A dialogue with the humble, perspicacious and very funny director of one of the film masterpieces of the 21st century.
When you’re a film critic, people always ask, “What is your favourite film?”, and ever since 2013 I answer very quickly and easily: Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day. There are not many films that are shorthand for the genetic material of your soul. In my case, there’s only one. Although, technically, it’s three short films compiled into a single portmanteau feature animation, and it follows a hatwearing stick figure named Bill who is trying to live his little life against the backdrop of some medical bad news that is rooted in his family history. Maybe this doesn’t sound like much on paper, but its svelte 62 minutes covers all of life: the silly embarrassments; the absurd humour; the inherited suffering; the desire for love; the isolation; the yearning; the memories; the dreams.
I discovered the film at its 2013 run at London’s ICA cinema that kicked off with a special Hertzfeldt extravaganza night, co-compered by LWLies’ editor David Jenkins. They say don’t meet your heroes, so it’s a good thing that Don and I did this interview over email. In a bid to curry favour when I reached out to Don, I mentioned that I once went home with a man I met at a bus stop because he said (before I did) that It’s Such a Beautiful Day was his favourite film. Don wrote back, “I might require that your bus stop anecdote appears in the finished article.” A deal was struck. Now over to him.
LWLies: Why do you always write in lowercase? Have you changed the settings on all your electronics so that autocorrect doesn’t interfere with a capitalisation?
Hertzfeldt: nobody ever taught me how to type. honestly. it’s embarrassing that it has come to this. when i was a kid i just found that ignoring the shift key was the fastest way to fumble across the keyboard. and when i began to respond to interviews, i always assumed editors would correct my capitalization and punctuation before it would go print. but they almost never did. so over the years, the lowercase became some sort of a “thing” which i think must have caused other editors to never correct it either. maybe they thought i’d get mad? i don’t know but can you imagine getting mad over something like that? i like capital letters just fine. if i’d known i wielded such power, i’d have demanded my own personal red font everywhere from day one. so anyway, it’s not a thing, it’s just easier for me to write. we can run the interview in all caps if you like. i’ve also learned i tie my shoes the wrong way.
Do your films first come to you in words or images?
i don’t know if there’s always a difference. it can often be sort of a mash, like a fuzzy memory. i usually begin writing something with a stack of scattered ideas that i’d been collecting since whenever the last movie was. they’re not even narrative ideas yet, maybe just a great line i jotted down, something sad i saw on the side of the road, a dream… just interesting half-scenes, bits and pieces. “this needs to be in a movie somehow,” “that would be a great ending to something.” when a particular idea arrives, it really feels like i’m very clearly recognizing something that pre-exists. it’s hard to explain. there is no ambiguity, it’s like a clear and direct lightning bolt. like, “yes, there it is, obviously that is going into the movie.” it’s a new idea but it’s extremely familiar, for lack of a better word “iconic”, and feels like i had nothing at all to do with creating it.
i’ve only just rediscovered it, “of course! where has this been?” and then it seems like all i really have to do is try not to forget about it, or mess up the delivery. so i write all these things down as soon as they come along. by the time i’m ready to seriously start writing a new project, all these notes i’ve collected become the foundation. i already know i want all these little scenes and moments to be in the movie, so how do i write a story now that makes all the pieces connect? i would never want to start writing with a blank piece of paper and no big stack of ideas. that’s like getting into a car with an empty gas tank.
It is so very touching how small and inglorious Bill’s life is, and yet you give him the soaring classical treatment. Who is Bill to you? How did you decide what music would soundtrack his life?
the big music that plays when bill has his first epiphany, and everything begins to turn to colour is traditionally performed as a piano piece. it’s rachmaninoff. i first heard the unusual full orchestra version that was used in the movie during the winter olympics. it’s this epic piece. a girl came out skating to it. she’d been hyped up as the person to beat in this competition and had all of her big jumps timed to the really explosive moments in this music. but on her first jump, she fell. and she kept falling. and the music kept going and the bigness of the music just made it more and more tragic. she just kept falling.
when i find the right music, like finding a new idea, again something clicks and it’s like i have no choice. that’s it, that’s going in a movie. i wanted to use big beautiful operatic cues for bill’s story because everyone’s life, even when nothing much is going on, is still full of beauty and small moments that can feel just as big to someone as any big romantic murderous subplot in a melodrama. just looking at the right tree can be a big operatic moment for somebody. i think there’s also this sad sense of urgency and inevitability to so many of the pieces i ended up choosing. like a deep feeling of missing out, of another life that’s always just around the corner but you can never get there.
