Writer and filmmaker Dash Shaw on his unique “disaster art film”

by Andrew Parker

The uniquely animated, teen comedy and disaster epic My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (opening this weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox and in select U.S. cities) takes a lot of familiar twists and turns, but they’re executed in a style that only writer, director, and animator Dash Shaw could have come up with.

It’s a familiar, but daring kind of story that mashes up genres and styles with gleeful aplomb. High school sophomore and budding journalist Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) finds his relationship to his closest friend, Assaf (Reggie Watts), at a crossroads when Assaf starts up an innocent enough romantic attraction to the editor of the school newspaper (Maya Rudolph). The rift between the friends approaches its breaking point, but not before their cliffside high school breaks away from the land and is set out to sea following a massive earthquake. Thanks to the shoddy construction of a new gymnasium and auditorium on the top floor – not to mention shark infested waters, the dangers of electricity and water mixing, and herd mentality that has caused a near total collapse of social moors among students and faculty alike – Dash and his friends have to make a daring, dangerous attempt to climb to the roof of the school before the entire building sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

Shaw, perhaps best known as the graphic novelist behind such works as Cosplayers, Body World, and Bottomless Belly Button, assembles a top notch voice cast (also including Lena Dunham and Susan Sarandon) to blend teen movie angsts, fears, and insecurities with old school disaster movies, while drawing on a wide range of influences. When chatting with Shaw on the phone from his home, it’s clear that My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea isn’t beholden to any one style or genre of film, and that like most of his previously published works, is an amalgamation of a lot of different things that capture the writer’s fancy.

Utilizing a filmmaking form dubbed “limited animation” – a blending of cell animation, Photoshop manipulation, and traditional artwork akin to comic design – Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski have made My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea into something unique, surreal, and still emotionally familiar. The sometimes elaborate action and comic set-pieces throughout the his film are colourful, but abstract. Even though the teen movie and action movie situations are immediately recognizable, nothing that happens in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea looks or feels like any genre you’ve seen before or will likely see again.

We caught up with Shaw last week to talk about disaster movies, Japanese cartoons, how his real life friendship with Jason Schwartzman informed the film, and how the creation of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea was different and similar to other animated motion pictures.

One of the things I notice a lot of people talk about when discussing the film is the style of the animation, but I actually wanted to start out by talking about how My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea kind of retains the form of an old school disaster movie and action film. Were there any particular movies or stories that you had in mind when coming up with this story?

Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw: That’s a great question. I tried to keep it about school, so the structure of it is about moving up through grades. There’s a cafeteria scene in the middle of the movie, and lunches are in the middle of the school day, and during lunches in real life the students will divide themselves into different cliques, and that’s kind of divided up by grade sometimes. In my film, the cafeteria is kind of like the “disaster relief ward,” and they divide themselves up and figure out what to do in their own cliques. There’s also a scene where someone gets accosted in a bathroom, which is something that happens in schools all the time, but there’s an element of these characters also going through this natural disaster and the kind of desperation that goes along with that. In the gymnasium, that’s where students would be physically tested the most, so that was a natural place for the climax of the film to take place. Even the principal gives this kind of “graduation speech” at the end, where he tells these students to go off an live their dreams before they move out to safety. So even though it’s a disaster movie, I wanted to make sure that each scene was kind of based on a real life equivalent. Even when they’re trying to figure out what to do to escape, I would stage these scenes in, like, a science lab. I tried to always keep it connected to the school.

But when it comes to specific disaster movies, I know that a lot of Japanese cartoons that I watched growing up were about schools that were going through disasters. Pretty much every episode of Sailor Moon has a monster attacking the school. I felt like the reason that was so prevalent in those cartoons was because it was sometimes a dramatization or exaggeration of real feelings at that age. There must be something cathartic about seeing your school under attack, or expressing that inner turmoil and making it real somehow.

And video games, too. I didn’t play a lot of video games growing up, but I watched a lot of people playing them, so that was always cemented in my mind as a sort of cinematic experience than a participatory experience. And a lot of the games I watched growing up had a minimal quality to them that I found appealing. Even something like Street Fighter has that same kind of limited animation that I like to go back to and have here.

Now that this movie has played at festivals, people have talked to me about disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but I honestly don’t even remember thinking about those movies when I was working on it. It was more about trying to amplify school situations into a disaster movie. I thought one of the main missions was to make this “disaster art film.” There would be these moments that would be like set pieces from action movies and blockbusters, but that dial would be turned more abstract. Like, students would be climbing to escape a fire, but in my movie they’ll be climbing for way too long or longer than any normal human would, so it’s an expression in a sense of that kind of moving through school. Explosions would be more colourful and more of a spectacle than you see in those kinds of blockbusters. I saw a connection between art films and Hollywood films that I thought I would be excited to see.

