Capone dicusses post-apocalyptic animation with 9 director Shane Acker!!!
Published at: Sept. 5, 2009, 6:15 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I have a long history with the short film that writer-director Shane Acker has now transformed (with the help of screenwriter Pamela Pettler) into the feature film 9, opening Wednesday (also known as 9-9-09). A few years back, I was on the short film jury for the Chicago International Film Festival when this film was in competition, and my fellow jury members and I awarded 9 one of the top prizes.
The full-length version has expanded on many of the post-apocalyptic themes of the short--humans desire to control all things, even if it means their own destruction; and apparently the machines desire to control and destroy man. We've seen these themes in other film in recent years, but we've never seen it executed quite like this, in a wholly original animated work that often looks like stop-motion animation, with rag doll characters, each with their own unique abilities and personalities (and voices from the likes of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, and Martin Landau). I'll have more coverage of this film in the coming days, including interviews with some of the voice actors and one of the film's high-profile producers.
These interviews were conducted at Comic-Con in July, so I had not seen the film at the time. I have as of this writing. First up, here's my interview with the man who started it all, 9 director Shane Acker. Enjoy…
Capone: I'm really excited about seeing this, because a few years back I was on the short film’s jury at the Chicago Film Festival, and that’s where I saw the short for the first time and instantly loved it. Was there was some hope of turning this into a feature at that time?
Shane Acker: Not from me.
SA: No, I mean it was intended to be a director’s piece, so that I would get work from it and it started as a student project, but then it just became so much more.
Capone: I guess that’s the first question: how did it get from being a short to people suddenly saying, “We want to make a movie out of that!”
SA: I had done another short previous to it called THE HANGNAIL, and I sent that out in the festival circuit. So anyway, I started learning how to get films out on the festival circuit and things like that and so when 9 came out, I was really aggressive about getting it out there, and it premiered at Sundance. So it’s just started generating a lot of attention from people, and it was shortly around that time that I got an agent, so they started sending me out to meet people in Hollywood, so it was kind of like that two-pronged attack with getting it out there and getting a buzz. I won a Student Academy Award for it and got qualified for an Academy Award, and so then just also going out and meeting with people in rooms, that’s kind of how we were able to make a connection to start the feature version.
Capone: So how did Tim Burton get involved?
SA: It all started with this independent producer named Jim Lemley, who I took a meeting with, and he was just really excited by me as a filmmaker and the films that I had made and 9. So he was like “Look, let’s get into business together and try to figure something out,” because he was looking for his next project, and he was really the one producer who stepped up and was willing to put some money down and spend some time and really try to develop something. So we started talking about the back story and the ideas behind the film of 9 was, because the film just seems like a little slice out of some continuum, some larger world and I did a lot of thinking about the back story and where these creatures came from and what happened to the world in order to design that short film, and so I started talking to him about some of those ideas and he’s like “I really think we might have a film here,” so that’s the genesis of where we started and he had a relationship with Mike Simpson, who is the agent for Tim, so the first thing we did is we got the short in front of Mike and said “Mike, do you like this at all?” Mike was like “Wow, this is really great. We should get it in front of Tim to see if he has a response.” Tim really loved the short, fell in love with the characters of the world. I basically did a phone pitch to Tim.
Capone: Of your larger idea…
SA: Yeah, the board strokes, and it was interesting because it was a phone pitch, and he was in London and right at the end he was like “I really love this project. I love these worlds. I want to be involved in any way that you think that I can be involved,” and it was really amazing. It was funny, because I was sitting next to Jim and I guess Jim hadn’t been smoking at some point, and he’s like “I need a cigarette.” He’s like “Kid, this never happens this way. It’s really incredible.” I didn’t know any better, so I’m like “Oh really? This is pretty easy to make movies.”
Capone: My memory is a little fuzzy, because I haven’t seen the short in a few years, but was it actually stop motion, the original, or did it just look like it was?
SA: It looked like stop motion, yeah, because I was really drawn to the work of the Brother’s Quay and people like that, and they all used stop motion as their medium and I just loved the textual quality, the real tactile quality and just the age and decay of those worlds. They seemed much more organic than the CG animation which was out there at the time which was really clean and bright and no texture, so it was kind of a knee jerk reaction to that. I really liked that world, so I actually started 9 as a stop motion piece. I started thinking about it that way, but I quickly realized with the facilities at school, I wasn’t going to be able to so the sophisticated camera moves and visual story telling that I wanted to do, so I knew that it was going to have to be done in CG to try to retain that quality and that texture.
