INTERVIEW WITH DON by IAN BARKER
FOCUS film journal
"Can we meet at night? Iím kind of nocturnal now."
I agree to meet with Don Hertzfeldt on his turf and under the cover of darkness. We settle on an anonymous strip-mall coffee shop with quiet outdoor tables. He has arrived early and I find him sitting quietly in an easy chair by the door. Wearing an orange and black striped wool cap, a jacket, and several layers of clothing, he is obviously prepared to stick it out until the chilly early-morning hours.
I order a large coffee and ask what he wantsóIím buying. He is concerned by the $3.05 price tag on the Naked Juice that catches his eye. I try to reassure him, telling him Iím feeling extravagant having found a 20 dollar bill on an I.V. street yesterday. As the tape recorder rolls, he speaks quietly, not wanting to disturb the fellow coffee-shop dwellers. He leans over and asks a man and a woman sitting at a table ten feet away, "Would it bother you if weíre talking over here?" A few minutes into the interview he cringes slightly and signals for me to lower my voice as I loudly praise his filmic achievements. Itís hard to believe this humble, seemingly innocent human being is responsible for a series of darkly comic, sometimes disturbing animated films featuring decapitation, mayhem, child endangerment, eye-stealing aliens, and gratuitous cruelty to bunnies. Don Hertzfeldt, a graduate of UCSB Film Studies, has received numerous awards for his work, including an Academy Award nomination for his latest animated short film, Rejected. The following is what the tape recorder captured on that fateful night of May 2, 2001.
When did you first start doing creative things like animation and filmmaking?
I got a video camera when I was fifteen that had a frame-by-frame motor on it. You could shoot animation on it as long as you watched it in fast-forward to get a sense of the motion. Iíd been drawing since I was really little and have always wanted to make movies, so it was just kind of a logical marriage. When youíre in high school and even when youíre a freshman in film school, everything you shoot live-action is going to look like a really low-budget student film, despite your best efforts. You canít control the weather, you don't have much time, you probably donít have the best equipment, and youíre spending four times as much money than if you were animating, where you have complete control over every element. So it was just a marriage of convenience and in high school I made a lot of strange video animation. Iíve got tapes and tapes full of that old stuff. I probably made a cartoon every weekend, all of it self-taught, trial and error. When I was off to film school, all of that self-taught knowledge just carried over logically into shooting on film.
Did you take an animation class, or anything like that?
No, not a traditional one. Iíve never taken an art class, never taken an animation class. [UCSB] is very theory based and history based, thatís kind of where my outlook on film comes from.
Would you say that UCSB changed the way you look at film, or was it a natural development, the way you were already thinking about it?
Really, the stories matured because of film schoolófinding new ways to say something through film. Certainly taking the analysis and history and theory classes makes you a better storyteller without even knowing it, from learning the relationship of a film to its audience, how sound works, how time and narrative works.
Would you describe yourself as an animator, or a filmmaker that works in animation?
A filmmaker who works in animation, absolutely.
How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker: as a thinker or as a feeler?
Animation is kind of misleading because a lot of people see it and itís just a bunch of drawings and they think itís just pure feeling, pure art form. But when youíre literally constructing every frame with your hands, thereís a lot of math involved. Thereís a lot of technical stuff to worry about that you donít worry about in a live-action film and itís easy to get bogged down when youíre literally looking at comic timing as math and numbers and somethingís funnier when you subtract or add. Itís a very strange way to create something. those animators who do get bogged down in the technique get very wrapped up in the drawings and get very wrapped up in the animation itself and the visuals, without paying that sort of microscopic attention to the story. So what we try to do instead is not have to start a film with a completed script. We improvise as much as we can to have the sort of freedom to keep things fresh, to keep things movingóand to play. And that way, despite all the technical thinking youíve still got freedom to move around and youíre not tied down by anything.
Iím sure a lot of people have asked you about the "deeper meanings" in your films. Do your films have deeper meanings, and if so, who puts them thereóyou, the viewers, the critics?
