Visual artists and directors of the animated TIFF ’13 Vanguard entry Asphalt Watches Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver are a pair of dudes. Not just any dudes. A pair of great dudes who gifted me with an actual shelf when we met up for our interview. They drew their onscreen counterparts on a shelf with the brackets still attached and everything. It’s unquestionably one of the coolest things anyone has given to me, and their generosity is as genuine as their on screen counterparts. If that isn’t being a great dude, then I just don’t know what being a great dude is.
An extremely off-beat animated feature about the cross Canada surrealist adventures of the gangly looking Skeleton Hat (voiced by Scriver) and the floating, top-hat wearing Bucktooth (Scriver), Asphalt Watches was the culmination of about a decade of the duo’s lives. Based on an actual road trip the pair took in 2000 and the bizarre interactions and moments of joy they experienced, the film combines lovingly low-fi flash animation, slowcore raps about everything from boiled hot dogs and Boston Pizza to Kippers and the joys of direct deposit, and intensely trippy visuals in the Bill Plympton meets Adult Swim vein. It won’t be for everyone, but those who like comedy and art at its most offbeat and devoid of pretension will have a riotous, hilarious time.
Dork Shelf chatted with the dudes (in a room with an air conditioner humming that we all agreed sounded like a scene from Eraserhead) about burgers, road tripping, crazy people who think they are Santa, the things they do for money, animation, staying true to the feeling of the trip, believing in the good in people, foul mouthed families, and not wanting to necessarily be the spokesmen for burgers.
Dork Shelf: Your movie is hilarious. What kind of burgers do you guys like? Your movie is full of burgers. What burgers are best?
Seth Scriver: (laughs) Usually just making them at home is my favourite, but Banquet burgers are pretty great. Cheese and bacon.
Shayne Ehman: My favourite was some friends of mine – Keith Jones, and Charlie Robertsone, and some other dudes – worked at this burger joint in Vancouver on Granville Island called The Burger Island, and we used to trade drawnings for hamburgers all the time, actually. We would make these “burger vouchers” for them and they would just make us the craziest burgers you could imagine. One time they kind of embalmed this burger with salsa and hot dogs in it and embalmed it in batter and deep fried it. They put a whole salad on a burger once. They were crazy.
SS: Some of them would be traps, almost. They would take this ground beef in the middle of the burger and wrap it all in cheese to make it look like it was just a bun, but when you bit into it, the thing was an actual burger. Those guys were true artists.
SE: Those burgers were total creative freedom on Keith’s part, for sure. It was part of our daily ritual. Almost every day. I lived for years on that. But the burger place has since been sold to someone else, so we can talk about all this now. (laughs)
SS: It was a gourmet place, too. He would have gotten fired if we said this sooner.
SE: One of our friends who made us these burgers was actually the guy who bought it from this other dude.
I really don’t want to encourage everyone to run out and eat burgers as a result of this, though.
But those things are seriously road fuel. It was the only thing you were pretty much guaranteed to get at any truck stop.
SE: People have asked me why there are so many burgers in the movie and what they symbolize. Really, we were just really hungry a lot of the time. (laughs) They’re symbolic of burgers!
DS: You guys have so many hidden burgers in the film that I think you’ll make everyone subliminally hungry. You guys should have a BBQ or something after every screening, and you clearly don’t want them going to Wendy’s…
SS: We could make some of the wrappers like our fake ones in the movie…
DS: You guys really went off on this burger fuelled haze and turned it into a movie. How long did it take you to finally make the film?
SS: Well, I guess since we did the trip in 2000 and it’s 2013 now…
DS: So, 13 years.
SE: (laughs) Yeah! So, almost a double rejuvenation of the cellular structure.
SS: Yeah, or just coming close on it, because every seven year you regenerate all your cells except for your brain.
We didn’t start working on it right away. We started doing sketches and artwork around 2006 when we started animating it. We really only worked on the film itself for about seven and a half years or so.
DS: When you decided to make it an animated movie did you guys really just fall back on what you knew or were there any plans to make it this bigger slicker thing? It seems like the style you guys are using stays true to the feeling of the trip.
SE: Yeah, definitely. The first thing I was surprised by when we worked together on telling the story was how much it reminded me of that time and place. Obviously it gets re-written a bit, like just with your abilities, and the metaphors you choose to use, and how you express things, but the feeling of the different rides was a lot like how it was.
DS: Of all the people you come across on the trip, who comes across on film as the most accurate depiction of someone you got a ride with?
SS: I’d say if we had to choose one part, the Santa ride is almost exactly line for line what was said in that car, and we actually edited it down…
SE: There was a lot more stuff. A lot more detail.
SS: …so much more stuff. We boiled it down to the important things he said, but he went on some incredibly crazy rants.
SE: Especially when he told us to start memorizing license plate numbers.
SS: That was to, like…
SE: He was honestly trying to scramble our brains up so we couldn’t remember him.
SS: We were trying to remember his license plate after we got out because he seemed terrifying.
DS: Everything that character does in the film is always a vague threat.
SS: Yeah, it was pretty intense. But, yeah, we were looking at his license plate number when he was leaving and we couldn’t remember it because he was making us play this “game” where we remembered all these other license plates. And that game was about ten minutes before he dropped us off.
SE: He was kind of… yeah, it’s really weird going back to that moment. He was really getting more and more nervous as we went on, and at one point we saw that he had the Dave Thomas biography in his car, and I remember sort of trying to talk to him about Wendy’s and biographies. We talked about Buckminster Fuller for a while, and just talking about that kind of calmed him down. Then he put in a tape of Sweet and started playing Desolation Boulevard. Do you remember that?
