Interview with BridgeRack, October 10 2007:
Your latest work, Everything Will Be Okay, is an absolutely wonderful film. To me, it recalls that rarified sense of pure magic felt in a Wes Anderson movie or at a Flaming Lips concert, in that it is a unique and fully-formed world unto itself that can truly reach and affect people. From where did you get the inspiration for the bittersweet beauty of Everything Will Be Okay?
thanks... it's hard to say, so much comes from different directions. the roots go back to bill's original comic strips i wrote in 99 and while i made the other movies it's gone over continued changes in my head. spare parts come from dreams, conversations, memories, people-watching.. the worst thing i can do as a writer is sit down and stare at the blank page and torture myself. the best ideas come when i'm not expecting them, when i don't know why or how they popped in.. i seem to catch ideas more than i come up with them. and then i just go find the common threads of all these stray moments and half-events and start fitting them together. rewriting and swapping things around through the whole production. i don't think i've ever written a piece straight from A to Z... i might start animating a project with only R, S, and T and as i go i'll slowly fill the rest of those blanks in as they come. animating takes so long, i've got more than enough time to wait for the story to complete itself as i feel my way through. OK was a little further along and had most of its major points figured out by the time i really dove in, but there's still some profound differences between the first draft and the final thing.
I understand you are working on, if not a proper sequel, a direct follow-up to Everything WIll Be Ok. How is that coming along? What exactly are you working on now?
yeah if i can get a little more motivated i could be done with photography and animation on chapter 2 of OK maybe around the holidays. i'm not sure what the differences are between a proper sequel and a direct follow-up, but it takes place both before and after the events of OK. it's a bit ambitious. of course it will help to have seen OK, but i think it will be strong enough to stand alone as its own movie too.
a year ago i had most of chapter 2 written, with a few leftover ideas and story threads laid down for chapter 3... but last month i couldn't help but cannibalize them and merged everything i had into this one. so right now chapter 2 has the ending that was originally intended for chapter 3. it raised it up to a new level and i'm just beginning to find its final shape now... but of course left me with a new blank slate for whatever's gonna happen in part 3, which is exciting and a little terrifying. most people probably don't write trilogies without knowing quite where it's all gonna end up. or maybe they just don't admit it. i have a few ideas of where the arc will eventually take us in 3 but of course it could all change again tomorrow. but so far so good, 1 and 2 are the strongest things i've ever written. and my jaw dropped at a couple of the shots i've gotten back for this one. so it's shaping up to be my favorite of everything so far and right now i just have to not screw it all up before reaching the finish line.
i should also mention i've very recently meanwhile officially started something new for television.. it's one of those things where even if it's a complete failure it should be a really interesting one. just beginning to write that and looking forward to seeing how that whole world is gonna work. will be able to roll up my sleeves with it as soon as chapter 2 moves out of the house.
Everything Will Be Okay won top honors for short film-making at 2007's Sundance Film Festival. Have you at all sensed that the animation community seemed to feel a personal victory for your perceived "win over live action?" If so, how do you feel about that?
yeah i don't know how often that happens. i try not to place a lot of stock in awards but it's always good to see those minor victories happen for animation. and i do get tremendous satisfaction from crushing all the other filmmakers, seeing them driven before me, and hearing the lamentation of their women.
Your work seems to have matured at an almost alarming rate - - to go from the devilishly crude humor of Billy's Balloon and Rejected to the epic existentialism of The Meaning of Life to wetting audience's eyes in Everything Will Be Okay - - how did that journey through film-making develop? Had your desire to touch the audience beyond making them laugh at bleeding anuses always been there or did something change for you?
i don't feel like i've changed very much. maybe just gotten more comfortable and well-oiled on the technical side of things, but the basic ideas for the meaning of life and those earliest OK-related comic strips all date back to when i was doing rejected. if anything i think i just didn't have the experience or confidence yet to know how to put those kinds of ideas on the screen. they're more complex with more deeper notes to hit. but i think all the movies are basically speaking the same language.
