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Sundance Film Festival 2010: Q&A with Short Film Director Cordell Barker

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Cinenerd here for Blogcritics at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I had the great opportunity to sit down and have a chat with Cordell Barker, whose short film, Runaway, has been making the rounds on the short film circuit with previous stops at the Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals and now at this year's Sundance. Two-time Oscar nominee for The Cat Came Back (1989) and Strange Invaders (2002) he is back with a darkly comic take on the class system and is short-listed again for another Oscar nom this year. Runaway runs nine minutes and is part of the Animation Spotlight selection.

Loved your short, I thought it was really funny. Was that the goal?

Well, actually, not entirely. With this one I made it … I don’t know if you’re familiar with my previous films, those were more goofy, cartoony … and with this one I did actually intend to suppress some of the staging so that it isn’t as goofball humor, the humor is more situational. Where you understand what’s going on but it’s not as much of a pratfall kind of a goofing, screaming kind of thing. Like tossing the baby in the furnace.

I saw that.

Well see, now it’s interesting, a lot of people don’t. When I cut that together, I intentionally cut it so that, I thought, I betcha only half the audience sees that baby going in and the ones that do see it, there might even be a percentage of them that say, “Did he just throw a baby…?” so the intention was to keep the humor more at arm's length and let the metaphor play out a little bit more. Because at its heart, I thought a lot about Masterpiece Theater. The kind of humor that’s kind of removed, that has that kind of distance. The underlying story is more important than going for an immediate gag. With that being said, I did go for a more visceral component than I thought I was going to. It’s a mix.

The animation, right from when I got the screener, I noticed that the characters are kind of familiar. I didn’t know if you’d based it on anything… the character design?

A very strong reference for me, I’ve always loved Edward Gorey. Edward Gorey’s designs were the ones used for Masterpiece Theater. And his illustrated book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, was always such a starting point for me. And I just wanted to get away from my Cat Came Back kind of roots. And even though I did that, someone recently said — they were complimenting Runaway — "you know it’s obviously a Cordell Barker film, it had that Cordell Barker look," and I was thinking, “it does?” Because to me that was quite different. I tend to do hilltops as lumps and other than that, that one always takes me by surprise. I would be the last person who could ever possibly make that distinction. Other filmmakers I know say, “Oh yeah, every one of my films looks different than the rest,” and I’ll be looking at it thinking, “No it doesn’t.” It all looks the same.

The music was from the same composer who did The Triplets of Belleville?

Yeah, the music ended up being quite good. I enjoyed it.

I did watch your “making of” where you mentioned that you changed it from a boat to the train, it makes perfect sense, especially with the music…

With the music, the train track theme, the metaphor, and that bouncy/rhythmic thing. My instruction to the musician was “half mechanical, half melodic.” I wanted such a driving rhythmic thing that the rhythm is almost paramount to the melody. And he did do several sketches where it was more melodic, there was more of a defined tune, but even he recognized that that didn’t really serve the driving force of this thing and that it needed to have a suppressed melody line. So, it ended up working out really well.

I really like the way that the animation and the tempo of the story went so well with the music.

Right, yeah. That was a struggle to get that, I tell ya.

So this is your third film, your third short, and I couldn’t help but notice the other two times that you were nominated — congratulations, by the way for your Oscar nominations — that you’ve lost out both times to Pixar. All of my friends think it’s so funny that I call myself a “Pixar whore.” Isn’t that a little coincidental?

A bit of notoriety here is who beat me out the first time — it was John Lasseter with Tin Toy. So that was really like the pivotal moment of Pixar going into the stratosphere. So I sort of feel honored by the fact that I was beaten out by what ended up becoming not just the 800-pound gorilla of animation but the 800,000-pound gorilla. I don’t know if you’re aware that I’m short-listed this year as well. And then Pixar, of course, has another short out and the last time they won was with For the Birds, against me. And that’s the last time they won for a short. So I can’t help but skylark that I’m lucky enough to get a nomination and then Pixar is bound to because it’s really well crafted — Partly Cloudy. The super tight timing, great art direction, and so if they get a nomination and then let's say that wins, it would be like the last time was against me and I’m not like an every year guy, I’m like a seven years ago guy.

This one took you six years, correct?

Seven.

Wow! Did you just work on this full time?

No, I couldn’t do that. I found this one so self-destructive and difficult. I went through a very painful, pessimistic mood and I thought this was going to be a career ender. It felt different than with The Cat Came Back, I felt like I was going into a different area there, and I just thought, “This is going to be absolutely awful.” Thought that’s it for my career. So I didn’t know what I was leading to with that statement but it led from something you asked me. I tend to be pessimistic and I think it comes out in my films, because I also sort of view myself as a buoyantly pessimistic person. I know I don’t come across that way. But at its core, I see the negative in everything and I assume the worst.

So everything I do has sort of a dark underbelly to it and I think a lot of people tap into that. I even showed it to 350 kids in a national gallery and I thought, “I don’t know if this audience is ready for Runaway.” These were grade 5 and grade 6 students. They didn’t screen Strange Invaders, they screened Cat Came Back and that got a good reaction. Runaway got a much better reaction and the kids were just buzzing about it afterward and I thought wow, that was huge validation that I’d struck a chord. Because here’s a film where I’ve killed everybody except the cow and the kids liked it. Walking out of the national gallery, kids were giving me the thumbs up. In a way I’ve said that’s kind of perversely hopeful for mankind. Kids recognize the truth in it and that it doesn’t matter if the people don’t survive but that if the animals don’t survive… they somehow recognize the ecological message, I think. It’s like when I was a kid watching the old Warner Bros. cartoons. Some would be funny, I wouldn’t understand exactly what they were going for, but it was funny.

