Don Thacker Interview: Motivational Growth

Motivational Growth
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Don Thacker, writer and director of Motivational Growth, takes time off from his Idaho road trip to talk with me about his new film, bad reviews, upcoming projects, and going to a Star Trek convention with Jeffrey Combs.

Don: First of all, I want to say that your review replaces another story I like to tell about a Q&A I had at a festival in Idaho. So we show the movie, and I always ask, “Who hated the movie?” And this giant, giant lumberjack dude throws up his arm, and it literally looks like he threw a redwood in the air. And I’m like, wow, thank you. I’m going to move on to the next part of the Q&A where I don’t feel like I’m going to die. And then people came up afterwards – this happens at Q&A’s where people come up to get an autograph, or shake your hand, or ask a question that they didn’t get to ask – and I’m looking through the crowd and the giant lumberjack guy is there. And I’m slowly skulking backward because I don’t know what I’m going to do if the giant lumberjack guy throws his Buick fist in my face because he didn’t like my movie. So he comes up to me and he throws out his hand, and it’s like a sedan. It’s like I have to shake a sedan! And he engulfs my hand and shakes my hand, and he’s still holding it when he says to me, “I hated your movie.” And I’m like, buddy, I don’t think you know how this works. And then he says, “But it was a good movie. It just wasn’t my kind of movie.” I was like, oh shit, that’s the coolest thing, thank you! You actually took the time to come up and tell me that. That was the first experience I had like that. Yours was the second experience I had like that.

Bethany: That story and the lumberjack guy makes me think of Box the Ox (from Motivational Growth).

Don: Yeah, right? If you want some non-exclusive information that I’ve told at every Q&A ever, the guy who plays Box the Ox is actually only 5’6”. We put him on a nine inch platform and we used forced perspective to make him look giant.

Bethany: There were a lot of difficult elements to this movie that aren’t often approached – like the single self-contained setting, the ineffective protagonist, and the circular plot. It’s a pretty ambitious project. What was your inspiration for writing and filming it?

Don: So I originally had a million dollar movie that I wanted to do, a sci-fi thriller about physicists who do some maverick science and find out that their particle accelerator is going to be closed down and then do something untoward with reality. It’s also about lust and unrequited love between two physicists. I couldn’t get a million dollars, but I could get a quarter of that, and then I had to come up with a film that would fit that budget. So the self-contained one act thing was partly to fit the budget. But I also wanted to tell an interesting story, and what I wanted to do – you said you hated my movie, but you’re still talking about it. You hated my movie and want to talk to me about it. That’s what I tried to do, that was the goal. The goal was to make a movie that was a little ambitious, and was a mystery, and required multiple viewings, and was maybe a little gross at times, because I want you to get that visceral response because I want you to be affected by it. If I had the budget – I’ve got a movie effort right now that’s only about two robots punching each other.

Bethany: I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Combs from his roles on Star Trek and he was amazing in this. How did you two first get in contact?

Don: Jeffrey Combs is one of my favorite actors, primarily because of Weyoun and Brunt from Deep Space Nine. Yes, I am a Jeffrey Combs fanboy! He was the first choice when I wrote the Mold. But when I wrote it I thought, you know who would be great for this – Jeffrey Combs! You know who I’ll never get for this – Jeffrey Combs! But I did the thing you’re supposed to do. I went through the proper channels, talked to agents, and got to Jeffrey Combs. He read the script, seemed to like it, read it a second time, called me back, and the rest is history. I wish I had a better story, where I liked Mission Impossibled into his bathroom and left the script on the toilet paper or something. What was exciting was getting that phone call from Jeffrey Combs. I legitimately put my hand over the receiver and screamed. And we’re friends now, we talk about doing other projects together, we talk on the phone. As a fanboy, deep down inside, that’s pretty cool. He took me with him to a Star Trek convention and my world was complete. I was backstage with the cast of Deep Space Nine and deep down inside I was crying like a little fanboy. They have a thing where they get together and sing Rat Pack songs. They have a thing where they get together and do Shakespeare! Just imagine Gul Dukat, Weyoun, and Legat Damar doing Shakespeare. It was awesome. So that was a big moment in my life, to hang out with Jeffrey Combs all day.

