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Celluloid Screams – Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

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UK's Celluloid Screams 2013 Line-up Laid BareIn town for the UK premiere of his film Motivational Growth (review) at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams festival, self-described “Engine of Delight” Don Thacker gracefully sat down with us for a lengthy chat about the film and his work past, present and future. What’s in that head of his?

The Mold knows, Jack. The Mold knows…

Dread Central: What was the motivation behind Motivational Growth?

Don Thacker: Well, the motivation was to make a movie (laughs). No… I’d actually pitched a completely different film called ‘Flexure’, which is this awesome sci-fi love thriller that I want to make. I’d actually written it, and I spent a couple of years at Fermilab, the National Accelerator laboratories in Illinois and was visiting there a couple of times a week doing research. I have some guys over there who want to be consultants on the picture. It’s a story about a guy who has a toxic relationship with this woman, and when she gets a raise and is going to move, he wants to keep her close to him. Since they’re particle accelerator physicists, his scorn is a bit different that the Average Joe scorn, and he decides to create what’s called a ‘Brain World’ – sort of a warp bubble reality to trap her. It’s a thriller, highly sexual, highly tense and with the sci-fi feeling. I have to admit it kind of evolves into horror by the end with all this weird shit happening.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to make. It was sub a million dollars, but close to a million, and I was pitching that idea around. People loved the idea, but it’s not something they wanted to throw at an unproven director so my funding source said we can give you, like, a quarter of what you need. ‘Flexure’ was the cheapest thing I had, so I went back to the drawing board and looked through this book I had of all my old ideas. In that book I found the inanimate object in the bathroom talking to the guy, being super depressed and having the television be your only friend and wishing it would never go away. I had gotten rid of those ideas… I kept them in the book, but I had disregarded them because they were all written when I was a teenager – and I’m an adult so everything’s gotta be all high-minded ideas and whatever – but I thought it would be cool to revisit those ideas that I had written when I was depressed and young and angsty, but look at it like a thirty year old would look at that kind of thing, and really it’s like a fantasy world! So instead of trying to make those ideas into a real world, just observe that crazy world. ‘Motivational Growth’ is obviously a very fantastical film.

DC: Which came first, the title or the story, considering it’s such a well-fitting play on words?

DT: I’ve never told anybody this before! There’s this guy I used to work with, we did computer work together, and when I was looking for a title for this mold movie that I was sketching out – I was nineteen! – this guy Jeff Dillahunt, cool dude, awesome programmer, he’s about a decade older than I am. I was just telling him what it was about and he was like ‘shut up kid, I’m working’ (laughs), but he said ‘I was thinking about that movie… why don’t you call it Motivational Growth?’ and I was like ‘That’s STUPID! That’s like a dumb play on words. I’m nineteen and angsty and it’s dumb!’ Then I wrote it down. Then at thirty I thought ‘that guy was smart!’, so I called him up and said ‘Hey man, I’m thinking about using this,’ and he said ‘Go for it, that’s what I told you, use it!’ That guy was awesome. So that’s how I came up with the title… it came from another guy! (laughs) I wasn’t thinking in a sophisticated manner at all.

DC: Was the story itself planned around the forced budgetary restrictions?

DT: I would never have made ‘Motivational Growth’, I don’t think, had I not been budget-restricted to such a degree. I’m so happy that I did – it’s one of those things where you wish you had a time machine. I wish I could go back and say ‘dude, invest your time in this, this is gonna be a big deal’, but at the time I was thinking ‘aw, shit, I gotta throw together this shit movie’ – which I never really actually thought – but I asked for more money and didn’t get it so it was kind of depressing and you go through that phase where it’s like ‘aargh what am I supposed to do now? Yeah, sure there are a bunch of people making awesome movies for ten thousand dollars but screw those people! I need a hundred and ninety seven thousand dollars!’ (laughs) So yeah, it was all about constraints, and that constraint shaped the story in a really great way. I wouldn’t want anything to have changed. The problems we faced with budget or inexperience… those are all problems that served the story very well. If I was making a film about giant robots punching each other, I’d want all the planning and everything to be perfect but this film, it’s a fantasy story – kind of out there, kind of weird – and having restrictions like that and having, not necessarily problems, but things arise that change the shape of the planning was very helpful.

There were a number of what in the industry are called ‘happy accidents’, so things that took place that we could never have planned but ended up serving the story or serving the picture. What’s really interesting is that because of ‘Motivational Growth’ I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a happy accident. All accidents are happy, so you wouldn’t really distinguish them. Everything that went wrong with ‘Motivational Growth’ served the story. I think if you have a through line, if you have confidence that you know the over-arching moral of the tale or the through line that you’re going to uphold, anything that goes wrong can be spun into something amazing. Just look at every accident as a form of instigator… there were a number of the tent-pole moments of the film that were all accident based – but they’re not really accident based… you have to be able to look at a situation that would make someone else cringe and go ‘oh shit, we’re done’ and say no no no, give me a day and we’ll work out how this is the story.