Sure they do. Theyíre there, but theyíre not always the ones people see, and thatís fine. Every festival I went to that Billyís Balloon played, people would just grab me by the lapels and demand, "What does this film mean?!" Weíve gotten the most random, and great, interpretations of that. Somebody thought it was about alcoholism. Somebody thought it was about children in America and their place in societyóall these great deep meanings. Of course thereís something going on there, thereís always a metaphor, thereís always something represented. But one of the things Iíve always hated, if I can go back to the music analogy: letís say you have a favorite band and you have a favorite song and you grew up with this band and you love this song and youíve heard it all your life and you play it over and over. It means something to you. Maybe the lyrics are a little obscure and youíre not sure what it meant when it was written, but over time itís grown on you in its own way. I hate it when you then read an interview with the writer of the song and he says, "That song was about the struggles of amputees in South America," and it completely invalidates the whole song for you. And all of a sudden the song that meant so much to you is just meaningless. Iíd hate to do that, on any level. I never talk about whatís behind it. I think itís not for me to say after itís done. Itís something that once the filmís out there, it is its own animal and your interpretation of the film is going to be just as valid as what I meant. Ideally, what I meant might come through to you, but I donít like to say anybodyís wrong, so I just donít say anything. Itís the criticís job to find that stuff and the audienceís job to feel that stuff, but itís also something Iím not always totally conscious of, either. Iíve never met a director who puts every little meaning in there intentionally. A lot of it is intuition and a lot of it is accident. I can tell plenty of stories about little accidents that happen on a production or things you have to compromise on and it ends up seeming really profound. And you have to go with it because it makes sense and it feels right. And after the fact people read into that and you donít want to burst their bubble about it.
So other people find something that wasnít really there?
Well, itís a little of both. For instance, you can start with the stick figures. When Lily and Jim came out, a lot of critics were said, "Itís so ingenious about how they use these crude little stick figures, yet theyíre having these really adult conversations and adult situations, etc, etc, ...the childishness of dating," and all of that.
Like ironic juxtaposition.
Yeah, of course, thatís there and it obviously helps the story along and it makes it more charming. But thatís also just the way I draw. Stick figures are the best I can do. Itís hardly an artistic intent; itís more of a necessity.
With all of the work you put into making each of your films they must have a personal value to you. Are they autobiographical to a certain extentó Lily and Jim, Rejected, Ah Líamour?
Yeah. You have you write what you know, obviously, thatís what everyone tells you. Even if itís not something obvious, everything has something to do with me. Ah Líamour, I mean everyone goes through that, especially when theyíre a freshman in college. Genre is very much coming from improvisational theater; I used to do a lot of theater.
Yeah. Thereís certain improvisational games you play where you have actors on stage. Youíve seen these comedy shows.
Like Whoís Line is it Anyway?
Right, and you yell out a line and they have to adapt. They have to change what theyíre doing. And thatís where [Genre] came from. Lily and Jim: everyoneís been on that date before. Billyís Balloon is probably a lot deeper and Iím afraid to go into it. Rejected óhalf of itís true and half of itís lies.
So did you really send something off to the Family Channel or the Family Learning Channel?
No. I was approached to do commercial work like that, I donít remember what station it was. But "Youíre watchingÖ" whatever it was. I would never do commercial work, itís against every bone in my body.
So you rejected them?
No, no, no. [Laughing] I got together with my friend and we just kind of joked about the whole situation. This would only be fun to do if I could literally do whatever I wantedóand just f*ck around and send them really bad stuff and see if theyíll take it, see what we could get away with. And so we kind of just screwed around and came up with some of the worst commercial bits we could come up with, the most offensive, terrible things. It just kind of escalated to the point where these were pretty funny bits. I didnít even need a real corporation, I could just make up my own and we had another film here, and I could make fun of myself at the same time. Thatís kind of where it started, and, again, we donít start with a completed script. I had no idea how I would end this thing; I didnít know where it would go. I started with that premise and let it kind of grow on its own.
Complete chaos. We completely lost control of the film. It wasnít until midway through production, actually near the end of production, that I finally figured out how I would end it: with this escalation. What would happen if this guy keeps getting rejected, if starts getting frustrated and he starts hurrying himself and starts losing his mind? How would that affect the work and the things that live in the work? It all kind of built, and thatís where the ending snowballed from. The film was complete improvisation; it was a crazed, crazed period. I already forgot what your question was.
