Interview by Sean Boelman
After winning the NEXT Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the animated adventure flick Cryptozoo was quickly snatched up for a summer release. From the team behind My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea and featuring a voice cast including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, and more, this is definitely one of the most visionary animated movies of the year.
We at disappointment media had the honor to talk with writer-director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski about the film, its influences, and the nature of independent animation, among other things. Check out the interview below and watch Cryptozoo!
On the Film's Influences
disappointment media: What were some of the stylistic influences on your animation in Cryptozoo?
Dash Shaw: Well, you know, a bit a big part was Jane, who painted most of the cryptids in the movie, the way that those are modeled, is kind of after the French movie Fantastic Planet by René Laloux, in that they're like painted pieces, and it's technically stop motion, but it doesn't look like stop motion, because they're each done by hand.
Jane Samborski: Another thing that I know was a big pillar, when Dash was writing the project, he had a fellowship at the New York Public Library. And one of his fellows was working with counterculture newspapers from the '60s, which even ones from all over the world had this very consistent thin line look. Pre-internet, it was just in the air and so that and the desire for much more specific drawings in reaction to the broadness of the previous film.
Shaw: The Winsor McCay short, The Centaurs from 1921. That has a great sexiness, adult quality.
Samborski: And then also, I mean, the whole film has a collage look, so we're bringing together a lot of disparate ideas and really trying to honor the work that each of the individual artists did, but still create a cohesive whole and then you know, playing and making it exciting and just following where the art leads us.
disappointment: So there was definitely a very strong mythological foundation in the film. You based a lot of it in real mythology, what was your research process like for this film?
Samborski: You know, I always end up talking about every single creature is from a real mythology. We did not invent anything for the film. My research project was largely internet-based, as so many are these days. I was specifically looking for the older images from the cultures of origins. Everything does get run through the Jane paint filter you know, I am the artist that I am, so things that I make look like I made them. But those older images are just so wonderful and strange. And you know, it was a great place to start.
Shaw: And like when I started writing and I came across the Baku, that's when it really became a movie idea. Because movies can be so dreamlike and so the Baku as a centerpiece of a movie sounded like a good idea. And you know, like Hokusai had drawn a Baku in the 1800s and there's an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku, so I had heard of it that way.
On Making Cryptozoo
disappointment: So do you have a particular cryptid that was your favorite to animate and why?
Samborski: I have two. I am in love with the Tengu and the Camudi. The Tengu being kind of the bird creature that tears apart the helicopter, and the Camudi being the giant Angular snake at the end. And what really excited me as an animator in both of those cases, is that I was able to take not just the visuals from the source material, but the actual motion. The Tengu has that sort of stylized Japanese woodblock posing, and the Camudi has the angular movement of the South American stone carving. Which I'm in the weeds as an animator, that's where my heart is.
Shaw: You know, I like that because Jane has her paintings. And then, I do most of the human characters when they kind of crossover and it's these humanoids like, like Gustav the faun so like, Jane painted his legs. And the blurring of the boundaries, I think is, I hope, an interesting part of this movie and just these kind of moments, I think are what I think of.
disappointment: So something that stood out to me about Cryptozoo is that it tackles some pretty weighty and important themes. Do you think there is a single most important message for audiences to take away from your film?
Shaw: You know, that's the kind of thing where when you say it in a sentence, it immediately feels like it's somehow deflating, like, you know, making a sentence kind of summary of a movie. You want the movie to be like, an hour and a half, like experiencial ride that's kind of full of contradictory feelings, and it has a wide range in it. So um, so, you know, leave the unicorn alone. When you come across a unicorn, leave it alone.
Samborski: Yeah, I mean, I think we just want to have the conversation. You know, if there were easy answers to these problems, we would have found them already.
Shaw: Leave the unicorn alone.
Samborski: Leave the unicorn alone.
disappointment: So Cryptozoo is a female-led globe-trotting adventure. I kind of saw Lauren as almost like a female Indiana Jones in a way. Where did this inspiration to tell this story in this way come from?
Shaw: Yeah, it was making that network of characters that all had a different relationship to kind of the idea of the Cryptozoo or the Cryptozoo being a potentially good idea: Joan, Lauren, and a cryptid herself, Phoebe. So I had that network. And you know, Lauren, traveling the world, getting all of these cryptids and it being connected to her childhood, which I think many people have that feeling with mythological beings. But I felt like I couldn't start with her like she's like Lara Croft, or like you said Indiana Jones. And it felt like, not the way to enter the story. Especially she's much more morally ambiguous than then those characters. So I wanted to start with two people who don't know anything about cryptids, you were just stumbling across it. And that kind of became the beginning and the bookend of the film.
disappointment: The voice cast of Cryptozoo is obviously magnificent. What was it like working with and recruiting all of these stars?
