In a world of features, short films rarely get much attention. Yet the best five-minute shorts usually contain more originality and creativity than your average Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why we launched Short Stuff, a weekly profile on a promising short-form filmmaker and their newest piece of work. Think of it as an investment in the talent of tomorrow.
There’s a hot new hallucinogen on the street and the drug fiends are hooked. The substance’s name is “catnip”, and if Jason Willis’ brilliant, Sundance Audience Award winning short is to be believed, it’s affects on the brain of an unsuspecting tabby cannot be underestimated.
Inspired by the cringe-worthy anti-drug films that many of us suffered through in school, this micro-budget mockumentary captures with hilarious accuracy the tone (hyperbolic) and aesthetic (crumby) of the genre it so lovingly parodies. Yet while the lo-fi style – complete with trippy theme song and user “testimonials” – is decidedly on the retro side, the content gels perfectly with web’s never-ending obsession with cats and cat-related media. In the age of YouTube, Willis’ cohort of far-out felines is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
Watch Catnip: Egress to Oblivion in it’s entirety, and check out my conversation with director Jason Willis, below.
When did you first decide you’d be interested in making films?
I feel like this has all been pretty recent. I mean it’s a cumulative thing obviously (and there were a few experiments and tryouts here and there over the years with Super 8 and video cameras), but it wasn’t until I taught myself Final Cut Pro and a few other programs that film started to fall together in my head as something I would really enjoy playing with.
Did you study film, and if so, where?
No, not anything formal at all. I’m kind of a lifelong dabbler though, and I guess that means that it was only a matter of time before I started trying this out too. I went to art school for a few years in the late 80’s (painting, photography), dropped out, moved across the country, learned guitar, played in a few bands (the Weird Lovemakers, the Knockout Pills), put out a bunch of records and toured during the 90’s and 00’s. Concurrent with all of that I was also doing a lot of graphic design and photography (posters, album covers, etc) and trying to learn whatever computer programs I could to support my desire to just play around with all kinds of creative junk. It’s kind of a scattershot/ collage approach I suppose, but happily all of that really can come into play with film (for example Catnip I wrote, directed, shot, did all of the art and design, created the props, wrote and recorded the music, did the editing and the post-processing, etc).
What other films/projects have you been involved with?
I think the top three that people might have had even the slightest chance of seeing would probably be The Cast of Eerie Publications Meets the Johnson Smith Novelty Company Record (a motion graphics short where I married gruesome cover images from 60’s & 70’s horror magazines with an crappy record that I ordered out of a comic book as a kid), Halloween by Kay Lande and Wade Denning (a stop motion music video for a children’s Halloween song that I shot with my iPhone and the Hipstamatic app)[and] Can’t Play Dead, a stop motion music video for the band The Heavy
Where did the idea for Catnip originate? Did it have anything to do with the inexplicable popularity of cat-related web-memes?
Heh, no I’m not that smart. It really was one of those things that just popped into my head, fully formed and pretty much unbidden (in fact my initial thought was that it had to have been done already, so I spent a fair amount of time trying to google everything I could think of that might bring it up). For sure I’ve always loved educational/ classroom type films though and I’ve picked up several collections from Something Weird Video over the years, so I suppose the groundwork had been in place for a long time. I also grew up in Lawrence, KS which was home to Centron films, and they were a major player in the classroom films scene for many years, so aesthetically speaking the style and the rhythm were probably built into my vocabulary almost via osmosis.
So yeah, this thing was just me petting my cat & watching a few old educational films on a day off from work. The idea popped into my head & wouldn’t leave, and three weeks later it was all finished and uploaded to YouTube.
Were there any film or filmmakers that were of particularly strong influence on you and your film?
Well for sure the educational shorts that directly inspired it. I even decided to make it a little longer than I thought it had to be in deference to the way those things tended to overstay their welcome. I also wanted to kind of honor the genre by playing it mostly straight — it’s so easy to look back at these things with the vantage of hindsight and mock them overtly, but at the core they really were a pretty well-intentioned medium. I mean the makers of these things really MEANT WELL for the most part, you know? They wanted to help people out and educate them. That’s really part of the charm for me.
Beyond that I’m really just super attracted to lower budget art across all genres — stuff that doesn’t feel slick, or takes elements that might be perceived as weaknesses (“crudeness” for example) and turns them into strengths (exploitation films, punk rock, etc). I also really like seeing stuff that feels like you’re getting a glimpse of a fully formed world view that kinda requites your expectations: Doris Wishman, Jack Webb, Federico Fellini — they all seem to inhabit their own planets, you know? So while I dunno how much I can say I copied from anyone like that directly, I can say that I’m really attracted to it for sure.
How much time have you spent with Catnip, from conception to production to having it screened?
Time-wise it all went down pretty quickly. I got the idea over Memorial Day weekend, wrote the script in about 3-5 days, shot and edited for three weeks and then uploaded the final thing to YouTube on June 26. So the whole thing was over in a little under a month. A week or so after that I took it in to a monthly short film competition that they have here in Tucson at the Loft Cinema — it’s held on the first Friday of the month & shorts are played to a pretty rowdy audience that can gong you off the screen after 3 minutes if they don’t like what they see. I honestly had no idea what to expect and it was pretty gruelling watching a few shorts get just MERCILESSLY booed. But I actually ended up winning the night and was asked to play another festival in town afterwards, and things have continued from there. Mostly I’m amazed that it has had such a long shelf life — I was primarily giving myself an assignment to try and learn the new Final Cut Pro X software and figured that seeing this idea through would be the best way to do it.
Was there much of a casting process, in terms of the feline stars?
