‘Cadaver’: An undead love story

By Trevor Ballanger

If there’s one thing a person should never do in a morgue, it’s sneak up on the living: You never know who could be holding a hacksaw. Waking up undead in a morgue, however, is a whole new territory.

Director Jonah Ansell, an Oak Park native currently based in LA, explores just that in “Cadaver,” the new animated short film, based on his poem of the same name. Ansell collaborated with 15-year-old Chicago native and fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, as well as actor Christopher Lloyd and Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates to bring the characters of his story to life. The film premiered at New York Fashion Week amid buzz of Gevinson’s cover of “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. “Cadaver” combines the macabre and the amusing, heartwarming coming-of-age tale, and is the second film collaboration between Ansell and Gevinson.

The Chronicle spoke with with Ansell to discuss the film, Tavi Gevinson and the imperative need to love.

The Chronicle: Did you always know you wanted to be a director?

Jonah Ansell: No. Actually, I was a baseball player for most of my life. Pretty much from ages 5 to 21, I defined myself and allowed the world to define me as a baseball player. It’s who I was and what I did.

The Chronicle: How did you decide to become a director?

JA: In seventh grade,when other kids were starting to mess around with cigarettes and stealing Zimas from their mom’s fridge, [I] took a really crappy video camera and started writing and directing these slapstick movies that we would shoot on our front lawn. Along the way, despite being this baseball player by day, there were these creative endeavors in the margins that were always really fun for me. We live in a world that wants to define us as being good at one thing. As soon as society gets an idea of what that thing is, that’s the thing you’re good at.

The Chronicle: How did you first meet Tavi Gevinson?

JA: Tavi and I have always been great friends. Our families are great friends; we both come from Oak Park.

The Chronicle: What was the first film you worked on with Gevinson

in Chicago?

JA: We worked together on a film called “First Bass.” We partnered with Major League Baseball to shoot at Wrigley Field and Tavi was the lead actress in that film.

The Chronicle: How is Gevinson as an actress?

JA: Tavi is a wonderful, intelligent human being to work with. She is an incredible creative collaborator. It’s never, “Tavi, do the lines.” It’s “OK, let’s talk about what we want to achieve here,” and that’s really fun for me. I love to have a back-end process so when we go and get messy creating the material, we’re on the same page even though we’re down in the weeds together. Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates really wanted to have that open dialogue about what we want to achieve before we launch into achieving it.

The Chronicle: What is “Cadaver” about?

JA: It’s a love story about a cadaver who wakes up to say a last goodbye to his wife, and he discovers a truth in death that he didn’t know in life. It’s this weird little story, but it was a love story about romanticism versus cynicism and a battle of worldviews. It’s about the tragedy of the human experience, but it uses this lightness to explore that.

The Chronicle: Where did the inspiration for “Cadaver” come from?

JA: It was a short poem that I wrote to my little sister. My sister is currently a med student at Northwestern University. The day before she was going to open a cadaver, she sent me this frantic email that said, “Jonah, they’re making us do this stupid creative assignment. They want us to write a poem about what this cadaver’s life might have been like before he arrived here on this table. You’re the creative one. Help!” So I shot out this little poem to her. There was something about this poem. Even though I was working on all these other projects, I kept coming back to it. And I thought what if we could make this into a movie?

The Chronicle: How do you think the adult themes of love and death in the film

are relevant to today’s youth? Are they appropriate?

JA: It’s actually more for adults. It’s kind of like an adult children’s story, if that makes any sense. When some people watch it, they say, “It made me feel like I was a kid again,” almost like an adult nursery rhyme. It’s not what you’d expect. [At] the first glance, you’d say, “Oh, this is a horror movie, it’s called ‘Cadaver.’”

The Chronicle: How does this film represent your creative interests?

JA: I love to use comedy and levity to explore tragedy. Someone who does that really well today is Alexander Payne, who’s done “The Descendants” [and] “Election.” [He] really embraces humor to tell these stories of broken people who find a way to come together as their world is falling apart. It’s not necessarily dark or heavy or foreboding, and I feel like this film actually helps me explore some of those themes quite well.

The Chronicle: What was the reception of the film like after it premiered at New York Fashion Week?

JA: It was pretty wonderful. This is my first Fashion Week. This was a very earnest story and the event that we created was very relaxed. We created a “Cadaver”-themed space. It was almost like being in a big family living room, which was pretty refreshing for a lot of people. When you can have hundreds of New Yorkers sitting down in their finest clothes on a floor, Indian-style, like it’s a first grade classroom, you know that you’ve created something pretty special. From the film to Tavi’s performance, it was a well-received night.

The Chronicle: What’s next for you? How would you feel about “Cadaver” being adapted into a full-length film?

JA: Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates have come back to us and said, “Listen, we love this story, we want to make it into a feature.” We’ve got this amazing story, and this amazing team that would help us tell the story in terms of animation. I would stand to direct it; my producers would stand as well. The actors are on board, and now we’re looking to raise funds to actually evolve the story from seven to eight minutes to feature-length.

The Chronicle: Would you rather it stay in animated form or see it in live-action?

JA: Definitely animation. There’s something wonderful about this hand-drawn permanent marker style that we used to create the characters of the film. We interviewed over 400 artists to find our style. We explored puppetry; we explored mixed media. We found this woman up in Seattle, Carina Simmons, who drew these characters with this incredible grit and rawness and frailty, and we knew that we wanted to use them to tell their story.

The Chronicle: Will you be working on any other projects with Gevinson in the future?

JA: I’m sure we’ll collaborate again. We really have a fun time working together. I like to think of filmmaking as problem solving.  And when you’re solving problems, you want to have the smartest minds at the table around you. Tavi is just a wonderful, creative collaborator. I would definitely look forward to working with her again.

The Chronicle: What do you think makes this film important? Why should people see it?

JA: In writing and creating “Cadaver,” I wanted to offer a story that was relevant to a hopeful romantic and a harsh cynic. So no matter who you were, no matter how jaded you were about love or how hopeful you were about love, you could see this film and it would resonate with you and you would say, “I get it.” No matter where you are on the spectrum, I wanted to create something that appealed to all people.