Don Hertzfeldt Reveals The Meaning of Life: Pt. 2

Immediately after the second public screening of his new short film, The Meaning of Life, I talked to Don Hertzfeldt about who I needed to contact to do an interview prior to The Animation Show’s run at the Tivoli. He offered to do the interview right then, but he had to get groceries, so this interview took place entirely in a busy grocery store in Park City, Utah, with me asking questions I had hastily jotted down while watching the film for the first time only a few minutes before. Due to the surroundings, some of what was said was lost in the ambience. When I turned my recorder on, we were talking about how he thought the recorder was a cell phone, and how we both have a distaste for cell phones. Also, if at all possible, you should see The Meaning of Life before reading this, because it will make a lot more sense that way.

Pete Timmermann: I agree with you about cell phones. I’ve never owned one.

Don Hertzfeldt: They’re more for other people’s convenience. I mean, there’s been a few times in my life I’ve really wished I’d had a cell phone. It’s always been in the car.

Yeah, when my car breaks down, that’s it. So, of all of the talking in the beginning [of The Meaning of Life], saying all kinds of non-sequiturs and whatnot, do you have any particular favorites, or any that mean a whole lot to you, or anything like that?

Yeah, there’s a lot that I love that I foolishly put towards the end.

Uh huh, when no one can hear them.

When no one can hear them. So there’s a lot of really golden performances [inaudible for a few seconds]. Maybe we’ll do a DVD…

…Where you can isolate the…

…The tracks so you can actually see that we did the work of syncing every single person rather than using a crowd sound effect.

I don’t mean for this to sound insulting, so I hope you don’t take that as my intention, but I was curious how serious you were with it [The Meaning of Life], like, it’s clearly not exactly a comedy, like most of your work is. Is it a satire, or is it just a comment on society? What were you aiming for, exactly?

It’s more like a painting, I think. It’s obviously not as much of a narrative as my other stuff. And I think if you go to a gallery and look at a painting…

You think it’s less of a narrative than your other stuff?

Yeah. I think what you take away from it is personal; like you’re going to see it in a way and this guy’s going to see it completely differently, and she’s going to think this meant this, and he’s going to think it meant that. It’s kind of like a painting and you go to a gallery and you’re there, and to this person it means something personal to them, because it reminds them of something from their childhood, and this guy just doesn’t like it at all, and this guy doesn’t get it. It’s more amorphous, I guess, more for whatever it is that the viewer takes out of it.

I thought it seemed to have a kind of driving narrative force, but was kind of abstract with it.

It’s definitely driven by the music, but it’s more of a… I’ve heard it described as kind of like a Fantasia piece. You know, in that it’s just music driven, and I guess it’s not non-narrative, but it’s concept driven rather than character driven. There are no main characters. All right; [where is the] butter?

I have no idea… There’s a lot of refrigerated crap along this right aisle… Yeah… Was it a conscious decision to transfer from a comedy to “painting,” or was that just the way it worked out?

Yeah. Definitely. I mean, I don’t ever want to make the same film twice. I think as soon as I do that I should quit. I don’t want to make Rejected again. I think every film I’ve done is kind of a polar opposite of the previous one, um… [Noticing he’s in the wrong aisle] This is cheese. Um, so, yeah, it was, I want to branch out. I don’t want to be the “My spoon is too big” guy. I don’t want that on my gravestone, by any means. [A few inaudible words] The next one is going to be funnier… I don’t even know much about it. It’s festering. [He finds the butter] Ah, here we go.

Back to the quotes at the beginning. You seem to have a predilection towards things like that, like on the Rejected disc, and on the Rejected t-shirt, there’s all of those sayings like that. I mean, not exactly like that, but more or less. Is there any explanation behind that, or does it just work out that way?

It’s like sitting on a bench during Christmastime, at a shopping mall, with the mobs going around, and all you can hear is this little bit of one person’s life, and that’s all that person is about in that moment. That’s what I was going for: a lot of them are funny, a lot of them are non-sequiturs, but it’s because we don’t know the context. The more random it got and the more serious it got, because these people were zoomed into whatever… I mean, [an inaudible sentence or two] That guy’s trying to figure out what everybody’s story is, and that’s kind of where that started. But… I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

Yeah, actually, it did more than I thought, I don’t know, I figured it was kind of a borderline incoherent question, and you answered pretty eloquently.

Well, thank you. I’m getting better at this.

Good work. Um, oh, let me see…

[Points to Smart Balance Light Butter] This is the shit.

Is it?

Yeah, definitely.

[Laughs] Why is that “the shit”?

It’s really good for you. And it’s like, it tastes like everything else. [Putting away four pack] I don’t need four. What am I doing? I hear that the beer here sucks? In, like, Utah?

Yeah. I haven’t had any. Yeah, they’ve got a, um, there’s one, um, Polygamy… [Finding it and pointing] Yeah, Polygamy Porter. Have you seen that?


Fucking terrible. Yeah, I kind of want to buy one so I can take the six-pack home and carry it around.

[Quoting the beer’s tag line] “Why have just one?”

[Laughs] Um… yeah.

It’s something local, because there’s, like, 1% alcohol. It’s creepy.

Um, I might have started this earlier, but I got sidetracked by the beer: How do you think your fans are going to react to the transition from comedy to “painting”?

