Bill Watterson on Dave Made a Maze
It's been a while since Bill Watterson released Dave Made a Maze onto the masses, but for some reason his first full-length feature sneaked by me. Watterson has since moved on to other projects, but didn't mind me taking some of his time to reflect on his first ever film. If you want to know how hard and intense it was to make a movie like Dave Made a Maze, how he balanced budgetary limitations with intent and what the future has in store for him, make sure you read the interview below.
Niels Matthijs: It's been two years since the release of Dave Made a Maze. I imagine it's difficult to look critically at a project so close to you, with a team that poured their hearts and souls into it, but has time made it easier to take a step back and look for things to improve in future projects?
Bill Watterson: I was always aware of what I needed to improve on even throughout the process, and have put a lot of focus on that since. I didn’t know what I didn’t know when we started, which was an asset because I probably never would have made the movie if I was aware of how incredibly steep the learning curve would be on my first feature. But I’m always looking at ways to improve, trying new challenges, getting better. It’s always the goal. The limitation that I was most conscious of during production was creative blocking ideas, and, because of limited space and prep time, more orchestrated camera movements. The very next project I did I limited myself to single-take scenes where blocking and camera movement had to do all the heavy lifting, and we shot that while we were still cutting ‘Dave.’ What I’m working on now is having more fun while I’m in the eye of the storm on shoot days. My favorite part of production is the edit, because that’s when you know what you’ve got, but I’m trying to make set just as fun for me and everyone else these days.
Regardless the quality, ingenuity and creativity, it looks like Dave Made a Maze was somewhat of a commercial failure. Do you have any idea why it failed to reach a bigger audience (something a film like Swiss Army Man did manage to do)?
Let’s be careful with that word failure—we made a movie for no money with no support entirely independent of the industry machine, and it hit over 30 theaters in North America, secured distribution in over 40 countries, won tons of awards and played all over the world. It’s getting seen by a much more international audience than we ever could have dreamed when we made it. Many, many more people have seen this movie than I would have thought. We always knew this was a movie that wouldn’t make big money out of the gate; it was always going to take time for the word to spread. But to address the question, we had no real marketing budget and there wasn’t a solid, clear strategy for promotional efforts in the US. If no one knows you exist, how are they supposed to find you? In retrospect, we might have been able to do more grassroots efforts ourselves, but we were spending every minute just trying to keep up with everything coming our way. We had a lot of exciting ideas to get the word out, still do, but without any resources, the challenge is too much to overcome. It doesn’t help that we’ve been pirated a million times. Now that everybody wants everything for free, expects it even, it becomes a lot harder to make any money. But to be clear, SOME people have made money on this movie, just not the people who made it.
Personally, I feel directors should be a little more involved in the marketing of their films. With Dave Maze a Maze, title and poster were completely on point, but I felt the trailer spoiled a lot of the wonder and exploration that makes a film like this great. I'm really glad I didn't see it beforehand. What's your take?
I oversaw the trailer myself. I worked with an old friend on the copy, and worked side by side with a great editor to make it happen. It was a conscious choice to share so much. I was kind of heartbroken that we were giving it all away, but I didn’t think we could afford to be coy and indirect. We weren’t getting big splash placement with the trailer, so we had to be very clear and targeted with what we wanted to say. The movie itself is enigmatic and strange and quirky, it felt too dangerous to be so with the only real marketing piece we were going to get out there. We didn’t have the star power or the ad placement resources to be obtuse or vague or mysterious. I don’t regret it, but I do agree that trailers are far too long and give away far too much. 15 to 30 second teasers are still my favorite way to get excited about a coming attraction. And I can 100% guarantee that any Maze-related social media post that landed for you was made by me. I don’t want to have to do so much social media for my next project, but it’s really hard to get the corporate stink off publicity. It’s a machine, and they have a thousand other things to promote, so they tend to do it all the same way. Having said that, kudos to Arrow Video and Pandastorm for having unique visions for the promotion of the film. I absolutely love what they’ve done.
How worried are you that after making Dave Made a Maze, you're pegged as the "cardboard guy". Is that something you'd be willing to embrace, or are you looking to shed that image with the next project you'll direct?
If anybody pegs me as anything, it’s cause to celebrate! In fact, I recently met an executive producer with whom I’d be very luck to work, and she said “Is that Cardboard Bill?” when we were first introduced. That means I’m on track, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve made four projects since the film, and they all involve puppetry and practical effects. It’s a sandbox I love playing in, and I intend to do so for some time. But my profile isn’t high enough that I have to worry about shedding an image. I’m just focused on the kind of storytelling I want to explore, and hoping to find like-minded collaborators along the way.
