With his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) out of town for the weekend, Dave (Nick Thune) decides to build a maze out of cardboard boxes in their living room. Upon her return, she discovers that he has become trapped in his own creation. Initially calling upon Dave’s trusted friend Gordon (Adam Busch) for help, soon their curious oddball friends, including an aspiring documentary filmmaker and his cameraman, have assembled in their apartment. Entering the maze — which is much bigger on the inside — the group encounter booby traps, giant human-eating Tiki faces and a bloodthirsty minotaur, in actor turned director Bill Watterson’s quirky and inventive directorial feature debut, Dave Made a Maze (2017).
In conversation with PopMatters, Watterson reflects on the different responses to his unusual film and the complex and individual way in which art is experienced. He also discusses the importance of capturing the essence of human life and behaviour, how simple-seeming stories hide their complexity, and the unexpected result of his debut film.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
Well I started out as a rock ‘n’ rolla. I used to be a bass player in dozens of different bands and I was never the greatest musician, but I was one hell of a performer [laughs]. I was a lot better on stage than I was in the studio. There’s something that just burned to do it, and I thought it would be music, then I thought it would be acting, and now it’s much more writing and filmmaking. It definitely all comes from that same flame…
There are filmmakers and actors that I love, there are bass players and bands that I love, and I go: “Yeah, I want to be like them.” But I don’t know that I can pinpoint a single influence…
What I love about filmmaking is how interdisciplinary it is, and how much having been a musician comes into play in terms of the rhythm of a scene, and the rhythm of an edit. Also, how much being a performer enables me to relate to the actors, and as you are writing, to really embody the characters and give them a unique voice. And then to put all of those disciplines together to try to communicate something much bigger than any one of them could do on their own.
Picking up on your point about communication, this underlies the process of telling a story, which is the communication of an idea and intent to the audience. Is there a flexibility to that communication, in which the film is as much a journey of discovery for you as it is for the audience?
… I don’t like to make anything until I feel like I know what I want to say, but I don’t necessarily start there. The screenwriter had a draft of the script and some of the themes spoke to me. Then, as I was working with him on subsequent drafts, I was working harder to make sure that everything fed through that, which was something I got from Sidney Lumet’s book, Making Movies (1995). But a lot of that was a process of discovery, of letting the story tell you what it wants to be.
A few times I’ve tried to begin a story from a point of: Here’s what I want to say. But it’s a polemic, it’s just too didactic and it’s not a story. It’s a statement and I’m not interested in making statements… I want to see human behaviour and life unfold, and see the symbols, the metaphors and the themes come out of that.
But it definitely changes, and I don’t think it ultimately matters if the audience knows what I’m trying to say. It was good for the actors and the production designers to know, so that we were working from a uniform goal. But I talked to some people who took something away from the film about the nature of addiction. I talked to others who took away much more literally what I was trying to say with the metaphor for the creative process, and [ others] have said: “Oh, this is a movie for me; this is what it’s like.”
I know it gave Mira, our lead actress, a window into what her then boyfriend, now husband, had to deal with when dating and being in love with her because she’s creative, and [there are] the ups and downs of her life. She’d never seen it from his perspective to such a degree until she had to play that character. But every one of those interpretations and takeaways is entirely valid.
Are you amazed by the way in which a film is locked in this permanent form, and yet it can be read and engaged with in so many different ways?
Yeah, it’s incredible because at least the way that I make things, it’s very intentional. The camera is where it is for a reason, and the walls are what they are for a reason. Sometimes there’s just some wonderful magic that happens, a perfect synergy on set, like when the production designer was doing a design with triangles on the wall, the wardrobe stylist gave Tim Nordwind a shirt that had triangles on it, and Stephanie Allen showed up on set with triangle earrings. Okay, that could have been something that, if I were Stanley Kubrick or someone like that, could have been entirely deliberate and had something to say about the emotional impact of that moment. But that was just pure chance and it just took on a life of its own, and lined up so beautifully.
So I can’t claim that every frame of the film was intentional. There are always happy accidents, but we were certainly operating with a deliberate intent, and for it to mean such different things to so many people, I don’t think it would mean anything to anybody if there wasn’t any intention behind it. But it still works even if they got something different than your actual intention, and I think that’s true of fine art, too.