DC: So what was the worst thing to happen during production?

DT: Oh, man, there was a huge one. One of the crowd-pleasers [in the movie] is all of our animated sequences. We originally had animated sequences in the film from the start, but there were just a few of them. There were a couple of commercials, blips on the commercials – just to give you that 1991 feel as that’s when the film takes place – but there were never gonna be full talking scenes that were animated and in the film you know [now] there are a few.

We were covering our asses because our DIT – Digital Imaging Technician – he was a Swedish dude and he had a couple of drinks once in a while and, this is like the worst thing… we had this amazing backup system. This multi-stage backup system that would travel the footage from one State to another State of the United States to keep everything backed up and amazing. But there was one point of failure – the guy taking the footage from the camera and putting it into the system! So, that’s a human point of failure. This guy, I think one day had a few too many drinks or whatever before shooting – we were shooting at midnight every night, so I think we started at 4pm until 4am – and I think this guy stayed up and partied a bit, and I was going through all the footage to index it to edit and I found I was missing a day. Not a day of audio, but a day of video. We shot 28 days, and there’s less than 28 days of footage in a film so technically it’s maybe not that big of a deal that we lost a day. So I traipse down to figure out what the actual missing footage was, and it turns out it was the one scene where Ian first actually meets The Mold face to face! It’s actually the only scene I could not have lost! Anything else I could have gotten rid of, but that scene I needed. So in the film, that scene is animated. We edited to such a degree that that animation makes sense – we’ve already introduced animation a few times, and we give the viewer the idea that Ian may or may not be dreaming this thing. It was a total accident, he was supposed to just talk to the guy.

But like I said, you take a day, try to figure out how we make this intentional. I went back to my old standby – I watched ‘Robocop’ again! ‘Robocop’ is a perfect film. It’s not the best film, there are more seminal films, but ‘Robocop’ is a perfect film… it’s a film that has a goal and it meets or exceeds every step along the way. Everything that you could possibly do with ‘Robocop’ was done with ‘Robocop’. The new ‘Robocop’ looks like shit. The new one looks like it’s trying to make something really cool out of it, as opposed to just exercising every muscle that Robocop could have. There is a sequence in ‘Robocop’ where Paul Verhoeven has to reveal a guy in a rubber suit. How does he do it? Well, you don’t just have him walk out because he looks just like a dude in a rubber suit and that’s stupid, so Paul Verhoeven spends like a four minute sequence. First you see from Robocop’s point of view. He stands up and everybody’s like ‘whoooa’ and one guy’s like ‘you’re a bad motherfucker’ and they’re literally telling the audience that what the audience is about to see is fucking amazing. So they’re priming the audience, thinking this is gonna be great, you’re not gonna believe how cool this is, and then the next time you see him, you see him through people. You see like a shoulder, and all the people are going ‘whoooa’, then he comes round a corner and you see his back, and when you see him finally fully he’s behind frosted glass and everybody’s running to look and you follow him into the chair and all that — and the only time you actually see him full on, he turns around and they close a chain link fence between you a Robocop… there’s always something between you and Robocop. That’s such a brilliant move, it keeps the viewer distant while giving them the impression of mystery and something amazing… and the sound design is awesome, the score is beautiful. So when we finally get to see Robocop you’re like ‘oh fuck, this is the best thing ever’, but half of that if not more is that you’ve been shown, you’ve been told how cool it is. So I took that idea like, shit, how are we going to make this work? Well, Robocop does that so well, why don’t we make it seem like [we planned it]. Let’s show The Mold in the background just talking a little, but the camera doesn’t focus on him and Ian doesn’t really respond. He’s just hit his head, and maybe weird shit is going on and he’s just trying to work it and this thing talks to him, so he ignores it. He ignores it and leaves the bathroom, ’cause he’s just hit his head and is kinda floating. He leaves his couch and enters a TV state, which he’s already done a little bit, and there he speaks to the fungus. So we’re telling the audience that this fungus might talk, but it might not. Our guy might be crazy, right, and then when we finally reveal The Mold – we punch in on him – and it’s a full-on puppet it’s like holy shit that thing we were just shown in the animation, that works! It’s kind of like we primed you, and then knocked it out of the park for you just like the Robocop thing – but the truth is the motherfucker lost the footage, so I had to pay some French guy to animate it!

