Posted August 25, 2017 by Jeff in Flicks

Bill Watterson and the Word-of-Mouth Movie

Bill Watterson, Dave Made a Maze - photo by Tiffany Laufer
Bill Watterson, Dave Made a Maze - photo by Tiffany Laufer

Dave Made a Maze, the directorial debut from Bill Watterson, centers on Dave (Nick Thune), an artist who has yet to complete anything significant. When he builds a fort in his apartment, he gets more than he bargained for and enters a magical fantasy world. In the attempt to rescue him, his girlfriend and friends follow him into the maze. Watterson recently spoke to us via phone about the wacky film that has screened at a number of national and international festivals.

Talk about your interest in film. When did that initially develop?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Back when I was a kid, we had a VHS camera with giant shoulder mounts and my friends and I made a bunch of ninja action and space invasion movies. That’s something we did on the weekend, which was making movies. I’d like to say that there was a straight trajectory but there really wasn’t. [After that] rock ‘n’ roll and acting and all these other things came into play. Now, it’s come full circle back to this concept of “it would be cool if this thing flew into the frame and knocked this thing over.” It’s the same stuff we were doing as kids but on a larger scale. My friend John Richards and I made three alien invasion movies with Star Wars figures, a G.I. Joe and a bunch of firecrackers. And I made a ninja invasion movie in one of the woods around Cleveland Heights. It’s called The Seeker because we loved the Who song, “The Seeker.”

How’d you come up with the concept for the film?
This one is from the mind of Steven Sears, the screenwriter. He had a script called “Operation Death Maze” that was similar to Dave Made a Maze. It reminded me of this fort that I built with the same dude that I made the alien invasion movies with. I had made this fort with sheets and pillows. I left a note for my mom that I was going to my friend’s house for dinner. She didn’t read the note and she saw this structure and freaks out that I got lost. She started tearing the fort apart, yelling, “Bill, where are you?” The logic and the physics of that for Steven—that you could be in your own room and completely lost—fascinated him. He incorporated some of that and just ran with it. He got the clay on the wheel and had all these characters. One of my strengths was to concentrate on theme and behavior and the deeper thing we were trying to say and the visual glue.

I wanted to make sure everything is visually connected.

At what point did you decide to do a film within a film?
I would love to have some wonderful meta thing. Steve was working in reality TV and he heard the stuff that gets edited out for television. He heard the director cuing people to behave in the way they should behave or restructure a mundane moment into something more dramatic. It was his way to take a swipe at those guys. The earlier drafts were named after someone we knew. Some of the frustrations and striving and the ambitions that far outstrip the talent came from Steve watching me try to work and watching me twist a little bit. It became something different and once an actor reads it, it comes something different again. It worked out really well. Harry says the most powerful thing in the movie: “You never have to fail if you never finish anything.” He can relate to what the main character was going through.

How’d you wind up casting Nick Thune?
He was the editor’s suggestion early on. I watched clips of his stand-up. He’s so playful and boyish. I knew this character had arrested development and was ultimately at fault for all the things that happen to these people. You need a long leash for the audience not to hate him. You end up forgiving him for a lot of it because Nick’s face has that childishness to it and that magical spark. You sympathize with him. The camera sees that or it doesn’t. It’s about facial structure and genes. With him, it was all there.

Did you envision it as a short initially or was it always going to be a feature-length film?
Always a feature. I think there were discussions about shooting a scene to get funding. If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly. I didn’t want to make a short film. I wanted to make a movie and I didn’t want to make a movie about how two people are dating and their relationship falls apart one weekend at a cabin just because I had access to a cabin. I wanted to do effects and original sets and fantasy and action and go all out. I wanted puppetry and stop motion and to throw everything at it.

What was it like to make the props?
That was the most fun part. Everywhere you looked on set, there was an artist building art. While you were prepping the giant bird, someone else was gluing ribbons on a cardboard ox. It was like being in a playpen. To have an army of people working on things seemingly out of thin air made it feel like being around magicians.

I liked the music. Who’s responsible for that?
I’m so happy with the music. It’s guys I used to be in a band with. They’re called the Mondo Boys. That was the most fun talking to them. I’m always thinking of music in terms of editing rhythm and internal music to what I do. To get to sit down with musicians that I had a shorthand with was great. They’re great lo-fi, groovy and bottomlessly talented musicians. I always end up in bands with guys who are better bass players but that’s alright. I can live with it.

What kind of success have you had so far with the movie?
More than we’ve expected. Internationally, we played in way more countries than I would have ever thought. When you’re on the set, you don’t picture a sold-out screening in Seoul. We’ve won a lot of awards on the festival circuit. We started out in 10 cities in the states, and it keeps expanding. We always knew this was a word-of-mouth movie. It’s not about our numbers on opening weekend. We’re way too small and way too weird. We always knew it would be a 15th anniversary of Comic-Con panel screening. It’s a movie for the outliers and weirdos. Either there are more of them than I ever thought or we tapped into something universal. We have distribution and are in nearly 20 cities and are getting picked up by these Alamo Drafthouses for one-offs. You never think you’ll get a theatrical release with your first film. You think you’ll get a couple of festivals and it will go online. We just had a sold out L.A. premiere.

It should all help when it comes time to doing the next film.
I’m so excited to make the next one. I’m already thinking about which international festival will be best for the premiere. I’m ready to tackle it again. The next film we wrote is insanely ambitious. The saying will be we won’t have enough time or money but I’m ready to ratchet it up. One of sound editors worded it more artfully, but [essentially] she said I failed my way here. I failed as a musician. I worked in film and television and flamed out as an actor. I was writing things here and there and nothing ever went anywhere. I finally just said, “I’m going to make a movie.” She said they were fortunate all my failures brought me there. It all goes into the same pot. I was beating myself up for all the things I haven’t accomplished but on better days I can say it all went into what we’ve done.

Photo by Tiffany Laufer 


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].