Director talks commercials, ‘Portal: No Escape’ and ‘Y: The Last Man’ feature film
In 2011 Dan Trachtenberg broke the Internet. His short film, ‘Portal:No Escape’, inspired by the smart puzzle-based video game series, racked up a million views in one day and has now been watched 11,721,568 times. As well as being King of the Geeks, Danny T also directs commercials through Great Guns, working on brands like Coke, Lexus and Nike, and has worked on a Hellboy alternate reality game. If that wasn’t enough to endear him to our nerdy little hearts, last week it was announced that the director is set to shoot ‘Y: The Last Man’, a movie adaptation of the smash-hit graphic novel series about the end of mankind. Umm, ‘squee’? LBB’s Laura Swinton calms down long enough to catch up with Mr T. for a terribly fan-girlish five minutes…
LBB> You're originally from Philadelphia - what was it like as a place to grow up in?
DT> I loved growing up outside Philadelphia. In high school I would take the train downtown, to Chinatown specifically, and feed my Hong Kong action cinema addiction. I took private Mandarin lessons just so I could speak to the video store clerk about the latest John Woo, Tsui Hark or Jackie Chan flick to come out.
LBB> Do you remember when you first decided that you wanted to make films?
DT> We still have home movies of me, at 3 years old, trying to make ‘Star Wars’. I'm standing in front of a table smashing action figures and kitchen appliances together. Watching it back, I always wondered what the deal was with the kitchen appliances. Then I remembered watching a ‘Behind the Scenes’ documentary on the making of Star Wars where they said the sounds of the Millennium Falcon came from the hum of a refrigerator, and I think my little kid brain interpreted that as "Kitchen stuff = Star Wars".
LBB> You’ve said that you were inspired by your editor brother to get into commercials and made loads of spec spots at uni - what was it about commercials that attracted you?
DT> I loved the poetry in commercials. Because of the time limit, the storytelling has to be economic and precise. It’s similar to why I fell in love with comic books, actually. You are forced to find indelible images to represent the entire idea, not just a part of the idea.
LBB> What lessons have you learned from directing commercials that stand you in good stead directing features? And what can adland learn from Hollywood?
DT> That poetry you have to plug into with commercials gives advertising directors a much more unique cinematic language off the bat. And, of course, working with limited budgets and resources has encouraged me to get crafty with the creative as well as physical production.
I think Hollywood, ironically, is much more excited about discovering talent than adland. But, this is of course not always the case.
LBB> You've been making The Totally Rad Show podcasts since 2007 - how and why did you first get involved? What have been your favourite experiences?
DT> TRS was all about movies, comics, video games and TV. I originally created the show (along with my co-hosts) because there wasn't a show out there that discussed these things with passion, enthusiasm and honesty like we did in our friendships.
LBB> ... and did the process of being involved in the podcast influence your work as a director?
DT> It absolutely has. I loved communicating about filmmaking (and game design, serial storytelling, etc.) and my ability to articulate with authenticity, honed from podcasting, has been an invaluable tool as I embark on feature film directing.
Also in a completely different way, it was actually my involvement with another podcast, The /Filmcast, whose 'soundtracks of the year' episode I was guesting on, that introduced me to Sheridan, head of production at Great Guns. He liked what I had to say about movie scores and looked up my commercials work as a result. A few weeks later I got a call from him and shortly thereafter signed with Great Guns.
LBB> Do you have any creative heroes - if so, who are they and why?
DT> Joss Whedon is able to tell stories that ask profound questions and reveal humanity (whether from insightful dialogue or difficult character choices) while fulfilling the promise of genre tropes from horror to science fiction and most recently, the super hero film. He makes completely exhilarating experiences…that matter.
LBB> Portal went stratospheric - since the initial launch, how has it changed your career?
DT> I had done another short ‘More Than You Can Chew’ that got me my initial Hollywood meetings. When Portal: No Escape was released it showed my range and confirmed my ability to tell stories on a larger canvas.
LBB> How did the ‘Y: The Last Man’ project come about? And what element of the story are you most excited about exploring on the big screen?
DT> They've been trying to make this movie for a while now, pretty much ever since the first issues came out back in 2002. I had some meetings with the producers for other projects and we got along very well. They were aware that the comic was a very big deal to me so they sent me the most recent draft of the script.
What I love most about ‘Y: The Last Man’ isn't one specific element, rather, its very unique combination of elements. It's one heck of a ‘Twilight Zone’ mystery, a post-apocalyptic (though, really, more like half-apocalyptic) tale of survival and a thrilling adventure that has profound things to say about modern society and gender. It’s also this great relationship/friend ‘Midnight Run’ flick. It has it all. Fun and ‘about something’.
LBB> You've got experience working with tough, female leads in Portal, but Y will involve working with a whole host of interesting, tough, flawed, funny and occasionally terrifying female characters - something which is still a bit of an anomaly for Hollywood! What are your thoughts on working on an action film that kind of subverts the stereotypical gender set up of most mainstream action movies?
DT> Honestly, I'm doing my best to not think of things from that perspective. I think the best way to prove a genre flick like this, with a mainly female cast, shouldn't be abnormal is by making a great movie all the way through. So, what I mean is, we don't want the action scenes to be cool because it's a woman kicking ass - we want it to be a kick ass action scene, as exciting as any other (hopefully more so), period. If we set out to prove a point and don't do our jobs in making the best movie, then we may ruin the chances of Hollywood making kick-ass female driven action flicks.
LBB> Right, you seem pretty much the go-to-guy for all things pop culture - what new games/graphic novels/movies should we be checking out right now?
DT> Movies - In theaters see Life of Pi. At home rent Pitch Perfect and Looper.
Comics - The first trade for SAGA came out recently, Locke & Key, Underwater Welder.
Games - Far Cry 3, Tera (PC) , Mark of the Ninja (XBLA).