Interview: Dane Neves – Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!

Director/producer Dane Neves operates the puppet Zillabong while shooting his latest film, Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!

Dane Neves’s short film, Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!, will be screening with Jurassic Park this coming Monday, November 7th as part of Consolidated Theatres’ Hana Hou Picture Show ‘Movie Monster’ edition. The Red Band Project sat down with the director to talk about his film leading up to its debut.

Red Band Project: For those not familiar with your background can you talk about your work with puppetry and how it’s a prominent feature in this film as well as some of your other works.

Dane Neves: I’ve been a big fan of puppetry in movies since I was very little. Films like Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Gremlins all the Muppet movies, and Star Wars (the original trilogy) have been great successes without the use of CGI, which is, sadly, overused these days. Puppets = practical movie magic, things that audiences feel they can reach out and touch. Although CGI does do wonders, some movie characters shine much more as live human-operated puppets. That’s why all of my non-human characters are in-camera puppets.

RBP: The puppets that you use are unique to your films. Can you talk about how you come up with each puppet, their “look,” and what is involved with physically creating them (does creation limit design?).

DN: There are three hand-held monster puppets, one man in a suit monster and a remote controlled robot in this film. When designing a puppet, the character must first be conceptualized on paper. I had four concept artists (all UH art/animation students) draw their own interpretations of each of the four monster characters featured in Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!. I picked the best designs out of those and sent them to Sonny Vegas (credited as Eddie Horn), a professional puppet maker who lives in Chicago. It’s Sonny’s job to build these puppets for a human (or two) to operate. He tries his best to match the drawings and they are really close (you can see some of the concept art here). The puppets are made out of latex to give their skin a realistic look. The puppet in [my previous film] The Green Tie Affair was conceived in the same way, but he was made out of Antron fleece (a.k.a. Muppet fleece), which allows for easy color dying.

RBP: Getting to Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii (GMAH), how did you come up with the premise of the film?

DN: I always try to come up with premises for movies that all ages can enjoy, that appeal to the geek in all of us, and that represent Hawaii in a positive light. Pixar shorts were my main inspiration because they all feature an underdog protagonist and they are less than 10 minutes long (the shorter your film is, the more a film festival is likely to screen it). As for the actual concept, I realized that Hawaii has never been the target of a disaster flick…but it has so much potential for that. “Family-friendly Godzilla in Waikiki” became my pitch line.

RBP: In the plot outline you reference Godzilla and Cloverfield as films that GMAH answers to. Are the monsters in the film inspired by any specific movie monsters?

DN: These characters in GMAH are cliche movie monsters. You’ve got the commanding demon-like monster (Abercrumble), the sea monster (Cruehl), the flying insect (Maulister), and the amphibious one (Zillabong). Notice that their names are parodies of famous clothing brands: A&F, Ruehl, Hollister, and the oddball of the bunch: Billabong.

RBP: How does this film compare to others you’ve done in the past in terms of scope and production?

DN: Twice the scope, twice the number of people working on it, six times the amount of time it took to complete it. A normal short film usually takes about 2 months to shoot and post/edit. This one took a year. We did have some visual effects (note that none of the characters are fully CGI…I still practice what I preach) and that is what took the longest to finish…I only had one guy working on it.

Zillabong with his voice actor Grant Uchida.

RBP: Along with being the director, in some ways you’re also an actor in the film since you operate some of the monsters as well. Can you talk a little about what’s involved with working with the puppets and what it takes to capture their performances?

DN: Being a puppeteer is no job for a weakling. You need to be crouched down in a slew of awkward positions, holding the puppet up with one arm for endless amounts of minutes staring at a video monitor and trying your hardest to keep the puppets eyes looking at the right spot on screen while making it lipsync to pre-recorded dialogue, opening the mouth on every vowel. It hurts, to be honest. Zillabong was actually the only puppet that could be operated by one person. Abercrumble and Cruehl needed two, three, or even four people to work.

RBP: I noticed that for both GMAH and your previous film, The Green Tie Affair, original music was composed for each. What made you decide to go with an original score/soundtrack, and do you have a background in music?

DN: To avoid having to deal with copyright issues, I figured I’d just compose everything myself. Doing that is one of my favorite parts of the production process because it allows my creativity to peak, no limits. Classic Godzilla film scores (heavy on the horns) as well as the Wall-E score (which incorporated a lot of futuristic orchestral music) were my main inspirations for the soundtrack. I’ve been playing piano since 1994…17 years.

RBP: Puppetry in film seems to be making a comeback, first with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and then this year with two films; a great documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey and The Muppets–both being released within a month or two of each other. Can you venture a guess as to why we’re seeing a resurgence and what it is about puppets that people find entertaining?

DN: I think it’s making a comeback because of all the fans that grew up with puppets in the 80s and 90s. We’re all adults now with real jobs and bills to pay. Just a taste of nostalgia is all we need to get excited and bring these things back into the limelight. I will always cherish when my mom bought me the VHS of the Muppet Movie and seeing/hearing Kermit the Frog sing “Rainbow Connection” on a log. I will always cherish the transformation of a Mogwai into a cocoon then into a Gremlin. I will always cherish seeing that Tyrannosaurus Rex’s eye dilate while harassing those kids in that stalled car. These are the puppets the movie-going masses hold dear to their hearts.

RBP: I know that right now you’re busy with getting GMAH out there for people to see. Once this is done, do you know what your next project is or what you want to do next?

DN: The Hana Hou screening will be GMAH’s public premier.  That is just the beginning. A lot of people assume that once a film is wrapped, that’s the end of it and the director moves on to a new project.  In actuality, promotion and exhibition of a film (feature or short) is a job in itself. I will be spending the next year sending this short film off to as many film festivals as possible. I have a lot of cool ideas in mind for my “next” film, but none that really stand out and pop.  I don’t want to be spending months on end working on something mediocre. When the right time comes, I will make another film. For now, I’m strapping myself in and hanging on for the ride with Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!

If you want to be one of the first people to check out Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii! tickets are available for Monday’s Hana Hou Picture Show at the Consolidated Ward 16 Theatres via Fandango.

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