THE PERILS OF FELINE DRUG ADDICTION: TALKING TO SUNDANCE AWARD WINNER JASON WILLIS

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Daily Grindhouse may not be known as a primary source for cat videos, but we’ll make an exception in the case of the new short CATNIP: EGRESS TO OBLIVION by Tucson-based filmmaker Jason Willis. The seven minute short about the dangers of catnip addiction is a pitch-perfect take on the classroom scare films that have been slowly gathering a huge following in the cult movie community, thanks to compilations from the likes of Something Weird, Fantoma, and Skip Elsheimer’s great A/V Geeks.
 
Satirizing ephemeral films is nothing new, of course, but Willis’s film comes from an obvious love of the genre, and each moment in the film is clearly thought out with the utmost of authenticity to the source materials that have been used as inspiration. With this kind of attention to detail, it’s no wonder that CATNIP won Sundance’s Short Film Audience Award this past weekend — no doubt the audience was blown away by Willis’s knowledge of the genre.
 
It may have also helped that the video involves cats, which everyone loves. (Except Johnny A-Bomb, who is frightened that they will eat his soul.) Check it out below, even if you’re a dog lover.
 

 
The use of ephemeral films as a source material is no accident. Willis’s relationship with the genre began at age seven, when he appeared as a trick or treating ghoul in the Centron short HALLOWEEN SAFETY in 1977. He’s also led about as psychotronic of a career as one could have, directing ghoul-based stop-motion music videos, playing in punk bands and even designing cover graphics for Something Weird. DG was lucky enough to talk to him this week about educational shorts, Something Weird, and directing cats.

 
P: Congrats on the Sundance Audience Award win! It’s well deserved — CATNIP: EGRESS TO OBLIVION is a great short film. It’s got to be great to watch the short with a large audience reacting to it. As great as YouTube and Vimeo are for getting short films seen, not a lot get the opportunity to have a theater full of people watching them at once. I know it played the AFI Fest in L.A. last fall — has it screened in theaters outside of festivals? I can imagine it getting a rousing Alamo Drafthouse reception.
 
J: Man, I’d love to have it play at the Alamo Drafthouse. I know they’ve run my Eerie Publications/ Johnson Smith thing, like in between films, not as a featured deal, but I think that might be it. Sadly I never got to see any of those showings though.
 
So yeah, CATNIP has played a few other places that I’ve been at (a shorts film competition here in Tucson, a few other fests), but has been mostly an online affair to be sure. You’re 100% right though, catching it live with an audience is really where it’s at — the midnight screenings at Sundance were extra swell since it played before a Corman produced film and the audience was fairly “pre-screened” as a result. The timing feels different in a crowd too for sure. Heh, I wanted the whole thing to be a bit overlong (in deference to the source genre/ going for a more authentic vibe) but I tend to question that decision a bit more when there are people around me.
 

 
P: The Eerie Publications piece is great — I can see it as a great psychotronic film festival energy booster.
 
I think the timing works perfectly — there’s certainly plenty of stylistic material to be mined from the educational film concept, and as long as there’s an audience that’s going to recognize most of the tropes, it works. It’s a little bit different, but the average first season episode of “Look Around You” was ten minutes, which is just a hair on the long side, but still entertaining. I definitely see what you mean by having the length adding to the authentic vibe, though — I rewatched LSD: INSIGHT OR INSANITY, the short narrated by Sal Mineo, last night, and it’s damn near 20 minutes! Out of curiosity, was that one of the shorts you used for inspiration?
 
J: Oh yeah, I really loved the heavy handed tone of INSIGHT OR INSANITY? (both versions), in fact the questioning title that I used was pretty directly inspired by that (as well as a few other choice scenes and lines). The other thing I think is interesting is how different the vibe is when comparing something like that (made in 1967) and something like ACID from Concept Films/ Encyclopedia Britannica in 1971. The former has Sal Mineo basically delivering one long negative sermon with staged footage that looks a bit like outtakes from a public access version of the late 60’s Dragnet revival, whereas the latter includes interviews with Stanislav Grof (!) and case studies featuring kids who’ve actually had at least a few positive psychedelic experiences. Tonally I tried to pitch CATNIP somewhere in between the two.
 

 
P: Dang, I’ll have to find ACID, I don’t think I’ve seen it!
 
J: Oh man, it’s great — very much one of my faves. You can find it pretty easily on Something Weird’s “Mind Benders Vol 2″ release.
 
