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Interview: Lee Hardcastle (The ABCs of Death)

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The ABCs of Death is an interesting and ambitious experiment: 26 short films, 26 different filmmakers, each one tackling a letter of the alphabet. Of the 26 filmmakers, 25 were generally established. To fill the letter T, Drafthouse Films held a contest to find someone brand new.

The winner was Lee Hardcastle, a UK-based animator. His entry: “T” is for Toilet. If the name Lee Hardcastle sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve highlighted his work in the past: he’s responsible for the recreations of The Raid and The Thing with claymation cats and, most recently, a riff on A Good Day to Die Hard.

I had a chance to interview Hardcastle by email and find out what he thinks about clay and live-action, if he’s afraid of toilets, and if he could shed any light on a claymation feature film he’d like to make. After the cut accompanying the interview is “T” is for Toilet.

T IS FOR TOILET [The ABCs of death] | a Stop motion Animation by Lee Hardcastle

We’ve actually highlighted a few of your shorts on Flixist in the past, most recently A Good Clay to Die Hard. I was wondering what happened to the Pingu version of The Thing. Was that taken down due to Pingu rights? [Editor’s note: Pingu is a Swiss claymation TV series that features penguins and seals.]

Cool! Thanks. Pingu shut me down. They accused me of damaging their brand.

Was that what led to the Claycat characters?

Exactly, the Claycats are Pingu knockoffs. It was a pretty wild attempt at making something like that work because the Pingu’s The Thing was probably the most celebrated thing I’d ever achieved.

You got into The ABCs of Death by winning a new filmmaker contest. Could you describe what it was like when you found out you won?

It was a dream come true. I wanted it more than ever and I worked really hard and prayed really hard. To find out I’d won was insane.

How long did it take you to make “T” is for Toilet? Did it take longer or shorter than usual?

It took about 20 days to shoot. I remember working as fast as possible to get it out of the door because I couldn’t afford to live and do free work, which it essentially was at the time before any prize money was involved.

Since this was a contest, did you go in with any kind of strategy or approach in mind?

I thought, “Use claymation to my advantage.” That meant crazy creature effects, interesting camera angles, etc. And I also put a lot of effort into details, the smallest of details. As it was a competition, I was very careful about the what I was shooting and made sure I didn’t make too many sloppy mistakes.

You could have gone with any “T” word but you picked toilet. Why “toilet”? (Pretty sure I’ve never asked that before.)

I think it’s a great location to set a story and I thought it was a perfect word to use for this competition. A toilet is a very basic and minimalist room of a house with this little invention which… Nobody talks about toilets because nothing happens in there that you want to talk about or hear about. So if something else happens in there, like you had a fight or fell over or something that you wouldn’t expect to happen in a room used for, y’know… then you have an interesting story straight away!

And it’s also funny.

Were there any other “T” words that came close?

TOAD, very close. I really liked the idea of sculpting a big ugly toad out of clay and letting it eat people.

Did you have a fear of toilets when you were growing up?

No, but I did have little irrational fears that were sparked by watching too much TV. The imagination is a very powerful and scary when you can’t rationalize a situation, which is more comical and easily done as a child because you think up some crazy thoughts in that undeveloped mind that are genuine fears! Such as going into a dark basement alone — all of a sudden there’s a flood of panic because your senses are asking “what if?” questions, and then you suddenly throw yourself into a self-inflicted nightmare.

What’s your process like when working with clay?

Very straight forward: I write, I storyboard, I edit the storyboard in video software for timing. I then sculpt, build sets, and then shoot the action frame by frame. I slowly chip away at the job until it’s complete and then I post the results on the internet.

What was your first claymation short? Do you have a personal favorite of your own works?

My first was a graduation project in 2006 called Stories from the Hotel Next to the Haunted Hospital. It was a three-minute short with four very short stories. “T” is for Toilet is definitely my fav.

Claycat's EVIL DEAD 2 | a Stop motion Animation

I read somewhere that you prefer working with clay over doing live-action shorts. Could you elaborate on that?

I prefer claymation because I have my own thing going on and it works. There’s something exciting about the fact that I’ve got this voice and I’ve got potential to do something different that audiences around the world haven’t really seen before.

But at the same time I would love to work with actors and with a video camera. I have always wanted to do that. I admire films like Reservoir DogsLa Haine, and films by Alan Clarke that are bursting with incredible acting talent, beautiful cinematography, and perfect timing. Not to mention the moments of tragedy and violence that are like physical punches to the gut… stuff I could never achieve with clay.

You got to see “T” is for Toilet at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. What was that experience like?

It didn’t feel real. I feel as if I dreamt that whole experience.

I read that you have a treatment for a feature-length film. What can you say about that project?

Very little, I’m afraid.  I wrote a treatment within a week for a film I had a basic idea for. It wasn’t anything special, more like, “If you gave me a chance to make a claymation feature, I would make something like this…”

I would love to write a feature and get it made, but I’m waiting for an idea to bite me on the ass before I’m like, “I’m gonna make THIS film and sacrifice my life for two years just to get it made.”

[To view more of Lee Hardcastle’s work, check out Lee’s YouTube channel or visit LeeHardcastle.com.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.