Don Hertzfeldt is taking his latest animated film, I Am So Proud of You, on the road and I got the chance to speak with him a little bit for a feature. As sometimes happens for features, a lot of good interview got cut from the final product, so I’m posting the whole uncut transcript of the interview right here. Enjoy.
Your new film, I Am So Proud Of You, is the second in a planned trilogy that began with Everything Will Be OK. Is it technically a sequel, or a >new exploration of similar themes?
DH: It’s the second chapter in a continuing story, but I wanted to make sure that you didn’t necessarily have to have seen the first one to understand the second one. It’s important for all three chapters to stand on their own two feet as individual movies. So I’m not sure if you’d call it a typical sequel.
How do the films relate to one another?
DH: proud takes place both before and after ok, and sort of plunges into deeper and darker waters.
Are you already at work on the third film in the trilogy, or taking some time off?
DH: probably going to take some time off. i dove straight into proud very soon after finishing ok, but i think i’ll need a bit of a longer break this time. i’m still not entirely sure yet if chapter 3 will even be my next project. i had some leftover film so i recently shot a little bit of footage for it, but i guess i’ll wait and see how things feel when i get back from touring in december, and what’s going to be next.
Your award winning short Everything Will Be OK explores the everyday trials, travails and turmoil of living with mental illness. What compelled you >to take on such a serious subject using a medium that doesn’t often get it’s due for being an art form capable of tackling mature content?
DH: i’ve sort of approached the two films as children’s books for adults. bedtime stories are there to help kids be less afraid of certain things and to gently let them fall asleep in the dark easier, and in some ways bill’s story is there to help adults be less afraid of the things adults are afraid of. they’re even fully narrated, like someone’s reading them to you. i think there’s a kind of innocence the animation brings to what is a sad and difficult story, and bill seems to have become a character that’s very easy to relate to. animation can help let ideas slip through the door that otherwise might hit too close to home, people tend to be a little more open-minded watching a cartoon, especially when you make them laugh. it’s sort of like slipping the audience their medicine hidden in their sugar.
You’re no longer with the Animation Show, which you founded in 2003 alongside Mike Judge. Why not?
DH: it started to get sort of muddled during its third year, when MTV came onboard as a financial partner. i can’t say that was in itself a bad decision because without them there might have not have even been a third volume, but it sort of changed the chemistry of everything. it wasn’t really a simple animation festival that mike and i programmed anymore. and MTV had their own ideas of what the animation show should be, basically they told us the animation show was boring and wanted us to do an all-comedy show. i realized i was being blocked from programming 75% of the films i wanted to bring to the show’s fourth volume and i couldn’t really get straight answers from anyone about anything. it all just seemed to be drifitng further and further away from the sort of program it used to be. and mike and i were getting so busy with other stuff it was difficult just to get in touch to talk about it all. it was sad, but leaving the show eventually wasn’t a very hard decision to make, you can either spend every day arguing with everybody or you can hand over the keys and just focus on your own work. there’s that old saying, “when nobody’s got your back, it’s time to move your back.”
You’ve long been on record as wanting nothing to do with making commercials – crass product placements aside, is there any cause or ideology you >would consider doing animation for?
DH: yeah if i ever had the time i wouldn’t rule out doing something for charity, or an organization i felt strongly enough about
Your particular animation style is imitated with a disturbing frequency – is this a situation where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or do these >knock offs bother you?
DH: when it comes to all the terrible knock offs you see in TV commercials, they bother me because it seems like most people assume i’m reponsible for them.
You also mentioned on your blog that you’re working on a project for TV – any chance you’ll talk about the details of what that could be?
DH: it’s a mini-series and has no relation to anything else i’ve done, it takes place about 100 years ago. i’m used to leaping right into projects immediately after coming up with them, but the world of funding for television production doesn’t quite work that way so we’re still not sure how soon exactly it’s going to happen.
You work in a disctintly old school style, animating with pen, pencil and a 35mm animation camera, and doing animation, photography, sound, etc on >your own. How does the equipment you use affect your work?
DH: it’s huge, i think i’ve probably talked about this to death but visually my last few movies would’ve been impossible without my old camera. and working this way is honestly just more fun. i’d much rather build a shot with my hands and paint and lighting beneath a camera lens than sit and stare in front of a monitor. it’s more spontaneous and it keeps me on my toes. remember each short can take a couple years for me to complete in solitary confinement, so anything along the way that keeps me improvising and fresh is going to be a good thing.
You’ve often played with self awareness in animated characters and the nature of animation on the page and screen. Do you feel like you develop >a relationship with the characters you create?
DH: not really. it’s strange to think that after all these years bill is the first character i’ve ever even been interested in revisiting. i think i’m more prone to develop relationships with the films as little capsules from the time in my life when i was making it. it’s a weird nostalgic thing. when i see something ten years old now like lily and jim or billy’s balloon, i’m paying more attention to all the memories of where i was in my life when the movie was made rather than what’s happening on the screen.
Just one I’m curious about – when theatergoers shout along the lines of Ah, L’Amour, does that strike you as…hilarious? Kind of unnerving? Flattering?
DH: i think it’s cool, there’s all sorts of culty things people do with the films now and i like almost all of it. it can be surreal but i like seeing them take on lives of their own. people in the costumes, with the tattoos – everything will be ok tattoos now – i just like hearing that those connections are being made. it’s the main reason i’m heading out on tour now with the new one. eventually putting your movie on TV or the web will bring you much bigger audiences, but you can’t actually be there with them to see it working, you know? with a new movie, especially after taking so long to make, it’s really important for me to actually see it unfold for people and be there when it happens.