Earlier this week, we reviewed Bill Watterson’s new film Dave Made a Maze, a fantasy genre hybrid that saw a group of friends trapped in a handmade maze that took on a life of its own. We sat down with Mr. Watterson to discuss the film—which recently debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival—its conception, and the challenges inherent in making a film that relied on 100% practical special effects.
THE YOUNG FOLKS: So, whose idea was Dave Made a Maze? Where did the idea come from?
BILL WATTERSON: Steven Sears, my co-writer, was working on a script called Operation Death Maze while working in reality TV. He was miserable and hated everything about it. And because of the title I told him the story from my childhood when I had built this AWESOME fort out of pillows and blankets and sheets, a fully encompassing world that covered my entire bedroom. It was so cool. Afterwards, I split for my friend Richard’s house for dinner and left a note for my mom: “Hey, I’m gonna be at Richard’s house for dinner. I’ll be back at 7:00.” But she didn’t see that note. She called me name, didn’t get a response, goes upstairs, opens the bedroom door, and freaks out. She was afraid that somehow I had got lost in it! She started screaming and ripping the fort apart looking for me.
Within three days of telling Steven that story, he had a 60-65 page draft that had a ton of the set pieces in the final film: the mouth burping origami, the giant keyboard that turns into a giant piano, the hired film crew…
TYF: Now, we first learned about the film several years ago from your twitter page. One of our writers went on a twitter rant about how Hollywood doesn’t use special effects anymore and you sent him a message telling him about this film you were putting together that used strictly old-school, 100% practical special effects. He followed you immediately and we’ve watched the film come together ever since. What role do you think social media played in the production of Dave Made a Maze?
BW: We knew what we wanted to share during the making of the movie because it would be so visually compelling. We had a small army of artists building physical things that were going to photograph well. So we shared a lot of photos of the sets and props getting made. My producer John Charles Meyer and I were aware that in casting people with big followings, like comedian Nick Thune as the eponymous Dave and professional wrestler John Hennigan as the Minotaur that guards the maze, we would get a lot of social media exposure. Not that we deliberately cast anyone based solely on their social media following, but their online popularity was helpful. We knew that we could share things through them.
We did NOT crowdsource. That was something we talked about, but we never did. We were able to fully independently finance through private equity investments.
TYF: Now, you started production on the film before a lot of those big crowdsourcing sites became popular. Do you think that if you started production on the film today you would use some of those platforms? For future projects?
BW: We actually shot a fundraising video. But it wasn’t made for crowdsourcing. We wanted to use footage and music that we didn’t have the rights to. It was more sort of a video look-book of what we intended to do in the film. It got into the right hands and that video helped us get over the hump to start production.
As for crowdsourcing, in order to get that faith from an audience to get money, you have to have a visual component prepared. Even if it’s just the production design bible. Of course, our seasoned professional designers weren’t going to start production on anything until we could guarantee that we could pay their fees. Since we couldn’t get the visuals free, we didn’t start with crowdsourcing. We started more with attachments, getting people from Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken, getting a few popular actors signed on. And it’s so good that me and John have been friends for years because I’m not a good producer. I didn’t bring any investors to the table. I’m not good at fundraising. But I feel good with my skills as a storyteller. So one of my big hopes with premiering at Slamdance—other than getting as many people as possible to see it—is to help me secure the funds for my next project so that I don’t have to be constantly fundraising or crowdsourcing. We don’t want to spend the first three years of production going door-to-door getting the funds we need.
TYF: Well, let’s turn to the actual movie now. In our review, we mentioned that one of the most striking things about the film was its ability to create its own independent world with its own fantasy rules and logic. The most striking thing was the maze itself. It created this mind-scape that you don’t see in many movies these days. It was very impressive. What were some of the challenges that came about as you made the maze itself?
BW: We were lucky in some ways. The biggest challenges were budget and time, the same for every filmmaker. We shot in a single stage in Glendale, California for twenty days and we only ever had room for two sets at a time, which meant that scheduling was essential. So, Dave’s bedroom in his apartment became the mini-maze of foot-high cardboard walls which then became another room. Dave’s apartment living room became the origami pit which became the swamp room. So we only ever had two sets standing at any given time. We couldn’t pre-light, we couldn’t block scenes for future days. We couldn’t get a super-tight shot list together since we were talking about locations that didn’t exist! So a lot had to be done on the fly. Not that we didn’t have a plan, but a lot of the realities of how the sets had to be built effected the shooting. For example, we wanted to create a sense of depth in the swamp, where the characters were up to their waists in origami. But we couldn’t build a set that was three or four feet high. So the actors had to do the whole scene on their knees so it seemed much deeper than it actually was. I mean, we did lay down pads so there was a degree of comfort for the actors. And the whole scene only took half a day to shoot, so it didn’t take too long. But there were a lot of in-the-moment creative decisions because the physical realities of the sets were different than we imagined them.
But we were saved because, first of all, we had an army of extremely talented and dedicated artists who weren’t going to let things go—they wanted everything in the movie to look great. So they pushed harder and harder to make everything look better. Secondly, the actual aesthetic of the film was janky and handmade and slapped together. You know, it takes a brilliant mind to make a shitty thing look brilliant. A lot of the sets were able to be built quickly because they were supposed to look cobbled together. We used materials we literally pulled right out of a dumpster. And what we ended up pulling out of the dumpster greatly effected how we would build and design the sets: how beat up the cardboard was, its texture, its thickness.
For example, that corridor—we call it the Kubrick Corridor because it looks like it’s from 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Empire Strikes Back—we were getting a cardboard donation from American Apparel at the time. They were these palettes of huge rectangular sheets of pristine cardboard with holes in them. We saw them and thought, “Oh no, what are we gonna do with that?” And I had an idea. I asked the art director what he would think of making an octagonal corridor out of these sheets of holed cardboard. He jumped on the idea. He built the corridor, turned on a fog machine, and shone a light through the circular holes. The end result looked like he had spent two months designing the room, but it was based on whatever we had our hands on.
And that was probably my favorite set we made. It was built and destroyed on the same day. If you pay attention in the movie to where the characters sit in the hallway, it was the only place on that set that was actually safe enough to sit on. There was no support under the rest of that corridor—that’s why we never had a shot of anybody running down it.
But, y’know, I think that really speaks to why I love this film so much. The actors are walking around and interacting with a real world. Those rooms were built. Why I think it works so nicely is that you can just put a camera in front of what was built and there you are. We were able to capture a real sense of wonder with the camera whenever the actors walked into a new room and wondered “where am I?”
TYF: Sort of like how the child actors never got to see the sets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory until they began shooting so they could record their actual reactions?
BW: Yeah! Very much so.
TYF: Well, one last question before we go. What’s next for you?
BW: Steve and I have two scripts that we’ve been very excited about for a while. Right now we’re trying to think realistically about what’s the more affordable film to make next. Both of them will be very clearly from the minds of the folks behind Dave Made a Maze: practical effects heavy, genre-blending, playful and silly, but also with an emotional gut punch at the heart of them. They’re both very much about people striving for place, looking to find their voice, trying to figure out how they matter. But the two of us were also sitting at a bar last night and he pitched me an idea that I’m obsessed with. So we may push that one into the forefront. I’m not sure. But I also have an hour-long action/comedy for television project in the works that’s set in the world of the music industry and espionage.
TYF: We can’t wait to see what you do next! Thank you again for making the movie and for taking some time to talk with us today.
BW: Yeah, anytime! I’m really glad you enjoyed it!