October 29th, 2010 | Interviews

imps of marge and fletch

Back in the ’90s, when the Cartoon Network dealt solely in non-ironic kid’s cartoons and cable stations flipped over to paid advertising after midnight, shows like MTV’s ‘Liquid Television’ and ‘Buzz’ were the places to see animated and experimental shorts by the likes of Mike Judge, William S. Burroughs, David Byrne and Bill Plimpton. Filmmakers Danny Jelinek and Jason Whetzell have fashioned their monthly web series, “Everything,” after that same anything-goes era of early ’90s late-night programming. Created for the competitive local film festival Channel 101, Jelinek and Whetzell produce two of the five segments for every five-minute episode themselves, handpicking the filmmakers for the other three segments. The result is a bizarre mix of stop-motion, live action, and visual effects-laden gems often put to songs by the likes of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Flamingos. This interview by Roxanne Benjamin

How did you start working together?
Danny Jelinek: I made a show called Arrow that was sort of my baby. It had a little cult following in the Channel 101 community. I didn’t know Jason too well, we always talked at screenings, and he was a fan of the show. He had this idea—this early version of ‘Everything.’ I wasn’t deep into animating yet, which I definitely learned a lot about with the show through necessity. We realized pretty quickly that we had different sensibilities sometimes, but we were very like-minded when it came to the creative process. Ever since making the show, we collaborate on a lot of projects. … We’re almost always on each other’s sets. Jason had the idea to do this show where we’d all make shorts and then all these little pieces started to fall into place. Like Sophie [Kipner, host of the show] is the greatest—it really wouldn’t work without her. After we shot her footage I went to work designing a look and feel for her segments. We didn’t have too much of a plan other than that she would have a robotic British voice and the title of the show.
What kind of freedom does this format give you? What do you miss about having a story to fall back on?
Jason Whetzell: It’s very hard to tell something personal in a short amount of time. I have been looking at a lot of short poetry and I’m very impressed at how private and personal something can be in one page or less. I should be able to do that with my 45-second films, but I’m not quite there yet. I like telling stories and I think I manage to in 45 seconds— sort of like a little one-act play. But it would be nice to tell a longer story that I can really put details into and not rush. I like getting in and out of a show in 45 seconds. Danny had made one of my favorite shows in Channel 101 history—a show called ‘Arrow’. It was incredible. It told an amazing story in a very visual and colorful world and made the whole audience feel like a kid again. I believe that’s why it got voted back. It’s still today one of my favorite short films. I decided to ask him to be my partner on the show. I would have never gotten past the first episode without him.
What ideas have you been able to resurrect on ‘Everything’? Things that couldn’t work as a story but are great as short works?
JW: One of my ideas fell through and I had to do something that would be a quick shoot and quick edit. I decided to have Danny just dump a bunch of stuff on my head. He dropped dog food, milk, pickles, flour, vases, fish bowls—all onto my head. We shot it in slow motion so you could really see how awful I felt in the moment. This had no story obviously and was purely visual. I think for whatever reason people liked to see me in pain.
DJ: I think Jason has a real nice way with endings. He really knows how to give the audience that little kernel at the end—that little laugh or moment of horror, or whatever he’s going for. I definitely spend more energy trying to think of things like that these days. The person who most influenced my work is a Czech surrealist stop-animation director named Jan Svankmajer. I admire all his work but especially his short format work. I actually ventured to the Czech Republic and sought him out at his art gallery in Prague. I was able to talk to him with a translator. I told him how much his work had affected mine. He seemed very appreciative and surprised. I don’t think that had happened to him a lot. His work proved to me that you don’t need a huge budget to make something incredible. I feel like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are setting the bar for everyone making short form still to this day. As far as wanting to get to a level of quality, those are the guys I look at. I think that those guys are making things that are both artistic and highly approachable. They don’t seem to make many sacrifices either—nothing is ever dumbed down. They seem to get to make things that are probably highly fulfilling for themselves but a lot of people also enjoy. It’s kind of the dream to make something you love and find an audience. But anything can influence me. I just saw Hausu and my eyes were popping out of my head. I feel like that will influence me definitely.
Is Hausu one of the greatest films ever made?