P: I also really appreciate that while it’s clearly influenced by educational scare films, it’s completely original — the music, for example, is an amazing recreation of that “sort of thing” without being a copy — I actually had to watch a couple films that the music reminded me of because on first viewing, I was sure it was pulled directly from CASE STUDY: LSD. How did you go about putting the music together?
 
J: Yeah, 100% of the footage, music and content is original (well, aside from the atomic bomb still, and even that I photoshopped up a bunch). I really wanted to see if I could pull it off without any “found footage”, and it also just seemed like it would be more fun that way. Technically speaking the music is a combo of things — stuff I recorded both recently and forever ago on my Realistic/Radio Shack Moog Concertmate MG-1, and some more traditional “computer music construction” type work I did in Abelton Live (the main theme was recorded there for example — that’s me singing). I kind of have a musical history though — I’ve been in a few punk rock and oddball bands over the years (probably most notably The Weird Lovemakers and The Knockout Pills) and sometimes I really miss it, so it was fun to get to play with a little bit of that here.
 

Halloween Safety Educational Film (1977, Centron) from Jason Willis on Vimeo.

 
P: It’s really admirable, and it’s great the way that CATNIP allowed you to use so many of your talents and interests together. Did you become fascinated with classroom scare films because of your being in a Centron short as a kid, or was that kind of a happy coincidence?
 
J: For sure, Centron was a pretty active element in my hometown when I was growing up, and we were shown their educationals all of the time in grade school. My Dad was also the head of the theatre department at KU when I was kid, so there might have been an increased awareness generated for me by that (I remember that he got some lecture work for Herk Harvey for example), but getting asked to do my little thing in that HALLOWEEN SAFETY short when I was in second grade definitely stayed with me over the years/ helped foster a love of the form. Another pretty early example for me was the 1959 Coronet LUNCHROOM MANNERS film, I first saw that one when HBO broadcast the Pee-Wee Herman Show around 1981 or so. Seeing the juxtaposition between the original earnest desire to forge better manners combined with how intrinsically out of sync it all felt at the time locked me in as a lifelong fan. I mean the makers of these things really MEANT WELL for the most part, you know? That’s really part of the charm for me.
 
The ’50’s manners/ atomic energy stuff seemed to be pretty popular for a while, but it was in the early 90’s after Something Weird kicked their release schedule into overdrive that I finally was able to revisit more of the 60’s and 70’s shorts. Those are probably my favorite really — maybe because they were closer to what I was being shown as a kid myself.
 
P: Yeah, I know Rhino had done a few compilations, but I didn’t really start to get into them until the Something Weird releases either — I haven’t picked up the second Mind Benders collection, but they put out some amazing stuff. Is that how you got involved with doing artwork for them? You were a fan?
 
J: Right, exactly. Rhino really seemed to be concentrating more on the “duck and cover” 1950’s type stuff in the ‘80s (which I guess made sense since it was also the era of ATOMIC CAFE), but SW really amped up the availability of ephemeral cinema for sure. By 1992 I was saving whatever little extra money I had for their VHS tapes (heh, at $20 a pop I really had to consider carefully before making my decisions), and I think my initial order included KISS ME QUICK, the first volumes of “Drive In Intermission Ads”, “60’s Go-Go Chicks” and Vol. 2 of the LSD scare films. So yeah, that all turned me into a giant Something Weird fan and for the rest of the ‘90s I amassed as much of their output as I could. It was also pretty handy that this is around the time when Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Magazine (along with stuff like Cult Movies, Shock Cinema) was all over the place. I’d say that aside from the RE/Search “Incredibly Strange Films” book and John Waters’ “Shock Value” thing back in the 80’s, my exploitation education was really forged by all of that.
 
So that was the fan part, but the art thing was totally unexpected and accidental. Back around 1997, I started doing a pirate radio show in Tucson and in 2000 and I cooked up a CD-R based on my annual Halloween show. I called it “Spook Party,” designed a little “Spook Show” type cover for it, and just sent it around to folks that I thought might like the whole spooky vibe angle (in fact you can still download it from here). There was really nothing to this beyond trying to “give back” to some people that I felt like I had gotten a lot of entertainment out of over the years, but Lisa wrote me right away telling me that she dug the comp and then asked if I’d like to do some covers for SW in trade for tapes and posters and stuff. I totally jumped at the chance and over the years I’ve tried to keep in touch with whatever they’ve been up to. Beyond the fact that I think my life is a zillion times better because of the junk they’ve unearthed, Mike [Vraney] and Lisa [Petrucci] are really cool people as well. Heh, they even gave the Knockout Pills a tour of the whole Something Weird operation when we toured up to Seattle — that place is super amazing!
 
shiver (470 x 350)
 
P: Man, I don’t doubt it. I’d kill (or at least maim) to get a viewing of the Something Weird archives. Did they give you any guidelines for the art? It seems like you pretty much had the aesthetic down pat by then.
 