I just wanted to know whether there was a literal rejection... I hear there was a lot of effort that went into the sound work on Rejected.
Yeah, we spent over eighty hours mixing sound on a short, which is really just unheard of. I donít know how much time is spent on indie features. The first half of 2000 was in a sound studio, getting reallyÖgroggy. [Laughing] The thing is, we made the film completely backwards: usually you want to start an animated film with the sound first, and the dialogue first. Because we wanted to keep this so fresh and be able to improvise with it, I just animated mouths moving and I didnít know what they were going to say until the eleventh hour when I put purposely out-of-sync voices over it and say something funny then. At that point, I knew the voice actor really well, and I knew we were funny, and I knew there was no problem getting the humor there. So I didnít really want to focus on that yet, I just wanted to get the structure there. Thatís really where we lost control because day one of sound mix we had a completely silent film, and a lot of those scenes you can make them funny in an infinite number of ways because theyíre so abstract and theyíre so open. It was all about working and re-working through it all. Itís funny this way, then we tear it all down and experiment some more and now itís funny this way. It just got to the point after so many hours that it began to be funniest when we played the dialogue backwards. "That works." And we started to lose it.
So it was an experimental film?
Oh very much experimental. Experimental comedy, in the sense of, "Is this going to be funny at all?" just to see how far we could push it.
Did you test the humor? Did you have any sort of focus group?
It was me and my sound mixer Tim [Kehl] and our voice actor Rob [May]. If it made us laugh after the fifth time we watched it, thatís a good sign. We can really only tell by ourselves. We kind of let the sound go and the images go, and our job was to make sure it all stuck together. Itís kind of silly to talk about going over-budget on a film so inexpensive, but we were way over-budget and way over-time.
You received the Academy Award nomination for Rejected. Would you say that validates the film by having that recognition, or alternatively, would say that it kind of tarnishes it by being co-opted by the mainstream?
The best thing about it - - because the film is so out there - - is no one can ever say itís a "bad film" anymore. Itís kind of silly, but something like the nomination, like it or not, validates it as Art to Joe-on-the-street. So now when Joe-on-the-street sees the movie and he absolutely hates it he canít say itís a bad movie, he just has to say, "I didnít get it." We were laughing about that for a long time.
How is your animation technique different from other animators?
...if you picked up any traditional how-to-make-a-cartoon manual, I do everything categorically wrong. Number one, Iím completely self-taught, so I still cling to all the stuff I did seven years ago, just because itís what Iíve grown up doing, and Iím comfortable with it. It may be backwards, but itís the way I work. I donít use cels; everything is just ink on paper. Cels are just really messy to me, theyíre expensive and youíve got to paint them; theyíre sloppy. And I just donít like the look of them when something is just sitting on the screen, static. Cels just aren't organic to me. Everything is pen and paper and I just draw everything on the screen over and over and over again and that lends them that jitter, I like the kinetic look of the jitter.
But thatís really time intensive, isnít it?
Oh extremely. Itís the wrong way to make a cartoon if youíre on a schedule. But it creates a tension. In Billyís Balloon, the grass is constantly wiggling. Itís really tense, really suffocating.
Could that be achieved through computers?
Sure. Iím sure you could simulate it.
Would you ever do that?
No. Itís just another tool. Itís not necessarily easier or harder. Personally I think theyíre inferior, but thatís just me. I like the look of paper, being able to wrinkle it. I could never make a film just sitting in front of a computer screen; it would just drive me crazy. I donít use cels, I donít use key frames. We donít use computers for anything but sound mix.
All of that frame-by-frame animation must be an excruciating process.
The weird thing is - - it sounds very strange - - is that they often donít feel like my films. The process of animation is really kind of spooky.
Do you get distanced from it?