He was incredible to work with. The takeaway, the thing that I would swear up and down forever, is that not only is he one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, but he’s also one of the most giving actors I’ve ever met. That guy treated me like I was the greatest director on Earth. And he delivered one hundred percent, he gave an amazing performance even though we made him a gross fungus thing. He’s a great guy.

Bethany: The voice of the Mold is very distinctive and it drove me crazy trying to figure out who it reminded me of until I finally arrived at John Huston. Was that the kind of voice you originally envisioned for the Mold?

Don: The general tone and overview was something I initially envisioned. I wanted like a shitty Huston, you know? It had to be a voice where you think, I don’t know, maybe it makes sense to listen to this guy – even though it totally doesn’t make sense because he’s a chunk of fungus. It was definitely a sort of John Huston character, but with undertones of psychological and emotional abuse in there. And that’s why he calls him Jack the whole time, because if you take away a man’s name you take away his identity. So the first thing the Mold did was undermine Ian’s sense of self.

Bethany: The special effects were all very creative and absolutely disgusting. What was it like developing those effects and what were the inspirations behind their design?

Don: I lucked out here. Just like with Jeffrey Combs, I hired the right people for the job. I hired Tolin FX and they are amazing. Steve Tolin is a practical genius. And with all the FX companies out there with really cool resumes, how do you pick one? For the budget I had, I knew I couldn’t screw up. I couldn’t afford to spend all day on one effect, and one of the things that Steve Tolin is known for is a play called The Lieutenant of Inishmore. So that means a live show every day where the effects have to be timed, and they have to work every time.

Bethany: And that’s a really bloody show. (Note: The play is by Martin McDonaugh who wrote and directed In Bruges, 2008 and Seven Psychopaths, 2012. The play is about a violent Irish National Liberation Army member who seeks bloody revenge for the death of his cat.)

Don: Yeah! And that was a big sell to me. Not only is he an amazing sculptor and a great artist, and all those things that go along with established creature effect artists, but he could also deliver a one off effect that had to work every time. And his designs were great, we worked out what the Mold would look like from my shitty sketches, and he got a team together to build the thing, and an animatronics guy to build the mechanics. And then not only did he get the puppeteering team, but the makeup and the special effects team too! He came in with two other really great artists, Jeff Waltrowski and Midian Crosby, to make an amazing team. I mean, it got to the point where I discovered I could read the Mold’s lips during editing when I turned the sound down. As far as the sloppy effects, I was pretty hands off. I only had to describe the scenario and tell them what I needed and they were on it.

Bethany: IMDB says you have a second feature film coming out soon.

Don: Yes, it’s tentatively called Depth right now, to be released in 2015. It’s a collusion between my company Imagos Films and the Swedish game company Frictional Games. Motivational Growth put me in a position where I was able to sell my services as a commercial maker and I made a number of commercials for Frictional Games. We really liked working together so together we created an idea for this movie. We have finished principle photography and are moving into post within the next month or so, and it should come out in 2015.

Bethany: Can you give a plot synopsis for it, because there’s not one on IMDB.

Don: That is correct, I can’t. You will see. Parts of the film are going to be used in a story campaign coming up where you’ll get a little bit more than previews. But not yet!

Bethany: Any other projects coming up?

Don: Yeah! I have a feature film that we may be able to go into production on. I want to do the fake sale and say it’s about gun control, but it’s a science fiction movie about sentient guns. It’s very interesting, but I don’t want to say too much about it. I just want to start seeding the world with the idea that it’s a film about “Don Thacker’s View On Gun Control!” But it’s actually a really interesting science fiction thing.

There’s that, and there’s a feature I’m trying to pitch right now with some names attached to it about giant robots doing a thing.

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About the Author

Bethany Lewis
My cinema education started when, at three years old, Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" became my earliest memory of cinema. Since then, I've been obsessed with film and television, learning more about it, analyzing it, researching it, and experiencing different kinds of it. After getting my BA in Theater, I went on to get my MFA in Film Studies. I now spend my free time watching and writing about movies.
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