When you read the script, you probably realized you had something special in your hands. Were you worried that you might not be able to execute the idea with such a limited budget?
Every single step of the way. It was an impossible task that required a ton of ingenuity, sacrifice, and creative solutions from every member of the team all the way through to the final sound mix. We were throwing out ideas we loved at every step, just to keep the ship afloat. But I’m incredibly proud of what we did, even if you remove the absurd limitations of time, space and budget. Factoring those in, it’s a bloody miracle.
Dave Made a Maze has that mix of author and genre I seem to love so much, but looking closer it's also a pretty eclectic mix of genres (including fantasy, mystery, comedy, but also slices of drama and horror). Is that something you tried to balance out deliberately, or did that come about naturally?
It was on the page, and it was a conscious choice, as well. All of my work, and all the things that I love, have some element of the blending of tones and genre. Life isn’t one-dimensional, why should our entertainment be? Sad songs from punk rockers, light moments in tragic dramas, heartbreaking beats in a comedy, scary scenes in a kid’s show, that’s the stuff I love. It much more accurately reflects life’s realities, even if we’re talking about vampires and puppets and the 8th dimension.
I read that the incentive behind Dave Made a Maze comes from 80s adventure films like Goonies, but that's a connection I'd never have made myself. How important do you think the influences behind your film (or films in general) are?
They’re certainly important to me, but I’ve failed if the enjoyment of my work lives or dies on someone’s awareness of winks or nods to my library. I love being inspired and trying to do what I’ve seen others do, as long as I’m putting my own spin on it, or it’s for a narrative reason, and not just a thought experiment or exercise, or even worse, straight theft. I’m not interested in parody, or recreation, but subtle homage has always been a thing of beauty to me. How could I love something and not let it affect me as an artist? It seems impossible. But the work has to stand on its own and transcend its influences, or it’s missed the mark.
Dave Made a Maze is a film that offers a lot (there's Thune's rut people might relate to, there's the creativity of it all, or the adventure and exploration the plot offers). How important is it for you what the audience picks up from your film, or are you happy when people just connect with it for whatever reason.
Anybody that likes any aspect of the film for any reason is cause to celebrate for me. I had something very specific I was trying to say, and was only able to move forward as a director because of the clarity of that effort, but in the end it doesn’t matter if I’ve been heard, as long as the work is being enjoyed and appreciated. When people do connect with something very specific that I was working towards, it is of course incredibly rewarding. But reading people’s takes on elements of the film that are so different than where I was or what I was playing with is equally satisfying. We got through, on some level, and that’s a victory.
You once said that you made Dave Made a Maze for yourself, not with the audience the mind. Do you think you could make the switch to Hollywood, which would allow you to work with bigger budgets but which would put a serious strain on your creativity. And imagine you could get access to a Hollywood budget, but were guaranteed complete creative freedom. What's the film you'd love to make?
Well, that’s not quite the sentiment I was going for. It was more that I wanted to make something that I wanted to watch, and if other people wanted to watch it, great. I am of course thinking of the audience in terms of clarity, communication, connection, at all stages of the process. I’m not working in a bubble of self-gratification. But I couldn’t work from a place of trying to make other people happy, not on that movie. I had to pick what I wanted to say and work to communicate it. But if you pay me, I’ll work to make you happy! I don’t just imagine having access to a Hollywood budget, I work 24-7 to get to that place. I’ve liked plenty of popular films over the years, so I don’t have this hard division in my mind of indie vs. Hollywood. A good story is a good story. But film making is by nature an exercise in compromise, so we’ll see. There are dozens of films I’d love to make, and think I’d be right for, from my own to remakes to franchise participation.
Directors are also given the opportunity to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I'll then try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and audience, I figured it would be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.
Bill Watterson: I feel like you can tell what an audience is getting at by the nature of their questions. And when we screened rough cuts and test versions of the film for select audiences, I got a chance to ask plenty of questions. So I don’t feel like I’m lacking in feedback… I can just open up twitter and hear someone rant on what a piece of shit they think I’ve made any time! But I will say, when people asked me about the emotional climax of the film, the costume-swapping scene at the kitchen table (which almost every audience did), I always asked them what they thought it meant before explaining any further. So I kind of got to turn it around and ask them. And they almost always already had a handle on what I was going for, as indirect as that moment is. In general, I don’t feel like I have a question for the audience: I’ve said what I wanted to say by making the movie, and I’m happy to let it do the talking for me.
Niels Matthijs: Well, that makes my job very easy then!