Indie distributor GKIDS' latest animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea from cartoonist Dash Shaw (author of the graphic novel New School), opens Friday - just one week after an Oscars rule change that will allow more Academy members to join the best animated feature nominating committee, a move that could make it harder for indie features, like those GKIDS specializes in, to earn nominations.
But Shaw, who sat down with The Hollywood Reporter this week to discuss his first film, seemed unconcerned about how the rule change could affect the Oscar fortunes of his own pic.
"I don't pay attention," he says, admitting he doesn't follow that sort of news. "I know that [GKIDS'] My Life as a Zucchini was nominated this year, and if that means more people saw it, that's great. I live under the assumption that I'll never be nominated for anything, and I'm happy with that. It's safer not to look at it or hear anything about it. That sounds harsh, but it's coming from a place that it's just a different world."
GKIDS approached Shaw with a distribution offer after his mixed-media film High School screened at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. And the director was aware of GKIDS' track record, saying, "I'm told they see everything that comes out. They have their eyes on finding unusual animation from around the world, so I feel like they select the sort of things that get nominated. With GKIDS, you get to be associated with [Hayao] Miyazaki [GKIDS' slate has included numerous films from the Oscar-winning Japanese animator] and cool, unusual, independent animation."
Written and directed by Shaw, High School could be loosely described as a John Hughes movie meets Titanic. The film follows a sophomore named Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) whose high school, built on a fault line, slips into the sea and begins to sink. Dash and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts); friend Verti (Maya Rudolph); Mary, a popular know-it-all (Lena Dunham); and a lunch lady (Susan Sarandon) team up to race floor by floor (or level by level, in a reference to video games) to the highest point to try to save themselves as the school fills with water. Along the way, the movie weaves in stories about high school themes like friendships, cliques and young love. There are also nods to some of Shaw's favorite cartoons, including A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The feature started as a comedic short. "The initial impetus was that when I was a teenager in the '90s, the majority of alternative comics were autobio comics. And the joke of this comic was that it was someone who had the same name as the creator, and their world has clearly been distorted to favor their perspective - that they would be a hero in a boy's adventure story," Shaw explains. "Why a school sinking? Titanic came out when I was in high school, but maybe more than that, I love anime, and lots of those are about schools and danger."
Asked how much Dash the character is based on Dash the cartoonist, Shaw responds, "I'm not like that character, but a lot of it is based on real things: I worked on my school newspaper, and I had nerdy friends. So a lot is similar, but a lot is a joke."
The film was made over the course of six years as a side project, primarily out of Shaw's New York apartment, where he worked with his wife, the film's lead animator, Jane Samborski. He met producers Kyle Martin and Craig Zobel at the Sundance Lab.
The mixed-media animation style incorporates drawings, painting and collage. "If you look at, for instance, Speed Racer, it's limiting in the number of drawings. It has it own particular poetic beauty that's different than full animation," says Shaw. "Look at how powerful just looking at a still painting can be. Look at magic lanterns [a 17th century projection system] - it's just still paintings that are dissolving from each other."
Shaw is already working on his next animated movie, which he described as an R-rated, 1960s-set story about a zoo for mythological creatures that questions whether or not zoos are a good idea.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is an Electric Chinoland production in association with Low Spark Films and Washington Square Films.