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TO YOUR LAST DEATH: Interview with Tanya Klein and Jim Cirile (writers / executive producers)

Recently, I got a chance to review the animated horror TO YOUR LAST DEATH as well as chat with the two of the writers / executive producers of the movie about the film, how it came to be and the challenges of getting it made – it was a great interview with these two amazing, driven talents. Enjoy!

THE CONVENTION COLLECTIVE: What were your inspirations in writing TO YOUR LAST DEATH?

Tanya Klein (TK): Firstly, we love horror and really wanted to bring something new to it. For example, there is a horror trope called “final girl” – the female protagonist and sole survivor of a horrible ordeal crawls out of the wreckage completely banged up but victorious.  We figured: let’s do this. But let’s do it at the beginning of the movie and then send her right back to experience the ordeal again. We like to call it SAW meets GROUNDHOG DAY.

Secondly, we also wanted to make sure that the character development didn’t get the short end of the stick (as too often happens in horror films,) and we spent a lot of time in crafting developed characters that an audience can not only root for but also feel for when they die.

TCC: How and when did you decide that this movie would be an animated film as opposed to live action?

Jim Cirile (JC): The initial plan was to shoot it live action. You may have noticed the limited locations in the script – mostly one floor of an office building. In other words, the movie was designed as a low-budget live action deal. However, our amazing producers Cindi Rice and Paige Barnett said that even with the limited locations, we were still looking at a far higher budget than we had anticipated (due to the numerous death traps and special effects makeup) and suggested a motion comic – in the strictest sense (meaning the camera pans over a flat drawing).

Of course, we are also the masters of mission creep and one of the very first decisions we’ve made was to have full lip sync. In other words, we were suddenly making the first US-made animated horror movie. Which was pretty fricking cool. Naturally, it wound up costing more than doing it live action…  

TCC: What advantages do you think you had in making this film animated?

TK: Sharks! Seriously, though, as soon as the decision was made to animate, we went back and added production value (like the sharks) that wouldn’t have been possible shooting live action. Essentially, one of the big advantages of animation is that you can do absolutely anything and everything. You don’t have to worry about cost or even practicality. As long as it can be drawn (and [discovering] what can’t), you can do it.

That said, we had to keep it grounded within the reality of the movie and the rules established. Just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should. 

TCC: This movie has a unique animation style. Did you have an image of what you wanted the film to look like as you were writing it, or did it evolve later?

JC: Obviously, we didn’t have the budget for Pixar-style animation; however, that wouldn’t necessarily have worked tonally with our movie anyway. We wanted it to look like a graphic novel come to life. So we went with (what we call) “Archer” or “Metalocalypse”-style animation. It’s hand-drawn 2-D cut-out style, which means that all of the characters are basically these gigantic, computer-killing Photoshop files, sometimes three hundred layers deep, which are then animated in After Effects.

Each one of those files might have forty moth shapes and thirty sets of hands, for example. Our director, Jason Axinn, is an After Effects whiz, and he had a very clear idea of what he was going for and how to achieve it. 

TCC: This movie has a lot of A-list talent. How did you get William Shatner to lend his voice to the film?

TK: We went in cold to every one of our actors. We simply drew up our list of hopefuls and contacted their people and floated some offers. Incredibly, they all said yes. Frankly, we were stunned we got Morena (Baccarin.) That was like dream casting for us. Needless to say, on her recording day, the studio was suddenly flooded with people wanted to look on… 

JC: There was one person we had an in with, and that is William Shatner. I have an old friend from college named Andrew Clement, who is a makeup effects artist par excellence. In fact, he codesigned the Deadpool makeup with Bill Corso coincidentally (Morena Baccarin co-starred in DEADPOOL.) At the time, my teen daughter was very interested in special makeup effects, so I asked Andrew if he could do a life cast of my daughter for her to practice sculpting prosthetics on her own face. He invited us to his studio, and while he was doing the life cast, I asked about his recent Facebook post of him with William Shatner, saying “proud to be Mr. Shatner’s personal makeup artist for the last decade.”