You get distanced during production. When I work Iím drawing everything over and over again and thereís a lot of inking and just busy work involved. When you animate tens of thousands of drawings, I get into a mindset and itís very hypnotic. And I turn on music. Right now Iím in production and I animate until like five in the morning; Iím completely nocturnal now, because itís quiet at night, thereís no distractions. You just start animating and your brain turns off and youíre just inking and youíre just working and you go through pages and pages and pages. The best way I can describe it is: if you have to make an eight-hour drive and you get in the car and you turn on the radio and you just start driving. After a while your brain kind of turns off and you just kind of get stoned on the road, and eight hours later you get there. You donít have very clear memories of the trip. You remember maybe the pit stop you made and you remember a couple sights, but you canít remember the whole eight hours at all, itís all gone to you.
So itís kind of like autopilot?
Very much. Lots of times Iíd wake up in the morning and Iíd go through what I did last night and Iíd only vaguely remember doing it. Itís like the shoemaker and the magic elves doing the work for him as he sleeps. And so when Iím actually done with the film, thereís still that odd sense because I have a lot of blank memories from making it. And also, when I get really into a production, all I do is the production and my life itself is really boring. The days and the nights become identical and thereís no way to distinguish when I did what on the production and itís just a big memory-loss blur. Itís really odd. I look at the pencil tests and think, "Oh these are great!" And I feel really proud of them, but I donít feel like I did them, I feel like someone else did them. People always make fun of me because when I watch the films in the theater with friends, I laugh just as hard at the films as everyone else does sometimes. People think itís really strange, but to me, itís almost as if they're not mine. The other side of it is, once the film is done and itís out there, film is for the masses anyway. It really isnít yours anymore; itís everyoneís, itís everyoneís that watches it. You kind of cut it loose.
Do you think you have some kind of instinct for animation timing and visuals?
Yeah. I try and minimize editing. Part of the reason I donít have a script is because we like the freedom. The other part is, I donít need a script because Iím not submitting the script to anybody for approval, so I donít need to write it out. Itís all in my head. The film Iím working on right now is completely, start to finish, plotted out in my head. Itís the first time, actually, that I have an ending so early in the process. Itís all timed in my head; itís all worked out in my head, and I just let it out a little bit at a time while Iím animating. When we edit, itís really just instinct. Itís amazing how two frames over or two frames under in a scene can make something not funny anymore. Itís really just a lot of fine-tuning and watching it over and over again. Itís just a gut feeling; I know when somethingís done. You can over-edit a piece, and you can over-work a piece and after a while it just says to you, "stop f*cking with me." Itís done; you just let it go.
So, are you a perfectionist?
Yes. Thatís where it comes back to your question about feeling versus thinking. Itís all gut instinct, feeling your way through what works and what doesnít work, but getting to that point itís really technicalóitís a lot of math and logic and science. Yeah, Iím a real control freak. Itís scary.
Youíre pretty particular about how you like things to turn out. Youíre a perfectionist; you like to have control. What if you had the choice between changing your style, giving up a little control to get a mainstream, big-time, high-paying job, versus staying independent, making less money, maybe even getting a 9-to-5 job, but maintaining the control of your projects?
Well the most important control is creative control. I can loosen up with technical control, and I can let some technical errors fly. But creative control and storytelling is the most important aspect. The question kind of doesnít work because I can support myself without having to get a 9-to-5 job already.
Yeah, I didnít mean to give you a loaded questionÖ
Changing the style, Iím not so much stubborn about that. Number one, itís just the way I draw things. It also serves the stories. Lily and Jim works because theyíre stick figures. Rejected works because itís minimalist; itís supposed to be drawn badly. Itís whatever serves the story best. If I write something tomorrow that would be better told if it was live-action, Iíll do it live-action. Itís really just a means to getting a story acrossówhatever elements can tell the story the best way.
What about something like Pixar? Would you ever think about joining a big animation powerhouse?
Well there are so many variables. It really depends on control, again. If I had complete autonomy to do whatever I wanted to. Iím not opposed to the studio system at all. I think thereís an equal number of god-awful indie films as there are god-awful Hollywood films; the presence or absence of money just makes them god-awful for different reasons. So itís not really the romantic image of being independent as it is just finding the right project and having the autonomy to do what you want to. In the end, like it or not, film is the art form for the masses; your film doesnít exist unless itís being watched by somebody. In turn, filmmakers should want their films to be seen by as many people as possible.
