By Denah Johnson
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
Nancy, thank you so much for talking with me. While we have a lot of discussion with directors, cinematographers, and writers on agnès films, I recently realized we don’t have anything having to do with animation and women working in this aspect of the field. Could you tell me a bit about how you got into animation, who your mentors were, and how your early process developed?
Using my Dad’s Super 8 camera, I started experimenting with animation a tiny bit when I was in elementary school. I didn’t get to really learn about it until I went to graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 32. My first semester I got permission from the Dean to take an undergraduate class called “Puppet Animation” with the great animator, and now dear friend, Chris Sullivan (check out the trailer for his animated feature Consuming Spirits). In that class I met Laura Heit and we helped each other with our films. I fell in love with Svankmajer, Starevich, Méliès, Norstein, and The Brothers Quay. There are many female animators who have influenced me, but it seems like it took me awhile to learn about Lotte Reiniger, Faith Hubley, Caroline Leaf, and others. I want to mention that Agnès Varda is my all-time heroine of filmmaking. I so respect the way she continually pushes film form and film ideas and embraces new techniques—on and on throughout her life. I would love to get to meet her someday, but what would I say to her? I sent her a fan letter.
Can you talk a bit about the role of collaboration in your work throughout your career? Is animation, at this point, something you would venture to do yourself?
That is a good question. As an art student, I didn’t start collaborating right away. At 17 and 18 years old, I was building my skills and trying to find my voice. I was lucky to go to undergraduate school in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and after my first year, I started looking outside the school to the city, where some very interesting performance events were happening (in the early 1980’s). In college, I did collaborate with my friend Lisa Mandle on a couple of artists’ books and related performances, and I participated in a number of performance events, like when a group of us infiltrated the Baltimore Thanksgiving Parade, or had outlandish “fashion shows.” I started playing music with an all-girl punk band called Ceramic Madonna Head with Plastic Arms and Legs with Linda Smith, Peggy Bitzer and Liz Downing. And after that Elizabeth Downing, Michael Willis, and I formed Lambs Eat Ivy (check out “Ghost Girl” and “Shiva” performance excerpts), a collaborative music/performance group (1984-1992). We worked together for 8 years and that was the school of collaboration for me. It was hard work but we made something bigger than us as individuals. Guitarist, Jonathan Gorrie, joined us a bit later (may he RIP).
I learned that working with others is like being a superhero, I get to be more than I am—to have all the superpowers of my collaborators.
I do sometimes still animate by myself, but on The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, I worked with Lauren Benzaquen, a former student, which made the process fresh and fun. There was so much animation, I couldn’t have done it alone. Another former student, Riley Thompson, did much of the swim scene. More recently, Lauren also helped animate I Like Tomorrow a short film that Jennifer Reeder and I co-created (currently in post-production).
What advice would you give those starting out in animation or hybrid narrative strategies that you wish someone had told you?
You have to believe in yourself first. Then, if you need to raise money, you have to convince others to believe in you too. I believe in being kind and building relationships with people. My mother taught me “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and she taught me to “try and make the world a better place.” I still think those are two of the best pieces of advice I could give. I also say, if you don’t enjoy the process most of the time, then don’t do it. This is very important because making art/animation/film is a whole lot of work, and if it isn’t mostly fun to make and you don’t love making it, then you may as well do something that will bring you money and security.
The thing that I didn’t want to believe, but now know, is that at some point in this process, “who you know” does matter.
The totally amazing, genre-bending, form shifting and insightful The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes is your first feature length film. Can you tell me how this project came to light, how you approached directing a feature, and how you hybridize various animation methods and live action shooting?
This project started as an experimental short called Behind the Eyes are the Ears, but I thought the idea, a sort of twist on The Fly (combined with Yellow Submarine and Twin Peaks), would be best as a feature. I had never written a script before, my work usually develops in the studio, organically. So I called my friend Jennifer Reeder for help, because, among other things, she teaches screenwriting and had made a feature. This was also my first fully digital project. All my film work had been hybrid. I started in the 1990’s making performances that had video or film sections of the narratives, as well as songs. The hybrid thing is just what comes naturally to me. After all, I am a cyborg.