DJ: It’s one of those films that while you’re watching it, you have a huge smile on your face and then you sit there watching the credits in awe—like, ‘What was it?’ You walk out of the theater and all you want to talk about for three days is Hausu. I’d love to make something that mixes all those different tones so effectively. There’s been a bunch of films in the history of cinema that try and fail miserably. When you see a film actually pull it off, it’s kind of a miracle. … It’s not about copying those things, but sort of filtering them through your own sensibilities. I watch a lot of things from the ’60s—psychedelic films like The Trip and the Monkees movie, Head. That’s the thing I’ve always been into—psychedelic visuals and really weird comedy like the show ‘Get a Life’ with Chris Elliott. I think watching that stuff definitely has an influence on what I do.
What’s psychedelic about ‘Get a Life’?
DJ: There’s almost nothing that isn’t psychedelic about the humor of ‘Get a Life.’ Chris Elliott dies in a bunch of episodes. It can and frequently does go anywhere. The premises were wild: ‘Chris Invents a Time Travel Drink,’ ‘Chris Finds an Alien,’ ‘Chris Builds a Submarine in His Bathroom.’ I don’t know what effect this has on a mass audience, but I know me and my nerdy friends taped all those episodes and would walk around quoting them to teachers, parents and whoever else we wanted to confuse. It was like a weird secret reference point we all had. To this day I’ll say something like, ‘The sun is by far the hottiest planet!’ and have to remind myself that probably makes no sense to anyone else. I think anything that weird probably has a hardcore audience, and I’m sure part of that hardcore audience goes on to make things that are influenced by it, so there’s an impact somewhere along the line.
Is there anyone you would consider a mentor?
DJ: Rob Schrab. I don’t know if he would know that! Working on ‘The Sarah Silverman Program,’ I got a lot of insight to his process. I like the way Rob approaches things, how pushing creativity always comes first. I want to put being creative first, and hopefully success follows. I feel like that’s what Rob does. Before I ever met him or Dan [Harmon] I was a big fan of ‘Heat Vision and Jack.’
JW: Dan Harmon. I don’t have a lot of interaction with him, but when I do it has a profound impact. Though mainly we talk when I’ve upset someone he’s friends with in some way.
What’s it like watching your work with a live audience? Like at Rob and Dan’s Channel 101 Festivals?
DJ: As great as a platform as YouTube is to show your work, the worst that can happen is that you don’t get a lot of hits or some random person that you can write off says something mean about your video and gives it one star. It’s a lot different when you’re in the room with the audience. When you make something and it’s up on screen and no one is laughing or reacting—that has to happen to you if you want to get good at what you do.
JW: It hurts but you know what works and what doesn’t by the end of the day. You have to have thick skin in this business. You have to understand you’re not making a masterpiece but a rough draft, and you can keep improving if you don’t become too bitter by this process.
DJ: That’s one of Channel 101’s most important aspects. People are amazing filmmakers because they were said no to so many times. It’s been better than film school for me. I learned a lot in film school, and then I learned how to really make movies and entertain audiences at Channel 101. I think there are few things more disheartening than a rejection e-mail from the Channel 101 panel. It’s weird because when you don’t get a job or something like that, it’s easy to be like, ‘Well, they don’t know,’ or ‘Wasn’t the right fit.’ But with 101, it’s people whose tastes you trust—people who have gone through the same thing you’re going through. But 99 times out of 100, I think the panel gets it right. I think the cocktail is to dust yourself off and write a new idea. Rejection’s a good thing for an artist—anyone who disagrees should go read the first chapter of On Writing by Stephen King.
What is your dream project?
JW: That’s tough because I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do right now—just minus the money! I’d love to make a live-action film mixed with stop-motion effects—a non-patronizing children’s movie like they used to make when I was a kid. I always looked at Time Bandits as a kid’s movie, though people think I’m weird for saying that. I’m definitely going to show it to my kids. I don’t know if that says something weird about me as a parent.
DJ: In a way, I’m getting to work on a dream project. I’m a huge fan of the radio personality Tom Scharpling based in New Jersey. I listen to all his shows. I’m doing some stuff for this DVD project that he’s putting together. He’s a hero of mine and it’s really cool to work with someone you really respect. Also I really love the band Islands. I’d love to do a video with those guys—if you interview them let them know? I usually work backwards from music. I’m a big fan of ’60s music and anything influenced by it. Right now Islands, Destroyer, Animal Collective, Beach Boys and the Nuggets L.A. compilation are in heavy rotation. All of disc three is pretty unstoppable, but there’s an incredible gem by some band called the Full Treatment called ‘Just Can’t Wait.’ It’s probably one of the greatest Beach Boys knock-offs I’ve ever heard. Most of those bands kind of get the main strokes right, but they don’t usually create that sense of euphoria that the Beach Boys did.
What artist on there do you wish had been a filmmaker?
DJ: Peter Fonda is on it with an amazing entry! But of the non-filmmakers on there, probably Harry Nilsson. His songs are incredibly visual and some of them are story-driven as well. He really knew how to paint a picture for the listener and his music is very emotional. Also, he was extremely funny. All that would probably translate really well to film.