Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bill Made a Movie: An interview with 'Dave Made a Maze' director Bill Watterson

Interview by Bob Ignizio

Born in Cleveland, Bill Watterson (no, not the “Calvin and Hobbes” guy) eventually went west for a career in Hollywood. He worked his way up from the bottom, starting as a production assistant and eventually moving into acting and voice work. And with DAVE MADE A MAZE, Bill has added writing and directing to his resume.

The film is an original and fun mix of horror, comedy, and cult sensibilities in which an artist who can never finish anything builds a box fort in the middle of his apartment. Somehow, the fort is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside (sort of like the TARDIS of box forts, I guess), and is something of a maze, complete with booby traps and a minotaur.

I personally enjoyed the film quite a bit, and wanted to know a little more about Bill and his movie. Fortunately, he was gracious enough to answer my questions.

CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: I understand you were born and spent your early years in Cleveland. Anything about your time here that helped push you towards a career in film?

BILL WATTERSON: Incredibly playful and creative friends. Growing up in a safe neighborhood where you could run around from yard to yard and have block-wide Kick the Can and Ghost in the Graveyard games. Parents who let us use the VCR recorder to make terrible short films edited in-camera. A friend who didn’t mind having his G.I Joe figures blown up by fireworks for our special effects, and a father who didn’t mind buying his son fireworks even though they were illegal. Then ultimately working as a Production Assistant on local film projects to build up a resume that helped me find work when I finally moved to LA. Plus developing a chip on my shoulder that led to me telling stories about underdogs, struggle, and pride.

CMB: It looks like you started out working as a production assistant. What does that entail exactly?

BW: Lowest man or woman on the totem pole. Responsible to every department, first to show up, last to leave. Running errands, sticking around during lunch to make sure nothing gets stolen, locking down locations so randoms don’t walk into the shot, jumping in to assist any department at any time with any need, and having all of the responsibility but none of the authority to keep things running smoothly on set. Lots of picking up garbage, literally and metaphorically.

CMB: How did you transition from PA to actor?

BW: It’s very valuable for an actor to understand the chain of command on set, to know what it is each department does. It’s no good asking someone from the Electric Department if it’s a good time for a bathroom break. That’s not their job, and you’re not their problem. Knowing the world of set from the bottom up gives you a great sense of place, confidence, and gratitude when it’s your time to step in front of, or behind, the camera.

CMB: Your first acting gig was a feature length horror film, ‘Chiseled’. How do you feel about that one looking back?

BW: You gotta start somewhere…I wouldn’t be able to watch it now, I was too green and there’s very little about my performance, or some of the content of the film, that I could be proud of. But…you gotta start somewhere…

CMB: You acted in a lot of shorts there for a while. Can you make a living that way, or is it more just getting your name out there? Any of those you’d recommend people try to track down?

BW: It’s a great training ground. I rarely got paid. Almost never. But if you hook up with a great school that is training the next generation of directors, you can learn a lot about being on camera, how to protect yourself and your energy on set, and start figuring out who you want to work with when your time comes to crew up for a project. It’s an awesome way to figure out what NOT to do. Some of them I’m quite proud of; ‘Stealth’ won a student Emmy. I thought ‘Young Money’ was strong. I met my Production Designer Trisha Gum acting in her wonderful short ‘Losing Ferguson.’ Bottom line, you’ll never get better at something by NOT doing it, so say yes and get out there and do as much as you can.

CMB: You’ve continued working in TV, movies, and video games as an actor, including the major studio release ‘Ouija’ and my mom’s favorite soap opera, “The Young and the Restless”. You’ve got several movies as an actor listed as finished and waiting release on IMDB. What made you decide to try your hand at writing and directing now?

BW: Acting can be very rewarding, but it can also be maddeningly passive. You ultimately (at least at my level) are just a tiny cog in a much bigger machine. You’re never in charge of the story beyond your 30 seconds of screen time, and that has its limits. ‘Lost Planet 3’ was a different ballgame because I was the main protagonist of the piece, and it felt like there was a lot more collaboration going on. But so many acting jobs are so short and small that they don’t feel like they add up to much; you don’t get much to sink your teeth into. Might have been different if I broke out and had more to do, but the smaller roles, even if you can collect enough of them to get by, are not satisfying. I wanted to have much more of a role in the telling of a story, and to tell the stories I wanted to see come to life, rather than be a small part of helping someone else tell their story.

