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Interview: Directors Will McCormack, Michael Govier, and Producer Maryann Garger, On the Emotionally Stunning Masterpiece, ‘If Anything Happens I Love You’

Once in a while, you see something and think to yourself, “I just saw something remarkable. I will never forget what I felt while watching this.” For me, that was the case with the animated short, ‘If Anything Happens I Love You‘.

‘If Anything Happens I Love You‘ follows two grieving parents, after the loss of their child.

As someone who has experienced a severe amount of grief and loss, I sometimes struggle to find the words to explain how I feel. Little did I know, in 2020, a 12 minute animated short with ZERO dialogue, would give me the words and feelings necessary to explain my grief and depression. Or maybe not even explain it, but for the first time, I saw something and said to myself, “That. That’s how it felt.”

Below, you can either read or listen to the interview with the team behind the timely masterpiece, ‘If Anything Happens I Love You.’

Max Joseph: I’m so excited to be talking with the directors and producer of ‘If Anything Happens I Love You’, the animated short that is one of the greatest animated shorts I’ve seen this decade. It is a triumph. It is absolutely outstanding and the entire planet needs to be watching it. So I’m honored to be joined by Michael, Will and Maryann. Thank you all so much for being here. How are all of you?

Will McCormack: Thank you so much. We’re delighted to be here with you and thank you for those kind things you said about the movie. I think it was the best filmmaking experience the three of us have ever had, and you know, when people like you say things like that, it makes it all worth it. So thank you so much.

MJ: I’m a teacher. So I went to school today full knowing, what I was doing later today, and I looked at these kids and I got really emotional just looking at them. And I’m not a father yet, I hope to be one day, and I think that this is going to touch, well it already has, so many people. So I guess my first question is , why is this story so important for everyone to see right now?

Michael Govier: I think this is an important story to see at any point because we’re talking about grief. We’re talking about the kind of the trauma, just like you said, of going to school, and also, school shooter drills and this other trauma that exists. The three of us didn’t grow up with that. We didn’t have that component baked into school where you had this other kind of pressure that is always felt by these very young students, which I think is just as traumatic as far as an extra fear. I think the only fear we ever had was maybe a fire drill. Which is kind of almost comical compared.

And I think also in this moment of pandemic, it’s a moment of pause. There’s this moment of reflection and I think it really hit with a lot of people. And a lot of these kids watched it, and a lot of the world watched it, and it gave them ways to express emotion and get something out, and maybe kind of grieve for their own lives. And I think people were grieving in a lot of ways, maybe not just about this topic. But also there’s just a tremendous amount of grief. We had people reach out who just lost loved ones and said, you know, I lost in my grandparents during the pandemic and this was a way to kind of bring up these kind of discussions. So I think it hit in a lot of ways with this year.

Will McCormack: I think that gun violence in America has been a problem for a long time and there was something about this film that I don’t think had ever; that this subject could not have been approached in this way. And we were just amazed by the reaction we got around the world from people reaching out to us, and the willingness for people to show up to the story and avail their feelings and be vulnerable and cry. It was really humbling.

And to ankle Michael, I think that there’s something about the pandemic where people were really pent-up and people were looking for an opportunity to let it all out, and something about the film gave people that opportunity, and it’s just been incredible to be a part of that experience.

MJ: Totally. Speaking of grief, and we all deal with the grief in our own way, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, one of the things I was thinking about with grief and how it relates to the film, why didn’t you have any of your characters speak?

Michael Govier: It was a conscious decision from the very beginning that we wanted to just really show the story and show what grief looked like and it also became very challenging and exciting when you strip away all dialogue. It’s like, now you just have to really build out these images and we’re going to write what we’re going to see and we’re going to write how they feel, and all these interactions. So as we went to a more minimal style, it really sharpened the story and sharpened how clean the story could be, and it made us better writers because we were focused on showing, not telling. And it was a wonderful goal that we set up from the very beginning.

Will McCormack: Yeah, this was always the dream to be able to tell the story with no dialogue at all. As Michael said, as screenwriters, you’re always looking for total economy and parsimony in language. And in fact, in the first incarnation of the draft, we had one or two lines of dialogue, but we stripped those and it spoke to the style of the film too, where we just kept stripping and stripping. We sort of had a cardinal rule that anything that didn’t need to be in frame, we would remove it because we wanted to sort of capture the sort of like, desolation and sort of the baroness that grief can have. We thought that we could do more with less and then same is true with dialogue.

MJ: Definitely. Can you talk about your partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety?

Maryann Garger: When Will and Michael and I first all met each other and you know, their script was so incredible about this very important issue. We wanted to make sure that we were, I guess, sensitive, and all of the right ways in dealing with this subject matter. So we soon became connected with Everytown for Gun Safety, and they’ve been a supporter since day one and they still are today. We’ve had several amazing screenings with them and they definitely have been a champion of the movie every step along the way. And it’s been a very important partnership for us to have with a movie of this of this subject matter and sensitivity. So they’ve guided us along those lines and also put us in touch with, I know Will and Michael have spoke to many survivors in their Survivor Network and we’ve been able to carry on with the partnership in different ways like that.

