Superhero Shorts: Shamelessly She-Hulk
Welcome to this week’s edition of Superhero Shorts where I take a look at a different superhero themed short film and get the creator of the film to answer a few interview questions. This week is an unique edition about an unfinished feature length fan-film from filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist and his fan-film in-progress: Shamelessly She-Hulk. Below you can check out the directors reel, or you can visit their YouTube channel at OCPmovie, or you can visit the Orange Cow Productions website.
Instead of offering a review as usual, since it is unfinished I’ll just let the writer/director/editor/animator/etc do the talking.
Bubbawheat: I really enjoyed the self-referential humor and non-sequiturs in this movie. Is this something that’s part of She-Hulk’s character in the comics, or is it something done just for the film?
Garrett Gilchrist: I was definitely imitating John Byrne. I was probably ten years old when I first read John Byrne’s The Sensational She-Hulk. I always gravitated toward comics which had a sense of humor. He had been using She-Hulk as a member of The Fantastic Four, and had done an “adult” graphic novel with her. But this book was different; She-Hulk was funny, and aware that she was in a comic book. She talked to the audience. She talked to John. She made sure she got her way. It was essentially a license for Byrne to draw and write whatever he wanted. He could skip all the less interesting parts of a story and jump straight to the action, and do it with a wink to the audience. The series looked great; it’s really Byrne at the height of his powers as an artist, and I always imagine She-Hulk as being drawn by John Byrne.
She was clearly a smart, beautiful, funny, unforgettable character. I had the first eight issues as a trade paperback. What I didn’t know then was, those were the only eight issues there were. Byrne didn’t usually get along with Marvel, and he quit the book, apparently due to a terrible She-Hulk graphic novel that another artist and writer did at the same time. He came back awhile later, but both the writing and drawing were much sloppier, and it’s not really the same.
BW: There’s also plenty of dramatic scenes in the movie, what percentage would you say of the movie is dramatic vs. comedic?
GG: It’s probably about half-and-half. I did the research and read the old Savage She-Hulk, and Dan Slott’s She-Hulk, and these three eras of the character, which were very different in tone, seemed to form a complete story. I intended it to be two films actually – the origin story and a sequel. I only wrote the first one, though we even filmed a few bits for the sequel. The original Savage She-Hulk was a serious soap opera, where she has a rough relationship with her father and is torn between two equally lame love interests, while fighting various lame villains. I found myself liking it; there was a lot there I could work with if I skipped the cheesier parts. I enjoy writing female lead characters; there’s a freedom there to be more emotional and really make the audience care. All of my screenplays seem to mix comedy, drama and fantasy. The idea was that the funny John Byrne She-Hulk would tell the story. Instead of knowing she was in a comic book, she would be directing her own life story, and would be nervous, because what if she makes a bad movie and ruins her reputation as a character?
This was long before The Avengers, so I was very aware of how badly the original Captain America and Hulk movies came out. But the actual story of the film is from The Savage She-Hulk. It’s a story of the She-Hulk being seen as this monster, even by her own father, and she has to learn to love the She-Hulk part of herself while taking on her mother’s killer. Now, the ending is actually bittersweet because her arc as a character is unfinished. She learns to love the She-Hulk, and wants to be the She-Hulk all the time. She doesn’t learn to love herself, as Jennifer Walters. The story of the second movie is about her learning to love herself, and that would have been adapted from Dan Slott’s first 12 issues of She-Hulk from 2004.
Dan Slott is probably the best writer She-Hulk ever had. He walked that fine line between comedy and drama perfectly, and really made you care about the character. He also made Titania into a fully-developed character, as a villain. You even care about her. So that was the movie. The one trouble is that Dan introduced all these interesting characters and situations, and didn’t do too much with them, because he got caught up in Marvel’s Civil War and all that nonsense. Dan Slott’s She-Hulk, the characters he set up, would have worked equally well as a TV series. I’d love to see that. Superhuman Law. Dan saw some of my movie and said he liked it.
BW: That’s great to hear that he liked it. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to make a low-budget feature film about She-Hulk, and what it was like to actually film it?
