Aspirations of a Promising Filmmaker: A Conversation With Nicolas Delgado

Nicolas Delgado, whose The Macabre World of Lavender Williams really delighted us a while ago, had a little chat with us regarding his career, all those movies that inspired him and set him on his path of becoming a filmmaker, what it was like to work with his childhood hero Robert Zemeckis, and the things that matter most to him. Not only did he prove to be a highly talented filmmaker with a bright future (please see his film!), but he also showed how great of an interviewee he can be when the topic is as important as the world of film.

What’s the origin of the story that evolved into ‘The Macabre World of Lavender Williams’? How was the idea conceived?
It all started with a conversation. A friend of mine was telling me that when she was a little girl she used to think of all the possible ways that her parents might die (car accident, airplane crash, etc). This immediately reminded me of my biggest fear as a little boy: that one of my parents might die (it’s still my biggest fear). That’s how the basic concept gelled in my head: a little girl dealing with the anxieties that arise from the death of a parent by using her imagination. At the same time I had done a sketch of a ghost dog and I liked the character so much that I was considering turning it into an animated project. It became pretty obvious that combining the two ideas—little girl coping with the death of her mom + undead dog—was the way to go. As I kept developing the story, I started to realize that there is a tradition of storytelling that is about children and parental death. Bambi came to mind, for example. I found this connection reassuring and reinforced my desire to tell a fairy tale that could help children face and cope with the fear of losing their parents.

Also, I’ve always liked the idea of characters setting out to find what they want but end up finding what they need instead—Indiana Jones sets out to find the Holy Grail but finds the love of his father, for example. It is always more satisfying when characters attain something they were not expecting rather than what they wanted. In that way, Lavender sets out to find her dad but discovers how much her mom meant to her. I guess you could say that the final film is a melting pot of many ideas and themes that interest me as a storyteller.

What was it like to work with such a brilliant cast? How did it feel to join forces with a filmmaker like Zemeckis?
Working with the cast was the best part! Back to the Future is one of my favorite films and I had always wanted to work with the great Christopher Lloyd. Anytime Chris pops up in a movie is a good time, and that’s the first name I brought up to Anne McCarthy and Kellie Roy, our casting directors. Lucky for us, he said yes! I was overseas when I received the news and I couldn’t help myself—I had to wake up my family in the middle of the night to tell them that I was going to work with Doc Brown! I was so excited! Chris is such a professional; he treated me with the same respect he’d give to a more experienced director.

Rex Linn was a suggestion from Kellie and I jumped at the opportunity! He was so enthusiastic and thrilled to be a part of the project that he elevated his role tremendously. He’s such a generous guy, too. On our last day of shooting, the generator broke down and we had to break for lunch early to wait for a replacement. It was too early for the caterers to show up so he bought everybody lunch! Also, it was Rex who suggested John Lithgow for the voices of God and Mr. Carcinoma. He and John play golf on occasion and he pitched it to him. At first it looked like it wouldn’t work because he was scheduled to do a play in New York, and he called me to apologize! In the end, it worked out and I had a blast directing him. I mean, he’s John Lithgow!!

The heart of the movie is clearly the relationship between Lavender and her mother, and I was blessed with Kelleia Sheerin, who plays Mom, and Lily Jackson, who plays Lavender. Mom was the most difficult role to cast and we didn’t find the right actress until the very last moment. We looked and looked and looked. Luckily for us, we found Kelleia and she was a delight and a wonderful actress.

Regarding Lily, I knew the movie would live or die on whoever we cast to play Lavender. We auditioned many talented actresses for the role but Lily looked and carried herself so differently from the others. She didn’t care if we liked her or not; she was going to be herself no matter what. Her audition tape blew us away! Her bravado and personality won her the role. We got very lucky and again I want to give credit to Kellie because she found her and pushed for her all during the casting process even though at first I wasn’t convinced. Thank God I listened to her; Lily was magical! I learned a lot from working with her and I can’t imagine anybody else for the role.

I want to give a special mention to Paul Hungerford who plays both Mr. Cancer’s physical presence and the Postman. We had cast Paul for the Postman but had a different actor for Mr. Cancer (John Lithgow did the voice). This actor cancelled the day before the shoot so Paul came in and saved us! Also kudos to our team of wonderful puppeteers led by the awesome Allan Trautman, who took the essence of what Christopher Lloyd did in the rehearsal takes and translated it into the zombie puppet.

As for Bob Zemeckis, what can I say? He’s one of my heroes. I remember waiting to meet him at his office for the first time and I was looking at the posters of all the movies he’s directed: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away… I could not believe one of the greatest storytellers of all time was mentoring me! The highlight of our collaboration was a two-hour story session where we went through the script and he asked me the tough questions. I learned a lot listening to his ideas and advice, and we came up with a couple of new scenes together that really took the story a new level. To share the creative process with a master and to learn so much from him was a one in a lifetime experience.

Why did you decide to tell the story from the child’s point of view? What did you think the story could gain from this?
I believe children are stronger and more resilient than adults and can cope with terrible circumstances better than us because they are not afraid to use their imaginations. I don’t think an adult would personify Cancer, for example, so telling the story from Lavender’s perspective was a no-brainer. I grew up with movies that empowered children and treated them as complex and rich characters, and that’s what I wanted to do. Lavender is not a victim of circumstance. She takes matters in her own hands and tries to spin her situation in a positive light. Where the story takes her is not where she thought she would end up at, but she realizes that she’s stronger than she thought she was and that she’ll be okay no matter what.