MJ: I mean, that’s fantastic. That’s really special. And I’m sure that was really hard talking to survivors.

Michael Govier: It could be challenging because of the weight of what it is, but it actually had a ton of love in it because they’re telling their stories and they’re sharing their stories with us. Grief has a lot of bonding possibilities and it was actually a very bonding moment with us and a lot of the survivors, these wonderful people that shared their stories.

When we started the film, all we ever wanted to do was just finish it. That was the goal, just to get something done. And now with Everytown and all these other wonderful people, all of a sudden, now the film has this other life, you know, it’s going out. Everytown is using it, and during Survivor Week, they set it up during their different chapters and they had screenings and discussions to lead discussions about grief. Now we never thought that this film would be used as some kind of tool, ever. We just wanted to finish a film. And so it’s like these wonderful gifts kind of keep coming back to us and we’re very proud to be part of helping, in a very little way, but helping in the way we can.

MJ: You used the song “Beautiful Dreamer”, one of my favorites by the way, can you tell me the significance of who performed it and recorded it and why you specifically used that song?

Michael Govier: “Beautiful Dreamer” has been one of our favorite songs forever, and we’ve always loved it and Will and I have loved it. But Maryann is the one who set us up with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Maryann Garger: We wanted to you know, surrounding the subject matter and just in the making of the movie, there were a lot of things that were important to us as filmmakers which involved giving opportunity to people who would normally probably otherwise not have that opportunity. And so we discovered this amazing orchestra called the Inner City Youth Orchestra Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, and Charles Dickerson is their conductor, and we recorded it during COVID, so we had to have one instrumentalist at a time. And we had a wonderful woman in Catherine Dern, do the mix of that or do the song production. But these instrumentalists were very excited to be a part of the film because their organization every year has a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, their end-of-season concert, in which they dedicate the concert to those that have lost their lives to gun violence. And so it was just an added special layer of involving the voices of youngsters, but also, of people who are like-minded regarding this subject matter.

MJ: It’s amazing how authentic you wanted to make it. Not just make a good movie, but you wanted it to be infused with everything that has to do with gun violence. That’s really amazing.

I was just re-watching it and I thought a lot about ‘Peter Pan’, because it’s my favorite story ever, but I love the way a shadow is used in ‘Peter Pan’. I’ve just kind of always been fascinated how it’s been used there and how it’s been used in other films, whether or not it’s like telling another story or it’s symbolism for something else. So what made you, I don’t know if it was like from the get-go, you’re like, “a shadow is gonna be a soul of some sort”? But I just want to know where that came from?

Will McCormack: Yeah, I just want to say my son is a year and a half and he’s just discovered shadows.

MJ: It’s exciting!

Will McCormack: Oh my G-D, it’s incredible! It’s magic to see him see his own shadow and follow those. It’s what we do at breakfast, we do shadow puppets. It’s incredible!

But the shadows are the key to the film. The shadows are all attributed to Michael Govier.

The whole provenance of this film and the whole ignition for it was the idea of the shadows. Michael pitched me this beautiful idea where shadows, souls, were disconnected from their human hosts because they were in so much agony. Humans could not reach their shadow souls because they were in so much pain and trauma from grief and I thought, wow, that’s a really beautiful distillation of what grief feels like. And then of course through the engine for the story is that the girl will be able to reunite their shadows, and at the end of the film, they sort of lock in. But it was this beautiful image that Michael pitched, and that was really the genesis of the film.

So it’s sort of began, you’re astute Max, I mean the whole movie idea began with the shadows.

Michael Govier: It started with shadows 100 percent, and I love the fact you brought up ‘Peter Pan’, because it’s got that vibe. We also looked at a bunch of shadow work. I was thinking of Lotte Reiniger.

She did the animation in 1905, 1910, 1920, she did those amazing shadow puppets and puppetry design. We looked at a lot of hers because the use of blacks and whites and the design. She started animation before Walt Disney and she’s considered the birth of animation. We looked at a lot of her stuff. But the development of it also helped with Youngran Nho, our animation director, and she was able to create the shadows because we wanted them to have a distinct look, and have this wonderful vibe. So Youngran created her own brushes in the program, so she was able to make all these different grays and all these different shapes. So she was able to take the shadows and turn them into like these qualities of smoke, these qualities of this, as opposed to just being black hard lines, it has this depth within a shadow because the hardest thing is to get a performance out of a shadow, because normally the basic design is just a black blob. Maybe you have no eyes. So she made shadows that have smoke, and it had three dimensional life to it. And that was a huge testament to Youngran and her wonderful creation of that.

MJ: I just can’t stop thinking about “Beautiful Dreamer”. The shadows as she walks into the school, and then all of a sudden it’s just… silence.
Bell…
(spoiler alert for anyone hasn’t seen this)
Gun shots.
And to this day, of every single film I have seen this season, it is top five scenes. It is so extraordinary, and the shadows, and the music, the colors, it’s so good.

Oh, colors! That’s another question. I feel like the color choices, and when they first arrived were important. Like on this re-watch that I just did, it’s very, black and white, kind of gray (in the beginning). And then you see a blue shirt. I know it has significance. What was the intention of colors, any why they were placed in certain places?