GG: I wrote Shamelessly She-Hulk in about a week at the end of 2006. I never thought I’d actually shoot it as a movie. I had directed a few no-budget features and graduated from USC film school, which is basically the top film school in the country, but I couldn’t seem to find any work in Hollywood. It’s about meeting people and about who you know. I’m terrible at that sort of thing. I was pretty miserable and trying to leave California. When I was packing, I found my old Sensational She-Hulk paperback, which I hadn’t read in years. I thought, someone should really make this into a movie. And finally I just decided to write it. I’d been doing open mike stand-up comedy in L.A., not at all successfully, and I’d met a strange, disheveled guy called J. Waters, who had some money but no idea what to do with himself. He wanted me to stay at his apartment for awhile and teach him how to make a horror movie. I said no, because I was leaving town. I packed up all my things and spent a few grand to move back to my home in Connecticut. But my family didn’t understand what I was doing and sent me packing back to Los Angeles.
It was all very disorienting. Now I needed a place to stay, and making this horror movie suddenly seemed like a good idea. As it turned out, J read my She-Hulk script and wanted to do that instead. It was the only script I ever wrote that he understood. So we spent four months shooting it at his apartment in Santa Monica, until he got sick of me. He was really just bored and looking for something to do. Most of it was shot right there in the apartment. I was trying to use as little of his money as possible, partly because I knew it was a fanfilm and we could never make any money off of it. Eventually he figured that out too. At the time I was planning an original short film which we could have made money from, but he didn’t understand the script. And I think he was just tired of holding the microphone. After that I shot the rest on my own, as a one-man crew. We were a two-man crew before.
BW: Can you tell me why you decided to go with digital effects for the green skin rather than using makeup?
GG: I’ve never found it believable or attractive when a woman is covered in green or blue makeup for a movie. It always looks dark, lumpy and ugly to me. I never even considered turning She-Hulk green with makeup. It was always clear to me that we were going to mostly shoot on a green screen and change her skin color later. This resulted in a lot of work during editing, with me having to paint her out of scenes frame by frame, but it looks natural, like it’s her actual skin color, because it is. Our She-Hulk, Kierstyn Elrod, looks just as beautiful in green as she does in real life. It would have been impossible to do green makeup everyday anyway, on the budget and schedule we had. That would have taken hours, and we’d never have gotten the movie done. It would have been too much to ask of Kierstyn, certainly.
All of Kierstyn’s scenes as She-Hulk were shot, mostly against green screen, in a very short period of time. She was alone for most of it, and we’d just keep shooting huge sections of the script, getting a lot done in a day. We were very careful about the color of everything she was wearing, since it would change in post. She was on a fasting diet at the time; she wasn’t eating. I was genuinely worried about her, doing this physical activity every day when she was only eating lemon juice and pepper in her water. Kierstyn was brilliant. I didn’t really believe that I’d actually find an actress who would fit the part. But she showed up pretty early on, and was obviously perfect for the part, right then. She got the character completely, got the humor and the emotion and the sassiness of her.
BW: From all of the scenes that I’ve watched so far I agree, she’s definitely the best part of the movie. She looks great but I agree that those kind of diets are just crazy. What were the other auditions like?
GG: We held over four hundred auditions. I went through maybe five thousand headshots and called in literally everyone. Anyone who would show up, to a private residence for an audition, because many actors won’t do that. Maybe ninety out of a hundred actors we saw were terrible. Most of them couldn’t even read a sentence on a page so you’d believe it. But there were a few who were obviously brilliant. It was much easier to find good actresses than good actors. There were a bunch of women I could have hired, but almost no men came in who were any good at all. We did have cast problems. I always knew I wanted different actresses to play Jennifer Walters and She-Hulk. One the introvert, one the extrovert. I cast an actress as Jennifer Walters who we worked with for a week, and shot a few scenes with, with both of our male leads, Bruce and Zapper. We snuck onto the campus at USC, and she wasn’t comfortable with that. She quit. And the movie never completely recovered from that. We had a certain momentum, and you can’t lose that. I didn’t have anyone to replace her. It took months until I found Lesley Youngblood for the part. She’d auditioned but I’d overlooked her somehow.