How many passes does it take you to arrive at lines like, “He died alone in a field one summer morning while dreaming of the moon. Six weeks later a sunflower grew out of his head.” and “On his sixth birthday his mother gave him a postage stamp and a piece of yarn and hugged him for five minutes”?
sometimes they arrive fully baked and you don’t dare change a word and other times you think it’s perfect until you hear the line actually read out loud and suddenly it’s awful. some lines are only good on paper. there was a peculiar rhythm to the movie’s narration that i could never really put my finger on, but i think i always knew it when i heard it, and tried to learn when to stop fussing. it would sometimes come down to the number of syllables in a sentence. when i was directing julia for “world of tomorrow” she learned very quickly, without telling me, that the takes i liked the most were the ones when she was imitating how i narrated “it’s such a beautiful day.”
“I don’t know if we always fear death itself as much as the feeling of being Oskar Schindler at the end of the movie, saying, “I could have done more, I could have done more.””
Is the tragicomic tone of the film a fair representation of your outlook?
probably, or at least my outlook from 10 or so years ago. large chunks of the movie were lifted from my old diary. when i’d hit a wall while writing i’d go through my diary again to see if there was anything else to steal. i’m not bill, but we were both living in cramped apartments in our late 20s, so many things seemed to cross over easily.
I love Terrence Malick and the way that nature offers grace amidst our absolute carnival of suffering is something I see in ISABD too. How do you feel about Malick?
oh what can you say, he’s rare and beautiful, i love him too. we’ve met before here in austin. i can’t remember but i think i signed an NDA so unfortunately i can’t gossip unless you get me drunk. but i’m realizing lately how the most inspirational thing can simply be seeing another filmmaker out there, just doing whatever they want to do. it’s rare for a person to really have that freedom. it’s also nice to see a person know what they want to do, which i guess can also be rare.
The throwaway images and jokes are dizzyingly inventive. I’m thinking of the iceman who could never have imagined that the scientific establishment would be examining his colon and the kid with aluminium hook arms running into the sea crying ‘BOON BOON’ never to be seen again… Are these real observations taken from somewhere or the product of your imagination or some hybrid?
i did see a frozen iceman documentary where they went all up in his colon and i remember feeling weirdly sad about it. i had a neighbor in this apartment building who’d say strange things to me in the parking lot and i’d always try to remember to write them down, if i wasn’t trying to avoid him. the boxing match on TV from mexico with the bleeding head on repeat, the manatee / mantis misunderstanding, seeing someone in public with lion king slippers, those were all things that happened. i’m not sure, but i think every dream bill has in the movie was also a dream i’d had at some point. i was just gathering as many moments as i could that might help round out the corners of this story and also sort of pull at bill’s seams a little. the kid with the aluminum hooks, i don’t think i know where that came from… when i can’t remember writing something, it usually means it just sort of appeared one day.
Have you ever thought about launching your severed head into space?
hasn’t everyone? that scene came from a conversation too.
Can you narrativise the origins story of It’s Such a Beautiful Day?
in 1999, before the big dot-com crash, there was a new media company that asked me to do a comic strip for their website. they said i could keep all the rights to it and they’d pay the rent on my apartment for as long as i did the strip. and i said, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me. so, i started drawing these comic strips and out of them came this one recurring character. all my characters looked more or less the same so i put a hat on him. the strips weren’t very good but they had a sort of weird quality to them because there weren’t really any punchlines. at the time i was sort of interested in the idea of an anti-comic strip, where maybe nothing funny even happens.
it would just be bill walking around doing this or that, and then sadly going home again and that’s it. so this website didn’t last very long, and maybe it was my fault, but this character stuck with me. and why was he wearing this hat, really? maybe he’s self-conscious because he’s got no hair. but he’s not very old, so what happened to his hair? or maybe he’s got some scars he’s covering up. did he have a couple of brain surgeries? i worked on some other things but these ideas floated after me for five more years and in 2005 they sort of burst out all at once and i started work on everything will be ok.
