February 10, 2012

SCA Family Stories: Jonah D. Ansell


While most animated films shy away from such topics as corpses coming to life moments before being dissected, USC Screenwriting alum Jonah D. Ansell  ’08 has taken this unconventional idea and has brought it, along with several big names, to the big screen.

A screenshot from Cadaver

In his interview with SCA Family Stories, Ansell discusses his film Cadavar and its conception, his experiences and life-lessons from his years at USC and his transition from primarily screenwriting to directing.

Thank you for the opportunity to connect. When did you graduate? Let’s start from the beginning. When did you graduate? JA: I graduated from the MFA Screenwriting program in May 2008.

Tell me about Cadaver. Cadaver is a bittersweet, animated love story starring Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd, fifteen-year-old fashion icon Tavi Gevinson and Academy Award winner Kathy Bates.  It’s a 2D animated film that runs just about eight minutes short.  Every single frame in the film was hand drawn with permanent markers.   

How did the film come about? It began as an email.  Seriously.  My sister frantically emailed me the day before she had to cut open a cadaver when she was a first-year med student at Northwestern.   They were making the kids do some sort of creative assignment, like, “tell us what you think this Cadaver’s life must’ve been like, write a haiku, or draw a picture.” I think it was intended to get the kids to realize that the body that they were going to spend the next semester dissecting was once a living, breathing human and that they needed to treat it with respect. 

And so what exactly did you email? A poem.  I sent her a poem.  It was this rhyming little thing about a cadaver that came back to life the instant the scalpel hit his chest.  He had some unfinished business he needed to attend to – and he needed the med student’s help. 

It took me about ten minutes to write.  I spat it out and sent it over.  It was this little high concept thing that engendered a laugh and lightened her mood.  I didn’t think anything of it and went on with the rest of my day.

So how did you come back to it and make the decision to develop it into a film? Well, a year or so passed.  I was working on other projects, but honestly, I was deep in act two of a screenplay that I knew I didn’t really care about. There was something in this little stupid poem, something in the characters that I knew was worth exploring. 

So you stopped writing the other script? Yeah, in what was at the moment probably the stupidest career decision of all time.  Putting down a good script to pick up a little poem?  I mean, there’s a market for feature-length scripts – a daunting one – but a market nonetheless. People don’t buy short films and the best a short film can really be is a calling card for a type of style.  A way of saying, hey, I want to direct, and this is the visual and emotional style that I might bring to your future project.

 And honestly, at that time, I didn’t even have any desire to direct.  I just loved telling stories.  And this [Cadaver] was just a story that I was really eager to tell.

But you chose to direct it? I did.  And along the way I fell in love with directing.  A lot of kids in film school want to be “the director’” because the director is the person “in charge.”  Maybe it’s for ego reasons, maybe it’s for control reasons, I don’t know and I don’t claim to know.  But I knew that when I was at USC, I didn’t care about being in charge, I just cared about telling a great story. 

I wasn’t very good at it at first.  I came to writing from a satire background – very much inspired by The Onion – I had founded a satire magazine in undergrad and much of my best writing came from analyzing the world from afar – rather than by creating a character from within.  So Cadaver was a little weird for me.

Weird in what sense? In the sense that for the first time ever I had created characters that I truly

The recording session for Cadaver with Ansell (seated) and Gevison

believed in, so much so that I realized the best way to tell their story was to actively shepherd my vision at every step along the way.  To become the director.  And in doing so, I quickly realized that being a screenwriter alone would never satisfy me again.  That’s not to knock screenwriting.  Not in the least – because there’s nothing harder in the world than creating a compelling emotional journey from a page with nothing on it.  But I love putting up scenes, I love getting messy with actors, I love exploding human emotions into each other and discovering what comes out on the other side.

I will absolutely still write screenplays but I will stay on to direct them as well.  And the coolest thing is, you know, even though I was a Writing major, I feel like I got an incredible foundation in ‘story.’  I am so, so grateful for having gotten the chance to take classes with Nina Foch and Janet Batchler and David Balkan.  They taught me script breakdown, subtext, motivation, the physicalization of emotion, it was awesome.  I love that Jack Epps taught us structure – because no matter how messy things get, and, God, are they good when they get messy, Jack always kept the macro in mind.  And by embracing the macro, and literally, I am picturing the character wheel he created for On The Waterfront, you can understand the larger function of a moment while caught up in that moment. 

You seem very appreciative of your time at USC. I am.  You know, I came here from Chicago in my early 20s, I already had some mediocre successes under my belt – I had sold my first company [a humor magazine] to National Lampoon – but I still had some maturing to do – both as a writer and a man.

USC opened so many doors for me.  I made some wonderful friends.  Met some incredibly talented people.  And I try to work with those people as much as possible now that we’re out of USC.  I like to be very cerebral about the process even when we’re getting messy in the execution – and I absolutely love to work with people who engage in backend dialogues about the “why” while we’re caught up in the “what.”

One of my favorite things about USC was the access to really smart working filmmakers.  I recall Howard Rodman bringing in Robin Swicord to speak to our MFA thesis class, and how only through Robin was I turned on to Larry Moss – a wonderful acting teacher – who [after graduation] essentially supercharged what I learned at USC with an intensive four-day course on acting.  Not that I wanted to be an actor; I took the course for the purpose of writing – learning how to write better.  But in those four days I finally gained an appreciation of the role of the actor in the story. 

I had had a very crude understanding of what an actor did.  I had an almost narcissistic understanding of words.  I treated the words of the writer as gospel.  I thought dudes became actors to have sex with hot women.  And if they had been smarter dudes, they would’ve been writing their own stuff. And then, of course, I realized what an idiot I was.