Lesley Youngblood is an amazing actress, and I can’t imagine having done the movie without her. But for a long time we didn’t have a Jennifer Walters, and we just kept filming with Kierstyn as She-Hulk, keeping the momentum going. The actor playing Bruce, who was also playing Spider-man, he never actually quit the film, but by the time I was shooting with Lesley he wasn’t answering my calls anymore. I think it had just been going on too long and he’d moved on. So we never shot the Bruce Banner scenes with Lesley. The actor playing Zapper basically finished his part. I think it all worked out for the best, because Lesley is so good, but there were some important scenes we never finished. That’s the trouble when you’re not paying people – if they’re not 100% happy they will quit on you. And that usually happens on the first or second day of shooting with them. The people who stay after that, they’re the ones worth keeping. But that can really hurt a production.
It happened to me in 2002, when I was shooting a thing called Gods of Los Angeles. I lost all my male lead actors after their first day. In a lot of ways, Los Angeles is a very hard town to shoot a movie in. You really need money and momentum, and people you can rely on completely. This might explain why I haven’t shot a feature in awhile. I’m waiting until I have the money and manpower to really do it right. I tend to write huge, epic scripts. Shamelessly was an epic, shot for almost nothing.
BW: What was your favorite superhero that you used in one of the non-She-Hulk scenes in the movie?
GG: Definitely Spider-man. I tried not to spend money where we didn’t need it, but we spent the money to get a movie-accurate Spider-man suit from China. It had to look like Sam Raimi’s Spider-man. There hadn’t been a movie where superheroes teamed up and hung out together at the time, like they were all part of the same Marvel universe. I like that about She-Hulk; she’s everyone’s friend. So Spider-man was there to show her what could happen if she made a good movie that everyone liked. Howard the Duck was there to show what would happen if she made something terrible. Howard’s still bitter; that movie ruined his reputation. I mean, sometimes a superhero movie is good and sometimes it’s Daredevil.
Our Spider-man was played by a martial arts champion who could do all the flips and jumps and stunts. He was also playing Bruce Banner. The joke is that he sort of resembled Chris Evans, who had played the Human Torch. Now Chris Evans is Captain America. I cast him as two superheroes but apparently not the right one! I’d have liked to film more with him; do a little Spider-man short film, but after a while he wasn’t around anymore. We’re actually on the official Spider-man 3 DVD. There’s a version you can buy, a 3-disc version, which has a little “Spin Your Own Webisode” feature. It was this dumb little fanfilm contest Target was doing to promote Spider-man 3. I edited some footage of Spider-man jumping around, and I got to attend the L.A. Film Festival, meet celebrities, meet Sam Raimi and Avi Arad, stay in a swanky hotel, see free movies, visit the Sony lot, and get lots of free junk. Our Spider-man actor could have come with me… It was funny, I couldn’t get any friends to come with me. They really missed out. I think he made a quick appearance at the ceremony. I can’t remember now.
BW: This movie has been a work-in-progress for a long time now. What’s been the biggest hang-up so far towards getting it completed?
GG: It’s amazing to me that it’s been over five years now; the time passed in a flash. It was just me working on it, and I’d work on it very heavily for a few months, then work on something else. I would get a little frustrated working on the same scene for over a month. There are always tons of effects and a huge amount of work to do. That’s what I love about the film, but I’d have to take a breath and put it aside for awhile sometimes. I still have the same computer I had in 2003, a G4 Mac. I don’t even use it anymore; I use a little Netbook a friend gave me. The G4 can’t handle HD footage or any new programs, and I was always struggling with it, spending a lot of time doing something that should have been easier than it was. That’s partly why we didn’t shoot HD. I knew that shooting greenscreen in standard definition MiniDV was a fool’s game, since the color resolution of MiniDV is shockingly low, but I developed my own techniques to make it look better, much better than it should look. But I was literally animating every frame of a lot of scenes, to turn She-Hulk green and get the effects right. Everything seemed to take forever, and after awhile I knew there was technology out there which could make it easier if I ever had the money.