How long was that entire process?
from everything will be ok to it’s such a beautiful day was about six years to write, animate, and shoot. maybe a little more.
The form you work in – and the number of jobs you do for it – is so labour intensive. What keeps you going?
if i ever feel sad during a production it’s never from actually animating – animating is very much like a different state of mind, like emotionless concentration – but the side effect of working for months and months can begin to feel like you’re just a hamster on a wheel. every day has a sameness to it, you wake up, get back on the hamster wheel, you run and run, eat hamster food, and go back to sleep. and the outside world can really start to seem like it’s moving in fast motion and totally passing you by as you run in place every day.
but then you step out of the wheel and think, wait a minute, i totally forgot this hamster wheel’s been connected to this battery. and running on the wheel every day has been generating this tremendous amount of energy, and look how it’s all been adding up. this little wheel has made this movie, that movie, this thing, that other thing, allowed me to travel here and to there, and on and on. the movies that have come out of this still seem so much bigger than the work. it still feels like some kind of miracle.
Were there specific cultural properties (a song, a movie, a quote) that kept you on track during the making of It’s Such a Beautiful Day?
there’s wasn’t a specific single thing that kept me on track, but music in general’s always been a really important driving force. if i can’t listen to music while i animate, i’ll get sad. i’m confused when i meet someone who isn’t particularly interested in music of any kind. how is such a thing possible? when i was animating in school, after so many months i began to buy armfuls of used cassette tapes for 50 cents from the record shop down the street, literally anything, i didn’t care what it was, i just needed anything new to listen to as i kept working. i do think many random song lyrics have found their way into the writing over the years. i don’t remember when i noticed this, but for instance if you look at the lyrics to r.e.m.’s ‘you are the everything’, that’s maybe it’s such a beautiful day right there.
How did you develop the technique you use that I am going to mangle the description of (please correct my mangled description): with lots of images that are both animation and live-action photography on screen in separate blobs at the same time?
i come from the video tape generation. when i started to learn animation i only had VHS to shoot on, which meant you get one shot at something and if you make a mistake you just go back and tape over it. when i was around 12, i found this big beautiful industrial light & magic coffee table book at a flea market. it’s the one from 1986. i saved up $40 and went back a month later to buy it. it’s full of pictures of their motion control cameras, matte paintings, optical printers, all the great old special effects techniques. i couldn’t read enough about how these special effects were created and i kept on reading stuff like cinefantastique and fangoria. i don’t know why, i was just enthralled.
other kids had their favorite baseball players and i had guys like dennis muren and phil tippett. and i began to wrap my brain around the concept that film is not at all like video tape. film only reacts to light hitting the surface. and you can do some amazing things with light if you leave part of the frame opaque and put another image on top. years later, i think i might have been in the very last graduating class at film school to actually shoot on film, before digital began to take over. so i used this old 16mm rostrum camera to shoot all my student films. it’s a camera that’s mounted on a crane, pointed straight down at a table where you set your artwork. it’s got an animation motor on it and you press a trigger to shoot one frame at a time. after graduation, i found a camera studio in burbank that was getting rid of old gear and i bought my own giant 35mm rostrum camera, from the 1940s.
for early shorts like “rejected” i was still using the camera in a very straightforward way. but at a certain point i realized, hey you know what, this animation motor goes both forwards and backwards. you could shoot something, then run the film backwards with the shutter closed, and then expose that same piece of film again. you’re shooting blindly with no video playback, but you can try to keep track of where you’re at on the roll of film with a frame counter. it wasn’t high tech but i began trying out some multiple exposures for the first time with a short called “the meaning of life”. it was mainly for straight special effects stuff, like compositing different moving lights together. when i was first developing “everything will be ok”, i couldn’t crack the story for a while because i couldn’t picture it yet. the camera was very bulky and limiting, it was kind of annoying and cumbersome just to shoot a zoom or a tracking shot, so the cartoons often felt very static. i also didn’t want to literally show a city when bill’s walking around. the picture needed to be more impressionistic and sensory, since it all takes place in his head.
but hey, what if i broke the actual film frame up into pieces? then i could zip all those pieces around with much more control, independent of moving the camera itself. so the idea was to frame a little window of action by shooting it through a tiny torn holes in black construction paper, placed about an inch below the lens. then i’d close the shutter, rewind the film to the correct spot, shoot the second little window in another area, and just keep running it back forth until all the pieces were photographed. sometimes there’d be a dozen or so camera passes in a single shot. but when you’re finished you’ve composited this pretty cool collage sort of thing that feels a lot more subjective and scattered. it saved a lot of time at the animation desk too, because now i could suggest more than i needed to actually show. the entire feature film was eventually shot like this. all of it was captured in-camera with multiple exposures.