I learned to appreciate actors as powerful collaborators in the creative process.  Liaisons to the story.  Partners in infusing emotion into the characters and words.  I got a chance to work with so many actors smarter than me.  Who knew their bodies, their glances, their gestures.  And then, the words, which I had so long held as gospel, were secondary.  Words were middlemen.  Important middlemen.  Essential middlemen.  But writing was a means to making.  And I wanted to be involved in the making.  I wanted to be involved in the execution of the emotional exchange [directing] not just the engineering of the emotional exchange [writing].

What do you like best about directing?
The collaboration, hands down.  Working with people.  Not being stuck in a dark room with Final Draft and a bag of flaming hot Cheetos.  Getting to work with actors to physicalize the script.  Learning that you can cut half a page because you can say it with a glance.  Understanding nuances in the script in a way that a cerebral brain cannot.  Getting corrected by a fifteen-year-old actress when recording a line of dialogue and learning that no, the character would never say that.

A screenshot from Cadaver

I love when a collaborator shows me that I am wrong – because the material and the end product can only get better.  Film, at its core, is problem solving.  And I love to get the best people together in a room to solve problems. 

Do you have a favorite moment of the film? That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I have so many moments.  I had so much fun making this film – it never felt like work and no matter how hard it got – the story was so sincere that it kept us going even when we were on our eighth all-nighter in a row. 

But hmm, moments.  Well, one that I’m particularly proud of is that I wasn’t nervous when I stepped into the recording studio with Christopher Lloyd.  I absolutely should’ve been nervous.  I should’ve been shaking in my flip flops.  But I was confident. I knew every inch and syllable of the script.  And I knew how to be open to exploring and embracing of whatever amazing surprises he brought to the story. 

But still to this day, the coolest moment of the film was when it was still just a rinky-dink poem and I emailed Amanda Dunham Ely (USC MFA Screenwriting ’08) and said, “Let’s make this.”  She read it.  Loved it.  And we propelled into action.  We didn’t wait for permission.  We wanted.  We asked.  We got.  We learned how to make things happen by simply trying to make them happen. We pitched Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates as die-hard fans of their work – without any likelihood of them actually saying yes.  But the story was good.  And they really responded to it.

Cadaver has a very fantastical and sweet tone. Has that been something that was present in your student work?   Hmm, yeah, I think definitely. I tend to be drawn to high concept stories that are grounded in very real human emotion. As an artist, I am just fascinated by the human condition.  I like to tell stories about people banding together as their world is falling apart. 

Who inspires you? I really look up to Alexander Payne.  I think, today, he’s doing a remarkable job of exploring these sorts of issues with Sideways, with Election, with, recently, The Descendants. I want to high five him and buy him coffee sometime soon. 

I also really look up to Judd Apatow.  I entered the world of film through the world of comedy.  As I kid I watched Airplane and Naked Gun and George Carlin and Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler and Chris Rock and Chris Farley and Dana Carvey – and I very quickly fell in love with laughter. 

As I’ve gotten older I’ve also tried to ask myself, why am I trying to make people laugh here? In this

A screenshot from Cadaver

sense, I really look up to Judd Apatow. Despite doing some ridiculous stuff, he has a really strong sense of the human struggle. He likes to explore human existence.   And I think that’s cool, because, you know, when you’re a kid, “being funny” is a way to standout, or to be liked, or, you know, serve as a coping mechanism for your otherwise painfully dorky existence.  And now the question is more, look, we know you can be funny, but what’s the subtext, why humor here?

What did you wish you would have been told before you showed up for your first day of the writing division?  Oh, man.  I don’t know. I guess, you know, well, first, that it takes time.  That you’re not going to be making Will Smith money when you graduate.  That you probably won’t have a job at all.  And, you know, I think I actually remember them saying this, but I was 24 and dumb and thought, yeah yeah yeah, I know, you have to say that to level set expectations for the rest of the kids, but c’mon, what about me?  It takes time.  It takes time.  It takes time. 

There’s a debate among students between getting a job in the industry and getting a job that gives you time to write. Do you have any advice for current students?  I’m a few years out and my classmates have done it both ways. I’ve seen it done both ways. There’s a tried-and-true path of apprenticeship in Hollywood – and that makes sense for many if not most people.  On the agency side, people work up from the mailroom all the time because that’s where you work up from.  As a writer, yeah, absolutely.  Be an assistant.  Do a fellowship.  You know if you put in your time and you make some relationships, doors will eventually err hopefully open. 

But, which doors?  And why?  There are so many things that you can be writing for these days, internet, video games, films, TV, corporate brands are creating content – you’ve got to ask yourself – why am I compelled to write?  Because you can waste a lot of time trying to open the wrong doors.  You’ve gotta ask yourself, how and why would writing this, whatever this is, make me fulfilled as a human being?  What about this story is so critical for me to tell?  Whose validation do I seek?  Does success mean writing for TV? Does it mean having written a film?  Written ten films? Know what success looks like for you.

What’s next for you?  Well, we’re really excited because Christopher Lloyd, Kathy Bates and Tavi Gevinson have all said they’d sign on for a feature version of Cadaver.  We want to bring our whole animation team back together to do it again – and I’m working with our composer, the brilliant Chris Thomas, also a USC grad, to help evolve the story -- and using music to do so.  We’re looking for an EP or mentor to guide us and help us get funding– so if you are reading this sentence and within a six-to-eight foot radius of Ron Howard or Lee Unkrich, please pass him this article immediately.