As a huge STAR TREK and Shatner fan, I inquired how he got that gig, and he said, “It helps when you’re married to his daughter.” I had no idea! So Tanya and I got to thinking that Mr. Shatner would be insane as our narrator, and a few days later I asked Andrew if he could make the introduction. He laughed and said he gets asked that ten times a day. He gave us Mr. Shatner’s manager’s number, but after that, we were on our own. So we inquired… and heard nothing. Three weeks later, our office phone rang. “Jim, Tanya? This is William Shatner. I understand you have a role for me?” Our jaws hit the floor. 

TCC: From a production standpoint, how do you take a script and move it through the process of making a feature length animated film?

TK: Apart from screenwriters, we are also story analysts (the people that tell their fellow screenwriters or producers or directors what’s working and what’s not working in a script and how they can fix it,) and one of our biggest pet peeves are writers that don’t develop their material. Way too often in this industry, they’ll throw out something they deem “good enough” – possibly a third or fourth or fifth draft. (Sidebar: hat’s off to Jordan Peele who freely talked about the many drafts of GET OUT he went through.)

Writing a decent script generally takes a lot of rewriting and polishing. And that’s doubly important if you’re dealing with time travel or alternate realities because you have to establish rock solid rules and have to make sure the audience gets those rules and that they make sense within the world you’ve created. So, first step: make sure the script works BEFORE you start the production process.

JC: For us, this took a year and a half, and twenty-seven drafts.

TK: Exactly. The next step is to get the core team on board. For us those were our producers Cindi Rice and Paige Barnett. They found director Jason Axinn, whom they’d worked with on their Machinima series “Bite Me,” as well as lead character designer Carl Frank. Essentially, pre-production encompasses everything: schedule, budget, casting, and logistics of all kind. 

The step after that is the recording of the voices. Your actors spend a few days in a recording booth in a recording studio. After that, the director works together with a storyboard artist on what’s called an “animatic” – essentially, the camera pans over the storyboards the artist has created together with the director. They put the dialogue the actors have recorded underneath it as well (and possibly some basic sound effects). Then everyone watches the animatic and gives notes. What plays? What doesn’t? What needs to be cut? We actually cut almost half an hour out of the movie. The original animatic was two hours long. 

After that begins the long, long, long road of designers designing the characters and the backgrounds and the world and line artists drawing everything and colorists coloring those drawings and finally animators animating everything. At least, this was how it was with our movie. Mainly because of budget constraints, the entire production process took 5 years, start to finish.     

TCC: What was the biggest challenge in getting TO YOUR LAST DEATH made?

JC: The biggest challenge – for any producer on any movie – is usually lack of funds. With TYLD, we couldn’t even afford to hire an animation house (even though a couple of them were willing to cut their rates for us).  So we had to essentially build our own animation house from the ground up. We found people from all over the globe. At one point, we had people on five different continents working on this movie: line artists in Eastern Europe and South America, Colorists in Western Europe and the US, animators in the Middle East and Asia, etc.

For almost three years, I had to spend several hours every day constantly hunting for new talent, because great people tend to not stay available for long when it comes to low-budget movies with a multi-year production schedule. 

TCC: What’s next for you? Might we see a TO YOUR LAST DEATH sequel?

TK: That would be awesome! Seriously, though, we built TYLD to be franchise-able in so many different ways. The most intriguing one, to our minds, would be an anthology format; every new “game” being one season. Of course, there are also plenty of possibilities for follow-up movies, with or without Miriam. We actually have several different concepts for direct sequels, one of which picks up the second after the original movie ends with Miriam as the protagonist again, and another with a completely different scenario. 

JC: As partners in Coverage Ink Films, our brand is “elevated geek.” So we have several things in the hopper that are similar in tone, genre, style, and have something to say, both live action and animated. We still haven’t decided on which one we’re doing next – that will depend in large part on financing. But one way or another, the next project will have a similar energy, voice, and in-your-face attitude. 

Once again, thanks to Tanya Klein and Jim Cirile for their time, and to Justin Cook of Justin Cook Public Relations for coordinating the interview.

Darren Shulman
Darren Shulman
Darren is a professional lawyer and amateur movie/comic/TV reviewer who is lucky enough to have found a wife who is into the same geeky things he is. Darren has been making the trip from Ohio to San Diego Comic-Con since 2009. Other interests include, in no particular order: monkeys, LEGO, dinosaurs, and playing basketball poorly.

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