Just editing the footage was fine, but there was a lot of footage. I’d shot over 55 hours of footage, to make a 90 minute movie, plus a bunch of little short films starring Blade, The Black Widow, The Punisher, and other heroes. I’m a real perfectionist and I had to be sure I was using the best possible takes, making the best possible version of every scene. I did get sidetracked by other projects. In 2008 and 2009 I was working very hard on a project to animate lost episodes of Doctor Who from the 1960s. I completed all the artwork; thousands of pieces of art. I never could get people to help animate it; do the editing and lip-sync and puppet movement. And the official folk weren’t interested either. I’m still looking for animators on that, to finish what I started. In 2010 I had a day job. In 2011 I was working on a comic called The Chosen Ones.
BW: Can you tell me a little bit about that comic?
GG: The Chosen Ones is a 70 page comic which is about a ragtag group of twentysomethings who fight off an alien invasion. It’s based on a series of three screenplays I wrote starting in 2005, intending it to be an animated series. It’s a combination of comedy, drama and fantasy, like all my work.
BW: How complete is the movie at this point? Do you still plan to finish it, or have you moved on to other projects?
GG: It’s at least half finished, even counting all the effects. I made a point of editing the most important stuff, so that people could follow the story. You can watch the whole playlist at Youtube, and you’ll have basically seen the movie. I’ll return to it later this year, I think. Like a lot of people I’ve been been really struggling with money, but I’m thinking this is the year I’ll finally buy a new computer that works. I’ve retired my old G4 from 2003.
Last March I was editing the hospital scene where she becomes She-Hulk for the first time. There was a ton of rotoscope and I thought I’d finished the whole scene – I’d drawn animated mattes for every frame or every other frame of every shot. But my programs aren’t smart enough to fill in the frames I missed. I needed to fill in every single frame and after a few months I was working on other things. I just want to be working with better technology now. I’d like to get some CGI artists on board for a few things. I definitely shot for the moon with this one. The movie’s a little hokey and out of date now, but I like that about it. It suits She-Hulk. The actors are all great, and I think we made a good movie. Whether it’ll ever be 100% finished, I don’t know. 80 or 90 percent would suit me fine.
BW: One thing on your site that surprised me was seeing the Thief and the Cobbler Recobbled Cut on your website. I actually heard the backstory of the movie on an article at Cracked.com, what part did you play in bringing this version of the movie to light?
GG: I first heard of The Thief and the Cobbler when I was eight years old, and sleeping on Roger Rabbit bedsheets. Richard Williams, who animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and won three Oscars for that and his version of A Christmas Carol, spent over twenty-five years making one film, which he intended to be his masterpiece. His studio mainly did commercials in the UK, a lot of which are amazing, but he’d spend millions of dollars of his own money tinkering on this one movie. Really, he was trying to become the greatest animator who ever lived. In the 60s and 70s, animation was mostly this simple Hanna-Barbera sort of garbage, and the young animators didn’t know how to animate in the classic Disney style. Richard could draw, he was a fine artist and painter, but he didn’t know how to animate like Bambi. So he hired Art Babbitt, the great Disney animator, and Ken Harris, Chuck Jones’ best animator on Looney Tunes, and Emery Hawkins and others, and he had them teach his studio how to animate.
The work got better and better, and it became this golden age of commercial animation in London in the early 80s. Richard Williams was a perfectionist and difficult to work with, but he was also a master teacher, and people would leave his studio and start their own. Richard just absorbed all that information like a sponge and became this master of animation. Recently he’s written The Animator’s Survival Kit, which is the best book anyone’s written on how to animate. Eric Goldberg, Andreas Deja, so many of the great Disney animators from the 90s had worked for Richard Williams and learned from him. He really helped kickstart that Disney renaissance. He animated Roger Rabbit, which was the first hit Disney had in years, and that gave him the industry clout to finally finish The Thief and the Cobbler, which was all he really cared about.
It’s a beautifully animated film; strangely hypnotic. Because he was working on it during the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, it combines art styles from all those decades. There’s design which looks a little like Yellow Submarine, like 70s underground comics, like old Disney, like modern Disney … The look is very unique, like nothing else. And after all those years he was finally good enough to animate it the way he wanted to. There’s insanely complex stuff in there that you’ll never believe isn’t CGI. But Warner Bros. thought it was too artsy and uncommercial. Warner never knew what to do with feature animation.
