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Interview with Bill Watterson director of Dave Made a Maze
By James Whittington, Sunday 4th November 2018
William Watterson

At Grimmfest 2017 we had the chance to view one of the most original pieces of cinema we'd seen in a long time, Dave Made a Maze. Directed by Bill Watterson it's an intelligent, thought-provoking film that deserves to reach a global audience and will be released here early 2019. We chatted to Bill about this incredible movie.

HC: Where did this concept come from?

WW: Three places: Steven was underway on a script called 'Operation: Death Maze,' or something cool like that. Portions of it were re-purposed after he jibed with a story I told about my mom coming home and seeing an incredible fort that I'd build in my bedroom, and concluding that I'd gotten lost within it when I didn't answer her calls (I was at a neighbour's house; I'd left a note!). He really dug that concept of being in your own room but somehow being lost at the same time. Thirdly, it was fueled by the frustrations that so many of us face when it comes to trying to be creative and not starve in the process. It gets more and more challenging to remain playfully inventive as the struggles of adulthood take hold. The more the script developed, the more the story became a metaphor for the creative life itself.

HC: Its surely one of the most original movies ever made, how long did it take to write?

WW: Thank you! Hard to say; Steven had a good 60+ pages before I ever came on board, and we spent so many years fundraising and trying to attach talent that in the downtime we kept revisiting and revising, tightening and solidifying. Then as we approached the actual production days, budget and personnel meant that certain ideas had to be left behind (the pit of deadly stop motion spiders!) while others came about very late in the game (the zoetrope!). From those first 60 pages to us shooting the movie was about 5 years, but obviously that wasn't all time spent writing.

HC: Was it written with a cast in mind?

WW: No, all of the early drafts were written with Steven's friends in mind. All of the characters were originally named after people we knew. Write what you know, write WHO you know! We drifted away from some of the specifics as we doubled down on and exaggerated what was unique about each character, as we changed genders of others, combined or cut others. And then the cast brought each one of them to life in ways we never could have anticipated. Lines that I heard as high energy in my head came out quiet and were a hundred times more effective for it, and vice versa. That cast really committed and brought it off the page.

HC: The set design is incredible, did you have a vision of how it would look, or did your set designer come to you with the concepts?

WW: A combo of both, mostly the latter. We pulled a lot of visual references as we started having pre-production meetings, and we hired artists who worked within and appreciated the medium of cardboard. They brought that experience, plus a willingness to experiment. A lot of looks were also based on what materials were available to us on the day, between what we could get from the dumpster next door, and what we had left from our original haul of donated cardboard. Sometimes it was just well, we've got THIS, and we've got to make THAT, let's see what happens! It was in the writing that it was a handmade cardboard world, and the art department went above and beyond to bring that world to life, and to give each room its own personality.

HC: As a first-time director, what did you learn about the craft whilst making this movie?

WW: I mean... everything! If I had known how much I didn't know going in, I probably wouldn't have had the guts to do it. I certainly learned how important it is to have trustworthy, engaged collaborators. How important it is to set your people up to succeed by giving them enough guidance but also enough freedom to stay creatively inspired. Listen to your people and let them have fun, too. That you can't be over-prepared, but you have to stay flexible to the realities that present themselves on the day. That everything matters: you can drive all your decisions through your theme, what it is you're trying to say, so that the frame can always be packed with information. I got that from Sidney Lumet's 'Making Movies,' but seeing it actually pan out was an eye-opener. That making a movie is easily 100 times harder than you think it is. That we got lucky because we had no weak links. That scheduling is everything. That you have to pick your battles; some things will just not work out, so you have to let them go, but others you have to really fight for, or the movie will suffer. That there's always a solution, so stay calm and stay open, and let some things come to you.

HC: It has a lot to say about awareness of people's state of mind and mental illness, is that what you set out to do?

WW: Not explicitly in regards to mental illness, although the relevance of it, and other things like addiction, were certainly discussed as bigger picture themes, particularly when breaking the movie down for the actors. It was expressly a metaphor for the creative process: exaggerating and bringing to life the pitfalls and dangers and traps, some of the dark, destructive side that tends to come hand in hand with the burning desire to make. But that didn't keep it from being relevant to other experiences. The Maze was Dave's mind-once you're in it, who knows what you'll find!

HC: Its been on the festival circuit, did each city/country react differently to it?

WW: Hard to say... I was lucky enough to attend many of the festivals, but by no means have I been able to gauge every audience. Some of the humour in the wordplay obviously didn't always translate, and the producer just informed me that absolutely no one laughed at any point during a screening in Japan. But it's not necessarily a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. I was thrilled that people in France, Mexico City, Brazil, Spain, Austria, seemed to connect to the relationship at the heart of the film, as well as its metaphors. Creative types knew it was a movie for them, no matter the country.

HC: You're a man of many talents; do you have a favourite job?

WW: Nothing beats playing bass. If any one of the many bands I was in had taken off back in the day, I'd never be doing what I'm doing now. It just can't be topped.

HC: So, what are you up to at the moment?

WW: Writing scripts and breaking ideas for film and TV, trying to get that next thing made. I directed a couple music videos and a teaser for a TV pilot. Chasing every lead and trying not to become Dave at the beginning of the movie... trying to be more like Dave at the end of the movie.

HC: Bill Watterson, thank you very much.

WW: Any time!
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