I read that in creating Bill’s ailment you were careful not to make it too specific in order to make it more of a Rorschach ailment that people could see themselves in. What did you draw from to create it, and what is the art to making an illness seem familiar but not too familiar?
right, i didn’t want to tell the audience, okay he has this rare thing with this long latin name, and give people that exit ramp: “well, thankfully this will never happen to me.” i don’t want to put it in a box, but if we were to very generally say the movie is about dying, then the “how” is ultimately not really that important. the how is just details. what’s more important is, “what are we actually going to do with this knowledge?” i also liked the idea that maybe the audience doesn’t know what’s wrong with bill because bill just doesn’t remember. we only know what bill knows, and he’s very confused.
so, i researched a particular neurological issue and worked backwards from there: what sort of tests would they give him? what sort of memory problems would he have? how do we make this feel grounded, compared to the fantasy stuff happening in his head? i think i was also getting a little annoyed with mental illness in movies always meaning someone’s either a screaming murderer or a delightful quirky genius who eats peanut butter with a spoon, like it’s a sort of stupid superpower, and i wanted to do something that felt more honest.
we see that a lot of bill’s suffering is inherited, and that there is a history of mental illness in his family. did he ever have a chance for things to go any way other than the way they did?
no, i don’t think so. there’s all sorts of images of forces of nature in “i am so proud of you” that seem to suggest his fate is just the way things are.
Do you fear death?
sometimes. i think i’m more bothered by the idea of running out of time before i’m ready, like a rude or sudden interruption. i don’t know if we always fear death itself as much as the feeling of being oskar schindler at the end of the movie, saying, “i could have done more, i could have done more.”
How motivated are you by the thought of how people will receive your work? I ask because it’s so personal that it feels like a very deep communication and I wonder if you send it out in the hope of receiving a specific kind of response?
i think probably not at all. i try not to let it cross my mind. whenever i begin to think about how something might be received or how many people might be watching, it’s sort of paralyzing. it’s the only time i start to feel what would be described as a creative block. wondering about the audience a lot can be a sort of poison. the only thing i want to focus on with the audience in mind is clarity. just making sure i’m not getting ahead of myself, not making something confusing or overly complicated, or losing the audience by picking the wrong angle or something. the director’s most basic job is clarity. clarity is my favourite word. and then, if you’ve done the best job you could, whether or not the audience likes the movie is more their problem.
Tell me everything you sensibly can about what you’re working on now!!
it’s a musical, sort of. i’m not able to talk about it yet, but it should be done by the end of the year. when it comes out, i think a lot of people will say, “don that’s not really a musical,” but i already think they’re wrong. and after that, it looks like i’ll finally be getting started on a new feature film. which will be a very big project. but i’m not allowed to talk about that either. why are there so many secrets? i’d still like to get back into doing more “world of tomorrow” episodes someday, but it doesn’t seem like that will be soon.
I read somewhere that you like to walk a lot. Do you still do that?
i think there’s just something about your brain needing to switch to farsighted vision after spending so much time doing nearsighted work. it seems really important to be able to focus on things far away after spending so many hours drawing. i used to take so many midnight walks around the block in my old place by the sea while working on “beautiful day” that i may have worn a little trench in the concrete. but it always cleared my head and shook a lot of stuff out. i’ve been noticing it lately in other animators, this sort of vacant, desperate 100 yard stare into the middle distance when we sit around, like the brain has been waiting so long to switch over.
Has being nominated for an Oscar corrupted your soul?
Your work creates a very emotional type of fandom, with people hurling their confessions your way. Do you know what to do with those intimate confidences?
i try to be a good listener. but the movie is really the thing that’s there for people when they need it, i’m just the dope who made it.
Published 26 Sep 2022
The densely conceptual sci-fi series now focuses on the lonely David Prime.