We had this excellent animator named Jérémie Périn. I knew him from a video called ‘Trucker’s Delight’ which is this really twisted and awesome music video. I contacted him and said listen, I know I told you our scope is one thing, but I need to add a bunch more stuff. I couldn’t just throw that one scene in there, it would look awkward so I had to balance the movie. I had to add a bunch more animated stuff – which is great for him as I paid him a bunch of money, but shitty for me ’cause I had to pay a guy a bunch of money! (laughs) So yeah, I think that was probably the biggest… the second biggest [was that] we had a plan to leave the apartment at some point in a dream sequence but we couldn’t work it out because it was hard to get the location. There was only one place that looked like the place we needed, and then they bailed. Again, I took a day and just thought how does this work in the context of the film and it was clear – you can never leave the apartment, the camera will never leave, not even if Ian were to leave the apartment will the camera go with him. So it ended up serving the story very well – of course it wasn’t just ‘oh shit, what do we do?’ it was oh shit, what do we do, then take a day and make sense within the context of the story… basically change the heartbeat of the story to match the hardships. Every time we came up with a hardship like that we would just make sure the through line was maintained – the story would never change – some of the vision might change a little, but the story would never change, and I think the hardships really shaped the film. It wouldn’t be the same film without the hardship, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be.

Celluloid Screams - Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

DC: It felt very fitting to screen Motivational Growth alongside Basket Case 1 and 2 at Celluloid Screams this year. Is there any Henenlotter inspiration behind the film?

DT: I actually had a meeting with Frank yesterday. I sat down and I’m like ‘Frank, we need to talk. It’s nice meeting you for the first time in my entire life… everyone is saying that I am the new you! This is uncomfortable and weird!’ Frank Henenlotter is awesome. His movies are awesome. I grew up with those movies, man! I was pointing it out to Frank yesterday, and he gave some amazing sage advice. I spent about forty five minutes with him, and I learned more in those forty five minutes than I have in five years of working on stuff. I pointed out [that] the reason my movie opened the festival is because Frank Henenlotter is here – that they were gonna show my movie, then Frank Henenlotter’s movies and it was all one big theme. That was never a plan! I never particularly focused on [his] films. They were seminal, they were part of my life, you know. They were important to me as a kid, but I never thought oh, this is going to be like a Henenlotter picture. Ever.

In fact, and I was embarrassed to admit this in February this year, when I was first told ‘oh my God, you’re the next Frank Henenlotter’, I didn’t know who Frank Henenlotter was. I’d seen ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Basket Case 2’ so many times that my VHS was destroyed. I’d seen ‘Brain Damage’ a bunch – of course, ‘Frankenhooker’… when you’re thirteen ‘Frankenhooker’ is a good movie to go to (laughs). So I liked the guy’s movies, but I just didn’t link those movies together – so I didn’t have the shrine to Henenlotter growing up. I did have the shrine to other people whose movies [mine are] nothing like, like Beat Takeshi – I mean that guy is amazing, but my movies are nothing like his movies! Henenlotter said to me yesterday, and this has really stuck with me… it’s okay to be inspired by stuff that you were born into, that is just a part of you now, as long as when you wrote it you wrote it from a place of honesty. Which ‘Motivational Growth’, I did. What you’re seeing is honesty on that screen, and when you relate it to Henenlotter it’s because I grew up with that stuff. So even though I didn’t intentionally do it, that honesty is on screen. The Henenlotter stuff was me. I was born into it, and it was a weird situation sitting across from a guy who you know subconsciously has driven your artistic hand and he’s like ‘oh man, I’m sorry’ (laughs). He apologised to me and I’m like don’t apologise, you’re amazing! So I was proud to meet him yesterday and have a nice conversation, and he pointed out some stuff in ‘Basket Case’ and some other films that his friends have said are very much like stuff that he grew up watching, but he’d never put it together.

So now the cycle has completed. I have inadvertently done something that people relate to somebody who I watched a bunch of but never really thought about. There are some easy links to make, like I have an Admiral television so [people are like] ‘oh, it’s obviously Videodrome’, but really that’s just because we used an Admiral television. You can’t… I mean that’s just a prop! (laughs) I’m sure Cronenberg had some very important reasons to have that TV… I just thought it would be awkward in 1991 to still be using a console television. It just gives you some context.

DC: Who came up with the design of The Mold itself?

DT: It was collaborative. It was always going to be just a mouth. I had drawn pictures and I actually made my own three cable animatronic puppet with some help from a guy that I hired to help me with the mechanics. So I kind of had a shape and an idea but I really needed a great creature creator to help me bring it to life, so I hired Steve Tolin of TolinFX out of Pittsburgh. Great dude! I sent him my ideas and pictures and everything, and he sent me a bunch of drafts back. Back and forth, we were just sending sheets and sheets of images [by email] and I wanted some of this and some of that. We settled on the triangular idea… the original idea I had was just flat – either on the wall or on the floor – but we loved the idea that you could be face to face with an actual creature, and give it the ability to move in and out and that kind of thing and the corner was just a perfect way to do that.

