Dave, an artist who has yet to complete anything significant in his career, builds a fort in his living room out of pure frustration, only to wind up trapped by the fantastical pitfalls, booby traps, and critters of his own creation.
Bill Watterson is known for his work as an actor on films like JERSEY BOYS and OUIJA. I sat down to chat with him about directorial debut DAVE MADE A MAZE.
The film will be featured in this years Boston Underground Film Festival Sunday March 26th, 6pm at the Brattle Theatre. If you are in the area, go see it. I know its only March, but I can't imagine this not making my top ten of 2017. Its one of the most innovative films I've seen since ANOMALISA. If you can't make the Boston screening, check out their official website to see when it will be playing near you. I can't wait to see the film again on April 8th when it plays the Phoenix Film Festival.
How are you today?
The film has the creativity energy of a micro-budget project, but is told with the competency of a major studio release. What was the aesthetic inspiration for the film?
It all started with the box fort. All of the fantasy had to spill out from what was already there—it had to be an exaggeration of what was real. We always said ‘what’s the MAZE version of this?’ ‘What happens when this gets inside the Maze?’ What happens to sound, to walls, to inanimate objects, to blood, to ideas, to fears—how does the Maze warp them when it gets its hands on it? But it always had to be tied back to the genesis of the world we were building, which was the box fort, the living room, and the objects you see around there—the keyboard, the circular saw, the origami. We were also saved because the whole feel of the movie had to be handmade—Dave is an artist, who works with his hands, so the world that would expand out from that had to feel like it was generated by an artist—you needed rough edges, mistakes, dripping hot glue, pencil marks. If it were pristine, it wouldn’t have honored the premise; it wouldn’t have rung true. That’s why the sets had to be janky, the effects had to be practical; it all had to be tactile, handmade, or we’d be lying to the audience.
The art direction/set design of the film is incredibly impressive and deceptively simple. By that I mean it could appear thrown together at first glance but once the story reveals itself, it’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into each of the set pieces. It’s like a cross between Gondry’s (woefully underrated) BE KIND REWIND and Minter’s WE ARE THE FLESH. Were you concerned that the emotional beats of the story could be undercut due to stylist choices?
Never. There is so much passion and intent in all the artists’ work on this movie, and it very deliberately mirrored the character of Dave and his strong desire to make something that mattered, that meant something to somebody. It enhanced every emotional beat by raising the stakes, helping us sell the impossibility of the fantasy, and driving everything back to Dave—if he was a lousy artist and his cardboard box fort fantasy world was unimpressive, then how would the audience, or Annie, or anybody else ever root for him? Just because he struggled to complete projects in his life didn’t mean he wasn’t a great artist. It was a movie about someone who was stuck, not someone who was kidding himself.
You made cardboard cut outs creepy, silly, and at times genuinely beautiful. What was the shooting schedule like for the film? I’m assuming this was shot on a fairly tight schedule. If that’s the case, how did you pull it off?
20 days of principal photography with full cast and crew, 4 days of pick ups without the actors and with a skeleton crew spread out over several months. I had a brilliant AD, a one in a million Art Director, and a bunch of people who weren’t willing to let us fail. Telling the story right meant too much to too many people for us to miss the mark. We had little to no rehearsal or pre-lighting time, and just kept going on the fly, building the next set in between takes, repurposing everything, and everyone was on their toes and ready to problem solve as the train kept rolling down the tracks.
Most movies live and die by their casting, for your film you can amplify that 10 fold. Nick Thune and Meera Rohit Kumbhani are asked to deliver bat-shit crazy exposition and they both pull it off with grace and charm. Can you talk a little bit about the casting of the film?
