You dove into those issues when you questioned why the Tribeca Film Festival was screening Vaxxed. An open letter you posted on Facebook started the movement to get it taken out of the lineup.
Yeah. I went right into the flame and the gasoline pile. [Laughs] There were a lot of things that happened this year that were resonant with this film that I couldn’t have predicted. I kind of made the movie that Brinkley would have made himself [with Nuts!], but then I completely undermined it. This [Vaxxed] is like that, except there’s no other person to undermine the message. I had no idea that Andrew Wakefield had become a documentary filmmaker. [Laughs] I was, like, we have a whole history of lies by this individual. Why would you suddenly expect him to be a good documentary filmmaker who’s going to respect the ethics of this venerable tradition?
Have you made the move now from shorts to features, or do you see yourself switching back and forth between them?
No, I’m working on shorts right now. I only want to make shorts, for at least the next year.
The time factor. Though shorts take longer than you think they will too. This is the planning fallacy: Everything you do takes way longer than you think it’s going to. But at least for the shorts, it’s probably not going to take eight years. I can laugh about it now, but Nuts! took forever, and it was sort of horrible in a way.
I have a couple of [feature] projects in development, but I’ve made it very clear to the producers associated with them that I can’t really start on them right now, because I have two short films that I’ve been commissioned to do this year and I need to do those, and I am so excited to make two films in one year and not two films in eight years. [Laughs] I haven’t started a new film since 2010, when I started Our Nixon. I feel like a different person now than I was six years ago.
Is part of the appeal of making shorts that you do them all by yourself?
It used to be, but I’m trying to do this new thing where I get funding for projects before I start them. It’s just something I want to try out. Which is part of why I wanted to do shorts, so I could try it out with a smaller project where the stakes are lower and the time frames are shorter, so if it turns out that I don’t like it, it’ll be over soon. [Laughs]
The Voyagers is my favorite of your films. I read somewhere that it was your favorite too. Is it still?
Oh yeah. It’s the best thing that I ever made. It’s because I made it for one person. Frank O’Hara wrote a quasi-joke of a manifesto called Personism, where he talks about how poets should only address a poem to one person because this will remove all the artifacts and bullshit from art and will make it really about this active communication that we say it is, but really it’s [usually] more about posturing. I made that film for my then-fiancé to show at my wedding, with no intention of ever showing it to anyone else, ever again. This was a gift for one person. And then later, he said, “It’s really good. You should probably show it.” And I was “No way. It’s so personal!” [Laughs]
I started showing it maybe six months after the wedding, but yeah, it was absolutely made for one person. Earlier, you were asking me about friends and artists. At this point, I probably make the films that I make for the five people that I care about and trust and value the most. One of those five people is me, obviously. I think that’s a good way to go. Because you’re not going to please everybody, and if you try to do that you’re going to fail and make a bad movie. The danger is that you’ll try to anticipate every question anyone might have and answer all of them. Our Nixon was never meant to be definitive. But as soon as you start to think of everyone in the world [who might watch it], you think “Now I have to explain that he was born poor” or whatever.
Goats keep popping up like Waldo in the animated sequences in Nuts! Is that something you told all your animators that you wanted?
Yeah. I wanted some goat cameos. That was definitely part of the instructions. This is another thing we couldn’t have anticipated: We didn’t know goats were going to become cool. Chickens were cool when I started the movie, and now chickens are totally out and goats are what’s cool. [Laughs] So I was, like, we’ve gotta put more goats in the movie. I’m kidding. But no, I always had this idea that Brinkley had a crowd of fans around him, even if you couldn’t see them. His wife was always standing next to him, and nearby would be his supporters, and there would always be a goat there. We just thought that would be funny.
The thing about animation is that you can do a lot of things that would be cost-prohibitive if you were shooting them. Like, you can make a plane explode. Doesn’t cost any more dollars than to not have the plane explode. [Laughs] I tried to take advantage of that, so we could have big set pieces at a party or dream sequences or these really fantastical elements. Those are mostly dialed down, because it’s a documentary and they need to somewhat read as real for the movie to work. But we did try to take advantage of at least some gags. Some goat gags here and there.
You haven’t done animation before in your movies. Do you think you’ll be doing more?
I probably will. But I don’t know. It’s so slow. It was frustrating to make a film where so much of what was going to make it work was something I could not do myself. With Our Nixon, if it came down to it, I could have made it by myself. I could have edited it, and I did edit it myself for the first year and a half. But I can’t even draw, so it was so frustrating to not have any money and not be able to push it forward. I’ll probably do animation again, but only if I have funding.
Is the animation why it took so long to make Nuts!?
Oh, absolutely. The movie was basically done two years ago, but with no pictures where pictures need to be. It was very frustrating. I want to keep making films the way I’d been doing it at least sometimes, which is having complete freedom and no [financial] support. I think it’s worked out pretty well for me so far, doing it that way. I’m a little worried about what will happen if I don’t make them that way. And I’ve vowed to myself that I’ll never make a film again where the engine of the film is something that I cannot do myself if I have to.