CMB: DAVE MADE A MAZE is easily one of the most original films I’ve seen in quite a while. What was the genesis of that idea?

BW: The co-writer Steven Sears may tell it different, and it was really his world that we fleshed out and populated as we worked together and gathered more steam, but I remember him being inspired by a silly anecdote that I told about my mom coming home and discovering this amazing fort I’d built and panicking that I’d gotten lost within it, to the extent that she tore it down looking for me. Of course, I was at a neighbor’s house for dinner (I’d left a note!), but maybe it was just that good a fort…Steve had been working on a script with ‘Maze’ in the title, and it reminded me of that story, and I think he was really taken by the idea of being lost within a single room, the impossibility and absurdity and physics of that.

CMB: A lot of the film’s success rests on the set design and special effects. How much of that comes from your ideas, and who were the crew people most responsible for bringing those ideas to life?

BW: So many names to list, the Art Department was an army…there were some very detailed descriptions in the script—the giant Origami mouth, the attacking birds, the cardboard-headed Minotaur, Paper Brynn—there was a lot to get the imagination going. Production Designer John Sumner drew up a beautiful bible of cardboard possibilities, Art Director Jeff White executed much of it flawlessly and also came up with so much on the fly. But it was a combination of what was in the script, what materials were physically available to us, and which people came on board and what they wanted to contribute or work on. Mike Murnane came down from SF because he wanted a crack at that Minotaur head, and he ended up bringing so much more to life. Jeff pitched the idea of the Chrysalis being a functioning Zoetrope late in pre-production, so we put it into the script. Why not? A good idea is a good idea!

CMB: There are pros and cons to both big budgets and low budgets when making a movie. Do you wish you would have had more money, or did working on a tight budget inspire you to find creative solutions to problems?

BW: Both. It was a very frustrating, grueling production, everyone was pushed unfairly to their limits, and no one was compensated properly. I didn’t need a million dollars to make the movie; part of its charm was always meant to be its handmade nature. But we were under such a time crush, with only 20 days in our warehouse space to shoot the whole world—we had more sets than we did shoot days—and everyone had to make so many sacrifices and push themselves to the brink just to get it done. I don’t like driving my crew that hard for that long. There were some ideas that would’ve been great that had to be tossed out, and some beats or moments that suffered either because I was a first-timer rushing through the work, or because we just didn’t have time to get what we were looking for and had to move on. But I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished!

CMB: Given that you’ve spent most of your career in movies so far acting, I’m curious why you didn’t cast yourself in a role.

BW: Too hard. Too much work as a director to handle all those moving parts and the stress and responsibility of being a first timer. I didn’t want anyone to think that this was a vanity project—I knew I had to really earn the cast and crew’s respect or we would sink, and I worried that if it seemed like the whole thing was set up just so I could hop in front of the camera and crack a few jokes, that I would’ve lost them. The more established I become, the more I may let myself on screen, if I’m right for the role.

CMB: Given the mostly positive responses I’ve seen to DAVE MADE A MAZE, does that make you want to focus more on writing and directing now, or do you think you’ll keep acting as well?

BW: I’m full-time on the writing/directing side of things now. There are too many stories to tell to sit back and let someone else do all the telling. I’m still available as an actor when wanted or needed, but it isn’t something I’m pushing for. Acting as a career is a full-time hustle, and if you’re not doing it passionately and focused and all-in at all times, you’ll never get anywhere. I miss performing, I still miss being in rock bands, but it all goes into the same pot when you’re directing—you draw on all of your experiences, talents, yearnings, to find the truth and the excitement in the stories you want to tell.

CMB: What’s next from you, either acting or directing, that we should be looking for?

BW: Just sending out a script now that I’m really hoping to shoot in Cleveland. It’s got musicians and monsters, and we’ve got plenty of both of those back home.

CMB: Anything else you want to say that I didn’t ask about?

BW: Anybody love The Stones and have zero professional ambitions and want to start a bar band? I miss the bass…

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