Indie Filmmaker in Focus: Zach Passero
Zach Passero animating The Weird Kidz
One of my favorite parts of film festival programming is a process that unfolds months before the festival takes place, when I conduct research on upcoming indie genre productions that may be a good fit for the program. This is how I first discovered The Weird Kidz last year shortly after it premiered at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. Initially, I was drawn by the concept and the names attached – an animated creature feature, coming-of-age film produced by Lucky McKee and voiced in part by Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers, some of my personal favorites in the indie genre world. I became even more intrigued when I learned that director Zach Passero had spent eight years hand animating the film, working in conjunction with his wife, Hannah, who painted the backgrounds. With one of the lead characters also voiced by Passero’s sister, The Weird Kidz was a family effort, and appropriately so, given its conception.
“The spark came when my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our first child,” says Passero. “I started getting really nostalgic and I started to think about the childhood I’d had, the kind of childhood I hoped my child would have. All these memories started coming back about my friends and the adventures we had, real or imagined.” Since he and his wife had worked together on several shorter animations, Passero thought the film could be a fun project they could develop as they prepared to start their own family, a creative sort of “nesting.” By the time the production was complete their family had not only expanded to include their first child, but a second child, both of whom had spent years watching their parents complete their labor of love. “Once I started writing and drawing these characters it became this thing that I wanted to do and had to do. I had to see it through,” Passero says.
Hannah Passero working on background art for The Weird Kidz
The Weird Kidz characters – which Passero describes as “amalgamations of friends that I’ve had and of personalities I had or hoped to have” – are mostly kids: Dug, Mel, Fatt, Dug’s older brother Wyatt, and his girlfriend Mary. The group goes into the desert for an overnight camping trip where they catch wind of a local monster legend that takes the story to some unexpected places. It’s set in a time when 12-year olds didn’t have cell phones or social media, when latchkey kids roamed the neighborhood unsupervised, and when nailing the high score at the local arcade was a really big deal. “So much of my time was spent outside with friends in the desert or in ditches, and parents had no idea what we were doing, we were getting into all sorts of trouble.” Passero specifically wanted to focus on that middle-school age of transition. “At some point puberty kicks in and you’re more about discovering who you are as an individual,” he says. “But just before then there’s that pocket of time when kids occupy the same imaginative space and you can have these weird, elaborate adventures.”
The project took eight years to develop, much longer than he expected. “In my mind it was going to take like two years,” says Passero. While he initially thought it was something he and his wife could churn out, he realized it was going to take much longer as he considered the people he wanted to work with and how he was going to fund the endeavor. Passero applied for and received arts grants and did some crowdfunding, while at the same time having to continue to work on commercial projects to keep a steady income for his growing family. “I was able to split my days into two shifts essentially,” he says. “In the morning I would edit films and at night after the kids went to bed, I’d animate for six to eight hours, get a few hours of sleep, wake up with the kids and do it all over again.” There were some times when he would have to put The Weird Kidz on hold to focus on paid projects. But instead of feeling like the other projects were pulling him away, Passero talks of how helpful it was during the development. “Every project is a learning experience. Every project I worked on during that time informed the way I perceived filmmaking and influenced how The Weird Kidz came out. It always felt good to go back to working on it and I would have a new set of tools to work with.” No matter how much additional time or outside work was needed, Passero was determined it would not derail him from finishing the film, in part because of the people helping him make it. “The thing about having awesome people I was collaborating with, and once I had a Kickstarter and grants, is it became accountability. These people and places were nice enough to believe in this project and believe in the crazy idea that we could do this thing and I didn’t ever want to drop that ball.”
While Passero worked with several family members in making The Weird Kidz, he also speaks about the family that helped him develop as a filmmaker, his close-knit family of artistic collaborators, many of whom he met in film school or in his early years of filmmaking. While in film school at USC, Passero pursued animation as an intern on the film James and the Giant Peach, where he came to appreciate the immense amount of teamwork required to bring animation to life. “I saw all these different artists working together in different departments, animators and fabricators, in such a cool and creative environment and I thought one day I really do want to make an animated film.” The lasting connections he made while studying film brought him even more opportunities. “I had a great group of friends in film school to make movies with. Lucky McKee was there, Chris Sivertson was there, peripherally, Rian Johnson, and each of us got inspired by watching each other work. There was no ego, we were all just helping one another make films.”