Capone: We are obviously at some post-apocalyptic world, but it’s not our world, right? I don’t know anything about the larger story here, so what is the conflict? Who is against whom? It’s soft of like these cloth-y things against these very metal things.
SA: It’s kind of like a retro-futuristic world, so in some way… It’s a metaphor for what our world could have been if we allowed the industrial revolution to continue. We never got into the black box technology, the digital age, so in a lot of ways it’s kind of steam punk. There is something really elegant about the objects that were created in the industrial age, because it was all about the love of the machine and idolizing the machine and seeing all of the moving bits and pieces and even the structural elements had a sort of ornamentation and wrought iron work to them, which was very beautiful.
Capone: A lot of hard angles against softer curves.
SA: Exactly, yeah and then ornamentation within moving gears and things like that, which really fascinates me. I think it fascinates other filmmakers, like Terry Gilliam and people like that, because it’s so visual. That’s kind of the world that it’s set in, but what has happened was we have embraced this technology too much and we have let it go rampant and at the core of the movie is kind of a Geppetto/Oppenheimer tale, so it’s about the scientist who went too far with developing a technology, and that technology ends up coming back and destroying mankind and so in the last throws, as the world is collapsing, he makes these creatures with a goal to carry on, sort of, in this new landscape in which we can no longer survive, they are able to survive.
Capone: And these sort of rag-doll creatures that could be human, they could represent the soft, defenseless creatures we call human.
SA: That’s a big challenge and that’s the big challenge for me as a filmmaker is “Can we empathize with these little creatures made out of these bits and pieces of found objects and do we start to understand that they are human in some way, even though that visually they are completely different from humans…”
Capone: I’m curious and again if I remember the short correctly, it was dialogue free, and now clearly you have a very talented group of actors giving you voices. Did that hurt a little bit having to lose that nice charming element to the story?
SA: No, it was a really romantic notion to try to make a feature film without dialogue, but it just turned out to be very cumbersome and we actually started down that path. Tim was a big proponent of saying “Let’s try to do it without dialogue.”
Capone: Wow, really?
SA: Yeah, and so he put that challenge to us and we really tried, Pamela [Pettler] and I really tried a couple of passes, but we just found that you know, when you are trying to explain things, it just becomes so cumbersome to pantomime, because there’s a deeper plot going on in the movie, there’s a history that we are learning and discovering, and we found that dialogue was just necessary, but what we did try to do was pair it down, to it was very minimal.
SA: So, I think in the whole film, there’s maybe 19 minutes of dialogue… A lot of it is true to the short visual story telling with very little sparse amount of dialogue, and in fact at the end of the film, I think, there’s like five minutes where we end the film without any real dialogue at all.
Capone: Did Tim recommend working with Pamela?
SA: He did. She had worked on CORPSE BRIDE with him, and I believe on some drafts of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. So once we got Tim involved, Mike Simpson was able to put the pieces together and collect a team to work on the film.
Capone: I read an interview with you that you had referenced as one of your favorite filmmakers to be Miyazaki, and he is here today.
SA: I actually follow him in the panel, which is pretty amazing. I think Disney is having a panel in Hall H and I think we go on after it.
Capone: That’s right! So you will be there.
SA: I will be there. Yeah, I would love to spend time with him and just let that come out naturally. He’s an amazing filmmaker. Have you had a chance to see his new film?
Capone: I haven’t. I’m seeing it tonight actually.
SA: Oh are you?
Capone: Yeah, they are screening it here tonight.
SA: I haven’t seen it yet, but yeah I’m a huge fan. What I love about his films is the dramatic story telling in this medium of animation… It’s got all of the qualities of other animations--it’s got humor, but also at the core is a real dramatic art to the the characters and the stakes are real and you understand that people could die. I think it brings richness to the medium, which I thing with other films sometime feels too safe. I’m trying to tread in the same water where I’m trying to bring a lot more dramatic weight to the animated medium, and also I think he has a real cinematic vision in the way he tells his stories as well.
Capone: Maybe a year ago if you would have asked me if I thought the world was ready for a post-apocalyptic animated film, I would have said, “Maybe not,” but then WALL E kind of changed that perception of what people are ready to see and to deal with in animation. That's another movie about humans getting too big for our britches in a lot of ways. Did that ever come up, “Are people ready for this?”
SA: Not in my mind. I mean, yeah that’s sort of my thrust, to do more diverse and edgy things with the medium. That’s just my take on things, because I come from… even though I’m from animation, I draw a lot of influence from live-action dramatic filmmakers, so I wanted to bring that to an animated medium, and I think with the medium that there is just so much more you can do and I’m just trying to open the door a little wider and see want happens.