The ever-changing field of distribution is something that has seen a lot of sea change in the past few years with more online content providers and various ways to make your work available. What was your process in coming to the strategy of re-releasing The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes as an episodic series? How are the film and series inherently different, or do they ultimately accomplish the same narrative goals?
I realize now, that we did well to get the movie made. It is not an easy thing to independently make a feature. And, we did reasonably well at getting seen in festivals, but the movie was too “different” for a sales agent to want to take the risk on the theatrical release. And so we decided to self-distribute as a web series for “free”. We were thrilled to be one of ten projects chosen to participate in Independent Film Projects (IFP) Screen Forward Labs.
The web is like the wild west of media – a very busy wild west. The good news is that we can take distribution into our own hands. The bad news is that there are so many shows competing for eyeballs, and without the power of a company with advertising dollars, it is hard to get those eyeballs. Can you hear my screams of anguish across the internet? Those screams are for the unheard, original voices that you cannot hear through the din of commercial, tired plots and styles that dominate our world view.
In light of the current social, scientific, and political climate I wonder about the range of reception you’ve had with this film. Can you share some thoughts and responses you’ve received since the film’s release in 2015?
We premiered at Rotterdam (IFFR) and I am so thankful for that. The people who have liked this project totally get it and its layers. I think, for others, the movie version was too dense. I hope that with the series and the re-edit we did at The Wexner Center with editor Paul Hill, we have reached a happy medium – the ideas and the style are there, but it is a bit more accessible. The shorter form of ten-minute episodes felt more natural to me as a filmmaker.
I am totally in awe of the form The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes takes as a feature film – it is all at once (as noted on your website) “live-action, musical, animation, science-fiction, magic realist, afro-futurist.” At the core is the amazing performance of Michole Briana White, how did you find her and end up casting her at the helm of this unique project?
Michole is one of the many blessings in my life. I couldn’t afford to hire a casting director, so I started casting the role by Googling “best African-American Actresses who can sing” lists. No kidding. And then, watching related movies. I watched Rent and then Ava Duvernay’s I Will Follow to see Tracie Thoms, and I then I saw Michole and I thought she was super. Then I watched a red carpet interview, where she talked about her album (she is a singer and songwriter), and she was so lovable and funny in the interview, I thought, “Yes! She is perfect!”
I contacted her representation in Los Angeles and they weren’t much help. So, I tweeted her a private message and she sent me her manager’s phone number. The problem was she inverted two numerals and didn’t tell me his last name. So I wrote her back, but she didn’t look at her Twitter for about a month. I was at a dead end when she noticed my message, and by the end of the day I had talked to her manager and we had a deal! Once she had the script we talked about the character for hours on the phone to prepare. We flew Michole to Maine for the shoot and she had not met ANY of us, except for Denise Pugh-Ruiz, the make-up artist. The first day on set was the first day I had met Michole in person. Now, three years later, we are fast friends and co-creators. She is the best! Smart, funny, hardworking, lovable, adorable, original, and to top it off, one of the most talented people I have ever met.
Much of the inspiration for the early version of this project as a short film came from 1940s-50s science fiction, which mostly presents women as wives, girlfriends, giants, or daughters of successful scientists (THEM! is a great exception). Can you talk a bit about your relationship with this genre and specific era? As you developed the project were there specific instances in which you found yourself questioning the rationale or authority of this earlier form?
I know films from the past have a lot of sexism and racism and it is a welcome surprise when they don’t. I think there is only one or two movies where a woman plays Dr. Frankenstein. Even so, I love films from the 1930’s when genre expectations were still up for grabs and 1950’s and 60’s “B” movies like Roger Corman’s when due to tight budgets, they did surprising things. In making this film I wanted to cast a woman of color as the main character (who is a scientist) because that was the movie I wanted to see. I am influenced by comic books and superheroes. And I love the X-Men idea because …I am a mutant.