Shaw: It was totally great. And, you know, Lake Bell, like I said, the movie, that character looks that way because of Lake, you know. And the first movie she wrote and directed was about voice acting, voice recording and female voices in particular. So that felt interesting.
Samborski: She had skin in the game. It wasn't some weird side project she was picking up.
Shaw: You know, for these movies, like, I might record an actor for two days. And then Jane and I are drawing and painting for four years. So I knew that Lake Bell would approach this with some extra personal motivation. And I mean, Angeliki Papoulia as Phoebe is totally incredible. Of course, I love all of the Yorgos Lanthimos movies and, and she really…
Samborski: She brings the heart.
Shaw: Yeah, the heart. They're really like this soul that's like kind of shooting out inside of a very artificial world. Grace Zabriskie. You know, if you know Grace Zabriskie from other movies, I think it's really fun to kind of see her soul shooting out of this drawing.
On Making Independent Animation
disappointment: So something that makes your films really special, both your films Cryptozoo and My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that they're independent productions, which is getting kind of rare in feature-length animation. What do you think is special about independent animation projects like your own?
Shaw: Well, a key inspiration for me was, was when Disney released Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, they put it out as a two disc set. And one of the discs was just the storyboards by Miyazaki. And I love the Nausicaa movie. But also you're seeing those storyboards are like the dream of the movie. It's like the hope for the movie, and Miyazaki draws in quite an idiosyncratic way, compared to many anime artists, he has almost like, part European or a lot of different sensibilities inside of him. So then it goes through a production line that equals something that's quite consistent. With an independent film, you know, it's very obvious on Cryptozoo that we had a very unusual production line, and that we allowed for idiosyncratic voices, that it wasn't like it went through a machine to equal a consistency. And I really think that formally, at least, or it's even hard to say, formally, because I hope that, like the figure drawings, the beginning of the movie, it is a formal unusual thing, that characters are off model. And it's more like observational art school figure drawing of seeing someone in different sides. So that is a formal thing, but I do hope that it's an emotional thing where it has that thing that figure drawing has where people have contradictory personalities inside of themselves that you're sensing through these drawings. Doing it independently really allowed for that. It made that possible. I mean, you could talk about it for a long time.
Samborski: I mean when you are figuring things out from scratch, you're desperate to figure out how to do it. And so you, you're wishing someone would tell you how to do it. But in that act of experimentation, you're maybe finding a solution you never would have found if you haven't gone through and established. And there's flexibility that's gained by small teams, there's inventiveness. There's a big risk of failure. So you get some pros and cons. When you're really lucky, it ends up greater than the sum of its parts. And we really hope that that's what's happened here. It feels like it has.
disappointment: So I personally found it very exciting to see your style evolve from My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea to Cryptozoo. What did you change about your approach for your sophomore feature?
Shaw: Thanks for saying that. Yeah, I mean, it was very, like conscious, a lot of very conscious decisions. We had most of High School Sinking drawn before it had been cast. So you know, I didn't think we would get good actors. And that was kind of like very built into the initial script and how I was kind of envisioning that movie. But when it came time to Cryptozoo, I thought maybe I could probably get good actors for this. So I promised myself I wouldn't design the characters until after they had been voice recorded. So also, like the main character of High School Sinking has this kind of dot eye thing that's like a Charlie Brown, kind of Scott McCloud idea of the main character being a bit more blank, and that you could project it onto them. But in retrospect, I thought it was kind of the least interesting character in that movie, that I liked the side characters more, which is a problem that a lot of first movies have, actually. So when it came time to Cryptozoo, I was like, all of the characters have to be interesting looking, they have to look great on screen and be full of unusual ideas. You know, fewer drawings, but better drawings, more specific painting, more complicated, a story we can travel all over the world, it's like, a lot of things I hoped to kind of course correct from the first one. But then there are things, like I really liked the last half hour of High School Sinking when it's really a disaster movie and an experimental movie at the same time. And I thought that part was rockin' and good. And so I really tried to lean into that with this one. And I tried to lean into the parts that I liked about the first one.
Samborski: You know, I think one of the big questions for us as a creative team in High School Sinking is can we even do this?
Shaw: Yeah, it was kind of part of the motivation.
Samborski: Yeah. How can we movie? And so with the second one, we knew we could movie and so we're like, how high can we shoot?
Shaw: How high can we movie?
Samborski: Yeah. Can we have huge action scenes? Can we hire people and have them help us animate it? And so it was just, you know, I think that's where a lot of the growth for me was is just how do you even make these things happen? And there's like a technical component. That's hard. There's a human component. It's hard.
