Drawn to Disaster: In My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea Dash Shaw Cartoons Teenage Angst
Hormones wreck havoc throughout the body, sending the fragile teenage ego into dismay, and for a good part of our formative years we exist in a state between childhood innocence and realizations of adulthood. Showcasing sharp wit and highly quotable dialogue, comic-book artist turned animator Dash Shaw has encapsulated all these feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing in his creatively unhinged first feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, which stars an enviable voice cast of indie stars: Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Maya Rudolph and Reggie Watts.
Pulling from his own recollections of navigating the dangerous waters of high school politics, with its hierarchies and popularity contests, the artist has adapted his colorful and idiosyncratic comic-book visuals into the world of moving images, creating a handcrafted spectacle that tips its hat to influences as diverse as Peanuts, Japanese anime and 1960s’ Spider-Man cartoons. Dash, the appropriately named protagonist voiced by Schwartzman, is an outsider whose best friend and co-writer at the school’s paper, Assaf (Watts), is falling for their editor, Verti (Rudolph), causing conflict between them. Soon their personal drama takes on epic proportions when Dash, who is a self-proclaimed leader, discovers that their school might be one small earthquake away from falling off a cliff. It’s as wonderfully absurd and relatable as it sounds.
Hilariously outrageous and aesthetically dazzling, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is movie heaven for those who wisely pack their lunch, the shameless cotton-swab enthusiasts, the aspiring writers with an overwrought style, the insecure heroes, the jealous third-wheels, the redeemed bullies, the ones with a morbid sense of humor, acne survivors, those who can’t have meaningful conversations at parties, the deadpan comedians, the unorthodox artists, awkward romantics, popular girls with no friends, nerds who turned their passion into careers and all of us who were adrift teenagers trying to find a safe shore as adults.
Shaw, who is already working on another animated feature about a cryptozoo in the 1960s, spoke with us during his recent visit to Los Angeles for a special screening of his debut work. The film opens today in New York and Los Angeles via GKIDS.
Filmmaker: I hope that your high school didn’t literally sink when you were a teenager, but how does your experience during those years correlate to what the characters go through in the film?
Dash Shaw: Part of it is a joke on autobiographical comics in which the director gives the main character his own name. This character [of Dash] is the hero, and he’s trying to warn people. I feel like it’s almost a parody of Hollywood movies that are clearly the fantasy of the director. My high school didn’t sink into the sea but I feel like I’m making inner turmoil literal. That angst, pain, those horrible feelings of danger that happen inside teenagers are being expressed as a literal, actual disaster. A lot of the anime I saw growing up were about schools in danger. In every Sailor Moon episode there were monsters attacking a school. The study period in Japan between high school and college is called “Study Hell,” and a lot of the monsters in the shows are demons. So I think it’s about dramatizing feelings, making feelings literal and cartooning them. If you think about the word “cartooning,” it means exaggerating preexisting things. If you visit a caricaturist and you have sort of a big nose, they’ll make it a lot bigger to highlight its bigness. I’m exaggerating the difficult time I had in school by making it a disaster film.
Filmmaker: Coming from comic books and graphic novels, how difficult was the jump into animation, and what are the major distinctions you noticed between both mediums?
Shaw: I could answer that question for like an hour, but I guess before I did it I thought it would be a lot easier than it was, because I figured, “I can draw, I can tell stories, I can scan the drawings instead of photographing and I can make little animations. It should be easy to pull this all together.” But then as I was working on it I realized how different the mediums are in a lot of different ways. One thing that I was surprised by is that movies are much more about time, controlled time, and editing than comics. People would tell me that movies are a visual medium, but I don’t think they are. You can watch a music video that has cool visuals but you’ll still be bored very quickly, and then you can watch a movie that doesn’t have interesting visuals, which is most movies, but it can still be interesting [because of] how we are seeing something unfold in time: We are looking at a door for two seconds, and then we cut and it’s something else. That was something I had to try to figure out. Lance Edmands, the editor, really helped me. Another difference is collaboration, like working with actors. Even though this team was very, very small, it’s still more than working on a comic book. I could just ramble, but there are a lot of differences between comics and animation.
