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Dash Shaw isn’t kidding around — and neither is the title of the first-time filmmaker’s Toronto International Film Festival debut, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” The animated feature really is about a sinking high school, and it’s really told from the perspective of a Shaw surrogate, an outcast high schooler also named Dash Shaw (gasp). The graphic novelist and short story writer turned screenwriter and director lends his unique vision — both in terms of actual visuals and his funny, self-deprecating view of the world — to the story, which blends the charm of a solid teenager-centric film with any number of high-stakes, high-seas adventures (TIFF rightly refers to it as “John Hughes fused with ‘The Poseidon Adventure'”) to make something that is truly unique.
Animated in Shaw’s bright, eye-popping style, the film follows young Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) during a particularly trying time in high school: His best pal Assaf (voiced by Reggie Watts) has turned his attention to the lovely Verdi (voiced by Maya Rudolph), no one cares about his contributions to the school paper and popular girls — like the Lena Dunham-voiced Mary — will not give him the time of day. When Dash discovers their high school is on the literal edge of falling into the ocean, he expects people to finally listen to him. Wrong.
IndieWire recently got on the phone with Shaw to talk about his big jump to the movies, his DIY method of creation and why Jason Schwartzman is such a big fan. Read on to learn about Shaw’s process in his own words.
The first time that I saw that I could make gifs in Photoshop, that you could line up images and that Photoshop could arrange them in short animations, I thought, “Oh!” The scanner is right here. The tools are very accessible. I don’t need a multi-plane camera the way Disney needed a camera. I have a scanner, I can make an animation with the same tools that I use to make comics.
Discovering that was a big deal, because all the computer animation I had seen looked very computer-y. So when I saw, “Oh, I can make completely traditional animations using a scanner instead of a camera,” I immediately thought, because I am crazy, “I can make a feature-length movie!” It would just take doing all the drawings.
Something about that was so empowering. I had made comics that were very long and a lot of the comics involved drawing the same thing over and over again, so I thought that I could do it. But then, when it came to making shorts — I did a series for IFC — then there was this whole learning process of all of the other things, besides just making drawings.
The “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” has very limited drawings. You could sit there watching, kind of counting the drawings, and think that it isn’t that many, but there are well-chosen lines on these characters’ faces. You can really empathize with these characters.
I had done this story as a very short comic short story. The idea for the comic was that, when I was a teenager in the ’90s, the main comics were alternative auto-bio comics and also these kind of “boys’ adventure” stories. They were two kind of opposing schools, and I really liked both of them. The initial impetus was to do something rooted in auto-biography and have a character named Dash and be based on real feelings, but it would be thrown into this action story world.
Adapting it into a longer work, the key kind of component was the idea of dividing each floor of the high school into a different grade. It gave the whole story kind of a video game, time-based structure, and that helped me write it. It gave the whole movie more of a ticking clock. It could power through 80 minutes and still have the energy of what I liked about that short story.
It also seemed to make sense as a movie, because just like the comic kind of combined all these things that I liked, it stayed real in a weird way. If it was a movie, I thought, “Well, this would be like indie cinema, because it’s DIY and it’s drawn in this simple way, but it’s also a big Hollywood movie. It’s a disaster movie and there are explosions!” But it’s also kind of experimental cinema.
Jason Schwartzman, I have known for many years, through comic books. I think I met him after a book I had done, called “Bottomless Belly Button,” had come out and we just kind of kept in touch. I would send him the IFC series I had done and just kind of talked to him. He’s a writer. When you’re with him in the studio, he comes up with great ways of saying things. He’s a reader. There is something genuinely writerly about him.
The world of the film is so abstract, just drawing anything is an abstraction of a person. These actors, they really are like the soul of the cartoon. They are the human element that is shooting through this artificial world. The drawings are weird, weird things are happening and the lines are strange reactions to these things. In order for it to stay grounded, all of the voices have to be sincere and have to be human and not another layer of artifice over this crazy thing.
I’ve never made a movie before and I’ve never had one at a festival before. I am very curious how it will go. I am curious what it will be like.
The movie felt successful when we finished drawing it, like “I can’t believe we actually pulled this together.” That had maybe the biggest wave of feeling, excited or kind of sitting back like, “Wow.” The festival is just like icing on the cake.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.