So how did you feel when you were nominated before for the other two and now to be short-listed again a third time?

Needless to say, the first nomination is like you labor away in your little spare bedroom for all those years and then I had no global awareness. I had no representation anywhere. It was just me working, going to the Film Board, usually at night because I never wanted to go during the day when anybody was there because I was just really shy, really reclusive, and then just suddenly, to get the nomination is just like I was plucked off Earth and deposited on Mars or further out somewhere. So that was such an unbelievable leap away from my comfort zone. What little comfort zone I had, I didn’t really have a comfort zone.

So the awareness of that, this woman that I knew in Montreal called me up to tell me, it was just shocking. There was no pre-release of the short film. This was just out of the blue. Some people said, “I think you might get nominated,” but that just seemed like party chat. And then when I got it the second time, I’m sure I was almost as surprised. But it’s a little different the second time. I’m not really the type that gets that jaded but at the same time how can you not be? You’ve already done it once, the bar has been set, you hope for the best but who knows.


And now you’re short-listed for a third…

Right, I’ll be like Dirk Diggler. I’m the Dirk Diggler of animation.

How did you get into animation? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Oh yeah, but I didn’t actually have the drawing skills. Drawing for me has always been, even now, 30 plus years later, has always been a struggle. And I even ask animators, like real animators that sit and draw all day long, with incredulity, “So you don’t mind drawing all day?” and they look at me like like they’re stunned and they say, “No.” But for me that is such a painful process. Always, always a painful process. Now, if I was to sit down and do Cat Came Back characters that would be fairly painless. But doing the characters from Runaway? Oh, my god, it’s brutal. Picture that film if I had done it with Cat Came Back like characters. It just wouldn’t resonate. You wouldn’t necessarily see the metaphor or if you saw it it wouldn’t feel genuine. Right? And I knew intuitively that it needed that kind of stateliness. A certain level of stateliness, at least in the first class passengers and in the captain and in the fireman. But the second class could be a little bit looser and that sort of helped state the metaphor.

Would you ever consider directing a live action feature?

I would love to do that. But I would have to make a leap into doing a live action short, to show that I could. I have a few ideas that are actually animation/live action hybrids and I’ve often thought, “That would be my way in, in a way.” A balanced hybrid but then really lean toward the live action but almost do the live action in an animation kind of sense.

Kind of like A Scanner Darkly?

Well, actually more of a hybrid where you have live action presented as live action with animation elements inserted, that kind of hybrid. Or like Scanner Darkly. Anything like that would be fun, mainly because I would get to work with other people. I would say 92 percent of my animation has been sitting in a room, by myself, with no music playing. So picture how long those days can feel. The trade-off is that you have to be decisive and make a decision, move on. Budgets don’t allow for you to waffle. Whatever’s in the can at the end of the day is done and you better hope you have some workable material. So that’s a little frightening. With animation there’s never a point at which you can’t go back and tweak something.

Was there anything you might have done differently?

I love that question! A kid asked me that in Ottawa, and I’ve often thought that was the best question but nobody ever asks that. So, very good. In Runaway, it would’ve been the pacing because I tend to, with tightly timed stuff, tend to get caught up in the momentum of the story. Of course, I’ve seen it 120 times, and so you see it at a different speed than a fresh audience will see it. So I start compacting things where it starts moving too quickly. So, as a result, the section where the train is stalled at the top of the hill, that whole scene where the captain comes out of the cabin to the point where the train starts rolling, I should’ve played that. Really dragged that out. Because then the moment when the train starts to take off would feel that much faster.

And the part where the train is floating, where the couple is regarding each other as they’re floating, I should have milked that, because it is such a beautiful piece, and let that floating just play out a bit longer. What doesn’t trigger denial like love? The whole world fades away. What other more powerful excuse than ignoring the problems of the world than being in love? But that would’ve been more effective if that was drawn out just another 15 seconds. I tend to make films with a very strong timeline. When I was getting up to the nine-minute mark, it could not exceed nine minutes. Well, as it turned out, the story took place in eight minutes, and then the credits roll for a minute. So that eight-minute mark, I would just go through and pluck out frames trying to be very precise, very trimmed down to the bone.

What was your process for coming up with this particular story?

The ultimate driving force is I want to do a film that was rhythmically based. But at the same time, I had this awareness where I’d see things happening… most of it was ecologically driven. I started thinking of the old metaphor, “runaway train,” so I thought, well, I’m just gonna make it fit that because then I can have my rhythmic quality and that balanced tipping point where we can decide. So it all just fed into the whole “runaway train” thing.

Do you have any plans for the future?

I would like to do something bigger than a short but I am planning another short for the National Film Board (of Canada) but I sort of have to do that because I can’t just say, well, sit down for two years of development work, or whatever it takes, I have to do something. But then that’s like when I was doing my shorts, I was doing commercials while I was making the shorts so now I’d like to make the short while I develop bigger things. This time I actually would think about the development whereas on the other three I primarily just thought about the shorts or thought about my next short. So now I’m kind of looking at the next bump up. Assuming there would be a bump up for me.

I would hope that with a third nomination there would be one.

Hard to say. See, I’m a pessimist, so, I always think no, because there’s a lot of unbelievable talent out there all scratching at the big door so who knows? I think a lot of it is serendipity. You scratch at the door at just that right moment as somebody’s coming out so who knows how these things trigger. It’s just being at the right place at the right time.

Photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada 

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival.