A chat with Dave Made a Maze director Bill Watterson

Videogame voice actor, motion capture performer, and -- yes -- film director Bill Watterson cracks open a couple beers with our resident cinema expert on his new feature film.

I love supporting Bill Watterson. Yes, I know he isn’t THAT Bill Watterson, the one who drew Calvin and Hobbes, but he’s earned a wonderful place in my heart nonetheless.

See, THIS Bill Watterson is the voice actor and motion capture model behind the main character in Lost Planet 3: a game I would have never given my time to if circumstance hadn’t forced us into an interview situation together just before release. The character Watterson portrays is a blue collar guy operating blue collar mining mechs in the future on a world humans should have never colonized. He has the same character draw as a Ripley or whatever mash-up of sci-fi authors the Dead Space guy has. So talking to a non-gamer guy about finding the blue collar origins of a sci-fi Die Hard hero is totally fun. What wasn’t fun was winding up getting doxxed for interviewing him -- as if I was some games journalist hot-shot and not a guy interviewing another guy for the price of free beers.

That was a couple years ago, but I remain close with Watterson, because he gave me something and he cost me something. And that builds a weird bond you can’t shake.

So when Bill Watterson (the voice actor, not the cartoonist) started making Dave Made a Maze, I was instantly on board. Sure, plenty of folks in Los Angeles break with their usual careers to try a hand at indie films, but there was something about Bill’s project I always felt sure about. Now, it’s tearing up the indie scene and almost certainly a film you should put on your watchlist for when it finds distribution.

Dave Made a Maze follows Dave (comedian Nick Thune) who lives a life of quiet desperation as a thirty-something man who still borrows money from his parents and cannot seem to complete any of his goals. So, while his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) is out of town, he builds a maze out of cardboard boxes in their living room. When she returns, he is lost somewhere in the maze and cannot escape. He promises, in a very TARDIS way, that this maze is much bigger than it looks. But Dave’s asshole friends wind up throwing a party to make fun of how asinine this situation has become. The party is even crashed by homeless dudes (Rick Overton), hipsters (Stephanie Allynne), a European couple on vacation, Dave’s best friend (Adam Busch of Buffy), and a documentary film crew led by James Urbaniak of the Venture Brothers.

Despite warnings from Dave, the party eventually invades the maze. It turns out Dave was not messing around: this space has grown and is spiraling out of control; even without his help. Origami birds and insects attack the living, walls move without oversight, Evil Dead-level demonic possession turns friends against each other, boobie-traps evolve without oversight, and somewhere in the maze there’s a minotaur hunting the survivors.

The film is, itself, a study in gamification that focuses on a life built upon end-goals and the toxicity of creative culture. It’s a brilliant, cruel expose on participation and dreams and expectations for the creative person but also the internalized brutality of those shortcomings. It’s also a completely DIY adventure into the unknown crafted out of a million cardboard boxes from American Apparel that both exists in a perpetual living room and travels beyond the limits of our world. But also I saw a woman get decapitated and her blood all turned to yarn because that’s what the film had available. Focus in on what we’re doing here.

Fortnite (Epic Games). Fortnite (Epic Games).

A similar fort building game called Fortnite released recently, and it also has you defending against monsters. It’s incredible to see the same childhood-based rules of engagement against nightmares getting explored both in games and a film like this one. For example, at one point in the film the minotaur is chasing the survivors and Dave duct-tapes up a blanket over an open door. We, and the monster, all recognize this as the international symbol of a temporary wall that cannot be violated. See? That’s the kind of world the film occupies.

But Dave Made a Maze also earns its horror roots. Very early in the adventure, one character cuts their hand (a papercut obviously, haha) but the blood is instantly absorbed into the cardboard floor. I hesitate to over-sell this, but it carries the level of creepy that suddenly changes everything you’re watching. I knew that we were in for an actual body count. And all of this balanced against a real relationship drama between Dave and Annie, versus a relationship with Dave and his friends, versus Doctor Venture trying to stage a heightened version of these events.

It’s an annoyingly good movie that takes a Dungeons & Dragons experience and inflicts it upon a party. And it reminds every viewer of the power of what makes movies… magic.

All of this is to say I recently caught up with director/writer Bill Watterson (not the cartoonist) to talk about the film, comic books, his approach to creation, and you know, nightmares.

So Bill, my theory is that there’s two versions of imagination. I just reviewed Valerian and that represents one end of the spectrum where a film gives you EVERYTHING, and the other side of imagination is to ask the viewer to give you everything. This film seems like it falls into the later camp. You made a film of cardboard and dreams and nothing.

Bill Watterson (not the cartoonist): I grew up being into anything I could be into… especially for Marvel. If there was a character with a giant hand he was Giant Hand Man. If there was an alcoholic who couldn’t afford rent… he was still, just, Hero. There were the soap operas of the Marvel stuff. Did Nightcrawler just kiss Storm? Wolverine would show up sometimes with an Australian accent but you’d ask “Wait, why?” And now, nothing has any weight. I can’t see any fights that are explosion-based. I just want to see someone have an argument?