So there is a popular angle that you need to think about?
Yeah, itís the medium. Iíve always thought it was silly for these hipster indie-film kids, with the goatees and the hand-held cameras, who will only show their movies to the right audiences in a coffee shop with their buddies on a Friday night. They say, "Oh Iím not going to sell-out and I donít want my film to be seen by these people." Itís kind of defeating the purpose of the making the movie, because the whole point of the medium is that itís a mass-media thing. Theyíd be better off painting a picture for a private gallery, getting into other forms of art. So Iím not opposed to [mainstream media] at all. I think any audience anywhere is a blessing for a film.
Is there any truth to the rumor that youíre participating in an upcoming studio feature-length animated film?
Ooh, rumors. [laughing] Yes and no. Iíve been writing an animated feature for a few years. It was at one studio for a little while, and they kind of imploded on themselves, and then it was at another studio for a little while. Itís still being written and itís still bouncing around a little bit. Itíll happen. The problem with animated features right now is thereís a giant dichotomy. Everyone still clings to the stereotype that animated features are for kids, and youíve got to have Phil Collins singing songs. And the other end of it is, adult animation must be pornographic or "sick and twisted"; thereís no intelligent middle ground on a theatrical level, like The Simpsons on television. Thereís nothing that you and I could go to and not be embarrassed to watch. Honestly, a regular movie that happens to be animated. Take a well-written Woody Allen comedy that happens to be animated. Animation is still stuck in the Middle Ages of itís got to be for kids, or itís got to be for a niche audience; itís not for everybody.
So do you think you could find a middle ground?
I think itís slowly happening. Pixar is pushing that. Aardman is pushing that a little bit. Their kids films are getting a little more intelligent. Itíll happen one of these days. Iím young enough; I donít feel rushed. Iím really lucky to have all these other creative outlets to do the stuff I want to make, independent of the studios. You know, I donít have to depend on them green-lighting every sentence. Yeah, I really want to see this feature made.
So right now youíre working on your next short film?
Yeah we started production on the next short before Rejected was done. Ironically, I was joking with the crew way back then that this next one was going to be our Oscar nomination. Itís a little less risky than Rejected and itís not going to offend anybody like Rejected might. So itís a little safer and itís going to be really something to look at, but itís probably the hardest thing Iíve done in my lifeóitís a tough, tough project.
Can you tell us what itís about? The subject? The title, so we can look out for it?
I canít tell much about it yet. I just like to keep these things close to my chest as much as possible. Number one, they change while weíre working on it, and, number two, I donít want to jinx it. [laughing]
Are you ready for the Theory Test?
Whatís the theory test?
With whom do you sympathize more, Andre Bazin or Sergei Eisenstein? Bazin, being a realist, said that cinema should capture reality, as it exists. Eisenstein, a formalist, said that cinema should create its own reality out of artistic raw materials.
I never bought into the theory in the first place that there is such a thing as an objective reality. That doesnít sit well with me. Really, any film needs both. You need some form of realism, even in a cartoon, to draw the audience in. Theyíve got to be able to identify with something and recognize something and be ready for the formalism that comes in to take them on a trip and to tell them a story. Even the most straightforward documentaryólike newscastsóare full of formalism, and they require formalism, because without it thereís no story, thereís no syuzhet. [laughing] Itís just newsreel footage without any construction to it. You really need a marriage of both. With cartoons, the drawings are completely reflexive and formalist. But if you look at a film like Lily and Jim or Billyís Balloon, the soundtrack is quite realist. Theyíre very raw and theyíre very harsh and itís a nice marriage. Theyíre just stick figures, but you can watch two stick figures because they sound like real people. With Lily and Jim a lot of people thought we actually recorded candid people talkingólike in a documentaryóand just happened to animate them. In Billyís Balloon, thereís no music, thereís no release. Itís just very minimal, gritty, real sound effects that we went out and Foleyed, and itís a nice marriage. I think that any film needs a bit of both.
Thatís a good answer. I think youíll make [UCSB Film Studies Professor] Ed Branigan proud with that one.
I got an A in theory! I love theory!