I always thought that you kind of tip your hat to one of the greatest disaster movies and stories of all time at one point in this film, which is Lord of the Flies, which is kind of the ultimate disaster film in that it’s about young people and the breakdown of society in the same story.

Dash Shaw: Oh, yeah! I guess you’re right. That could definitely be seen and count as a disaster story. You know, that book, for some reason, because I changed schools, I had to read it twice. Maybe I learned it in Middle School the first time. I know that was and still is a book they teach to kids, but because of some fluke in the school system, I remember reading that twice and going through everything in that one twice, so that was probably always in my mind. It’s funny that kids are assigned to read that book, but it makes sense.

But the kinds of disaster stories that I like definitely have that same kind of allegorical component to them. My favourite movie, maybe of all time, is probably the George A. Romero Dawn of the Dead movie, where it totally works as a fun, campy zombie, action movie, but it’s also one of the best cinematic critiques of capitalism there ever was. It’s very funny, and the blood is bright red, but everything about it is very real. It has a great kind of countercultural spirit. It has a great attitude.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is also a great allegorical look into the kind of jealousy that young writers can often feel. The main character here is named Dash, and I know that you’ve known Jason Schwartzman personally for a while now, but he’s also a writer, and as a performer, he’s particularly adept at playing up that kind of arrogance and misguided ambition that an emerging artist with that kind of attitude would have. He’s played it so well in films like Rushmore and even something like Fantastic Mr. Fox. Did the two of you discuss the tone of this character and what Dash’s ambitions were?

Dash Shaw: Well, I knew Jason before, but just because I knew him, I never assumed that he would play this part. I assumed that I wouldn’t get any good actors because it always seemed like the safest assumption in my mind. I never talked to him about it expressly when I was coming up with it, and it wasn’t written for him, but when he said yes, I thought it was such a fantastic choice for the film.

I think Jason… the reason he has played lots of writers and creative types – and I really love him in Listen Up Philip, too – is that he’s a good writer. Just the fact that he would ever hang out with a comic book artist like me shows that he’s really interested in books, words, sentence structure, and inflection. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he plays a lot of writers and characters like that.

I remember when we first did talk about the film, what we talked about was the humour and how in this movie while this disaster is going on the students keep talking about books, school, and their personal lives. There’s this dissonance between what’s happening around them and how they’re reacting to it. I think one way of putting it would be to call it deadpan, because those characters never feel like they’re in a horror movie, but still living in their own minds. We talked a lot about that and how we keep this dissonance and juxtaposition going in his performance more than the ambition of the character. That aspect of Dash he got immediately, and that was largely in the script, but he wanted to always make sure that the tone of the humour made sense.

He knew my sensibilities, and the character having the same name as me totally comes from comic books. The majority of the alternative comics that I read while I was growing up were autobiographical in some way, and this was a play on that idea. Jason knew that he wasn’t playing me, but he knew my sensibilities, and he totally got that joke.

You said that you didn’t think you were going to end up with many big names for the film, and you ended up having quite the cast. Were there any people who when they joined the project made you reconsider the direction of any of these characters?

Dash Shaw: Well, we changed things as much as we could, I guess. The way this movie was made is very unusual and unconventional. Basically, I just started drawing it first, and I didn’t even have producers for the film until it was about 80% drawn. We didn’t lock in the actors or dub the film like they would a pre-existing movie. We recorded them after the animation was mostly done and just played around with the expressions of the characters depending on what the actors did. We had a lot of piece of different mouths and eye movements that we adjusted as the actors came up with things, and we incorporated all of that into the movie.

But the reason I think I was able to get all of these actors in the first place was because I could actually show them what this movie was. I could show them sequences of the film, and that the ball was already rolling on this thing. The answer is really in-between on that question. It was a back and forth in terms of generating new things and incorporating the drawings that were already made.

The style of limited animation that you employ here really lends itself well to some spectacular visual gags, like watching someone slap someone repeatedly or watching someone vomit for a really long time. Did you notice that this style lent itself well to a humorous tone, and was that one of the reasons why you pursued it for this film?

Dash Shaw: I knew that I wanted the movie to be quote-unquote “cartoony,” and to revel in its own goofiness. I knew that I would do that in a different way from, like, a Bugs Bunny cartoon. There’s a character in this movie, Benji, and he has a funny walk, and that music is like what you’d hear in an old Warner Brothers cartoon, just this bouncy, funny sound. I like those things about old cartoons, but I also know that if I did it, it would somehow be different in a way that’s more like looking at a goofy kind of painter like Peter Saul or Laura Owens. They have that kind of cartoony, goofiness to their work, but it’s also formally different than anything that might have inspired it. There’s something in the tone there that’s very silly, but formally unusual, and maybe that’s what I thought this film would be like. It would get by on the energy of this kind of specific and goofy range of energy.

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