Will McCormack: We were very deliberate, and we wanted color to be impactful where it was connected to the daughter, so that she would sort of pop in a way that would bring them back to life. All the colors of the film are also sort muted in a way that they’re seen for the time of grief. So they’re not vibrating technicolor, but they’re sort of through this wash, this sort of gauze of grief, but we talked a lot about color and when to use it and we wanted to use it very sparingly. But when we did use it, for it to have to really speak loudly.

Michael Govier: The front of the film, like what Will was saying is like, the things that are color are her items or things that she physically touched. So that’s why the hole in the wall is brighter. The shirt is brighter. It’s like that’s a representation of her. And then we go into memory, you know color starts to come back, but it’s not through technicolor like Will was saying, it’s through the present moment, because this conversation is happening with two parents sitting on their bed. And so it’s through the present filter of grief. So that’s why even the memories, even if they’re wonderful, are still filtered through the now. That’s why it doesn’t go to full technicolor and you still see those burnt out edges and the gray washers on the side because the present moment is still now.

MJ: I don’t know if this is an appropriate thing to say in an interview, but I’m going to say it. My father died from depression, and I never really understood the images of what I was seeing, and then I saw this and I said, “Oh. The light that he had, that was the color. But there’s still that gray with these memories of him.”

And I think that what you did for people who have suffered immensely from so much grief, you conveyed it to them. And it was helpful to watch this and be able to say, “That. That is what I feel.” I don’t know how to express grief or sadness, but that was what that was. And I think that is something I’ve never, I’ve never seen in a film. I’ve never seen that in a film. And that is why, when I saw this interview, I was like, I have to talk to them! Because I just need to gush and just thank you. And listen lots of people appreciate films, but I think personally, this one just spoke to me on a very deep level, that I don’t even know if you all realize how much it has impacted people who have gone through grief. I mean, I’m sure you have, but it is such a fantastic film.

I have one more question even though that felt like the ending…

Maryann Garger: Thank you for sharing that Max.

Will McCormack: Thank you Max. Thank you for sharing, that means everything to us.

Michael Govier: We appreciate that. And those stories, and your story, that’s what we’re trying to show. We’re trying to show those moments of grief. What people feel. It’s like those little moments where you find an article of clothing, you hear the song of your loved ones, it’s all of those moments where they all come flooding back and you remember them. And in essence what we wanted to show. And I think we’ve all gone through different things, but I really appreciate you for sharing your story with us. And this has been a blessing, people share their stories with us. So we kind of get to hear everyone’s story and we’re very honored.

MJ: Honors mine. Did you always want to do 2D versus 3D animation? Only asking because so much now is 3D, but when you see a 2D film, now that kind of lands more. Because you’re like, oh, this is different than what everyone else is doing, because everything is 3D. Which is great! It’s wonderful! I love 3D, I love 2D. But when you see 2D nowadays, it’s like, oh this is something new! Because you haven’t seen that in a while. So why did you intentionally do 2D?

Michael Govier: We wanted the story to dictate the style, not the style to dictate to a story. And I think a lot of places, they find their lane, which is an amazing lane, or doing an ingenious way, but it’s like this is the look and everything has to match the look and then they build out the story. So we got to start kind of a little bit from a clean slat. We can say, well does our world look like? And so we were able to build from the story and what facilitates the story. So it was all active choices to kind of find our look, our style, our design. And it was exciting! And like you said, it’s no longer the thing. Like Pixar has been doing it for 20 years and they’ve kind of defined, and Disney, they’ve defined what people know animation to look like.

So it’s like that is the lane now. So if you do anything outside of that lane, everyone’s goes, wow, you did something new. Or you could say, we went back to the beginning of animation, which is what everyone was doing then.

Will McCormack: Yeah, we wanted it to feel unvarnished and raw, and to have a simplicity to it. That could only be captured in 2D. A lot of people didn’t want this movie because they thought it was too sad for animation. I think, sadly animation gets sort of relegated to just kids stories and I don’t think this movie for us at least, the storytellers couldn’t have been told in 3D. It definitely couldn’t have been told live action.

2D was the only avenue for this story. It just felt so right. And like Michael said, we really built the story first and then built the style to be bespoke to the story. So once we were on sure footing with our story, the style just came to us because we felt like we were very clear about the story we had to tell.

MJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I would talk to you for the next 20 hours, but I know that you’re all very busy people. But truly, it has been such an honor to speak with you. I wish you all the luck in the world, with the rest of your careers and this film specifically, of course. And just thank you. This is a very, very special special film for a lot of people, and you should all be very proud of yourselves. Not that I have any credibility, but you’re all wonderful, congrats.

Will McCormack: Max, you’re the best. Thank you so much.

Maryann Garger: Thank you Max.

Michael Govier: Thank you so much Max. Awesome questions, so heart felt. It’s really appreciated.

FULL AUDIO BELOW


‘If Anything Happens I Love You‘ is far and away, one of the best animated shorts I’ve ever seen, and you can watch it on Netflix today.

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