Feat of Clay: The Forgotten Adventures of Mark Twain
JG: My first exposure to this movie was a clip of the scene with The Mysterious Stranger, which was labeled online as being banned from television…
WV: That’s nonsense. (laughs) The internet is such a rumor mill of misinformation!
JG: Was that segment removed from television airings of the movie?
WV: No. Absolutely not. Nobody ever asked for it to be removed. As a matter of fact, we were hoping we’d get a PG rating in the first place because we didn’t want it to be thought of too much as a kiddie film, because we knew it wasn’t a kiddie film. So we got a G rating and we were almost going to appeal, but that would have cost us!
JG: So you think it hurt the picture, in the end?
WV: Yes. Part of the challenge there is that you have to think about the time it first came out. It’s really much more appropriate in some ways for today’s audiences because when it was released there wasn’t much of a market for adult animation in big movie theatres. It was pretty much the Kiddie Ghetto (laughs). I guess I felt like some of the shows that were kid-oriented really talked down to kids badly, even back then…especially back then. So, we always did things that adults and kids might like. Our approach on Mark Twain was pretty sophisticated. We were talking about things like his dying, and the Mysterious Stranger notions and the dark stuff that Twain wrote about. It seemed really important to deal with the fact that Twain himself had this folk hero light side and a very dark somewhat cynical side as well.
JG: Were the investors at all concerned at the outset that the content might be more adult than people were expecting?
WV: I don’t think our investors were particularly concerned about it. They wanted us to do what we thought was the right thing to do. I think they trusted our senses on that, having had some success before. Maybe they shouldn’t have (laughs) because that first release didn’t make a lot of money back.
JG: Was it difficult to have worked on Twain for four years only to see it fail to find its audience?
WV: Yeah, that’s the only thing. The money aside, we knew that it was a beautiful piece. We had fans from the very beginning who thought it was amazing. I had critics call me up and say what an astounding film it was, but it was released initially by Atlantic Releasing and the thing they were trying to promote at the end of their lives – they were almost going into Chapter 11 when we signed the deal, which we didn’t know – was a package called ‘Clubhouse Pictures’, which only played for matinée performances. And so it opened and got fantastic reviews in places like The New Republic. Not a lot of kids are reading The New Republic and the adults who were intrigued couldn’t find it anywhere. It was really sad. The matinée thing didn’t work at all. Our point of view would have been almost the opposite: ‘we don’t need to show at all at matinées, just evening performances!’
JG: One of the best things to come out of the movie, I think, is that Mysterious Stranger sequence. How did you guys come up with the suit of armor design for Satan, complete with a mask that transforms as he speaks?
WV: There were a number of things that intrigued us about the Mysterious Stranger. First off, it was just such a bizarre character, to start with. In fact, I haven’t seen a character quite like that in almost anything else – someone who has this power but no feeling one way or another and just sort-of tells it like it is regarding the future of humanity. We wanted it to be about metamorphosis, visually, and make that a big part of sequence. He transforms and grows up and down from the earth and appears out of nothingness. The design of the character came from an early drawing that Barry Bruce did, where a jester was holding his face on a stick. I thought it was a really interesting way to play it. I ended up doing the voice of the Stranger with a female performer. We wanted it to be almost androgynous, so she and I did it together and made a point of not trying to hide it, even.
JG: Stop-motion animation has been doing well as a medium of late, with The Pirates!, Frankenweenie and ParaNorman all having been Oscar nominated last year. Do you think another feature could come along that would bring Claymation back into the spotlight?
WV: Yes! Actually I’m very pleased to see stop-motion getting its due. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve heard people pronounce stop-motion dead, and a couple of years later there’s a so-called revival. This past year there were more major stop-motion feature films released in theatres than ever in history, so that’s cool. To me, it really depends on the story and how you want to do a visual interpretation of that story. Sometimes, animated films aren’t using the best technology or designs for the stories they pick, and I think that’s the issue. If you have a story that really works well with the strengths and attributes of stop-motion, it’s ultimately rewarding. Having said that, any stop-motion film these days is going to be about 40% CG.
As far as Claymation is concerned, there are projects in the works. In fact, there’s one my writing partner Andrew Wiese and I wrote that we’d love to do at some point if we get the chance. It’s really made for Claymation because it’s a retro project that comes right out of the popularity of Claymation stuff twenty years ago. There’s also a project entitled Azumma that I’m co-producing with a Korean company called H-Culture that is perfect for Claymation styling, even if we use a lot of different techniques, with a little CG in it as well.
JG: Any time frame on those?
WV: We’re actively looking for financing for some of these projects. We’d like to do them independently as opposed to with a major studio. It makes it harder but it’s also, I think, a better way to go. Mark Twain is a really good example of what happens when you have strong creative people doing things without too much so-called commercial oversight, where everything is scrutinized to the nth degree and designs have to be shown six different ways and an executive picks one for whatever reasons.
The Adventures of Mark Twain is available now on Blu-Ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.