There are so many factors when you walk around a gallery — how you slept and what you are thinking about, whether or not you got your heart broken and whether you’re in a good mood. I saw a picture that was in a gallery by a Cyprian artist, I think it was some kind of torn paper. The universe opened up to me and I started crying, and I bet the artist was: “What the fuck you crying about?” You know what I mean? [Laughs] But it was just the perfect storm of what was on my mind, what I was thinking and feeling, and questions I didn’t have answers to that suddenly seemed answered by the arrangement of his piece. Maybe it was exactly what he wanted, and if he’d have been there and I could have told him what I was feeling, he would have said: “That’s it, I triggered that intentionally,” or not. It kind of doesn’t matter because if you’re having that experience, the experience itself is what matters.
The film feels spontaneous as one gets swept up in its creativity. And yet herein lies the contradiction of the spectatorial experience: while we become immersed to the point that it feels that everything is happening spontaneously, without a filmmaker to guide it, there’s also a conscious contemplation of the filmmaker’s vision that we are experiencing. There’s a playfulness across the visuals, music and performances of Dave Made a Maze that casts this image of you along with the cast and crew as a band jamming, and experimenting with ideas.
Right, it’s very meta and it’s interesting, and it’s something I’m certainly learning more and more as a director. You can read about it, but until you are in it, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s so collaborative and even on a small film like ours, a tiny movie we shot in one single space, not even a big space and with a small crew, it’s so collaborative. So you can come in as the leader and know exactly what you want, but you have to be flexible to what’s actually happening in front of you.
You can’t put fifty people in a room and expect the outcome to be exactly what you wrote down, or what you imagined would happen. That’s robotic and there’s no spontaneity, and if it’s not spontaneous, then it’s not life or human behaviour. That’s maybe an animation that works, but we’re dealing with actual human beings and moving parts in front of the camera, and you can’t control it to that extent. So you just have to set everyone up to succeed by being prepared and giving them a clear sense of what’s going on.
But then set yourself up to succeed by letting go and letting certain things happen, and as you say, to experiment. Let the actors improvise even if you know that you need the dialogue that was written because maybe they know something you don’t know. Maybe it loosens them up so that when they circle back to what we really need, it comes to life more accurately, or maybe something surprises all of us and we are: “Oh my God, that’s our movie.” If you had too iron tight a grip on everything, then it would never have revealed itself.
Interviewing Don Mancini and discussing the human fear of dolls, he explained: “What it is, fundamentally, is that we have a primal aversion to distortions of the human form that links us to our fear of decay and ageing… It’s just inherently disturbing.” Watching Dave Made a Maze, there’s an unease in the experience, one example being when a character has their head sliced off. Rather than blood we see a flurry of paper confetti, which in one sense is humorously creative, and in another unsettling. This is because it challenges the synching up of our emotional reaction to a violent act with something that’s visually off.
Well, what I love about it is that everything at its heart is something you would innocently do as a child — a box fort, whatever it is. I made lunch paper bag puppets as a kid, as well as axes and weapons, and we did little boobytraps with string and glass bottles so we would hear when our mom came home through the back door. It’s all stuff you did and played with as a kid that’s carried all the way through in the visuals in Dave Made a Maze – even the blood is confetti and Silly String. So all of the triggers visually are innocent and playful; they’re kindergarten craft hour.
But what’s actually happening is high stakes, deadly and terrifying, and while it’s not the simplest movie, even though it seems very simple, is because I wouldn’t call it a horror, but there’s also no world in which it’s a straight comedy either. It’s certainly an adventure, but it’s not like it isn’t sad when someone gets, well, decapitated. You’re not cheering for it, and it’s not like in some movies that can get your bloodlust up, in which you can be rooting for the villain and you can’t wait for the next kill – it’s not that. So for something that;s maybe high concept but ultimately very silly, Dave Made a Maze is surprisingly, deceptively complex in that regard. Is it funny? is it cool? is it tragic? We try to address certain things, like, it’s your fault people died, but there are no simple answers.
Is the true concept of originality in cinema or storytelling finding a way to create connections between things that we haven’t seen before, or by finding a way to nestle yourself between genres, for example? And when you discuss happy accidents versus intent, must you accept, as a storyteller, that there’s an organic aspect to the process, and originality cannot be intentionally authored, but can be part luck?
Well, we got lucky in a number of ways. First of all we worked with people that work in film and television who are not necessarily traditional production designers, but work in fine art primarily. Obviously, a make-up artist and a hair stylist — they’re all artists — I’m not valuing one skillset over another. It’s just to say that we were working with a lot of fine artists on set, so literally around every corner an artist was building something with their hands. So no matter where you put the camera you were going to see something unique because they were not manufacturing things you’ve seen before, they were literally making art with their bare hands moments before it went up onscreen. So because of all the work that those people were doing, there’s an aspect of the film that’s the equivalent of walking through an art gallery.