Meanwhile Disney was making Aladdin, which stole a lot of ideas from The Thief and the Cobbler, and had some of the same animators. So it became this competitive thing. Warners pulled the plug, and Dick Williams lost the film he’d spent half his life on. They say that as everyone was being kicked out of the building, Dick was still at his desk animating a scene. It nearly killed him. He no longer discusses the film publicly, though that may be a legal thing. A man named Fred Calvert, who had only done the worst kind of cheap TV animation, and who thought Dick was an idiot for putting that much work into the film, took over and made a terrible film called The Princess and the Cobbler, which used pieces of Dick’s footage along with cheap junk animated in Korea. The result bore no resemblance to Dick’s movie and was just a direct-to-video piece of garbage. Then Miramax got ahold of it and made it even worse, as a cheap Aladdin ripoff called Arabian Knight. They added voiceover by Jonathan Winters and Matthew Broderick which makes fun of Dick’s film, MST3k-style, and which references Aladdin enough to make anyone think this is just a cheap ripoff of the Disney picture. As a final insult they then reverted to the Thief and the Cobbler title. You’ve never seen a movie ruined in editing to this degree.
I won’t say for sure whether they did this on purpose. But Dick’s original workprint, an unfinished version of the movie, had been traded among animators as a very low-quality VHS. Even in that form the film is clearly something special. In 2005 I’d made a documentary about the making and editing of Star Wars, called Deleted Magic, which had been a big hit on the internet. At a forum dedicated to that sort of thing we were discussing movies which deserved to be reedited. I know that outside animation circles nobody had heard of The Thief and the Cobbler, but I said, gee, someone really ought to reedit and restore that movie. I’d done a version myself on VHS in 2000, just to have something to show people when I talked about the movie. There was this great movie that only existed in your head if you’d watched all the different versions and mentally combined them.
So one day this well-known Star Wars faneditor writes me and says, ‘Hey, I worked on The Thief and the Cobbler. Here’s some footage. Make the edit.’ He sent me a rare Korean or Japanese DVD of Arabian Knight, and some very rare pencil tests and things. I only had a terrible VHS copy of the workprint, but it was enough to make an edit of the film which was much, much more watchable and showed what the movie could have and should have been. As people heard about what I was doing, animators who’d worked on the film, and animation enthusiasts, came out of the woodwork, offering me all sorts of rare footage, including actual 35mm film. Suddenly I was running an archive dedicated to the life and work of Richard Williams. It’s thethiefarchive on Youtube.
At this point just about the only person who hasn’t contributed is Dick Williams himself. He’s still animating, still being brilliant. Recently an animator sent me a much better copy of the Thief workprint, and a film restorationist tracked down another 12 minutes of 35mm film and had it transferred in HD. So this year we’re doing the Recobbled Cut Mark 4, which will be a big improvement. I’m waiting for some video restorationists to work some magic on the footage first. I did the Recobbled Cut just for myself, to have a version of the film I could watch. I knew no one had heard of the film and didn’t expect the amazing response there’s been from the internet. Now there’s thousands of people who love the film just as much as I do. The Nostalgia Critic did a rather weird review of the Arabian Knight version, but it got us maybe 180 thousand more views in a week. The Cracked article got us half a million. But it’s mostly been word of mouth, of people loving this film and the ambition behind it. Dick Williams genuinely wanted to make the greatest animated film ever made. Whether you like the film or not, there’s something amazing about that.
BW: I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, I’ve only seen about the first third or so, but it is definitely something special. Is there anything else you’re working on at the moment that you would like to talk about?
GG: I’ve published a short novel called Cratchit & Company, which is 99 cents at Amazon. It’s about Bob Cratchit from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His son is dead and his boss is Ebenezer Scrooge, and he’s freezing to death in a snowstorm, when he’s visited by three spirits… It’s a tearjerker, unapologetically so. People seem to like it.