Passero wore a few hats in his early days of filmmaking as he learned different aspects of the process. “In May there’s the short film that Adam shows May, and I did all the practical and gore effects for that. Before that I acted in the original All Cheerleaders Die (which got rebooted years later), but I also designed all the zombies, and did all the gore makeup, so there’s been these weird other little jobs in there. But it’s all so fun, all the little pieces and gears of filmmaking are exciting,” he says. It’s the group effort that makes filmmaking so enjoyable for Passero and having an appreciation for the various roles is critical. “I think it’s important to understand all the pieces so you can respect the work involved, because it’s such a collaborative art.” It was during this time that Passero began to show an inclination towards editing in particular, and has routinely paired with McKee over the years to edit many of his films. Passero says he approaches editing with a director’s mindset. “I can see the larger picture and the smaller picture at the same time,” he says. “Both [editing and directing] brains work where you are breaking things into minuscule pieces. You’re slowing time down and speeding time up again. You’re breaking down animation into the slightest movement and the same thing with editing, there’s a breaking down of people’s motion and movement to figure out how the shots should go.”
(L-R) Zach Passero, Hannah Passero, Angela Bettis, Sean Bridgers, and producer Charles Horak with The Weird Kidz at Nevermore Film Festival
As much as he loves editing, the pull toward animation never ceased, and Passero found himself reaching out to his extended filmmaking family to help create The Weird Kidz. Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers voice characters Duana and the Sheriff in the film; Passero knew both from previous film collaborations with McKee, including May and The Woman. “Angie’s just one of my favorite people and I knew that she would have fun playing Duana.” He describes Bettis and Bridgers, as well as Ellar Coltrane, who voiced the role of Wyatt, as part of his creative family, individuals he’s worked and stayed in touch with over the years, often meeting up when they come through his hometown of El Paso, TX. The character of Dug was the hardest to cast, Passero says, until he considered his sister Tess Passero. “I showed her the script and she understood all the references. She was there, she grew up with me. When I started making movies as a kid, Tess was always game. I would direct her when she was four years old to jump off roofs and I’d film it, so it just made sense. And there’s a long history of women voicing young male characters. Bobby Hill is voiced by a woman, Bart Simpson is a woman, so why not?”
The voice actors were recorded just after the script was finished, but before animation got too far underway. “We set up a makeshift sound booth in Lucky’s guest bedroom,” Passero recalls. “It was this little square of sound blankets and one person would come to town and we’d step into the room and spend a day recording voices. It was kind of like putting together a radio play and there was this latitude to go through the scene but also talk it through and talk about what was happening. A lot of thought went into the recordings for each actor and they brought so much personality which was really fun.” Once the voices were recorded, Passero jumped in to start animating and pulling together the pieces. “One scene at a time, I would take the audio and edit it together. Listening to the audio helped me pace out the edits, the different shots that needed to happen. And the different personalities the actors brought to the characters started giving me more visual clues. It was a great way to work.”
Now that The Weird Kidz has wrapped, Passero has been enjoying taking the film out to festivals and sharing it with audiences, and recently picked up the Best Feature Jury Award from Nevermore Film Festival, with more screenings planned into the summer and fall. “I love watching movies and that experience means so much to me. Getting to watch audience reactions, to hear people laugh and have a good time…oh man, that’s a treat,” he says. “I’m always a nervous wreck when it starts, because you never know how things will go over with different people. But overall it’s been a lot of fun. I think that there’s enough in there for most people to find something to latch onto and have a good time watching it.” Passero is looking forward to a free screening they’ll be doing in El Paso in May. His hometown has been incredibly supportive of the film, so he’s excited to share it with the community. “It’s a town that has a budding film community and there’s filmmakers here and the film scene is starting to stick. There’s some good things happening here, so I’m excited to be a part of that too.” And now that he’s got some free time in the evenings, Passero is considering his next project. “I miss the animating, it was part of my everyday routine for so long,” he says. Passero has considered making a sequel to The Weird Kidz, to continue their saga, but is also hoping to direct a live action feature and to continue to collaborate with McKee as an editor on future films. “I’ve learned a few things. I want to continue some adventures, whether it’s The Weird Kidz or something new.”
You can catch The Weird Kidz at the Salem Horror Fest on April 29th or in El Paso at the Plaza Theatre on May 11th, with more festival announcements coming in the near future at www.theweirdkidz.com.
Images provided courtesy of the subject