson and lead actor Nick Thune (Dave) at Slamdance just before the film’s world première.
BEARS: So crazy amount of cardboard. Where did you get all that cardboard?
Watterson: We wanted to pick up some spindles from American Apparel. Basically the spikes that kill [one fo the characters – I won’t ruin it]. We pulled up with our U-Haul, and the guy just walked us on the floor, and said, “do you want anything else?” And there were pallets of pristine, clean cardboard, including the ones with the holes in it we built to make it look like— we called it the Kubrick Corridor, you know, 2001, the Empire Strikes Back. As soon as we saw it, we said, “we gotta build an octagonal corridor. We had an entire U-Haul truck completely stuffed to the gills, and we thought, “well this is going to be great.” Four days into production? The production designer said, “er, we’re going to run out.” So blissfully we were at a sound stage in Glendale, next to Solar City, and they had an exclusively cardboard dumpster, that they let us pilfer.
Thune: We were also right by a brewery.
Watterson: That was also really, really nice. We did some of our own pilfering.
BEARS: So was it always intended to be cardboard?
Watterson: Yeah. From the get-go, that was in the script stage.
Thune: And the designers have a background in cardboard art.
Watterson: Yeah John Sumner, one of the two head production designers— he does everything. He works in stop-motion, he works for Robot Chicken. But he’s also a fine artist who works in cardboard. And then Jeff White the art director, Jeff brought in a buddy of his, Mike Murnane, who came down from San Francisco, and is also a fine artist who works with cardboard. He’s a member of the Cardboard Institute of Technology, up in San Francisco.
BEARS: Wait, is that really a thing?
Watterson: It is. It’s a real thing. A lot of people who work in cardboard jumped in and started getting their friends and the team just started to build with people who just thought, “this is a sandbox for us and what we do.”
Thune: I brought my son to set one day and it was really funny, this year and half year old just stare up at this wall of cardboard. I think that any age will think this is really cool. The kids may look at this and think it’s really cool looking. And the older people will think, “wow, cardboard, like really?”
BEARS: So cardboard is so much a part of this film— you had that first? “I’m just gonna make a movie where things are built out of cardboard.”
Watterson: It started out of building a fort. It became a lot bigger in terms of the themes we were discussing— the maze is a metaphor for the creative process, [mocking himself] dah duh dah duh. And it’s dangerous because an artist can be dangerous to himself and to the people he loves when he’s frustrated and not being productive. It became very glam and glorious, but ultimately it did start with the idea of a box fort. So you go inside and everything has to be born out of that initial idea of a box fort. Everything is filtered through cardboard, paper, even the gore, the blood, everything was filtered through that idea of a paper-cardboard, tactile handmade crafty world.
BEARS: Well that’s so much a different feel than how movies are made now, where everything is CGI and you don’t see any of it.
Watterson: And that was all baked in. If you’re making a movie about an artist, who works with his hands, and our movie DOESN’T have a tactile handmade feel, including the score— everything— play the autotune pianos, I want your cymbals to have cracks in them— it’s a misstep if the whole movie, conceptually, top-down, visually, sonically, doesn’t feel handmade, then it’s a total misstep. That’s why the animations were cut-paper. We used stop-motion instead of CGI when we could have easily put a CGI bird flying through. No, it’s got to be stop-motion, otherwise I’m lying. I’m lying to the audience.
Thune: Well my cardboard hand too. The first time they fitted the gloves on me, the cardboard gloves. And they had to make a couple of adjustments, I brought it back and was like, “thanks.” And they were like, “But I spent a lot of time making that. Just be careful, Nick.” “Yeah, whatever guys.”
Watterson: But I was surrounded by artists. The whole time. The actors, of course, and the art department, the cinematographer and I was just surrounded by artists. To make a movie about an artist and be in a world of artists that were constantly blowing me away was— it was just a dream come true.
BEARS: So how big was the studio? Did you only have one room at a time?
Watterson: Tiny. Two. We never had more than two rooms. We built the apartment all in one, and then once we were able to start taking down some of the apartment, and repurposing it, we were able to fit two, two-and-a-half sets at any given time.
BEARS: So there was no reshoots? You had to get everything once it was built?
Watterson: We had twenty days of principal photography, we wrapped and stored. We had four days of pick-up shoots that didn’t involve the actors. It was miniatures, when we panned down into the gears under Kristen Vangsness’s foot.
Thune: How did you shoot when it goes through the fan and finds me? [Nick is asking about an incredibly difficult shot at the end of the film that goes through the whole maze].