How important to you is it that the audience "gets" your films?
i don't worry about it. if a movie has any depth at all there will be more than one way to "get" it. it should speak to different people in different ways.
Do you test them out? What happens if something doesn't get a laugh or some other response you're hoping for?
i can't remember but i don't think i've really tested anything out on friends since billy's balloon. it's not as though i don't value other people's opinions but i'm rarely uncertain anymore about exactly what i want to see on screen, so i don't find myself in that position very much. and it's impossible to make a movie properly if you concern yourself too much with how it's going to be received. it's going to cloud and poison every decision you make. in the end, you're really the only one who knows what in the hell you're trying to express. i've always figured that if you want to make a movie based on what you think other people want to see, you should just give them the camera.
OK is the sort of movie where a scene might get a big laugh one night and the next night the same scene might draw a sad gasp. and i can usually see how either one would be the honest response. you have to leave room in there for the audience to work things out by themselves and let go of the reins a bit.
otherwise you're constantly barging in on them with "by the way, this is how you're supposed to react right now" and every note's going to feel false and clumsy and forced. i think that's true of both comedy and drama.
Have you sensed that your audience has grown with you? Are you ever afraid you might lose them?
you'll probably lose an audience faster by getting predictable and doing the same thing again and again. that's probably the fastest way to becoming irrelevant. and i think a number of artists tend to underestimate their audience, and how deep an audience is actually willing to go with them. so many movies sort of flinch and pull away, right when they should be pushing further.
You've carved out an unrivaled career as an independent film-maker, in which you bear the sole responsibility for any decisions made in plotting the course for Bitter Films. Are you satisfied with the paths you've chosen? Any regrets?
i've been really lucky. i think so far my only regrets have been female related.
As one of the very last generation to be educated in traditional, non-computer-based film-making, how much of your success as well as the success of Bitter Films has been due to good timing, if any?
i don't know. but there's still definitely too much emphasis being placed on hardware. i wish everyone could find the cameras or animation tools that best serve their individual movies and then just shut up about it. there's still this nasty atmosphere where someone creates a new digital toy and then feels compelled to piss on all other existing methods and declare all of film history dead. the problem is, the whole thing has been spun from the beginning as "film versus digital", or "traditional animation versus 3D", or whatever... it's all this "versus" bullshit. we should be using all these tools, adding to an amazing collection to choose from, not turning it into a stupid cage match.
What is it like for you to watch your films?
it depends. i can enjoy them but i usually still can't help but to study for flaws. the number of cringes increase the further back you go. if i'm in an audience i can feed off their energy a little and relax a little more about it. i tend to have very few memories from my time animating... hundreds of blurry repetitive nights sort of blend together. so sometimes i almost feel like a fraud, like i'm taking all this credit for someone else's hard work that i can't really remember doing. while on the other hand i sometimes feel like this detached mass abstraction called "don hertzfeldt" is out there taking credit for the hard work i do remember, so i guess it all evens out.
Does your perception of them change with time?
i guess it must. it's weird, but the more distance i get from them the less i feel like they're entirely mine. i'm sure you can blame a bit of that on my bad memory but some of them have also become so entrenched and popular with so many other people over the years that to me they've sort of changed into a whole separate thing, almost like a fun house mirror of the originals. like one of the guys with the tattoos of the characters, doing the movie quotes, or making toys... that's not really my movie anymore, it's this entirely other abstract animal that's somehow related to it, but belongs to everybody. the more people discover and share them, the more they seem to change. which is great, don't get me wrong... the movies are like kids i guess, i love to see them move out and get weird piercings and form new relationships and take on unexpected lives of their own and transform into totally different things with new meanings. it's just weird to look back on from here, like an out of body experience or something. the movies lead way more interesting lives than i do.
