DICFF 2020 | Interview with Bill Watterson, director of Dave Made a Maze

The Dublin International Comedy Film Festival kicks off virtually today to give cinephiles and lovers of comedy alike some much needed laughs. Those interested can get a festival pass which includes entry to all films and events at the price of only €5.

One of the gems of the two-day programme is US indie-comedy Dave Made a Maze. The film centres on the title Dave (Nick Thune), whose girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a weekend trip to see he has constructed a maze made out of cardboard boxes in their apartment. Her confusion quickly turns to annoyance when her boyfriend refuses to greet her, telling her from under the boxes he cannot leave.

Proceedings take a turn for the fantastical when Annie and some friends decide to enter the structure, which in true Tardis fashion is actually much more massive then it appears from the outside. It is a place of both wonders – origami birds and rooms that turn people into puppets – and horrors – killer booby traps and a blood thirsty minotaur. Finding Dave, he explains to the group he has become trapped as his construction has taken on a life of its own – perhaps fuelled by his imagination. While Dave is set on completing his magnum opus, his friends try to escape.

Co-writer and director Bill Watterson spoke to HeadStuff about how the hilarious and lovably surreal film came to be.

Congratulations on Dave Made a Maze. The movie came out in the US in 2017 but it’s now screening at the 2020 Dublin International Comedy Film Festival. Three years on, it is still being discovered and lauded across the world. That must be satisfying, especially having made it with limited resources, right?

Thank you! It’s always such a lift when someone finds our film, whether it’s a shout-out on social media, or a chance to formally present it at a screening like DICFF. We always figured it would be a slow burn, we’re not the most obvious choice and it’s a wildly flooded market, so any new viewership is a thrill. And yes—VERY limited resources, and that extends to the marketing of the film. So word of mouth, thoughtful reviews like yours, and opportunities like the one Mo [festival organiser Maureen O’Connell] has provided mean the world to us.

Are you happy the movie has become a cult film? Was that the goal as you were making it?

The goal was only ever to get it in the can and survive the process, frankly! I don’t think one can intend to be a cult property, trying to predetermine that sort of outcome kind of defeats the purpose or undermines the process. You’re only a cult hit if people find you and love you and spread the word, and you can’t control that during the creation of the property without pandering, I reckon. We knew we were weird and different, but that was just in the bones of the film, not something we affected to gerrymander an outcome—that was just the story we were telling.

Having said all that, almost all of my favorite films are cult outsider discoveries or underappreciated gems that have found their following after the fact. But I’d have done a disservice to all the people who invested time and money in the effort if my endgame were to think small—we want everybody to see it! We just know that it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, because we did set out to do something different and challenging.

Crafting the origami room

I really love the film’s command of tone. The horror and drama never overshadows the comedy. When working on the script and editing the film, how important was that for you?

I’m very happy to hear that reaction! I think it very much relates to my answer to the previous question. To me, the tonal mash-up was far more ambitious than the construction of multiple sets, the practical effects, and the ensemble nature of the project. But that was always the goal.

I threw out jokes in the script stage because they were jokes, not organic moments that would arise in this world we’ve built, and the same was true in the edit. Things that really made me laugh while watching the dailies, that I couldn’t wait to put in the film, didn’t ultimately have a place because they didn’t fit the overall tone of the world we were crafting at every stage.

That included sound design and score, of course: it was a balancing act all the way throughout pre and post production. We had to be careful not to be indulgent or to tip too far in any one direction and break the suspension of disbelief. If anything, I think that will prove to be the signature of my work, that combination of things that aren’t traditionally associated with one another to create something that hasn’t existed before. I was channelling Beckett and Hal Hartley as much as Dante and Carpenter and Reitman. What if Gondry and Spielberg were the same dude, you know?

How much of mastering that tone is down to casting comedians or people with a comedy background?

It’s about commitment, and comedians are some of the most committed and fearless people in the world. All actors are. You have to be if you want to be any good. But I think a lot of it was on the page, as well. No one said yes to this project for the money. They read it and understood what we were trying to do. There were moments of pathos and heartbreak on the page, and hilarious people still said ‘yes’ to going there with us. We didn’t have table reads or rehearsals ahead of shooting, so it was pretty crucial that everyone was there to make the same movie because we didn’t have time to shape performances before the camera started rolling.

Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Nick Thune

The cardboard maze itself feels tangible and real, yet also fantastical and vast. Did you have experience designing sets made of cardboard before or was this the first time?

I sure didn’t, but the artistic team did! Both Jeff White and John Sumner had worked plenty with cardboard, and Trisha Gum often worked with cut paper animation. Jeff had a background on the stage, so he was ready to keep the sets modular and repurpose flats for new spaces on the fly. Most of my directing had been live theater, so it never really occurred to me to try to shoot something that wasn’t there.

That tangibility was our selling point from the get go, and it was narratively driven: this is a movie about an artist, someone who makes things with his hands, and The Maze is an extension of him. If we didn’t build the world with our hands, then we were lying to the audience, and everything at the heart of the picture that made it worth making for all of us would have been undermined.

Jon Boal did an amazing job shooting it to seem both claustrophobic and endless. Ugo Derouard sound designed the hell out of it to give every room its own life, and to layer in echoes and far off machinations that enhanced its size. And all those great tunnels and doorways to nowhere, and the vents and grates spilling smoke that must be coming from SOMEwhere, right? I don’t think we were ever working with more than 18 feet, max, but it sure feels like an endless world on screen.

Creating the Minotaur

How much time did it take to construct the sets and where did you get all the cardboard? It seems like a lot on both counts.

We had three weeks of preproduction, and that was mainly for building key props (the cardboard head, the Minotaur head, the buzzsaws) and the apartment. Once the apartment was loaded in and constructed the day before we started shooting, we were out of space, so the other sets couldn’t really be built yet—there was nowhere to put them.

Most of The Maze was built either during shooting (when we wrapped the bedroom, we shot in the kitchen while the art department turned the bedroom into The Maze Within The Maze in between takes, for sound), or sometimes we paid for an extra day to bring them in over the weekend (we shot Mon-Fri, and didn’t have overnight or weekend access to the space without digging further into the budget) so they could get ahead of us. It wasn’t an ideal way to work, and most of the sets were built, shot and destroyed on the same day. We were very rarely on the same set for more than one day, with some of them only physcially standing for three hours.

The cardboard was almost all donated and collected by the producer (American Apparel came through huge!), then the Solar City next door to our soundstage let us raid their dumpster every morning before shooting. We would have been lost without them. I rode my bike through the Fashion District and loaded up a backpack full of carboard tubes for the Looney Tunes gag where they tumble down the Pipe into the ‘Basement.’ It was that kind of affair—what do we have, and how can we make it look cool?

The movie is about a man escaping into a fantasy world from within his own home. Do you think the film plays different amidst the Covid pandemic and lockdowns?

It certainly became oddly topical…maybe it provides a new sense of relief when they finally get to the other side, forever changed but hopeful? Or maybe it just drives one to madness. We shall see!

What are you working on next? And would you ever do a sequel to Dave Made a Maze?

I’ve got three feature scripts I’ve written, all with different writing partners, that explore more tonal mash-ups. One leans much more into horror, one more into adventure, and one into fairy tale. And I’m out with a TV property that has magical realist elements and a beating heart. And puppets. I would be thrilled to return to the world of The Maze. We’ve got ideas for days!

The Dublin International Comedy Film Festival runs from December 3 – 4. More info can be found here.
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