Can you speak a bit more about this connection to science fiction narratives and ideas? As someone who also grew up reading and watching sci-fi, I found it a refreshing break from reality because there always seemed to be so much more diversity and ways of being represented overall. There always seemed to be a stronger investment in the other that wasn’t always inherently bad.
I guess my favorite narratives are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. In both these stories the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am fascinated by our inability to recognize our inability to predict the future. I am also fascinated with death, our attempts to avoid it, and refusal to see it as part of a natural cycle. In terms of “the Other”, I think Octavia Butler does that best and I haven’t seen a version of her stories on screen. Speculative and science fictions are fascinating as a way to imagine the future, but primarily they examine the values and conflicts of the present. I think Afrofuturism is where it’s at. Sun Ra said, “Space is the Place” and I love Sun Ra, but I want Earth to be the place. We need to invest in Earth.
Aside from Michole and a few others, you cast a lot of non-actors in The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, did you find particular advantages/disadvantages in the execution of this strategy?
I did what I could afford. Michole who plays Dr. Myes, is a total pro of stage and screen. Her nemesis Dr. White, played by Kevin Jackson, and her friend Dr. Wiley, played by Jennifer Prediger, are also pros. The bank teller, played by Jennifer Shepard, is an experienced comic improv actor. Some of the other cast members were experienced actors, or experienced on a more local level, or non-actors, but many were first-timers. We did a big casting call for extras in Bar Harbor and had some great folks show up. Michole helped the people she shared scenes with and would run lines with them and rehearse with them while we set up shots. Marco Accardi, who plays Dante, her assistant, is a natural method actor. He would think of some emotional event in his past and work from that. We also put crew members in scenes whenever we could, even our DP, Rohan Chitrakar, appears in the swim scene, while he was setting the camera at the bottom of the pool.
Advantage: We saved money and had far fewer contracts to negotiate. We also had a lot of great faces that you might not see in a Hollywood movie.
Animation is a mode of filmmaking that arguably takes the most time. Did you have any “happy accident” moments in filming these portions? Did you use cell animation, rotoscoping, digital effects, a combination of various approaches? How were the methods determined?
Even though we used digital cameras, everything is hand made. Some of the drawings are done on a Wacom drawing tablet into Photoshop. Most of the animation is cut-out photocopies moved by hand under the camera. We used some green screen and composited layers of the cut-outs. The swim scene is rotoscoped (drawn over a live-action film reference) from Busby Berkeley routines. There is a lot of old school technique. We had many surprises, because there was much improvisation. We tried a low-tech version of the “stargate” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And that was a surprise because each frame was painted with light during a few seconds exposure and we never knew how it would turn out.
As an animator, and now, someone who has directed a hybrid feature film, how important is experimentation to you? What role does it play in your creative process?
My way of working is usually very organic. I start with a dumb idea and keep moving through, trying things out and embellishing, selecting and throwing away until I have something I like. This is not the way feature films are made. There is an immense amount of planning. My favorite parts of the feature process were creating the musical score with Zach Soares, creating the animation, and editing. Those all were made with large doses of play and improvisation. Normally, when I start a project in the studio, I have no idea where it will end up. It has been a relief to get clear of The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes the last couple of months and have some room and get back in the studio. The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes was a four-year process, from screenplay to feature to webisodes.
Let’s talk a bit about your collaboration with Jennifer Reeder. How did you meet and what is your working relationship like?
When I met Jennifer Reeder, we were in graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Jennifer was doing White Trash Girl at the time. We got to know each other while teaching a summer video course for high school students at SAIC. We were together 40 hours a week for 3 weeks and it was a blast. We have been friends since. There is some core of our work that resonates, maybe the unusual female leads and the mythic qualities. Our filmic styles are very different, and we probably seem an unlikely pairing, but it feels quite natural and easy to work together. We have different strengths and this works out very well. We co-created I Like Tomorrow, a 10-minute short that is in post. It is an outer space musical.
