For her next trick, Rookie editor and overall teenage sensation Tavi Gevinson plays a medical student in the Academy Award–long-listed film Cadaver, written and directed by Jonah D. Ansell. Raised "on a lyrical diet of Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, and Positive K," the earliest version of Cadaver was a poem Ansell composed for his "kid sister (a medical student) on the day before she cut open her first anatomy-lab cadaver at Chicago's Northwestern University." It became a book, and "as soon as I uncovered the emotional core of Cadaver, I set out to identify the most effective medium to convey it. I knew the story would spark to life as an animated film" that "navigates the tragedy of the human experience in a light-hearted, sophomoric way." Both Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates lent their voices to the short, and Tavi also does some singing (which you can hear in the trailer above) — "Heart" by the Pet Shop Boys and "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young. We stole a few minutes of Ansell's time to ask him what it was like behind the scenes.
How did the film come about?
Tavi and I are old friends from Oak Park, Illinois ... [we] had previously collaborated together on my first film, a bittersweet love story entitled First Bass. She was the first person I reached out to when I completed the Cadaver script. She loved it — called it "the least sappy but most tender love story I've ever encountered," and came aboard to play the lead ... Tavi is an incredible creative collaborator. She brings an intellectual and emotional understanding of the material to the material. And although some may blame her for inspiring bloggers across the globe to perpetually drop the word wunderkind, I will simply say that Tavi is a sharp thinker, a gifted problem solver, and a tender soul who I'd trust at my side before setting out to tackle any creative endeavor.
I then reached out to Amanda Dunham Ely, a great friend of mine from USC, and asked her if she would like to produce it, she said yes, and off we flailed. I trusted the learning curve would be grueling. I had never made an animated film.
What was the casting process?
We made a ridiculous wishlist of actors that should have by all means rejected us. We then sent blind, sappy, and embarrassingly passionate e-mails to them — the type of e-mail that you send to an ex-girlfriend at 2 a.m. only to regret it for the next six months of your life. To our surprise, our top two actors (Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd and Academy Award winner Kathy Bates) said yes.
What was it like on set?
The set was incredibly relaxed. We recorded with Tavi on Easter Sunday in a friend's basement on the North Side of Chicago. We were holed up behind soundproof walls, hoping and praying that Tavi's dialogue and performance would sync up with Christopher Lloyd's dialogue (which we had recorded in sunny Santa Barbara just a week earlier). In fact, the hardest thing about the film was that the actors were never in the same room at the same time. To capture the physicality of the dialogue, Tavi and I acted out a few key scenes. I stood in for Christopher Lloyd and Tavi used a yellow highlighter to cut my heart out of my chest.
The production itself was hectic but fun. We enlisted Seattle-based artist Carina Simmons to create our characters entirely from hand — using only Sharpie markers. We then enlisted San Francisco filmmakers (and fellow Amherst College grads) Tim Hahn, Eric Vennemeyer, and Abe Dieckman to help animate the film.
Was Tavi nervous about singing? Or did she just go with it?
Tavi did a wonderful job performing the vocals to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and Pet Shop Boys' "Heart." The most challenging part: transforming the Pet Shop Boys' furious dance song into a fragile ballad to capture the emotional core of what I sought to convey when I first wrote the script to Cadaver. Tavi is lauded for her powerful voice, but we challenged her to exercise vocal restraint, while still finding a way to sing from an honest and emotionally powerful place.
What's next for Cadaver?
William Morris Endeavor is actively shopping Cadaver as a feature film and Broadway musical. And we're particularly thrilled, because Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates are onboard to reprise their roles. So, if the nameplate on your office door reads Harvey Weinstein, Ron Howard, Megan Ellison, Tim Burton, or John Lasseter, please help us bring this humble story to the silver screen! We're still just a few Midwestern kids trying to jump through Hollywood hoops.