I had already written the cupboard bit, so having him actually be attached to the cupboard as well as the wall and the floor [gives the impression] that he’s part of the wall, he’s part of the floor, part of the cupboard – he’s everywhere! I actually have in my condo in Seattle, a Mold that is fuzzy but we never used it. The original Mold was destroyed – not on purpose, we didn’t set it on fire or anything – but from so much use. We just patched it up as it went, but by the end that thing was ragged. The silicone that it’s made out of, unless it’s protected by paint or otherwise, degrades. It yellows and just disintegrates. I do have one that, because of the coating, [was protected]. It doesn’t look like the thing in the movie – it’s the same shape and everything but it has a thin layer of fuzz like it hasn’t shaved or something, whereas the one in the movie is a little slimier… dryish but slimy but it doesn’t have any kind of fuzz on it.

Celluloid Screams - Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

DC: How was the puppet manipulated? The effects guys did a fantastic job.

DT: It was cable controlled. We had three puppeteers on a bench underneath the set, and Steve Tolin himself puppeteered the centre portion of the mouth and the in and out movement. I think the biggest testament to them, and it blew my mind, was that I was editing and I was logging all the footage. Because the audio levels are always different, I had my audio turned all the way down and I was just sorting stuff. I was sorting by lip reading all the people… and then I got to The Mold, and I got about twenty minutes in and realised I was sorting Mold footage by reading its lips! Which is ridiculous; it’s a puppet! I’m reading a puppet’s lips to sort the footage!

They did an amazing job. We had video that we were working off of to figure out how we were going to do it, but they didn’t really need it. They were just intuitive. We actually planned a bunch more time than we needed to shoot The Mold scenes, because they got into it and just clicked and started nailing it. About twenty minutes after they started the first tests on set, they were just ready to go. They all had headsets and lines, and Steve Tolin would trigger the lines and there’d be a beep in their headset and they would start. So it was giving a live performance – we had The Mold’s voice coming out of a speaker on the set. So our actor was interacting live with this thing, which you can’t do with CGI. We really wanted somebody to be dealing with another [physical] thing. When I gave direction, I gave direction directly to a fungus. I didn’t talk to the guys underneath, I talked to the fungus. It was really funny… between takes it would talk and would make fun of people and shit. It wouldn’t do it in Jeffrey Combs’ voice – it would do it in their voice – but it was still funny. It was really cool. They kind of just kept themselves warmed up by fucking around. You can see in the ‘Behind the Scenes’ when people are setting up shots The Mold is always talking to the Director of Photography. Like, he’s setting up a camera and The Mold is like ‘hey sweet tits, how you doing’. It’s really funny to see, and they’re just making sure their chops are clean and they know what they are doing.

DC: Jeffrey Combs does the voice acting for The Mold. You’ve mentioned that all of his lines were pre-recorded before shooting?

DT: We recorded him first for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to do this thing where we played him live. I could not afford to have Jeffrey Combs for twenty-eight days! My film is considered ultra low budget, under 250,000 dollars, which means I got Jeff for a good price – quote unquote – but that good price was not… I mean it was more than was required, but a lot less than he makes [normally].

Reason number two was that if I screwed up the Jeffrey Combs part, we didn’t have a movie. So we had to do that part first so we didn’t waste a bunch of time finishing this movie if I had ruined it.

DC: Did you know Jeff before making the film?

DT: I didn’t. I know him a lot now! We’re like buddies. This is how cool he is… he still gives me time. He’ll just send me a text just to say how are you doing. He doesn’t need to do that – I’m nobody! He knows famous, famous, famous people! I’m just this guy and he has no problem sending me text messages to say hello and stuff.

What’s really interesting is how committed he was to the role, when it was nothing. It was two days’ work, six hour days… nothing. It was a break for him! I mean, he’s in the theatre doing ‘Nevermore’ with Stuart Gordon and all this cool stuff. My movie was just a blip, I mean, nothing. But he came on the day and he just nailed it, and gave a performance that’s unique – unlike anything he’s done before. People are like ‘I didn’t even realise it was Jeffrey Combs until halfway through’ and I’m like yeah, he was acting! It was really neat to see how he committed and delivered for someone he didn’t [have to] – I mean, his career isn’t going to be made or broken by my movie. He doesn’t need my credit, but to see that he committed so wholly – it wasn’t surprising [per se], but it was surprising for me as a nobody… as I said in the Q&A that guy was working with Peter Jackson! He’s right now working with Stuart Gordon! I’m nobody! Why is he giving me so much care? Calling me up on the phone and asking what you think about this and what do you think about that.

DC: How did you get in touch with Jeff initially, and was he your first choice for the role of The Mold?

DT: He was always my first choice. I had another guy whose name is similar in star power but whose voice has been used in horror movies before as a bad thing. We talked with the agents and everything but we had to pull out because my producer and I had a conversation – and he was a backup, he was in case Jeff said no – we didn’t go to this guy since his voice was used in genre pictures before and we were worried that people would immediately associate with that [rather than the character].