Filmmaker: Did you feel like in the transition from being a comic-book artist into directing your first animated feature you had to adapt or change your style to fit the new medium?
Shaw: A lot of the movie, very obviously, comes from interpreting things from comics into animation, and I thought it would look cool. I hadn’t seen any animated movie that was colored like this, but a lot of my comics are colored this way, so I knew I could bring something from comics over to animation and it would be different. That’s what a lot of the movie is. It’s kind of just interpreting things from comics into film.
Filmmaker: Did this also happen the other way around? Was there anything you learned from making the film that you can now apply to your work in comics?
Shaw: Editing. Now when I try to work on comics I try to figure out some way to alter it to be able to edit it later. Comics are very hard to edit because a page would have a specific panel arrangement and if you suddenly realize, “Oh I need a new panel,” it’s impossible to stick a panel in. Then you think, “Do I have to redraw the whole page?” It’s not like in movies where you can just plug in a scene in the middle of it. But if you draw every panel the same size, if it’s a six-panel grid, then you can maybe stick a panel in and you just shift all the other panels over. And if you draw the panels separately and you just arrange them later like a collage then you can edit them. There are ways you can figure out to edit comics more like a movie, but you start thinking about that after you’ve seen how huge editing is in movies.
Filmmaker: Often times in bigger productions the director of a feature animated film doesn’t get to animate as much because he or she has to oversee the production. How much did you get to animate, and how was it created?
Shaw: I did a ton of it with Jane Samborski, who is the lead animator in this movie, and we are married. The majority of the movie we drew it in our apartment. I wouldn’t change anything about how the movie looks, but it was definitely a very small team, and I definitely had a lot of control. Everything was created using traditional animation. The backgrounds are acrylic paintings on crystal, and the drawings are on 8 ½” X 11” sheets of paper, and we scanned them in. It’s basically how cartoons were made before the computer but we just scanned them instead of photographing them, and we compiled them instead of using a multi-plane camera. There is a giant stack of all of the backgrounds of the movie that are acrylic paintings.
I storyboarded the movie in color markers, and then from the storyboards, that’s the whole blueprint of the movie. For example, there would be “scene 3, shot 8,” with backgrounds by me, or backgrounds by Andrew Lorenzi, a comic-book artist I know and with penciled figures by Jane and inks by me over the pencils. Everything had a division of labor based on the boards, but there would be flashback sequences where Andrew would paint all of it. The Boy Scout flashback sequence was entirely painted by him. And there are parts of the movie that are just drawn entirely by me where I did it all. The movie is a collage of all of these put together.
Filmmaker: What does the handcrafted and labor-intensive aspect add to the film?
Shaw: There are two things. One is that it’s all reinforcing this character’s perspective and that kind of messed-up energy or enthusiasm is pulsing through the movie where everything is crazy. It’s that character’s world that we are experiencing — that’s what this style brings to the story. The second answer is that this is what I thought would be rad to see. That’s just what I want a cartoon to look like. The cartoons in my mind that are the best are Ralph Bakshi’s Spider-Man cartoons — just messed up cartoons. I don’t watch any of the new Pixar movies. They are just not on my radar.
Filmmaker: How was the experience of directing a voice cast of this caliber given that it was something new for you?
Shaw: I was really nervous. It was great, but I was really nervous because I’d never directed actors before. A lot of the actors I had met before. Jason Schwartzman I met many years ago, and Lena Dunham I’d met at the Sundance Labs. That helped a huge amount. I didn’t know Susan Sarandon, and I was very nervous to work with her, but I’m the expert on my movie, and even though she is an expert on everything else and I’m like a total idiot in all these other things, I know everything about this movie. I boarded it, I drew a lot of it, I knew the voice acting that I wanted to hear and to be in a movie. Knowing all that helps you.
Filmmaker: Tell us about the process of getting such outstanding actors to be part of the movie. At what point in the production did it come together?
Shaw: It came very late in the movie. The majority of the movie was already drawn. I was very surprised that I got a great cast because I didn’t have a lot of money. It came late, and it was a delightful surprise. When they came on board, that was when I thought, “Oh, other people are going to see this movie now.” It was a shock. When we’d go to someone we’d ask him or her to play a particular part.
