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