If Jeff didn’t go, I don’t know what we would have done since I wrote parts of it just for him. He was our first choice. It was kind of like – I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna do it all the way and get everyone I want! Which I’m surprised happened! (laughs) Eventually, through a series of interesting events we ended up talking to his voice agent. He gave the script to Jeff, who read it on a plane, I believe, and gave me a call afterwards, then read it again and seemed to like it. We talked for a couple of weeks leading up to the actual shooting, and then before shooting we worked out exactly where we were going [with the character]. Then we started talking about the voice itself. One thing I really wanted was to maintain purity of the voice. Everybody involved with the film expected that there was going to be some kind of sound effect – some kind of gross sound, reverb or something we were doing with his voice that changed it. I told Jeff straight up that we weren’t going to touch his voice… we want to fall in love with the voice a little. I kinda lie, because deep deep deep into the mix, my sound guy put some squishy sounds back there, but it’s super light and it only just accents the big moves that he does – but it’s not covering the voice or augmenting it in any way. I wanted you to be able to fall in love with this voice and trust it, but then when it gets angrier or hard I wanted it to be threatening.

DC: With Jeff recording his part of the film in isolation, was there much scope for improvisation or physical involvement on his behalf?

DT: I brought Adrian DiGiovanni with me [to see Jeff]. Great actor… days before coming here he had won Best Actor for the film at I think it was the Tucson TerrorFest. He’s really nailed it, but he never really worked beyond super-Indie stuff, so I wanted to put him in the presence of somebody who had been on giant movies just to show him. It’s a different feeling. I worked out in LA for a while, and been on bigger pictures. I knew the feeling of Indie people versus ‘legit’ nine to five actors whose job it is to be on set all day long – not being a waiter or whatever else and act sometimes. So I had to fly him out with me and sit him in the presence of a cult icon, and have this guy just blow his mind.

He said in interviews before, and there’s one on our website where he points it out, that he really had to up his game. He was intimidated and scared, and shocked into this new level of acting. There’s this thing we call ‘Combsing It’, which is where Jeff goes all the way. Like, you have an idea of what it could be, but Jeff just nails and it and keeps going – that’s ‘Combsing It’. So we brought Adrian along with Jeff and they worked it out. So on the day, it was more… not rote memory kind of stuff, but [the character of] Ian on the recording is a lot less interesting that Ian on the day, because between the time we recorded Jeff and when we shot the movie, Adrian made Ian a much bigger, better and more complete character because he was so intimidated and shocked by Jeffrey Combs.

We brought Jeff to the set only once. He was in Chicago for a Star Trek convention or something, and we drove him over to the set to show him and he said to me what is possibly one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten. Not just to me, but my set designer Rae Deslich… we showed him the set and we showed him The Mold and he said man, I’ve been on Star Trek for eight years or whatever and those people know how to make sets. Now this… this is a legitimate set! We were like WOW, because we’re in a paper plant – this shitty warehouse in South Chicago – I was so stunned and amazed. It was great. So he was as connected to the film as he could be; he’s a busy dude.

Celluloid Screams - Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

DC: The film is quite consistently laced with humour throughout. Do you tend to lean towards comedy as a writer?

DT: It turns out I guess I am! (laughs) Inside, in my brain, I’m super arty but when I write it turns out to be funny. I don’t know why! I wanted to make a dark comedy because, and I’m gonna give you the keys to the castle here… I don’t believe I’m a good enough writer to make something profound yet. I’ll get there – but, you know, the broader strokes… a little bit of horror and a little bit of humour. Put those together and you can mask a much deeper story that you might not have the architecture yet to lay out. It’s not Terrence Malick’s ‘Motivational Growth’ (laughs). I can’t tell the long burn story yet. Maybe one day I’ll get there, but right now it’s easier for me to say listen, here’s my core, it’s got a deep story, it’s got a lot of complication and a lot of deep stuff that I want you to consider but I’m gonna deliver that to you with these little bites. I’m gonna gross you out a little bit, and then make you laugh. Scare you a little and make you laugh. Give you a little bit of serious, but then cut it with a little humour just in case you don’t dig the serious too much. You know what I mean? I’m gonna try and make little moments for you.

The film is cut into ten sections. Within those ten sections each have three acts – beginning, middle and end. Something happens every ten minutes, there’s a little arc in there every single ten minutes just because honestly I don’t know if I’m good enough to carry a hundred minutes [in a single arc]. I’ve gotten like six terrible reviews that will tell you I’m not good enough to carry that hundred minutes, but I’ve got more than forty that tell you that they loved it, so I’m working. It’s really weird to read a review and have somebody just tear you down, when all you try to do is make somebody smile about something… it’s almost like [they think] I ran for President and they’re like ‘you’re not qualified to be President’ and I’m like I’m not trying to be President! I’m trying to make you smile for a couple of minutes, dude! How is that such a terrible thing… how are you gonna say that I’m a piece of shit when all I’ve tried to do is give you some entertainment? It’s very weird – but I’ve got lot of love. I’ve got a fabulous tattoo design, I’ve got fan made t-shirts, I’ve got a guy who’s followed the festivals all around the States, so those people make it worth it.

