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Late last year, amid the usual mix of dance videos and audio memes found on TikTok, a new viral sensation emerged: the If Anything Happens I Love You challenge. The rules were simple—to participate, TikTokers had to film themselves before and after watching an animated short on Netflix. The “challenge” was trying to make it through without crying.
But even the most hardened cynics were moved by the 12-minute animated short, which follows two parents as they grieve the loss of their daughter. Later it’s revealed she was killed during a school shooting. Her final text to her mom and dad: “If anything happens, I love you.”
Writers and directors Will McCormack and Michael Govier, along with a producing team that included animation veteran Maryann Garger and actor Laura Dern, worked closely with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety to create this powerful statement on gun violence in schools. Though they knew the project was important, they could never have predicted the reaction online. Within a week of the challenge’s inception, the hashtag #ifanythinghappensiloveyou had over 31 million views on TikTok. And the short reached number two—worldwide—on Netflix, an incredible feat for an independently made film without a single line of dialogue.
And now it’s up for best animated short film at this year’s Academy Awards. For Garger, the most exciting thing about the nomination is that the film will be amplified to an even bigger audience. “The message of gun safety in schools has been our North Star since day one,” she says. Also incredible: The entire animation team of If Anything Happens I Love You was made up of women—rare for the historically male-dominated industry.
Here, Dern and Garger meet for a conversation about what this Oscar nomination means and how the world of animation has changed for women in the past 30 years.
Laura Dern: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. We’re all so excited.
Maryann Garger: It really blows my mind. We never expected anything like that. It was always about the message.
What does it mean to have If Anything Happens I Love You nominated?
I think the silver lining of the nomination, besides it being such an incredible honor, is that the message of gun safety in schools has been our North Star since day one. It’s reached millions of people on Netflix, and there’s been a lot of discussion on TikTok as well. So our goal was accomplished. We got our message out through art, and I think it started some real dialogue.
Given your years of experience—am I right to say almost 30 years working in animation?
Yes, and I’m only 29 years old, so that’s incredible. [Laughs.]
Exactly. [Laughs.] And how about that you’re also nominated for an Oscar for an animated short with an all-women animator team?
Oh, it’s mind-blowing. A lot of the storyboarding was mostly done by women as well, and we have a female composer. We never set out to specifically say we only wanted women animators. We just wanted to find the best person for the job.
We happened to have this magical meeting with [animation director] Youngran Nho, who was straight out of California Institute of the Arts. She had the vision of what the animation and design could be and had so many conversations with me and Michael Govier and Will McCormack about how to visually enhance the emotion of the story. When we needed a couple more animators, Youngran said, “Hey, I know a few friends that just graduated. Why don’t you meet them?” We hired them on the spot.
Can you speak a little bit as to why I would have such resounding congrats on this group of amazing women animators—what did the world of animation look like when you started, and how has it changed?
It looked so different, Laura, 30 years ago. My first movie was Pocahontas at Disney, and I started at Dreamworks soon after Jeffrey Katzenberg formed it. I was the fifth person there, so I got to see everybody walking through the door. For many years, especially in the artistic departments, it was a very male-dominated crew. I would look around the room and note to myself, “I am the only woman here.” That was during story meetings, animation approvals, background approvals, whatever.
It’s evolved now, especially in the past couple of years. I see it changing right before my eyes. And not just in the production side of things—it was very rare to have a woman board artist in animation. Now there are so many more, and so many more directors as well. But not as many as we’d like to see, and I’m a champion for uplifting them in any way possible.
I’m a great lover of the Academy’s archives, and I once looked at an image of the animators hand-drawing Pinocchio and saw four women sitting there. And we see this with writers, editors, and directors…what happened to the storytelling that it became, “Well, we’ll give you a shot. It has been all men.” Before you guys were here, women were doing this! I wonder what happened that it changed and became, particularly in animation, this male-run world?
I wonder that too. Traditionally in animation, if you did see the four women, I guarantee you they were probably painters or clean-up artists. That was the only roles they had. My hope is with the future generation. I have an 18-year-old daughter, and I see the youth leading change in society. I see animation mirroring that change, and it makes me very, very happy. For animators, even currently, the statistics are very low. It’s something like only 16% of all animators in the industry are women. For composers, it’s even tougher. Only 5% of all film composers are women. My hope is for the future generations leading this social change of diversification and embracing inclusivity.
