Dash Shaw, who helped to usher in the contemporary era of alt-comics with books like Bottomless Belly Button and New School, rarely sticks to a single style. His work is often an analysis of the art that precedes it, filtered through personal experience and his current circumstance—and My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, Shaw's first feature film, is no different. In the film, Shaw explores the melodrama of teenage life, from the protagonist's tribulations writing for the school newspaper to the catastrophic destruction of his high school, which was irresponsibly built atop a fault line.
After abandoning his first attempt at making a feature film, Shaw put together My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea with partner Jane Samborski in the kitchen of their one-bedroom apartment, and the finished product is a collage in every respect. Utilizing various analog materials and digital animation techniques, and incorporating references to Peanuts and Japanese manga, the film enlists an all-star cast including Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, and Maya Rudolph for an experience that's sure to satisfy anyone looking to pick apart the puzzle it presents. With My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Shaw and Samborski create a sense of creative exuberance that you'd typically only find in someone's homemade zine.
VICE: The film was based on a comic that appeared in your story collection The Unclothed Man. How did that story turn into the film?
Dash Shaw: In the 90s, when I was a teenager, alternative comics were mostly autobiographical. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea was kind of a parody of that idea—an autobiographical comic where the author is altering reality and making himself the hero. It seemed like it could work as well as a movie as it does as a comic.
"Can putting a Q-tip on screen be awesome? Can just looking at a dot be exciting?"
The film reminded me of The Drifting Classroom, and it's also filled with visual references to old video games and Peanuts. What informed the story you were telling, and how you told it?
Definitely A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's a perfect example of limited animation—just by using a few lines and facial expressions, the characters are really empathetic and moving. I always thought that that limited animation language was the coolest. There's something really beautiful in it that I wanted to celebrate and see how it connects different things. Can putting a Q-tip on screen be awesome? Can just looking at a dot be exciting?
When I was a kid, a huge amount of Japanese manga were about schools in danger—and in The Drifting Classroom, the school drifts through a portal into another dimension where it's attacked by monsters. When I was younger, something about that made sense in that it mirrored the anxiety of that time. Titanic was a reference point, too, as well as the Go Nagai Devilman cartoons from the 70s that were drawn in a really rough way to the point where you're amazed that a kid would watch them.
What made you abandon your previous attempt at making a feature film?
The producers were trying to make it the normal way where you would get a cast and raise financing. It was a waiting process, and I didn't understand why I wasn't just drawing the movie, so I just decided to go home and start drawing this one. This story felt more doable because it just happens in a school, so I could imaginably paint all of the backgrounds. Other cartoonists came aboard to execute a lot of the movie's beautiful paintings, but it was important to make something where I could feasibly make it by myself—even if it didn't turn out that way. In my experience, if you're asking for permission to make things, it never happens.
What aspects of the film are autobiographical?
Like the characters in this movie, I was obsessed with books and I wanted to be a writer. A lot of the anecdotes in the movie come from real experiences that have happened to friends, but a huge part of the movie is supposed to be a joke. It's funny that a director would make a movie where the character that's supposed to be him is the one that's trying to warn everyone else—he's the only one who knows that disaster will strike. It also points to the transparency in a lot of these movies—we know that Indiana Jones is like George Lucas's fantasy, but it would be sad and pathetic if he just named the character "George Lucas."
"In my experience, if you're asking for permission to make things, it never happens."
How did you pull together the cast of the film?
I met Jason Schwartzman eight years ago through comic books, so we kept in touch. He really understood the film's sensibility completely. Lena Dunham and I had years before as well—she'd read my comics, so she was on board too. As we added more people, they could see what the personality of the movie was because I already had a majority of it drawn.
What was it like working with Samborski to create the different animation techniques used in the film?
She knew how to do all of this stuff that I didn't know how to do and was very good at figuring out how to do traditional animation compiled in After Effects. There's a million ways to make animated movies—you can have a style guide and hire a bunch of people to draw according to it, or you can hire people overseas and have a studio executing things so that it looks uniformly drawn. I always thought that approach seemed dehumanizing in respect of the fact that all of those people are artists with unique sensibilities. In Ralph Bakshi's movies, you could always tell that he knew [storyboard artist] Mike Ploog drew in a certain way, so he'd employ his help the way you'd cast an actor for a movie. It's a more respectful way to work with artists.
"The movie becomes made up of all of these different artists just like how it's made up of different actors, and they're contributing to the overall movie."
The art of making comics can be low stakes—they're often cheap to produce, and even if they're successful no one makes a lot of money off of them. With film, the stakes can often be higher. How did you reconcile the mindset of making comics while making this film?
The stakes never felt very high. I didn't really think anyone would see it—I just wanted to see if I could make an animated movie. I tried to do it the normal way and I failed, so I asked myself, "Can I still do it?" It felt like I'd spent half the day drawing comics and the the other half working on the film. When we casted it, then we were like, "Oh, shit! Other people might see this." It's incredible that it played at TIFF, and now it's on the Main Slate for the New York Film Festival. I almost feel like I should warn people that it wasn't meant to be screened at Alice Tully Hall, but it's awesome that it was selected anyway.
Follow Matthew James-Wilson on Instagram.