But people are playing around with it in lots of different ways and making it more of an adult medium, and that’s where animation came from. Animation was an adult medium when it first came out and at some point it became about Saturday morning cartoons for younger children, and then it has this kind of stigma I think in this country. In other countries, like Europe and Asia, it’s still “Anything goes,” and it’s interesting to see films like WATLZ WITH BASHIR and PERSEPOLIS and some of these other films that are dealing with adult subject matter in this medium and I think it’s really interesting. It’s transformative and metaphoric and there’s something about that layer of abstraction that allows you to talk about taboo or really touchy subject matter, but kind of… there’s a filter there that allows you to engage in it in a different way, so I think this is a new renaissance in animation, hopefully.
Capone: I didn’t realize until I just looked at the poster that it is PG-13, so clearly you are not just aiming at a kids audience; you want to appeal to grown folks too, I guess.
SA: Yeah, and we didn’t know what we were going to get. We just wanted to make the movie we wanted to make, and the kind of movie that I was trying to make was the kind of movies that I grew up watching in the eighties, the Lucas and the Spielberg films, which now I wonder if you would take those films and if you were going to rate them, I think they would end up towards a PG-13, because they deal with intense subject matter and there is touchy stuff in there, and that’s the kind of film I wanted to make. It’s not gratuitous in any way. It’s not mean. But there are scares and there is some dark material, but I think it makes it a fuller film. It’s good to have the contrasts between horror and comedy, all in one film.
Capone: So there is a comedic element to 9?
SA: Oh yeah. There are some lighter moments in the film as well, and some of it is dark humor and some of it is really just fun humor, but it’s an action-adventure film along the lines of Ray Harryhausen films, like CLASH OF THE TITANS and these kinds of things. Even though it has this darker tone with a dark veil and it’s a dark world, it’s really a lot of fun and we want to have a lot of fun and entertain people.
Capone: OK, let’s talk real quick about assembling your cast. Were people throwing ideas at you or did you have some ideas about who you might want to play some of these roles?
SA: Yeah, I worked with the casting director and with the producers about trying to figure out who would be the right actors to play these characters, because we wanted to approach it in a way that the actors spoke with their natural voice. With animation a lot of times it gets pushed, it gets broad, it gets kind of cartoon-y and we wanted a reality to it, so we kind of cast the actors based on the characters that we wanted to be portrayed in the film. So like Elijah was a natural pick and John C. Reilly… Christopher Plummer was great as 1 and then once we got in a room, we were able to push it a little bit here and there and really fine tune was the character was, but we asked them to just be very naturalistic with the performance.
Capone: It’s great that you got Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer, because a lot of times in animation when you have an older character, they will hire a younger actor just to play old, because they think “Oh, kids are going to see Martin Landau's name, and they are going to go ‘Who is that?’” I think it’s great that you actually got them. I have got to ask who Crispin Glover plays?
SA: He is amazing. Do you know what’s interesting when you talk about Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau, they are theater actors as well as motion picture actors, and I think they really understand how to, even in a voice, how to distill a performance. They are used to projecting out to an audience and putting a certain intonation in the way that they say their lines in a way that kind of allows the emotion to come across, so it was great to work with such talented actors, and I think it fits really well with animation, because that then becomes the raw material that the animators use to construct a performance out of .But Crispin plays 6, which is a crazy artist type. He’s got pen nibs for fingers and he doesn’t really have words. He has a hard time expressing himself through language, so he’s always drawing this imagery and trying to present that as something what's inside of him, so he’s kind of like Tim Burton [laughs]--this artist who is this true visual genius and that is how he communicates, through this visual language.
Capone: Most of his communication is through drawing?
SA: And imagery, yeah, and he is haunted by these visions, my like in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THRD KIND, how they are just possessed by these images and they don’t know what they mean, but they are constantly trying to explain and express it to people, but even they don’t really have a concrete idea of what it is and that’s what he is, possessed with this imagery and he is constantly drawing. It comes into play later. Everyone dismisses him as being crazy, and 9 starts to understand that there is something in what he is trying to say and show.
Capone: And that’s another great way to not have dialogue, to have drawings.
SA: It was great to have the challenge, because we had to figure out visual ways of telling the story, much like I did in the short, which is great because it is a visual medium, and then you have to get really inventive with how you bring out the expositions.
Capone: Excellent. Well Shane, thank you so much. Good luck with it man, I’m really looking forward to seeing it to.
SA: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you.
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