Jane and I drew a bunch of the movie and then I was like, “Ok, I don’t know how to do any sound stuff,” so I went to Kyle Martin and Craig Zobel, the two producers on this movie and who I’d met at the Sundance Labs. Kyle had done Tiny Furniture and Craig had done a movie I like a lot called Compliance. I thought, “Those are two movies that are really great, maybe they’ll be able to help me make my movie.” They read it and they had ideas, especially Craig who knows a lot about actors, because he directs HBO shows. We got lunch and they suggested Jason Schwartzman and I said, “I know him. I met him many years ago and I have his email address. I’ve kept in touch with him.”
Then we thought, “Who would be good to play the popular girl? Well, Lena. We’ll ask her, if she wants to do it she’ll be great.” Who is more popular than Lena? I don’t know anyone more popular than Lena. It also had to do with whose sensibility would match and who would actually think this movie was a good idea. Part of what makes Susan Sarandon awesome is that she would say yes to something like this and think it would be fun to participate as Lunch Lady Lorraine.
Filmmaker: Were there experiences, teachers, or classmates during your high-school years that you believed help you or inspired you to become an artist?
Shaw: I was really lucky that there was a magnet program in my school. A public school will sometimes have a magnet program where you can go to a special center for the arts for half the day, and I got to do that. I had great teachers there, but more importantly, it put me with the other kids that wanted to go to a special drawing class. Those friends were a bigger deal for me. Nerdy kids.
Filmmaker: Peanuts resonates strongly throughout your film in both the dark humor and the emotional ambivalence of the characters. Are those comic strips and cartoons a big influence in your work tonally or otherwise?
Shaw: Peanuts is not only one of the greatest comics ever made, maybe the greatest comic, but also A Charlie Brown Christmas is probably one of the greatest movies ever made in my opinion. A Charlie Brown Christmas was a case of adapting things from comics into animation and making unusual cinema. You don’t have to know that it all comes from a comic, but if you are a cartoonist you think it’s cool that it translated over in this weird way.
Some of those TV specials, more specifically some of the Peanuts Thanksgiving specials, are sort of funny, and there are jokes, but they have a weird tone. There is kind of a melancholy edge to them, but they are still light, and that’s really great. They are not really comedies, and they are not really dramas, and those kids don’t really act like kids, but they don’t like adults either. There is like some in-between area there that I feel like the kids in my movie are also in. They are kind of too innocent to be like real high-school kids in my minds. They are at some kind of symbolic age. Something in the sensibility of that really resonates with me.
Also, if you go back and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ll notice that the voice acting in it is completely different than contemporary cartoons. A lot of the side characters are non-actors — they were just kids in the director’s neighborhood. If you watch a Cartoon Network show for example, the voice acting is always about yelling at each other; it’s always about the biggest takes. Those Charlie Brown shows aren’t like that. I wouldn’t say they are deadpan, but they are deadpan compared to these other contemporary animations. I think it was just naturalistic voice acting.
There are a million things that I like about Peanuts, but when I started High School Sinking I didn’t write down, “Make it like Peanuts!” It was just that as I was working on it I realized how much it was in there, especially when I realized how many times a character makes “parenthesis eyes,” which is forever associated with Charlie Brown. It was intentional to draw that but I didn’t realize how much of the movie had that in it.
Filmmaker: Critics have often compared My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea to John Hughes movies. Were those films at all in the back of your mind?
Shaw: I think it just means a teen movie to them. I know that I’ve seen some of those movies, but I didn’t think about them while making the movie. I thought of it more as a United States, alternative, comic version of the “schools in danger” anime. I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen Sixteen Candles. Another comparison I get a lot is to the Irwin Allen disaster movies, like Towering Inferno. I’m happy with any comparison I get, and for the general public they are probably much more familiar with those things than with Devilman or another anime.
Filmmaker:Visually, what are some animated works that have informed your style?
Shaw: I really like The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger. There is even like a silhouette sequence in my movie. That’s really inspiring because that’s really independent cinema because this woman made it on her own. The colors in it are really bold and the shapes are amazing — it’s one of the best movies ever. I mentioned Bakshi’s Spider-Man cartoons before, but I also love the Bakshi movies like Wizards. I think the one I like the most is Hey, Good Lookin’. That’s a gem.