Do you find connection through your differences as filmmakers? What have you learned from working with her in your collaborations?
It is great to share carrying the weight. Co-creating is much less stressful for me. Jennifer and I support each other and she has talked me off many “I don’t see any point in making this movie” cliffs.
Jennifer is more experienced on set and in screenwriting. We have different styles as directors, and it was interesting to get to see that. I think my biggest affinity on set is with the camera crew and production design. Working with actors I tend to leave to them to do their job as they see fit, unless they want feedback or I want something specifically different than what they are doing. I feel most natural when directing the visual aspects. Jennifer has strong ideas about how lines should be delivered and more engagement with the words. I think because Jennifer works with many teenage actors she leads by example, “try it like this….”. I guess one of the things I learned in working with Jennifer is that there are many styles to effectively direct. Michole, as an actor, taught me about directing too. I wanted her to do what she does and I wanted to stay out of her way, but she needed me to reflect what she was doing so she could get her best performance. I wasn’t attached to the exact wording of most lines, so there was some room for improv.
When we shot I Like Tomorrow, we shot in Chicago. Michole stars in the short and we were working with Jennifer’s Chicago crew. I took a back seat on set for the dialogue sections and I was in the in the driver’s seat for the music video aspects. On set there tends to be a clear hierarchy and chain of command, and with low-budget time constraints, much of the collaboration takes place before and after the shoot.
Having completed and released The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes as a feature and now as an episodic series I understand you are working with Michole on a follow-up project. What can you share with us about this new work?
The project is a continuation of the Dr. Myes character, but we will have a new title. I don’t want to give too much away until we get a bit further along, but as it progresses the series is more Afrofuturist, more fantastical and more super hero/sci-fi than the first episodes. It is very fun writing with Michole. We get on the phone and share a script online, and improvise and have lots of laughs. Michole is very detail oriented and keeps me on track. We plan to start our own company for the continuing series, and we are looking for a network to sponsor the show.
Can you share a bit about your experience trying to court distributors for Dr. Myes as a feature film and now, as a spin-off as an episodic series?
When we were accepted to Rotterdam (IFFR) as a feature, I received many emails from sales agents wanting to see the film. Most of them I never heard back from. The ones I did hear back from said nice things about the movie and then said, “there is little to no commercial viability here.”
What are some of the best and worst responses/feedback you’ve gotten in this process?
There is so much I have learned, that it is hard to boil down. One major lesson is that in “the business” people like things that look familiar, have a recognized “star,” and resemble something they have sold successfully in the past.
What advice can you give others looking to do similar, genre-bending, outside-of-the box work?
As a society we have been inculcated with what a “good (feature) movie” is: three acts—hero wants goal, faces challenges, gets goal and gets girl. And alternately what an “art movie” is: slow and subtle. If you don’t fit into a genre or prevailing form, lower your expectations. Unless you make porn or horror movies, rarely will you see any profit. Prepare to spend your own money, spend a lot of energy crowdfunding, and/or grant writing. If you want to build an audience, prepare to spend as much energy and money engaging the audience as you did making the film. You probably need to keep your day job. There are many gatekeepers to having your work supported and seen, and still white men represent the vast majority of those who are let through the gate as feature directors. I know that sounds bitter. I’m not bitter. I have been very fortunate in my life to make the work that I want to make and to have some people think it is worthwhile. I am so grateful to the people who have supported my work with dollars, screenings, labor, and kind words.
Interested in checking out the FREE episodic release of The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes? Visit the website for The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes which offers great behind the scenes information and tons of extras. Share it with others, help spread the word. You can also find the series and like it on Facebook and follow @Strangeeyesofdrmyes on Instagram.
To learn more about Nancy and her work, check out her website.
Visit Denah’s profile here.