Why don’t these superheroes act like Mom and Dad?

Fuck. Will that track? It just seems like… perfect golden orbs? Nonsense? What do we do here? But also like in Star Wars nothing ever had to hold your hand. There were all these species just walking through the background and yeah, you could dive in and know about their stories… later. Nothing was just handed to you.

This is made better by the Episode VIII character who had an action figure released even though his scene was cut from the film.

Hahah. That’s why we didn’t have auditions or even table reads [for this film]. We had the people I wanted for Dave Made A Maze and they were just on stage day one. And that was why having someone like James Urbaniak made sense. They know exactly who they are and who they want to be. But also I spent five years raising funds to make this film--

A Kickstarter?

No, never. We got seed funding for a lawyer to take care of our legal documents and letters of intent. Lots of Second City. Lots of trying out these characters with different, you know, character types. But also some of these folks were Cleveland folks, including my co-writer who used to be in a band with me. He was the singer and I was the bass player.

I feel like we’ve discussed both being the bass player “types” in our creative groups.

Yeah. And that leads you to thinking you can star in the film--

There was a part where I started screaming at the screen when a character sees a new room and says “This must have taken like a whole day.” Because what I’m seeing on screen must have taken months, right?

We had three weeks to set up scenes, and we had to tear things down as we worked. We had one space to shoot in and we had to re-use cardboard so we would tear down a room to make, say, Paper Brynn.

We have to talk about Paper Brynn. That’s the most Evil Dead thing I’ve ever seen. But that leads into this violence where blood is replaced by yarn and string, and it makes the gore of your film somehow transcend despite being schoolyard art supplies.

There’s a moment that it creates, asking “Are we covered in the blood of our friends?” And there is no answer. And even in test screenings people had… look, a lot of questions. Which sucked because I thought that was one of our best murders. And especially without a table read, everything we captured on shoot sounded like it was coming out of someone… better.

Why Nick Thune for the lead? He’s a comic with such a similar sense of humor to your film.

Our editor actually pushed for him. There were two things I loved about him. He’s playful and silly and you have to be really intelligent to do that because people think that’s low-brow. He had a mix of cherubic innocence but also too old to be doing this shit. He had a beard when we started and then he lost it and became a child and that childhood allows you to extend extra rope.

There’s a sequence where him and his girlfriend seem to be in this dream sequence where they also have to fight each other over their needs -- which exists outside the realm of the film. What did you see this as?

All of this reminds me of a place where I was terrible and knew I just needed to improve my reality and -- having lived it -- it changes things. These are deliberate choices. The ways you beat yourself up is extended by how the maze beats you up too. If you’re an artist, well you’re a bum. If you have a job, then you’re a corporate sell-out. What’s wrong with you? There are projections that you bring onto yourself or that society or a partner can cast onto you and there’s no way to escape. The more these characters change an attitude, the more they pull apart the rules of their entrapment. That’s how you beat the maze. But also getting lost in the maze is getting lost in the creative process --

But Dave is also so clearly a piece of shit.

Sure. He’s a character who never finished anything. But he couldn’t be a drunk or a stoner or a drug addict, even though those aren’t acceptable excuses. This is about not finishing anything. It’s that universal.

That’s when Thune reappears in the film and immediately shows he has no control over this world.

Right. Nothing here could be CGI or trickery because it had to be impressive because his girlfriend has to forgive SO MUCH to see this as a great thing. There aren’t reactions here beyond awe and that helps answer some questions about sexism and disconnect. It is a tough ask to start with a female lead who is not a nag but who is not a push-over based on, simply, this situation that she is in. If you wind up here, is this the hundredth time or what is--- and our actress is in a relationship with someone who is not a “creative” and so we all found some tools for these types of relationships together.

There’s a minotaur and there’s so many complicated issues and gamified situations but also you had zero time to prep anything -- how does that go?

Everyone either gets it from the start or doesn’t get it and then doesn’t do it. Everyone woke up to buzzsaws in the face or screams or blood or pieces of a reality missing and if you read the script and didn’t immediately connect -- what were you doing here?

The film has an animated intro sequence about a white dude at home who was critically unsatisfied: was this where all the secrets were buried?

That’s why the film ends with the sword… look, yes there are so many secrets buried there. The point of every minute of the film is that no one is perfect, and you’ll always be fighting, so know what you’re doing. There’s also a few little elements in that sequence that were about being excited about a concept, and that excitement could entrap his life, but where he casts himself varies from the hero to an ant within an ant farm -- and he does that to himself. It’s a movie about puppets where he wants to be the master of puppets but he is the most puppet dude you could imagine.

This is a weirdly simple description of the movie. Would you say that you have a film about impractical effects that’s honestly about unfortunately practical people?

Brock.

Then end on the gamification of the maze?

It is a sense of getting to the next level… but throughout. I love discovery. Room by room. And the film is modular in that way. Believe me, when the time comes, I cannot wait to share the map of the maze…

I can’t wait for Iam8bit to release it as a poster I cannot afford.

Me either.

Dave Made a Maze arrives in theaters and on VOD on August 18th.