'Dave Made a Maze': Creating a Cardboard World on an Indie Budget
“30,000 feet of cardboard and 3,000 gluesticks.”
The first Q&A at the 41st Atlanta Film Festival (sponsored by ShareGrid) began with all the right kinds of bravado.
“I’m Bill Watterson. I directed the fuck out of that movie.”
The movie he directed the fuck out of was Dave Made a Maze, the breakout Slamdance slacker comedy about a man whose cardboard fort takes on a life of its own, becoming larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Most of the film takes place inside of that cardboard world, which was no easy task. If the Q&A did anything, it served as a reminder of the power and importance of good pre-production.
Director Bill Watterson: “It was a very visual script even before Steve [Sears] and I started going line-for-line and figuring out, ‘What is this about?’ Focusing on character, making sure everything’s consistent, it was visual out of the gate. Your mind goes to exciting places, which is why we got good people. They read it and their minds went to the same places. I don’t think until I saw [Production Designer] John Sumner’s first Production Design Bible, which is a work of art, frankly, that’s when it started to get real… We were at [Production Designer] Trisha [Gum]’s apartment and he was just going through PDF’s and I went, ‘Well this is a movie now.’ It was way before we had a single actor attached, before we had most of the financing, everyone was working on a promise.”
Turning those pre-production concepts into an on-set reality required serious talent. Luckily, this cardboard-centered movie shooting in LA was able to get the help of the totally-real-thing Cardboard Institute of Technology located in San Francisco.
Watterson: “I don’t know that we knew how awesome the cardboard aspect was going to be, in the writing. We got all the right people to get it done, obviously, on the art department side, but when the Art Director [Jeff White] got his hands on it, he said, ‘Well, I know a guy from the Cardboard Institute of Technology.’ The word just started spreading among people who work in fine art in cardboard as a medium. They just started flocking to the project. They were inspired and excited and it was just a matter of setting them free.”
Having the right talent was key, and it made for a pretty unique set experience.
Watterson: “Every day on set, anywhere you looked, there was somebody with a box cutter and a glue gun just going to town.”
While the film’s practical effects charmingly recall adventure films from the 1980’s, for Watterson, they're as essential to the story as they are aesthetically charming.
Watterson: “It was a movie about an artist that made things with his hands, so it just felt like we had to do as much as possible to have practical effects, which I consider stop-motion animation a practical effect because even though the actor has to work with something that isn’t there, ultimately it is a practical effect. If you don’t then make everything with your hands, then you’re basically telling the audience, ‘I think you’re dumb.’ It felt like a lie to the audience, if we didn’t do as much, practically, as possible. Also, the people that we’ve got on board… They came from that stop-motion world, so we knew that we had people who could do it. It wasn’t just a matter of, ‘It would be fun if…’ It was like, ‘Let him do his thing.’”
The film’s tight budget meant a small shooting space for the sets, forcing the crew to revolve sets constantly through production.
Watterson: “We never had any more than two sets, maybe two and a half, up at any one time. The apartment set that we built took up at least two thirds of our shooting space. We had a sound stage in Glendale.”
Producer John Charles Meyer: “We had a shit box in Glendale.”
Watterson: “We had a space in Glendale… We shot the first seven or eight days shooting the beginning and end of the film that just took place in the apartment… Once we were able to take down and start building smaller sets, none of them lasted more than a day or two. My favorite set of all, we called it the ‘Kubrick corridor,’ that existed for maybe three hours, maybe 4 hours, it was constructed in time for us to shoot and destroyed within the hour. Nothing was really standing. We didn’t have any time to pre-light, didn’t have any time to rehearse in the space.”
Despite the film’s limited budget, some aspects of the set were able to make it out of production intact.
Watterson: “The puppets are all intact, thankfully, no puppets were harmed during the making of the movie.”
Producer John Chuldenko: “Except the Minotaur.”
Watterson: “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”
Keep in mind that this ambitious indie was Watterson’s first feature as a director (he also co-wrote it), and the story is odd enough to be a risky reach to wider audiences. Those anxieties, for Watterson, were extinguished by his drive to tell this story.
Watterson: “I wasn’t scared of making a weird movie. I knew it was a weird movie. I wanted to make the movie I wanted to make, and I knew I couldn’t direct a film, especially my first film, unless I believed in it passionately and knew it inside and out. I can tell this story… I may not have a future as a director, but I can tell this story. There wasn’t fear in that regard, there were plenty of other fears [laughs]. I wouldn’t tell this to an agent or anything, but all of my favorite movies bombed, so, I don’t know where to go with that [laughs]... But I think the people to whom this will speak it will speak loudly, and that means more to me than reaching the masses.”
The Dave Made a Maze team was very forthcoming during their wide-ranging Q&A at the Atlanta Film Festival, and the audience was all the more receptive for it. There was one topic, though, that they weren’t so keen on answering.
Audience Member: “What was the film’s budget?”
Producer John Charles Meyer: “We don’t answer that question.”
Watterson: “I’ll tell you what. You tell me what the budget is, and judging by my laughter, you’ll figure it out retroactively.”
Well-played. And if you’re keeping score, that’s two cardboard-loving filmmakers we’ve covered in just over a month here at ShareGrid. You’re welcome.