I’ve been asked that question a lot lately. You know, at the screening last night, we got a lot of laughs, and I wasn’t expecting any. But I definitely think there are funny moments, but I don’t really make it for anybody, you know? I don’t think you can make a film with an audience in mind, because then you start second guessing yourself, you know, and you’re going to start compromising completely. And you can’t please everyone, except yourself. You know, I just make the film and get it out of my head and move on to the next one, so honestly I don’t really consider it. I mean, I don’t want to say I don’t respect my fans or anything like that, but it’s not a concern.

Something that I kind of noticed, actually, and it might have been me, but I kind of got the impression during parts of it, especially the later parts when there’s not, like, lines that they could laugh at, but [the crowd] was trying to laugh. You know, like they were looking for a reason to laugh.

It’s a different kind of funny. I think it’s like, it’s not so outrageous, but it’s still… It’s definitely the lightest film playing here, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that. I think maybe, you know, expectations change, and the word gets out a little bit… They come in expecting something different, and maybe they’ll get more out of it. But I don’t know… They can laugh if they think it’s funny. As long as it’s honest, you know? [Regarding his basket of food] I think this’ll do it.

Cool. Um, how come you premiered The Meaning of Life in Sundance, instead of just in The Animation Show?

I don’t think we would’ve even been done in time for that if it weren’t for this deadline. Because it was four years in the making, and it wasn’t until we actually had this target: “Hey, Sundance is in January. I think we’re in, so now we actually have to finish this goddamn thing.” And I think without that, we’d still be making it right now. So, it was just a nice, convenient excuse to just finish it and clear it out and get it out of my head.

Do you have anything special programmed in the new Animation Show that you want to say anything about?

Well, we’ve got Fallen Art [which was in the same animated short program as The Meaning of Life at Sundance]… And we’ve got Bill Plympton’s new one, Guard Dog.

And there’s a good one called Ward 13 too, that’s Australian, that I really like.

Who was the animator?

Peter Cornwall. He’s, uh… I don’t really know his story, to be honest, but it’s a really wild cartoon. It’s stop motion animation.

During the Q&A, someone asked about computer animation, and what you think of it, and you were standing next to a whole bunch of computer animators, and you’re always really vigilant about how none of your work is made on computer. You clearly seem to like it, because in The Animation Show there’s a lot of computer animation.

Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not for me. I mean, the thing is, the reason that tag is in the film, you know, “No computers were used…”

It looks computer animated. I thought it did.

Well, thank you. It’s mostly, everyone I talk to, not just students, but people in the industry, they say, “You know, I like your work,” and then the first question is, “What kind of software do you use?” I tell them it’s all done traditionally, and I always get a blank stare, like they have no idea how cartoons used to be made without computers. And it’s kind of affected the history of the [inaudible]. So it’s really just a title card that makes people go, “Oh,” and that’s all it needs to do, is to remind people that you can still do some really cool stuff with hand-crafted work. It’s really rewarding for me, you know, to think that you created this thing out of nothing, whereas every time I do something cool with Photoshop, I feel like somebody, somewhere must’ve done that before, because the program’s got parameters.

Another thing you seem to be very vigilant about is, uh, [The cashier starts ringing him up] I can pause for a minute. [After he’s done checking out] The last question I had written down is about bootlegging; you just seem very… I think the reasons are pretty obvious, but you are more forthright about it than most people are, except for guys who make a lot of money. Is it lack of quality, or loss of money; is there something specific?

Well, very few are actually selling what they’re pirating. If that were the case, we’d be cracking heads much more swiftly. It’s primarily a case of quality, where you pour four years into making this thing look good on the big screen, and it just takes one 10-year old to rip it and throw it on the internet in this dismal quality, and that’s how it’s going to be exposed to a lot of people the first time.

Yeah, actually, I hate to admit it, but the first time I saw any of your work it was bootlegged.

Yeah, I know, that’s not unique. I mean, it’s a double-edged sword, because on one hand, you know, hey, there’s this big audience who’s going to discover it. I mean, if I wanted to make cartoons for the internet, I wouldn’t shoot them on film. It’s the reason why if you blow up Flash animation on the big screen, it looks like shit, because it’s just not the format it’s meant to be screened in. So, I don’t know, if we wanted the films on the internet, we’d put them there ourselves. We’re not, you know, busting down doors or anything, but, you know… The main thing is the new film… It’s always the newer stuff that’s precious. If this thing leaked on the internet now, I’d just be heartbroken. Because, it’s just like… It’s got to be seen on the big screen.

How long do you think it’ll be, now that its world premiere has come and gone?

Well, probably as soon as it’s released on DVD. You just, you just kind of have to live with it. You know, it’s inevitable with technology and where it’s going. Hopefully, you know, one day it’ll get better, where it’s going to look good for everyone, and it’s not going to be out of sync or pixilated. Part of the hope of The Animation Show is to rescue all of these films from that dungeon where “This is the only place my movie’s going to be seen—please see it.” You know, even though it was shot for four years on 35mm. I’m just trying to change people’s thinking here. Shorts aren’t just exclusively on the internet anymore; go down to your local theatre and check it out. You don’t have to bootleg this stuff.

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