Watterson: Every day on every set, the last thing we did, we did a fly through with a camera-man handheld and we’d play Yackety Sax [ala Benny Hill] as he went through. He’d do a camera fly through every set then we’d lock off the camera and destroy the set. So then at the end of the movie, we were able this scene where the camera flies all the way through the maze to find Nick. Not to give too much away but… [removing what gave away too much] it looks like a million-dollar sequence.
Thune: And this was all my idea.
Watterson: and then when you watch the movie, you get to have these epic moments that feel like they would have cost millions of dollars, but it was just tight scheduling.
Thune: I went out and saw the work space. When you get an opportunity to be in a very low budget, indie, I’ve just stopped accepting all of them because you might just be wasting a month of your life for people that don’t really care that much. You want to meet people who care. You want to make something you’re going to be proud of. When you get to the place they were working at in North Hollywood, it was like, “wow!” And these guys aren’t getting paid right now— these are all pre-production and that was maybe a month before the movie. We just kept talking and talking.
Watterson: I wanted Nick very early on. The character Dave is old enough to where he probably should have his act more together, but creative and playful enough, you could maybe buy some forgiveness. I think visually to sell that, I needed the boyish charm. You needed that youthful appearance on camera to buy the audiences, and Annie’s patience and forgiveness.
BEARS: Yeah. I love the way it opens. With the documentary inside the film interview. I sort of loved and hated the way it opens. And there was a moment where I was like, “ahh, this is gonna be a fucking mock-umentary through the whole thing.”
Watterson: Which is a calculated risk. I knew that was a risk.
BEARS: Yeah, but it actually gave a really nice moment where it wasn’t that, and you’re watching a camera crew go through, and they’re pretty inept, and they’re not going to be able to tell this story.
Watterson: Somewhere out there, we’re going to cut Harry’s documentary that he shot— with Harry’s voice over.
BEARS: So, have you read House of Leaves?
Watterson: No but it’s been referenced to me more than once. So that’s my first purchase when I get out of here.
BEARS: It’s unbelievable. It’s actually the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, but not in the Stephen King-kind of frightening way. It just messes with your brain. So much of that idea of, something could be much larger on the inside.
Watterson: Are you a Doctor Who Fan?
BEARS: Of course.
Watterson: That idea of the Tardis— the phone box and you open it and it’s much bigger on the inside. I don’t know who first had that concept— I’m sure it was some Greek tragedy— but I still think that’s just the greatest idea in the world. That’s still the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. So to try and convince an audience that we can do that too, that was really fun.
BEARS: Tell me about the thought process of mixing all the media. There’s no reason why you had to have cartoons or have hand-puppets made.
Watterson: It was a combination of a couple of things. The degree of the suspension of disbelief we needed to get away with the movie at all, meant we might as well do everything. If they’re going to buy this, they’re going to buy anything so let’s play. It was also the team that we brought together. A lot of them are from the Stupid Buddy, Robot Chicken world. So we had animators, people who worked in miniatures, puppeteers, we had them in our stable. So we were like, “let’s take advantage of that.” Tricia Goma, our production designer, is a brilliant cut-and-paper director— wonderful aesthetic. So I had the idea for a cut-paper credit sequence from the beginning. That was in the script as cut-paper specifically. And then also just building out on the character Dave. If you look at some of the wide-shots of the apartment, everything that ends up animated is somewhere in the apartment. So it’s almost like this meta-idea, everything you’re seeing is something that Dave made, or could have made. Like I said, if we’re making a movie about an artist who works with his hands, you gotta have a bunch of artists working with their hands. I’m a huge fan of all that medium.
Thune: Would you even say that, and I know this is probably something you’d never want to say, with a limited budget sometimes, it’s like, okay, well this could be a scene that we could do something out of—
Watterson: Out of desperation comes innovation. Even the crafty blood, where we used silly string and confetti instead of blood, it was a wonderful, very fun, creative decision, that’s when I felt like the movie was really alive.
BEARS: Tell me about playing a character that has created something that he both loves and is terrified of. It is coming out of your brain but it is also totally uncontrollable.
Thune: I guess the hardest part is trying to convince them to help me finish it, you know that third act thing. “But guys, I’ve got all this cardboard!” You know, I never look at it in a big picture like that, maybe I’m not a good enough actor to do that.
Watterson: that’s definitely not the case.
Thune: Every day after reading it, and working on the scenes, I just look at the scene before and the scene after— what does this scene mean and what is my drive in this scene and what is my character trying to build towards? And it felt really good to be a down and out guy to have done something really good for the first time. And also it was something significant. That was a fun part to play. Yeah, people are dying, but fuck it, it works, hey. We did it.
DAVE MADE A MAZE world premiered at Slamdance and should play many, many festivals this year if we are lucky. I fully intend to bring Bill out Austin for an Other Worlds Austin Orbiter screening.