We didn’t have casting sessions. Everyone was offered the role flat out. I wanted Nick because of his inherent youthfulness—his intelligent silliness and his baby face. Dave’s character has an arrested development, but if you filter that through a child-like innocence, playfulness, and sense of wonder, you can buy a lot of audience (and girlfriend) forgiveness. The fact that he wasn’t rocking his signature beard when we cast him was a stroke of luck. And Meera just got it—she read the script, and she got it. She had an impossible task—be patient with Dave but not a pushover; be demanding of him but not a nag; be the girlfriend but not the sidekick. She was flawless. Those eyes—you just don’t want her to ever suffer. And her toughness, her strength, was something she didn’t have to push—it’s in there, it’s who she is. And James is American Gold. Adam is such a gamer; I’d known him from other projects and knew he’d be perfect. I could keep going—it’s a dream cast. I really couldn’t believe it. Some were friends, people I’d admired, people I knew I could reach, but mostly, if you said yes to this project, it’s because you understood what we were going for, what was at the heart of the story, and you wanted to play in that sandbox. Cuz you sure didn’t say yes for the paycheck. And props to Lordan Napoli, an outstanding casting director who brought great people to my attention and put the puzzle together with us. Every single actor was a win.
How has your work as an actor impacted your work as a director and now that you’ve directed a feature how has that influenced your work as an actor?
Improv is a big one. Always asking ‘what if?’ with genuine curiosity, and being quick on your feet, ready for anything, and being a good listener. I also had a pool of really talented directors I’d worked with who were willing to let me shadow them on set, or buy them a beer and ask them for advice. And I would take notice of what NOT to do when I was acting; I’ve worked on a lot of student and low budget and first timer projects, and I noticed what sucked for the actors, what shut us down, killed our inspiration and sense of fun, and I tried to avoid that. For the second part of the question, I spent a lot of time breaking down scenes to be able to direct them. I had to know them in and out; the bigger story and the smaller, more immediate one; motivations and moments before; action words and physical choices to offer the actors; a lot of the stuff you read in the books. I didn’t want to be empty handed, leave my actors hanging for the times they might need me. All that scene breakdown work comes in very hand as an actor, particularly for auditions, because you’re ultimately directing yourself during your preparation, and it’s on you to know what you’re doing and why.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of Actor/Directors, Clint Eastwood would be a (not to mix metaphors) first round draft pick. Did you learn anything from your experience on JERSEY BOYS that you used on DAVE MADE A MAZE? And if not what’s the story you walked away from that experience with that you tell at dinner parties?
He was kind to me. He took the time to calmly introduce himself to me, even though there were a hundred things going on, five cameras, 30 extras, live music, bigger actors with actual lines in the scenes, and he came up to me and welcomed me to set even though I was a tiny cog in the machine that day. That goes a long way to making an actor, or any crew member, feel comfortable, committed, and welcome. It lets you know your presence is acknowledged, and it inspires you to give your best effort because you’re confident it will be appreciated. I felt like a million bucks after he came up to me and shook my hand. It made all the difference.
Will you direct another feature?
Hell yeah. Many strange things are afoot.
Do you still go to see films theatrically? If that’s something that’s important to you, how can filmmakers inspire audiences to leave the house and watch a film, with all the modern distractions that stand in their way?
All the time. I hate watching movies any other way. I still do, because there’s too much I want to see, so much of which is not coming to a theater any time soon. But I really don’t enjoy streaming, for so many reasons. I’m in revival houses all the time, watching bizarre programming at The Cinefamily, gearing up for the Film Noir Festival at The Egyptian, trucking out to the west side to see re-releases and animation at the Aero. It’s the only way to fly. All a filmmaker can do is make the best film they can make; there are so many other wild factors that go into how and where and why it is consumed, to try to control it would make you mad. I don’t think it’s on the filmmakers nearly so much as the marketers, and the consumers. If you can’t tell the difference between the theatrical experience and the ‘device’ experience—if the powerful speakers, the communal gasps and laughter and cheers, the total submersion of a darkened theater—if that doesn’t mean anything to you, if that isn’t worth getting off your couch, then I can’t help you. That’s not on me.