We also had the narrative engine of the maze and how it transforms things. What we were always asking was: “What’s the maze’s version of this?” So we were taking things, as you’ve said that we’ve seen before — a beheading, a tunnel into darkness — and we’ve seen things warp and transform in movies, but it was always: “Okay, what’s the maze’s version of that?”
When you think about something like the emotional climax of the film, it’s potentially a very strange sequence that could leave a lot of people behind. It feels like it’s randomly changing costumes and their dialogue is stuck in a loop in an unnatural way, and it’s something we’ve never seen before in the movie. It’s a new wrinkle in the maze, but it was our version of relationship therapy — they’ve got to keep talking until they’re actually communicating; they’ve got to pull apart the things that the maze is putting on top of them until they get back to seeing each other’s true natures, their very core and not get distracted by the maze, which is also a metaphor for societal and personal expectation, and projecting onto others. All of those things are physically manifested in the maze, but that was just us being able to say: Okay, what happens when the maze gets its hands on blood? What happens when the maze gets its hands on a couple that are arguing? Or what happens when the maze wants to break up a couple, what would it do? It was just a device we that was narratively driven to force us to come up with something, and as you say, something that hopefully has some originality to it and feels otherworldly.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process for you personally, and do you think the audience should be transformed by the experience of watching a film?
I think the audience has to be transformed; you start here and I am taking you somewhere. What I love about a movie is the lights go down and you’re going on a journey, and you don’t know where because you haven’t seen the movie before. You can’t have expectations because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
The movies I have loved the most in my life I saw without having seen a trailer, without having heard an opinion, without having known the first thing about them, and they took me to such crazy places as a result. I had no expectations and it was just a wild ride the whole time, and I was constantly being surprised and rewarded. And that to me is the most powerful way to take in a film. I think that’s when it’s at its best, and of course, I love watching movies for a tenth time and finding new details because that’s rich too.
I was a kid when Star Wars came out and we stood in line with our fan theories, having watched the trailer for every little detail. That’s fun too, I’m not saying that’s not special, but very few things have that kind of power, as when the lights go down and you have no idea what’s going to happen – that’s just pure magic. … But then even those films that seem to be a deceptive, or slice of life in which nothing happens, for example with Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018), I felt it was a rollercoaster of thoughts, feelings and history. There was so much going on to think about emotionally and intellectually, to be pushed and pulled in all these different directions, even though it just a slice of life. Movies like The 400 Blows (1959) seem like you could say: “Well nothing happened!” Well then, you weren’t paying attention [laughs].
Is there a personal, transformative aspect to the creative process?
… I had been on indie film sets, I had been on major studio film sets as an actor, as a video playback operator, and I knew the film world. But I had never steered the ship to the extent of that first day when everything was all set up, the first shot was framed, the AD calls for “quiet, roll camera, roll sound”, and everyone is waiting for the director to say “action”, including me — because I wasn’t used to being the director. I was like: “Oh my God, I’m the guy! I’ve got to do that!”
Whereas by the end of filming I was a lot looser, and there was a degree to which I was more confident. Some of the anxiety goes away and you build trust. But we had no time, no space, and so we became close very fast. Everyone was committed to telling this story and no one was doing it for the money because there wasn’t any. You could feel the commitment from day one… The filmmaker process went from I have to know to I don’t have to know, I can find out and I can find out by trying different things, by asking different people. And if I know, I know, but I don’t necessarily have to know.
This is just purely personal, but when I went into making the movie I wasn’t necessarily setting out to become a film director. I just knew that I could tell this story… By the time I was in the edit bay making those key decisions, I knew I enjoyed this [process], and I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
That wasn’t the case in pre-production or on day one of shooting Dave Made a Maze. I was thinking: We’ve got to shoot this movie and I’m going to do everything I can to make this movie as great as it can be. But by the time we were sitting in the edit bay, and certainly when we were sound designing and working with the score, and with all those beautiful flourishes at the end, I realised: This is it, this is who I am now. This is what I do because it’s so incredibly satisfying.
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Dave Made a Maze was released on Blu-ray, Digital HD in the UK, and the Arrow Video Channel on Prime Video on the 28th January 2019.