Heh, well the feline cast wasn’t too hard to gather up really. I’ve got two cats of my own who are all over that thing, and plenty of friends who were happy to let me totally lean on them and pad out the numbers. The most arduous part was probably getting the talking “case studies” on film. Happily I know some folks with pretty talkative cats, and once I put the word out they were happy to help, but nailing that footage was the last piece of the puzzle — in fact two of my favorite talking bits were shot by friends on their iPhones (Wilbur the one-eyed fellow who sings the praises of “weird nip” and Maddux the big orange tabby who talks about how powerful and terrifying it all can be). Thanks Martha and Desi!
The human actors are all friends too — to me one of the most enjoyable things about those classroom films is how everyone seems sorta crude/raw/real talent-wise, so the inexperience and earnestness of everyone (the voiceover dude, the two “doctor” guys) really helped sell the final deal I think.
What camera(s) did you use?
About 95% of the short was shot with a Canon 5d Mark III, and the rest is either iPhone footage or a completely digital creation that only exists on a computer. I also have a couple of tracking and time lapse shots in there where I used a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero rig, but for the most part I tried to keep everything visually simple in an attempt to emulate the locked down look of the old films that I was using as inspiration.
What is it like getting to screen at Sundance?
Duuuuuude, that was just insane and amazingly cool. I mean really — this IS a film about cats getting high after all, so my expectations for something like that (let alone winning the audience award) were not exactly off the charts. The audiences for it were fantastic too — I was paired up with a Roger Corman produced film and most of the five showings were around midnight, so it probably couldn’t have gone better. Sitting in an audience and seeing a film that you’ve done is ALWAYS something of a roller coaster ride I guess, but they made it very easy. Across the board the Sundance staff seemed to be amazingly cool too — really passionate and dedicated people. So yeah, the vibe there was just awesome.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing emerging filmmakers at the moment?
I dunno man, are there any? I mean really this seems like an AMAZINGLY awesome time to be making films — from the creation stage to actually getting eyes on what you’ve done, it just seems to be the easiest and most accessible version of this process in history. I mean look at my thing — this film cost me $25 to make (and honestly 100% of that was spent on buying catnip). $25 dollars to make and even after the fact I had no promotional expenses whatsoever — just a few posts to the web and letting the internet basically take over after that.
It really just seems like the most amazing convergence right now — the production, the editing, the distribution (in a non trade sense at least) is all just miles more doable for an average person than ever before. It’s obviously still a lot of work, but the playing field seems increasingly level.
As a short filmmaker, how does the internet affect the way you market and distribute your movie?
I’m a little brian dead about the business part of things for sure, but the market for shorts has always been a kind of unique one anyway, right? It’s kind of like a 10″ record — really cool, fairly unique, but there never really was rack space set up to display them in most record stores and they’d often get overlooked if mixed in with the full-sized product. For a while now shorts have mostly been existing as part of a package program, at festivals, or as filler content on cable channels. The internet has changed that for the better it seems. In the online world, shorts (and I guess I’m probably using a pretty broad definition of the term) are a much more dominant entertainment form than ever before, and while not too many folks seems to be getting rich off of their work, the infrastructure looks to be shoring up around that now that the demand is more firmly in place. So that’s cool.
Specific to me though — I really just got lucky with this whole cat thing. I mean really (really!), it didn’t occur to me at the time that I was cooking the film up that I’d be plugging into such a little moment in the online zeitgeist. But for sure that has to have helped me considerably. Heh, I suppose if I was a smarter guy I would have thrown some zombies and bacon in there to cover all the bases.
What other projects have you got coming up in the future? Would you like to make the transition into features at some point?
I’ve got a bunch of other little things that I’m working on right now, but I guess the most pressing are probably these Saturday-morning Filmation-style cartoon adaptations I’m working up for a few sleazy 70′s exploitation films. I’ve drummed up the scripts and about half of the storyboards so far, but it’s going to be a good while before I’m done for sure.
I’m also putting the final touches on a music video I shot a while ago for the band Nobunny. Most of it was edited down almost a year ago actually, but we wanted to add some animation to a few scenes and getting the characters and stuff together for that took longer than anyone was planning on, just because of schedule conflicts and general business.
Feature-wise I’m also gathering the footage for full-length documentary project I’ll be doing with a friend of mine. It’s in the infancy stages right now but the dude we’re focusing on is a compelling character, so I think it should be pretty cool to work on that.
And yeah — totally open to doing anything down the line. I want to keep this going and keep having fun.
Where, if anywhere, has Catnip been screened so far, and will there be additional festival screenings after Sundance?
Hmmm, let me see if I can round these up in my head:
The Loft “First Friday Shorts” in Tucson, AZ
The Arizona Underground Film Festival in Tucson, AZ
AFI Fest in LA, CA
“Short & Sweet” in Cape Town, South Africa
The True/False Fest in Columbia, MO
Standing Rock International Short Film Festival in Kent, OH
The Cinema Culture Cinema Minima Show in Chicago, IL
The Disposable Film Fest in SF, CA
…and a slew of others that I think I can’t announce yet. (but what I CAN say is that it has been a completely insane ride so far. Just nuts!)
Are any of your other films available online?
Yeah, most of the more accomplished ones are, and I’ve tried to collect them up on my JasonWillis.com site (which, when I remember to update it, I also try to cram with whatever other junk I can fit. That generally means lots of photos, music, old posters and design work — just whatever I have archived and on hand).
Are you a cat person or dog person? Or is this a stupid question?
Ahh, I love both cats and dogs really. The main difference for me I guess is that to be a good dog owner you really have to commit to a lot of activity time (along with the space to let them run and have fun). I really do dig the cat brain though; it generally makes sense to me.