SS: (laughs) Oh yeah!
SE: …and that was right before the license plate game.
SS: Yeah, and that was when he was taking on kind of this wild car and goose chase through Calgary, going down all these side streets, but no one was chasing us that we could see at that point. But yeah, Shane really calmed him down with the Buckminster Fuller story.
DS: Was there ever a time when you were on the trip that you thought of recording the audio from your encounters to use it for something later?
SS: Well, in the beginning we started doing some photos, but we were really looking for a PixelVision, like, with a tape cassette in any thrift stores, but we never found one.
SE: No luck, and actually it was probably because on the trip we never really found very many thrift stores.
SS: We probably only went in two or three, really.
SE: But with recording, we kept a journal and that was how we were able to keep track of the moments and sequences. We both draw pretty much constantly, and so we did caricatures of everyone on the road that we could use later when we decided to make something out of this.
DS: How did you guys divide up what you would do artistically?
SS: It kind of just happened…
SE: At the beginning we were working a lot more separately and doing different things, but by the end of the movie and as we went on, we started working on the same faces and things like that. Santa was actually the first character we worked on together
DS: Now that it’s been a long time since you went on the trip, do you think your sense of humour has changed at all? Do you think you can look back after 13 years on something like the Santa run-in and think it’s funny now when you might not have back then?
SS: When Santa dropped us off he told us to keep a diary and write everything down and never ever show it to anyone until “we meet again.” Just knowing that we haven’t met him and knowing we’re about to show the film to a whole bunch of people – and we were just talking about this to some people and some other friends – was what would happen if Santa showed up. If he saw this he would be CRAZY pissed. And we kind of laughed about it, but it’s also a scary thing to relive.
SE: You know, there’s a chance that he was a perfectly ordinary man, and then there’s the chance that he was exactly who he said he was. He was positive that he was the God of Saturn and that he could actually travel time and space. He could have really been that. This movie could just be a puppet show for and BY him! (laughs)
DS: The other people that you run into that were amusing, but kind of scary, is that family with the foul mouthed mother who keeps berating you guys despite stopping to pick you up.
SS: Oh, man! I guess that’s the perfect example of the kind of thing where you think it’s depressing at the time, but you can laugh about it afterward.
SE: That was also pretty word for word. [In voice of woman from movie, deep and shrill at the same time] “Don’t you know where you were? You were where the nasty people wait. You toe dicked ass lickers.” (laughs)
DS: You guys seemed to always be hitchhiking from the worst places, not only then, but there’s the other moment earlier in the film where people weren’t stopping for you because you were outside of a maximum security penitentiary.
SS: Yeah, we really didn’t do very well on that. (laughs)
SE: That’s part of it, too. You step into the void and every place has the opportunity for a different kind of action. You’re going to get on the ride, but it’s a different realm. It’s like you’re floating in space when you go on one of these trips. Anything can happen while you’re out there.
SS: You’re always entering the worlds of other people.
SE: Someone could stop, and sometimes it was the other way around where we wouldn’t get in a car with them. We would sometimes get people who would stop and they were clearly wasted and just say “Sorry, nope. We’re actually waiting for someone else.”
SS: There was also this thing where would could get these questionable rides, but they were guaranteed rides, but these were at times when you’ve been waiting so long that you just kind of forget or aren’t attuned to how questionable they are and you just get so excited because, “WOAH! Somebody stopped! This is so amazing! We’re gonna love these guys!”
SE: There really was also that one car that was pulled all the way over to the side of the road and they were really far away.
SS: It was in Saskatchewan and this car was so far away…
SE: … like a mile away…
SS: …and they are just on the shoulder waiting for us for a really long time, and we couldn’t figure out if they were waiting for us.
SE: And, I mean, in the end it all really comes back to trust in the unknown.
DS: And humanity in general, really. The only reason you would even really take a trip like that is if you still realize that humanity is genuinely good.
SE: Oh, yeah! Exactly! And we really got in under the wire in terms of people still having that trust when we did it in 2000. There wasn’t a huge panic with security or terrorism.
SS: People were still a little crazy at times, though, because it still was the year 2000 and there were still lots of Y2K and apocalypse fear, which is funny to me because we were always trying to make the film for 2012 to cash in on the next big wave of fear, but 2013 is just as good. (laughs)
SE: (laughs) It’s funny because there’s a part in the movie where it’s a dream and this girl is marching on top of all these hamburgers and we originally said “2012” on the bum text of her pants to say the end was near. (laughs) But we changed it to “2013” kind of later.
DS: The last thing I really wanted to talk to you guys about was the random songs that you have in the film because they’re just kind of silly riffs on the most random of things.
SS: Well, the hooks are really just taken from silly things that we see, or hear, or get offered and we just kind of run with them. Like, this woman really did ask us to come over for boiled hot dogs with her. But Shane is just a hook master, though.
SE: Yeah, I really just love recording music and having fun with it. It’s the kind of thing where you just think about it for so long that it just gets funnier the more you think about it. I mean, I guess it’s kind of cartoony in that these are just kinds of snippets of songs, in a way. They’re the kinds of things you just kind of think of in your head in the moment, anyway.
Asphalt Watches screens in the Vanguard section of the Toronto International Film Festival:
Tuesday, September 10th, Scotiabank 8, 9:45pm
Thursday, September 12th, Scotiabank 13, 8:45pm
Friday, September 13th, Scotiabank 4, 2:15pm