Cryptozoo is now in theaters and on VOD.
Interview by Sean Boelman
Few names are as synonymous with the J-horror genre as that of Takashi Shimizu, the creator of the Ju-on series (better known in the United States as The Grudge). His newest film, Howling Village, takes a Japanese urban legend and makes a horror movie out of it, full of the director’s iconic haunting visuals. We at disappointment media got the tremendous honor of talking with Shimizu in advance of the film’s release! Find out what we learned below!
disappointment media: Howling Village is based on a real urban legend. What inspired you to make a film out of this?
Takashi Shimizu: The producer approached [me] about some strange things that had happened in this Inunaki Tunnel and what may have happened in the tunnel, a lot of it has been taken up on the internet, and everybody has chimed in with their own version and their own ideas. And basically, [I] took all of that and started to put it together into a script.
disappointment: Superstition is a key factor in many of your films, including Howling Village. What draws you to exploring this theme in your films?
Shimizu: There are superstitions and superstitions do have some basis in reality sometimes, and sometimes they don’t. And a lot of people who are superstitious think about their superstitions, talk about them, and that [grey area] gives a lot of room for the doubt that needs to exist for a good horror movie.
disappointment: The setting is almost another character in Howling Village. What about these locations stood out to you?
Shimizu: Every place has a certain kind of existence, if you like, an existence of its own. But obviously, some places are kind-of boring. [I] like these forgotten places, where people used to live, and to sort-of imagine the people that lived there, what they did, and to give existence to these places that a lot of people wouldn’t think exist anymore.
disappointment: Your films contain some iconic creepy images. How did you create some of the imagery in Howling Village?
Shimizu: [I] was a terrible coward as a child. [I] was scared all the time, so basically that’s where [I’m] making up all these images from.
disappointment: Different countries have different styles of horror. What do you think makes Japanese horror so unique?
Shimizu: Other places, they basically create monsters and so on — and not to say that Japan never does that — that sort-of scare you directly. [My] sense of Japanese films is that it is the sense that something is terrifying, less than the actual terrifying thing itself, the creation of an ominous quality.
Howling Village hits theaters August 13 and VOD on August 17.
Interview by Sean Boelman
Indie horror filmmaker Richard Bates Jr. has made a name for himself on the festival circuit as a writer/director of genre-bending midnight movies that have quite a lasting impact on their fans. His newest film, King Knight, stars an ensemble cast led by Matthew Grey Gubler in a story about the leader of a coven of witches going to his high school reunion. In advance of the film’s Fantasia premiere, we got to talk with Bates about the film, mixing genres, and more. Check out the interview below!
On the Recipe for Midnight Movie Success
disappointment media: Your films generally have a great deal of success on the festival midnight circuit. What is it to you that makes a great midnight movie?
Richard Bates Jr.: I really am drawn to midnight movies about family and sort of people who feel alienated who find each other and form families and groups and whatnot. Like I want it to feel like a party in art school. Everyone's included.
disappointment: So in your films, you really like to blend horror with other genres it seems. In King Knight, it's comedy. What do you like about making films that mix genres together like this?
Bates Jr.: Well, I mean, I'm really drawn to it in sort of all art forms right. Like, you know, I loved growing up listening to Frank Zappa. You know, a Frank Zappa song could be ten different genres. And then, you know, in college, I would love listening to Girl Talk albums, mixtapes, the mash ups, right. A song is like 15 songs. And so I really liked that. And I tried to do that, with my movies. I think the most genres I ever packed into a movie was Tone-Deaf, depending who you ask, could have been too many. But I'm always sort of drawn to that. With King Knight, I would say, I really just kind of set out to make a movie that would make me happy and hopefully make other people happy. I really had my version of a comedy in mind.
disappointment: So you were talking about how you've done a lot of different genres in your films from ghost movies to slashers and witchcraft. Are there any other horror subgenres that you find yourself wanting to riff on?
Bates Jr.: I mean, depending on what I want to write about. What I want to write about influences where I'll go with the genre, you know what I mean? There's absolutely nothing I wouldn't riff on if I felt like it had made sense with the material. Because I typically don't try to think about that, when I do my first pass of a screenplay, then I work it in, you know, systematically afterwards, because when I do my first draft I’m thinking more about the characters, and act breaks. And sometimes it's very sort of experimental act breaks. I mean, like a movie like Trash Fire, right? The whole point of the movie is, it can be too late to change. Dr. Phil is wrong, so get your shit together, and it's a movie and two acts because of that. The other ones are a little different, certainly King Knight has three acts, but it's a comedy. So you find yourself being a little bit looser with it, you know, particularly in the first act.
