An Interview with Will Blank, Director of Limbo [Fantastic Fest 2016]

willblank“Limbo” is Will Blank’s second short film as a director and is adapted from a comic strip by Marian Churchland.  Director extraordinaire Guillermo Del Toro called it “an excellent film” and you can read my humble opinion of it here.

Q: How was the transition from editor to writer/director for you?
A: In my own projects the editing and the directing have always gone hand in hand—I shoot for the edit. So the transition for me was incredibly fluid. In editing projects for other people and not always getting the footage that was necessary, I learned what was needed to sell a scene properly. Thoughtful, motivated coverage became paramount. I love the process of planning a shoot and watching it fit together like a puzzle in the edit.

Q: Do you think that your editing and acting experience help you write and directed?
A: I started out acting in my own comedy shorts, some of which went viral on youtube and over time I began to understand the subtlety that the camera can capture. It all helped me understand filmmaking from an actor’s perspective which has been extremely helpful to me as a director.

Q: For your second short film as a director, why did you choose to adapt a comic strip and why this specific one?
A: I found Marian’s comic many years ago and it hit me on a number of levels. It was beautifully drawn—so much of the mood comes from Marian’s art style. Beyond that it was a simple story. I often feel like short films try to do too much. This was a short vignette that stuck with me and that I kept rereading to understand better. It felt both accessible and mysterious and I loved that about it. For me it was incidental that it was a comic though my interest in graphic novels likely brought me to it.

Q: What themes in the film resonates the most with/to you?
A: When I discovered the comic I was fairly depressed and lonely. I responded to that feeling of being untethered, full of regret and uncertain of what to do next. Against that backdrop, the interaction between the man and the supernatural dog felt fresh and interesting to me. The fact that he chooses not to take the wish felt oddly hopeful. Deciding he didn’t want a freebie from a dog genie felt like an assertion of personal choice and power and that really resonated with me.

Q: How did you find your cast?  How did you manage to get Sam Elliott for the dog’s voice?
A: For the lead, I had been watching HBO’s Looking, which is about a group of young gay friends in San Francisco and had noticed Raul Castillo in his role as Richie, the love interest. His performance was earnest, pure and maybe even a little mournful. When our producer Casey Fenton asked who I would like for the lead, he was the top of my list. It just so happened we were lucky enough to be connected by degrees. We had a brief phone conversation and found we were on the same page both with the material and on a personal level. That sealed the deal. He was perfect for the role and we are so happy we were able to collaborate with him.

As far as Sam goes, Casey had asked me who I would like to voice the dog. I said “It’d be great to get someone who sounds like Sam Elliott.” Casey, who I give all the credit in the world to, responded with “Why don’t we ask Sam Elliott?” I laughed and agreed it was worth a shot. So Casey put together an email and reached out to his voiceover agent. Initially we received a polite but tepid response. A few weeks later, IndieWire had featured us as their Project of the Day. That allowed us to break through some of the noise. Within two weeks, we had faxed Sam the comic (he doesn’t like computers/technology) and received an enthusiastic yes. It really blew all of our minds and it was a true joy to record with him.

Anahi Bustillos was a gem we found through a casting service in Los Angeles. Though her character exists mostly in the main character’s memory, Anahi brought a tremendous amount of depth to the role and was amazing to work with.

Q: How as the dog conceptualized?  How did you arrive to this design over others?
A: I knew that I wanted the dog to be grotesque but also sympathetic; that was clear for me from the get-go. The design process began by sitting down with friend and Disney Imagineer Michael Honeck and brainstorming what functionality the dog should have, using the comic as a guide. From there, Michael put together a design packet that we used to approach special effects houses.

That was all well and good, but every FX house that we contacted scoffed at our meager budget. The quotes we received ranged from $30,000-$150,000 which was way out of our price range.

A mutual friend connected me to creature designer Tim Martin, who has had an incredibly illustrious career that includes work on the Hellboy films as well as X-Men and dozens more. I was completely unaware of all of this when I called him, otherwise I would have been way more nervous when we spoke.

He agreed to work within our budget because he was interested in the challenge the project presented. After a brief discussion about this ghoulish but relatable dog, we mostly worked together remotely. Tim would take pictures of his progress and I would send back annotated notes on his photos. It was kind of insane when I think about it, but since I had a full-time job and Tim could only work when he had spare moments during the day, it was our best and only bet. In the end I’m really glad I trusted him because the final product struck an amazing balance that I still get excited when I look at.

And now I have a creepy dog puppet in my closet.

Q. His look is very reminiscent of a Jim Henson creation, what were the influences in creating him?
Dark, Jim Henson-esque fantasy certainly inspired the design. Films like Labyrinth, Dark Crystal and The NeverEnding story were all references for practical puppetry in our discussions. Those were all films that are lodged in my memory as a child for their iconic designs.

Q: What has making Limbo taught you? (On a professional or personal level or both)
A: This project was where I learned to trust and identify my “gut”, which is hugely important not just in filmmaking but in life. I wanted this project to turn out well so badly that I literally A/B tested every minute decision. The more I made decisions that were “wrong,” i.e. ones that I later changed, the more I came to identify and learn to trust my instincts. They began to act like a guide. It has become one of my greatest career and life assets to be able to know where I’m at emotionally and what I like and don’t like.

Q: How important are screenings at festivals like Fantasia, HollyShorts, and Fantastic Fest for a short film in you experience?
A: So important! Fantasia was like a mecca for me, on some level it felt like Mitch Davis was the first to believe in LIMBO and the audience that he brought was so incredible; people were immediately on board. I felt like I was at home on some deep, comforting level. Each of these festivals connects me with like-minded filmmakers and makes me excited about what’s possible in the future. I’ve found there is nothing better than sharing and exchanging art with other artists; it’s thrilling for me.

Q: What are your upcoming project(s) that you can tell us about?  What are you working on?
A: We are incredibly excited to announce that we are adapting Marian Churchland’s graphic novel BEAST into a feature film. It’s a fantasy/magical realism piece that is grounded in reality.  We’re gearing up to shoot in Spring of 2017.