J: Heh, not anything beyond what you’d expect — “make it lurid and trashy” might have been about it really. This was in the early 2000’s so my workflow for a bunch of them was pretty archaic though: I’d get the screeners and then take photos of cool scenes off of the TV set (!), then have those developed & scan the results to do the final Photoshop work. I still have 100’s of photos sitting around from that era, and given the content I’m surprised the local drugstore never called the cops on me.
 

 
P: It’s telling that the first track on “Spook Party” is Kay Lande and Wade Denning’s “Halloween,” too. What made you decide to use that as a (pretty amazing) stop-motion video?
 
J: It was sort of a combination of elements. First up I have just really loved that song ever since I was about five years old. Secondly I wanted to give myself a new video assignment for the season since I had so much fun doing that Eerie Publications/ Johnson Smith mashup the year before. Thirdly I had been playing around a lot with the iPhone “Hipstamatic” app in the months prior, and thought that a stop-motion video using that “retro” processing would probably look pretty cool. I’d never tried stop-motion before, but as soon as I merged all three of those things in my head it just felt “right,” you know? So I did a couple of tests and then just threw myself into it for about a solid month or so. It was WAY more work than I had counted on for sure, but also a ton of fun and a real learning experience.
 
After I posted it a bunch of really cool stuff happened too — unbeknownst to me, Golden Records had recently resurrected themselves and they gave me their seal of approval on the video. Even weirder, about 6 months later this UK based band called The Heavy (they had a pretty decent sized hit with their song “How You Like Me Now?”) hit me up to direct a full fledged stop motion video for an upcoming single of theirs. They had seen the Halloween thing and really liked the vibe, so they hired me on to script and direct a way “bigger” stop motion affair for their song “Can’t Play Dead” — all because of this thing I had done w/ my iPhone! So crazy.
 

 
P: That’s so cool, and the “Can’t Play Dead” video is great as well — do you want to do more stop-motion work? It has such a unique look, but it seems like such a painstaking process. What are you working on next?
 
J: Ah, thanks a lot sir. Yeah, I’d TOTALLY love to do more stop motion stuff — I have a bunch of ideas around it that I’ve been working on (adapting a number of old public domain horror comics into short films, some more music videos, etc.) but you’re very right about the time investment. It’s also a bit trickier to wing it once you’ve started, so the planning and prep work stages are pretty laborious as well. Still I really love how otherworldly and dream-like the results are — of all the types of freelance jobs I’d like to get more of stop motion probably tops the list.
 
I’ve got a bunch of other little things that I’m working on right now too, but I guess the most pressing are probably these Saturday-morning Filmation-style cartoon adaptations I’m working up for a few sleazy 70’s exploitation films. I’ve drummed up the scripts and about half of the storyboards so far, but it’s going to be a good while before I’m done for sure.
I’m also putting the final touches on a music video I shot a while ago for the band No Bunny. Most of it was edited down almost a year ago actually, but we wanted to add some animation to a few scenes and getting the characters and stuff together for that took longer than anyone was planning on, really just because of schedule conflicts and general busyness.
 

P: Nice! The cartoon adaptation project sounds fascinating.
 
catnip2 (470 x 264)
 
I’ll stop badgering you with questions — thanks again, so much, for taking the time to talk. Though I do have to ask — how were the cats as willing actors? Did you just use cat footage you had and edit it in? As a cat owner myself, I know they’re not exactly good at taking direction.
 
J: Cat-acting: I actually wrote the scenes first and THEN tried to get footage to match (I know, I know). Luckily I know at least a few of the proclivities of my cats well enough (that tub rolling happens every day for example) that I was able to write in some fairly realistically likely scenes. The only “stock” footage that I had already captured was when my kitten Hawthorne charged out from under the chair at my older girl Nova – everything else I actually shot with the short in mind. I guess you could say that I got lucky a lot.
 
P: Thanks, Jason! We’ll be looking out for your future efforts!
 
Keep up with Jason Willis’s projects by visiting his site here!
 

- Paul Freitag-Fey

 



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