I’m writing a really, really serious science fiction thing for a writer/director hire thing that I’m doing right now and then at the end of the year… I’m finishing up a dark comedy satire about gun control in the United States. So that’s funny… but not everything I want to do is funny! I have a wish list – I thought I was super original until somebody told me that fuckin’ Ang Lee has one of these too – I have a wish list of genres that I want to do. It’s funny to think that ‘Motivational Growth’ is a horror movie, because it’s not, it was a dark comedy. It has more horror awards than it has any other awards… but it does have a science fiction award. The French called it the best romantic feature at the European Independent Film Festival. They thought it was (imitates French accent) ‘a beautiful expression of life’ (laughs). Fucking French people man… that weirds me out (laughs). Really? Did you see the part where the guy was sucking a nipple on the wall? That’s not a beautiful expression of life! That’s weird! I kinda wanted you to throw up in the back of your mouth a little bit during that scene!

I guess I’m cool with humour. I like humour. I like laughing. I like watching people laugh. Hearing people laugh in an audience is way more fulfilling than watching them really get into a serious part. It’s a broad strokes easy way to tell that you’ve hit your mark. If you’re laughing, you’re doing it right if you’ve tried to be funny. If you’re laughing and it was serious then you’ve fucked up. So I guess laughing is a good barometer. There’s a deep story in ‘Motivational Growth’, pretty heavy shit in there about depression and about dealing with stuff – suicide and all this kind of stuff – and I just thought, wouldn’t it be the worst movie ever [if it were like] a movie where Sandra Bullock is a racist and falls down the stairs and isn’t a racist again. I don’t want to do that movie! That movie is done, and it’s boring. I don’t like dealing with real people problems. That’s not why I go to the cinema. I watch movies to watch ‘Robocop’ and ‘Alien’ and James Cameron movies and stuff. I don’t go to the cinema to be told that there are terrible people. I know there are terrible people! They’re all around me! You know what I mean? I see people be racist every day in the United States – I don’t want to watch a movie about it! I don’t want to pay twelve fifty and watch a bunch of people be assholes to each other. That’s ridiculous! Unless they’re like, super assholes like… ‘Death Becomes Her’! That movie makes me want to slit my wrists, but it doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists in a way that I can see every day, right?(laughs)

Good performances are great, creative drama is great, but I’m more of a phantasmagorist… you know, I want to have somebody sit down and be taken to another world. That’s what storytelling was to me as a kid in the eighties and nineties. That was the world… I was presented ‘The Dark Crystal’, ‘Transformers: The Movie’, all that really wonderful cool stuff back in the day – ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Legend’. Those are my movies! Like, my gun control movie is actually a science fiction movie where the bad guy’s base is on Mars! So it starts out as a social satire on gun control but ends up with a guy on Mars! I don’t think I’m ever gonna make my ‘History of Violence’. It’s a good movie, I love it, but I don’t think I’m gonna make the movie where two dudes talk about shit a lot and they’re very serious. If I did it would have to be like ‘JFK’ or ‘Any Given Sunday’… something Oliver Stone-ish, where it’s obviously high fantasy (laughs). Even though it’s dudes talking, they’re talking about crazy shit.

I’m just not about the mumblecore bit… that sort of, a boy has feelings and talks to a girl with feelings over drinks. That’s not interesting to me. Unless one of those people were robots! Then it’s a different story altogether! I think humour in ‘Motivational Growth’ is used as a lever. It’s used to get you around the environment that otherwise would just be a depressing shit movie about a guy who fucking killed himself because shit was terrible for him. That’s not a cool story! That’s a depressing ass story! I wanted to express this guy’s loathsome, horrible depression. I related to it as I felt like that when I wrote the original concept. I obviously don’t feel like that now, or when I actually typed out the screenplay, but when I wrote the concept I was very emo. I did want to express that – that was a thing from real life… [but] if I want to make a statement, I want to wrap it in something entertaining. I think I will definitely make some pretty heavy shit at some point… I have a couple of treatments that are humourless – very serious, very dense. ‘Flexure’ – that’s a serious movie. It’s mostly deadly serious… by the end you’re like oh shit, my mind has exploded. I also have a treatment for a tween movie for thirteen year old girls. It takes place in 1986, and there are no glowing vampires or shit – they don’t sparkle – it’s a hardcore movie. But it is a funny tween movie in the way that movies were when I was growing up. That’s the kind of thing I want to make. I know that sounds silly, and maybe to some people a bit derivative, but that was fantasy to me when I was a kid. I kind of want to bring that. The new fantasy isn’t super-fantasy to me. It’s a lot of fake, a lot of plastic.

DC: There are quite a few 16-bit video game style sequences in the film, and the Chiptune soundtrack is a standout. Why did you decide to go that route?