(L-R) Josh Fadem as Neptune, Johnny Pemberton as Desmond, Angela Sarafyan as Willow, Mathew Gray Gubler as Thorn, Andy Milonakis as Percival, Nelson Franklin as Angus, Emily Chang as Echo and Kate Comer as Rowena in the comedy KING KNIGHT, a King Knight LLC release. Photo courtesy of King Knight LLC.
On How He Makes Movies
disappointment: So King Knight is a film about a coven of witches, but it's definitely an unorthodox witchcraft film at that. What are some of your favorite films about witchcraft?
Bates Jr.: You know, I'm very passionate about the religion, Wicca. I made documentaries on it, it's a lot of my library. I would say I enjoyed watching Practical Magic. And I mean that sincerely. I don't know that there are a ton of movies about witches that I've ever been particularly drawn to. So it's probably why I made this. I mean, quite frankly, you know, once I was done with Tone-Deaf and I was trying to figure out what to do and with things just so ominous in the world, I just tried to write a movie to make myself happy, and will hopefully make other people happy. And at the time, I'd been pitched this director for hire thing, a witch movie about an evil witch, and I realized then that I wanted to make a witch movie, but I really liked witches, I didn't want to do that. And so I kind of took Pecker, the '90s John Waters movie where, you know, it's like, it's perverted, and it's edgy, but it's so sweet. And it keeps you coming back. So most of my movies are pretty cynical. So I really tried to strip this of any and all cynicism and love every character in it, quite frankly. And a lot of my friends are witches, and I had them read it just to make sure that it was all in good fun without being inconsiderate. So the idea at the end of the day is I don't want to preach either. I don't want to tell people witches are better than you. No sort of holier than thou reverential thing, the idea is just to treat them as they should be treated just as characters in a comedy. And then hopefully, by the end of it, you fall in love with them as people. Because as far as religion is concerned, truthfully, we're all searching for the same answers to the same questions.
disappointment: You've worked with some genuine legends in your career: Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, Robert Patrick, Barbara Crampton. Is there anyone else on your bucket list of people you want to work with?
Bates Jr.: Well, I would say, definitely Bill Murray. You know, it's tough, though, I'll tell you, I really try not to think of cast until I'm done writing, and then I will just pour over, I will only think of cast, right, because it's the most important thing to me. So the actor that I would want to work with would have to be a dream actor for the part, you know, and maybe fit in with our sort of troupe that each movie we kind of add to, because it helps, you know, when you make these sort of tonally incongruous movies, that you sort of get the references, and it's like a circus. So when I cast King Knight, I got to cast every single actor who I wanted because I paid for the movie with my own money, and then I took out a little loan to finish it. And I got to have full control over casting, I mean, I even negotiated the actors contracts with their agents. So I just had complete trust in all the actors. So it allowed me to not have to worry about micromanaging, I got to direct in a very sort of exciting way where it's sort of blanket directions. Act one, "I don't care how ridiculous the line of dialogue seems to you, or how preposterous the scenario is, you're not acting in a comedy, you're acting in Sophie's Choice." And everyone got it and committed to it, and then act one to act two, right? That shit was like, "Okay, guys, now it's the spirit quest, I want you to imagine if Nickelodeon remade The Holy Mountain." And this group gets that kind of, more obscure references and stuff. And so it's exciting. And we kind of form a little family of our own.
disappointment: There's something really special about watching horror comedies in specific in a communal setting. And while the circumstances right now have obviously prevented that from happening, virtual festivals, like Fantasia, have worked to really replicate that. Why do you think your films make for such a great shared experience?
Bates Jr.: Well, I think that there are certainly elements of a provocateur in each and every one, and it's fun to sort of react to things like that with groups, right? I will tell you, I think comedies best with a crowd for sure. I know that when I made Tone-Deaf, I really made it specifically for the theater. And now you know, it really never got to play at too many. And maybe it's my own fault. But really, when I imagined Robert Patrick breaking the wall I wanted people in the theater to feel like the villain was chastising them. I wanted it to feel like it was him versus the audience. And that movie was shot so wide that I designed it specifically for theater, whereas a movie like King Knight, I sort of designed for all experiences. A movie that maybe you watch with 10 friends around your VHS player type thing and you find this special little weird thing and you don't know that a lot of other people know about it, but it means so much to you. You know what I mean? That that's my hope at least, that's my sort of dream with a movie like this, that it makes some kids feel empowered, or less alone, or something.
King Knight is screening at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs August 5-25.
Dedicated to unique and diverse perspectives on cinema!