I’ve also been working on a novel called Ragland, which is a big, sprawling, surreal epic about the end of the world. It’s easy to write about the end of the world; you just write about what’s going on now and don’t sugarcoat it. Mine is about a woman cartoonist who becomes an immortal ragdoll tearing through the desert on a dirtbike with a man-sized cat. There’s a boy messiah and a lawyer who becomes a near-immortal cyborg leader general and accidental leader of everything that’s wrong with the world. It occurred to me the other day that that’s basically the cast of The Wizard of Oz! People will either think it’s brilliant or completely unreadable. Or something inbetween.
I’ve really been focusing on art recently rather than film. I’m learning a little about going to conventions, doing commissions, and making a little money as an artist. I’ve done some very realistic paintings. I also started drawing cute ponies, and people seemed to like that so I’ve kept doing more and more of it. You can follow me as tygerbug at DeviantArt and Tumblr. I always seem to be working on a bunch of different things at once. I feel very torn sometimes. I wish there were five of me. I’ve definitely started collaborating more. There’s a guy called Markus who colors almost all my pony art. It helps me produce more. I try to get up every day and work on something creative. There’s never enough hours in the day.
BW: And I have to ask, what is your favorite superhero movie?
GG:I like superhero movies. I’d very happily spend a whole Hollywood career directing them. But my entire life, every superhero movie I’ve seen, even when I really like the film it always comes with a caveat, a disclaimer, which is usually that ‘It’s entertaining, but it’s not the comic.’ You make all sorts of excuses for the filmmaker. Well, they got it 80% right, I can forgive the rest. Like in Batman Returns, they reinvent Catwoman. Tim Burton, the writer Daniel Waters, and Michelle Pfeiffer created a brilliant character. It’s not the comic, but it’s great. But the Penguin is disgusting, and Batman’s barely in the film. It feels like he can’t even be bothered.
So you make all these excuses because the movie is maybe 65% good. The Spider-man movies are great, but they’re not the comic. Spider-man doesn’t have a sense of humor in the movies. X-Men First Class I loved, even though it’s not the comic. Batman Begins I hated, because it’s not the comic. The first X-Men movie, which I hated, you watch the DVD and it begins with a montage of everyone who worked on the movie admitting they’d never read the comic and had no idea who the X-Men were. And so that’s the sort of movie you get. Batman: The Animated Series, that got everything perfect. They can get things right on television but never in movies. Sin City is maybe the only movie which is direct from the comic. But things have been getting better.
Marvel was smart enough to hire Jon Favreau, who has a sense of humor, to do Iron Man, and they’ve just been making good decisions ever since. Although Thor was dull. If you’d have asked me last week which superhero movie was my favorite, I don’t know what I’d have said. But I just watched The Avengers, twice. Once in 2D and maybe half of it in 3D. It was better in 2D. I’ve always been a big fan of Joss Whedon; he’s a brilliant, evil genius doing exactly the sort of things I love to watch and would love to make. People sort of overlooked Dollhouse, because they’re stupid, I think.
BW: I know I was personally a big fan of Dollhouse, though I never got the chance to see most of the second season.
GG: Anyway, The Avengers just raised the bar, didn’t it? It’s about six or seven of the best superhero films ever made. Every character just stepped off the page of the comic. Basically every other comic book film has failed to get one lead hero right, and here we’ve got seven, and somehow the movie juggles all these characters and they’re all spot-on. Because Joss writes comics. He gets comics. He has respect for comics. That’s not how these things are supposed to work. You’re supposed to hire some flavor-of-the-month director who’s just had a hit movie where some guy points a gun at some other guy. And he’s never heard of these X-People, but sure, whatever, let’s start shooting tomorrow without a finished script. You’re not supposed to hire a great writer who gets it. How on earth did Marvel ever go so right as to hire Joss Whedon? How did Joss pull it off under all that pressure? And can this keep happening?
I sure hope so, thanks so much for your time, this has been my favorite interview to do and to read and I wish you luck in completing Shamelessly She-Hulk and I look forward to seeing the next cut of the Thief and the Cobbler, I imagine my daughter will enjoy it too. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.