DT: I am a gigantic video game fan! I do not drink or smoke or do drugs… I do video games! My entire childhood… I don’t remember a time without video games! (laughs) I am a video game programmer; I work with Pixeljam. We have ‘Dino Run II’; we’re gonna do a Kickstarter on November 5th so you should tell all your readers to go and vote us up and give us some donations! Pixeljam has done about twenty games for Adult Swim. We did ‘Dino Run’ and ‘Potato Man Seeks the Troof’, which just came out on Ouya. It came out about a year ago for Linux, Mac and PC. We do a bunch of cool stuff. I’ve built a semi-career out of that. I do filmmaking and game stuff together – they’re really cool because they’re project based, so I can do a movie and then do a game, and then do a movie. I wanted to give 1991 a big call out, because that’s when the movie takes place and that’s the shit I was doing when I was around 11, 12 – I was playing 16-bit video games! So of course there’s going to be an advertisement for a video game on the television. The game that was on the television is one that I’ve always wanted to make called ‘Starmazer’. If you guys Kickstart ‘Dino Run II’ and it’s awesome and everybody loves it and we can afford to make another game – I’m pushing ‘Starmazer’! I would love to make it. Everybody in the company loves ‘Starmazer’. Every time I show somebody the trailer, which is what you see in the movie, they all love it. It should be made. I love the idea that our character gets to travel into that world.

The station he goes onto is called the Holloway Exeter Station. Holloway because of my DP, I named it after him. Exeter because it sounds really cool, and Station because it’s a fuckin’ station (laughs). I really loved the idea that my character could blip into there at some point in the film. There’s a part in the film where he’s sucking on a breast, and that’s a funny story…

My producer was very clear that there should be no breasts on set. None. She’s not against breasts on film – in fact she’s kind of pushing for more breasts in my next film – but [this one] had so much weird stuff, she was like ‘there’s too much.’ There’s a bunch of puking, there’s a bunch of blood, there’s a bunch of weird ideas – we cannot have tits in there too. It’ll just go crazy! So no tits on set! I said that’s okay, that’s fine, you’re a girl, I get it – and she said no it’s not that it’s just that this movie can’t end up banned in all countries! So we shot it, and I was given full creative control of all the animation. So he’s sucking on this fungus on the wall and then the TV channel changes, and he’s sucking on an [animated] breast. Then the camera pulls out and you see that he’s on this thing that we called ‘The Titty Bar’, which is the cyborg breast station where all the aliens are sucking on the breasts, and the little head is going around. How creepy is that (laughs)! When I wrote it, the head would fly over and say ‘Yes, yes, thank you’ and ‘You’re doing well’, and in some alien language it would be saying harder, or whatever. Then when the camera pulls all the way out you see there are three or four stations, and each of them has over twelve breasts on it – so there are like fifty breasts in the movie! I showed my producer when I got the final animation, with full creative control, and she said this looks amazing, but I told you no tits on set! I said, this is not on set! This is animation! You said not on set! Not a single breast was on set! (laughing) It was a French dude making it, so he’ll put tits on everything (laughs). People love it though (laughs).

The Chiptune thing – I’m a big Chiptune fan. I used to write Chiptunes – poorly, that’s why I don’t do it for a living. Somebody who doesn’t do it poorly is Alex Mauer who did the entire soundtrack [for ‘Motivational Growth’] on NES and Commodore 64. It’s the only film to have an entire Chiptune score. We used those two pieces of hardware because the NES is easily recognisable to anybody who’s played video games. It only had four channels – three sound channels and a noise channel – so it’s very distinct and everybody knows it. The Commodore 64 actually had a very advanced sound chip – way more advanced than the Nintendo – and it could do all these big analogue sounds. So some people think some sounds aren’t Chip, but they’re all Chip – it’s just that the C64 had a really intense synthesiser that could let us get those big sounds in there. The Mold is entirely Commodore 64, Leah is entirely Nintendo because the Nintendo is chirpy and nice and fun, and the C64 we used for dark, heavy bass stuff. Ian is a combination of both.

Celluloid Screams - Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

The next question discusses the ending of the film and the chronological construction of the narrative. Therefore, here be SPOILERS!

You have been warned. If you do not wish to read spoilers for Motivational Growth, then skip down to the picture of The Mold!

Ready?

Okay, fair warning given. On with the interview!

DC: The ending of the film may be open to interpretation for some, but what is your definitive take? Do you see the occurrences within as a short moment of dying fever dream, or a kind of purgatorial state instead?

DT: Well, I don’t really believe in a Purgatory. I’m not super religious or anything, though there are many religious allegories in the film – some of them Christian, some of them Norse, some Jewish. I put about fifteen different heavy references to death and the mid-afterlife in that film. They’re in there, but I covered them up with puke and laughing… and tits, but they’re in there. It’s not a secret to me, I wrote a very complete story. It’s not open to interpretation – I know what the story is. There is no trick, it’s not one of those guess what happened films. I would say for your readers to look up American novelist Ambrose Bierce. He did a really cool story called ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, which everybody in the States has to read at some point in their schooling. I was thinking that if I’m going to make a weird-ass story, then why don’t I make one based on a story that everybody knows, so it’s easier to connect to, right? If you’re not into books and literature and being smart (laughs), you could watch Jacob’s Ladder again. Love that movie – it’s nothing like my movie except the core sentiment is the same.