Beautiful. Maybe we can talk a little bit about the project itself, starting with how you first got involved.
I had just finished producing a very large, big-budget studio movie and took some time off. My kids were entering high school, and I wanted to spend more time with them. I was thinking about doing something in the independent space, and I have a common friend with Will McCormack. Will and I had coffee and really clicked on the subject matter. My daughter and son had, on different occasions in the past few years, active shooter drills and some scary moments. When I saw that this was about gun safety in schools, I was like, “How can I help? How can I bring this issue to the forefront in any way I can with the tool sets I have?” It was a magical journey from there.
I’m wondering, when did you first see the imagery? I had chills up my spine when I saw the first, but very far along, rough cut.
I’ll never forget being in my local Starbucks when our editor sent a first rough cut. It was like opening up a Christmas present. I didn’t know what to expect. Starbucks was busy, but I just started crying. It was so emotional. I sat for 5 or 10 minutes. It was like the world was moving around me, and I just was sitting there. I have seen a lot of story reels, and never once, ever, did the first one bring up emotions like that. I knew at that point we had something very special and moving.
On a personal note, just because it was such a profound moment for me, did you show it to your kids? And what was that moment like?
I did. I showed it to my daughter, her friend who was over, and my son. Normally it’s hard to focus and quiet everybody down. It’s like herding kittens or something. We sat down and I said, “Hey, I need 12 minutes of your time. Just watch this.” My daughter and her friend especially were moved to tears. They could relate. It was profoundly moving. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there was such a strong, emotional reaction. It’s a fear they live with every day.
Exactly. With my kids, it seemed to not only strike them in terms of the subject matter of gun violence and safety in schools, but also the grief. I remember three months into the pandemic my son, on his computer finishing high school as one of the graduates of 2020, turning to me and saying, “Well, I guess there is a silver lining.” I was like, “What?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t feel scared every day going to school.” It took a pandemic to be at home on a computer to not be afraid of gun violence at school.
It’s insane. It’s hard to relate, and it’s sad that’s the experience of kids these days.
How has the film changed for you in subsequent viewings? Did it take on a new form of emotional experience for you the more you saw it, or once you saw it from a finished state?
I have to say, complete and utmost hats off and respect to Will and Michael because they worked for a year on this script. They had such a strong vision. My excitement was really just seeing it get done. It was just so difficult, and every day felt like we were slogging through trying to bring this project to fruition. We were told no a million times, so to get a maybe and a half-yes was thrilling beyond words.
You mentioned TikTok and what an amazing experience it was to see the response. I wondered if you want to share with readers any thoughts on how they can support more independent, important voices and projects like this. So that it will be easier for creatives to continue to tell these stories.
Absolutely. So, I don’t know if you’re a TikTok user, Laura. I wasn’t.
Oh, no. It was all my daughter informing me.
Me too. I kept getting messages from my daughter, or her friends, or childhood friends who had kids, and they would say, “There’s a lot of reaction videos on TikTok.” So I figured out how to use it and see it. And you’re right, it was incredibly important to our project. It was something we never expected at all. Early on, we were sent a video where this girl started this If Anything Happens I Love You challenge. That spread like wildfire. It generated lots of viewership, lots of interest in seeing a project about grief and how the art could affect people and bring up conversations for this issue.
We would watch it tick. We’d go into a meeting, and by the end of the meeting it would be another 2 million views. And then 10 million, and 20, and 50, and 60, and so forth. It allowed more eyes to go to Netflix to watch our film and raise awareness for the important subject matter and message behind it. I think because it was done in such a nonprescriptive, emotional way, it resonated authentically with an age group that’s a very hard audience to reach for any animated content. You can definitely see how TikTok democratizes recommendation of content and can drive awareness in such an impactful way.
How has this short impacted the kinds of projects you want to do?
It’s changed me forever, Laura. I want to give opportunity to people who normally in this industry wouldn’t get opportunity until 15 years in. There’s so much amazing talent out there, and it opened my eyes to that. I want to give opportunity and uplift voices who may not normally have that chance, and to continue with cause-based shorts and feature content with meaningful impact and messages behind it.
If Anything Happens I Love You is now streaming on Netflix.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on Glamour