I’ll tell you a story to show you how perceptive children can be. Lily’s mom, a wonderful actress called July Dixon-Jackson, hired an acting coach to workshop the script with Lily, to make sure she understood the lines and the meaning behind every moment. I sat through the session and it was a fascinating experience. The coach would ask her questions after we read each scene and it became very clear that the little girl understood the story and Lavender’s arc better than I did myself! Lily’s conclusion was that Lavender would be okay on her own and would always carry the love of her mother with her. It doesn’t sound like a big revelation, but my mouth hit the floor when she said this. That’s why stories told through the eyes of a child will always appeal to us.

The use of CGI here, as we noted in the review, never gets the upper hand on the story itself. The effects serve a distinct purpose. Do you feel it’s easy for filmmakers to get carried away in these times, when technology is affordable? Do you think this sometimes clouds the filmmaker’s judgment, distracting him from the story?
I’ve always loved magic and I feel that movies are the ultimate form of illusionism. Filmmakers create a world that looks and feels real and yet it isn’t. Making the unreal real is a big part of moviemaking, so naturally special effects have always been a great tool for storytelling—thank you Georges Méliès—and nobody would argue that nowadays special and visual effects are as big a tool as cinematography and sound. Visual effects can be used as metaphors, like the feather in Forrest Gump, or to take us to antiquity, or to create fantasy characters, and they have broadened the types of stories we can tell on film. But we must not forget that the greatest trick a movie pulls is making you care about people that aren’t real and were imagined by the storytellers. That’s why we must never forget that special effects, like the lighting, production design and music, should always serve the story and the characters.

I think part of the problem with recent movies is that they’ve forgotten that special effects need to be that—special. If every shot is a special effect, they are not special anymore. The effects in a movie like E.T. or Jurassic Park serve a narrative purpose and that’s the reason they’re so amazing. That’s the reason the dinosaurs in Jurassic are more satisfying than the robots in Transformers, for example. Whereas the robots in Michael Bay’s film are always on screen, the dinosaurs only appear as a narrative payoff. Case in point—the T-Rex attack in JP is a great payoff for a lengthy setup. After mentioning the T-Rex many times and not showing when they first drive up to his paddock, it finally appears when our characters least want to see it and they’re in danger. Those dinosaurs were amazing because they made us wait for them and showed up at narrative peaks in the story. Nowadays it’s instant gratification and the movies are chock-full of effects from beginning to end. One filmmaker that did something similar recently was Gareth Edwards in Godzilla. He spent the whole movie teasing the King of Monsters but held back and only showed him in its full glory on the third act. We should be more frugal and use effects for maximum impact and to support character and story. I try to do that with my films.

What do you believe lies at the heart of every great movie?
A great story and great characters. It’s that simple and yet that hard to get it right. If those two elements are not there, nothing else matters. Some critics dismiss movies like Star Wars or Terminator 2 as hollow special effects spectacles but they fail to realize that the reason those movies are so beloved is because they are incredibly well told and have unforgettable characters.

Which movies made you fall in love with the world of film?
The first film I watched in the theater was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. My Grandma took me when I was 3 and I was blown away. Then I watched Superman: The Movie (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars when I was 5 on home video and I knew I wanted to make movies after that. In fact my first movie was my own remake of Superman. I was six or seven and not only did I direct but I also played the Man of Steel! In the next two or three years I watched Blade Runner, John Boorman’s Excalibur (still the best King Arthur movie ever made), 2001 and most importantly Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which might be the most amazing movie ever made. I mean, when I close my eyes and think of film, Close Encounters comes to mind. That movie is perfect, from script to casting to film stock and musical score. Those were my early influences.

I love film. Video games and TV are great (Breaking Bad boasts some of the best storytelling ever) but there’s nothing like the movies. I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road on Imax and it is confirmation that there is nothing in the world of art that can compare to the impact and awe of a film projected on a gigantic movie screen. Not to mention the collective experience you’re sharing with strangers in a darkened room. Stories feel funnier, scarier and somehow touch us more when we feed off the emotions of a few hundred people sharing the same experience with us. I hope the theatrical experience never dies.

What’s the most important film ever made and why do you say that?
The most important films ever made are Superman: The Movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars because they set me on my path to become a filmmaker, and because of all the joy and happiness they gave me as a kid (and still continue to give me to this day). A friend of mine from film school said it perfectly: “I’m a filmmaker because I want to recapture what I felt as ten-year-old watching movies.” I don’t think there is a better explanation for what I do. I make movies because I want to recreate the joy I felt as a little boy watching Luke blow up the Death Star, or watching Indy run away from a gigantic boulder…

When it comes to great filmmakers still working in the industry, who do you respect the most? Whose work do you never miss out on?
There are many great filmmakers working today but I would have to single out James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and that mad genius called George Miller. My absolute hero, however, is Steven Spielberg. A lot of people dismiss him as a serious artist but how can you dismiss somebody who has touched the hearts and the imaginations of so many? I don’t think any other filmmaker understands how to tell a story with a moving camera better than he does, and the list of great movies he’s made is unparalleled: Jaws, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, E.T., Empire of the Sun (one of his most obscure films and one of his best), Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, and of course A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, one of the movies that has inspired me the most.

What would be your message to young, aspiring filmmakers?
I’m an aspiring filmmaker myself but I’d say… Just do it! Create a lot. Be prolific. The only way to get really good is to practice. Also, and this might be the most important piece of advice I could give, believe in yourself. If you have a dream, it’s important and you must protect it. Remember to be honest with yourself, listen to good criticism and ignore the naysayers. Believe and work hard!


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