There’s actually three storylines in the middle [of ‘Motivational Growth’]. The movie happens in three separate timelines that you see. Some people think that it’s very repetitious and don’t really get it – some people who aren’t paying any attention think it gets really saggy and loses focus in the middle. It super doesn’t! It’s telling the story three different ways. You can tell because if you pay attention to the actual time… Box the Ox lays out a three day time span and comes back in three days, but Ian watches the girl come by at 10:16 fifteen different times. So how is that three days? It’s not! There are three different time lines: The immediate time line of what happened in the bathroom, there’s the Leah time line, which is over the course of two weeks, and then there’s a three day time line. These are all things that if you pay attention and aren’t snarky and cynical about the film, and just let yourself be entertained, you can discover that there is a whole world in there. Every single line was laboured over so that there is something you can take from it. Or you can just say it was shitty and kind of got weak in the back third.

Celluloid Screams - Don Thacker Gives Us a Talk on Motivational Growth

Like I said, the few – I think it’s six now – reviews, they never say I made a movie with a large chunk of fungus as fifty percent of the cast and that was bad. They never mention that. They mention that they lost track of the story at some point. That’s beautiful; I’ve succeeded! The movie’s 105 minutes and I myself could probably pull about ten minutes, but that wouldn’t change anything substantial. There are some things I hold on, where watching it forty times with audiences I’m thinking I could probably pull that back – but I’ve said that to other people seeing the film for the first time [and they were fine with it] so maybe that’s just that I’ve seen it too many times. When I made the original edit, I wanted to let people languish with this guy a little in the beginning. I wanted you to not like him. By the end of the film he’s a totally different person than in the beginning. He has a very clear arc – but even at the end when he’s talking to Leah he’s still not somebody you would want to hang out with; he’s kind of gross. But I wanted you to root for that guy, so I had to make him really deplorable at the beginning – so that when we clean him up at the end you’re voting for him, and you’re behind the dude. So the first twelve minutes had to be horrible. Which artistically is sound, but commercially is difficult because I found in a lot of film festivals the guy watched the first eight minutes and hated it. Yet when it starts going it’s crazy and doesn’t stop. I trusted my audience, and for all six shitty reviews we got I know there are at least forty great reviews and hundreds and hundreds of audience members who come up to me and ask for my signature and say they loved it. Those people are who the film is for. It’s for the people who commit, who are intelligent and smart – and I’m not saying my film is only for smart people, or if you’re smart you have to like my movie – you can be super-smart and hate my movie, sure. What I’m saying is for the people who commit and want to be entertained for 105 minutes, my film will give you something for sure. That’s the only reason it exists.

One guy wrote ‘Don Thacker is trying to show how smart he is, and made a bunch of’ – I think he called it – ‘hipster catnip’. I was very blown away because I am super not a hipster – I mean, you’ve met me! I am in no way too cool for anyone. I think you project a lot when you make judgements. It seems to me that someone saying ‘oh, he thinks he’s smart’ – it tells me that that guy tries to sound smart a lot, you know what I mean? (laughs) I don’t try to sound smart. I try to sound like me. If that sounds smart to you, well… looks like I’m smart. If I sound stupid, then I must be dumb!

DC: So which video games are you currently playing?

DT: Hold on, I have a list here that I’m working on… you know what, actually – just yesterday ‘Candy Box 2’ was released! Go to candybox2.net! It’s gonna blow your mind. For first ten minutes you’re gonna be like ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ It’s not like a Facebook game or anything like Candy Crush. It’s an RPG – an ASCII style RPG – totally free online, that starts out with you eating a piece of candy and then just gets totally fucking crazy. I’ve got a computer in my hotel room playing it right now while I’m here. It’s browser based, totally free. It’s like the ASCII version of ‘Skyrim’ only it’s based on a candy-based economy! It’s crazy!

From here, our conversation segued further into geeking out with Don over video games and board games, bringing our discussion of Motivational Growth to a natural end. We would like to sincerely thank Don for taking the time out to speak with us, and will be keeping an eye out for distribution news for various territories as it comes – which surely can’t be a long wait.

In the meantime, you can keep up-to-date with the film on the official Motivational Growth website, ‘like’ the Motivational Growth Facebook page, and follow @MotGrowth on Twitter.

Keep an eye on the Celluloid Screams website for more, and of course follow them at sheffhorrorfest on Twitter and celluloidscreamshorrorfestival on Facebook for up-to-the-minute info.

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Gareth Jones

Horror is my jam, yo.