Animation film-making is a tedious process that can take years to see a film's completion. How do you stay focused? Are there ever any dark days where you've realized what you've done just doesn't work or play the way you want it to?
sure.. you often don't get a true sense of a piece until it starts to come together in the edit, and that's when you can sometimes run into all-new kinds of madness as the whole thing takes shape or falls apart. but i've got some very rare luxuries here that most filmmakers don't. nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie. some bad movies are potentially good movies that were forced into theaters half-baked because the money or time ran out to make the repairs they needed. i'm able to work alone, so if i find something isn't clicking i can immediately make the changes i need - sometimes very drastic and sweeping changes - without messing up someone else's job down the line or seeking approval from a dozen people. and i don't need a lot of money to fund my own stuff and i can usually work without any solid deadlines. so i can really take my time if i need to - that's a big thing. in theory there's no reason everything in there shouldn't eventually work. if it doesn't come out right the first time i'll just keep indefinitely shaping it until it does. that's a very, very lucky position to be in. so there's always going to be a few dark spots in there but nothing yet that i haven't been able find ways to polish out.
What's the largest amount of completed work you've trashed in favor of a newer idea?
i've cut out or reworked a number of things but a lot of the ideas wind up recycled instead of trashed.. often a deleted or abandoned idea from one thing will eventually find its way into another, maybe even years later. i've always got stray pieces floating around looking for a home. some of rejected was stitched together and re-animated from spare parts like that.
there's always a lot of rewriting involved, but almost all of the biggest changes are done to chunks of the movie i haven't gotten around to animating yet. i try to be careful to only begin animating the rock solid parts.
Do you have any ambitions to tackle a feature film?
about nine years ago i tried to get an animated feature off the ground and was turned down by every studio in hollywood. in hindsight that was a really good thing, i was too young and it probably wouldn't have been a good movie. soon after i was set up at 20th century fox to come up with a movie but weeks later their 2d animation department folded. i don't know if i have the patience to try it all again with the studios. i think i'd rather spend all that energy doing my own stuff. for now the TV thing is where my interests are in doing something longer-form.
Independent film-making is not for the faint of heart. Business-wise, when did you first see that your work and Bitter Films could provide financial sustenance?
probably when the bitter films shop opened.. before that it was sometimes a bit touch and go. the films always made money but there would sometimes be tight periods if it took too long to get the next movie out there.
When was the last time you had a "real" job? What was it?
this has been it, actually. i've never had any other job than doing this.. i started very young. that's kind of weird and sad isn't it.
Do you listen to music while you work?
almost always when drawing or shooting... i'd go stir crazy without it. maybe 50/50 chance if i'm writing.
What kind of music are you into?
i'm just now listening to the new radiohead for the very first time. but lately a lot of indie stuff. odd things people put on my ipod that i like but don't know very much about.
You have been known to play guitar and keyboard on your film's soundtracks. Are you an avid musician?
it's mostly a thing i do to clear my head... i took something like 8-9 years of piano when i was little and later taught myself guitar but i'm nothing too special. creating music for a movie like OK, that's just a marriage of convenience. for a scene where i can't find the right kind of music that's playing in my head in the middle of the night, i'm capable enough to sort of plunk it out and record it myself. OK was the first time i did the entire sound mix in my room, so that was really convenient for random bits of inspiration like that.
Have you been turned on by any good books lately?
lately i've been doing a bunch of research for something new so my reading's been kind of dominated by that. i've mostly fallen back into movies again, about 1-2 a day.. and getting through the new ken burns war thing.
Bitter Films has amassed numerous awards and accolades over the years. Was there ever a certain moment when your work has been honored that sticks out to you as especially meaningful?
i don't have a good answer to this question but i'm typing something here anyway just to make sure "amassed numerous awards and accolades" makes it into the article.
Now that you've had a long enough career where you can look back with the extensive Bitter Films retrospective DVD release and sort of see where you've been, how do you know where to go next?
there hasn't really been much logic or reasoning behind it. every movie has sort of just been the next one in line in my head that i need to get out. how that all sorts itself out, i have no idea. but i've never sat down and said, "well now that i've made X,Y, Z, i should go off and do something like this.." it's just whatever feels right... usually i know which movie is coming next when i'm about midway through a current one.
Last question: Are you happy we never asked you what software you use or why you refuse to use a computer to make your films?
and i can't thank you enough for that!