Known best for her fashion blog, and the online, alt-teen magazine, Rookie, that was born of it, Tavi Gevinson recently debuted a new project: an animated short film she voiced along with Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates. Written and directed by Gevinson's longtime pal and fellow Oak Park native, filmmaker Jonah Ansell, "Cadaver" explores grown-up themes about love and death through the youthful mediums of cartoon and rhyme. Based on a poem Ansell wrote for his younger sister as she faced her first autopsy at Northwestern Medical School, the short has been generating buzz, and was spotlit at New York Fashion Week Sunday night, where Gevinson performed a Neil Young cover he personally granted the film permission to record. We caught up with Gevinson and Ansell the morning after her singing debut to talk about the film and the process behind it.
HuffPost Chicago: I know you two are both from Oak Park, and knew each other before working on "Cadaver." How did you become friends, and how did that friendship help you develop this project together?
Tavi Gevinson: Well, we're like real-life friends because our families go to the same temple and have had like, Rosh Hashana together. So Jonah told me that he was making it and asked me if I wanted to voice it, and I wanted to, so I said yeah. Jonah actually made another short film when I was 11 that I was in, so I knew that he was fun to work with, and I really liked the story.
HP: Looking at your past work, an animated short seems like a bit of a diversion for you, Jonah. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you came to this project, what you've done in the past?
Jonah Ansell: Oh wow. God, I could start that at so many different places. When I was a kid, me and my best friend would come home after school and, on a really crappy video camera, we would write and shoot these satirical videos, kind of like "Naked Gun." Very stupid, slapstick comedy, but we were just young.
I then went on to be a baseball player. I played baseball all the way through college for four years, and at some point I realized that you can't play baseball forever. One of the things that indicated that to me was that I had the arm of Sandy Koufax but the brain of Woody Allen. And the combination is pretty terrible when you're trying to throw a fastball over the plate, so I realized pretty quickly I was going to have to learn these other skill sets to explain this other part of myself that I hadn't really tapped into while I was focused on being an athlete. And that's kind of when I rediscovered writing.
When I was 20, I started a satire magazine at Amherst College, and it kind of took off from there. With [Chicago-based producer] Mike Raspatello, we started a company together, and one of our products was a humor magazine that we sold to National Lampoon. And as part of that humor magazine, we had directed a sports humor pilot, and I realized, “hey, this is fun. I like bringing the words off of the page, putting them into action, and I had a history of doing it for myself when I was younger.” So I went to film school at the University of Southern California for my MFA. Then Tavi and I worked together on “First Bass,” which actually we collaborated with Major League Baseball and shot it at Wrigley Field, so that was a lot of fun. We were both young in our own regard; you know, me from a filmmaking perspective, Tavi from a literal perspective. So that was kind of my path I guess you could say.
HP: It sounds like you've got a lot of comedic writing under your belt; would you say there's a humorous side to this story? It seems so dark. [Scroll down to see the film's trailer.]
JA: There actually is; it's actually this bittersweet love story. I really look up to people like Alexander Payne, who tell these stories of the struggle of the human condition but also use humor and lightness to not be this dark, brooding thing...you know, that's the truth of the world. You look at “Election,” "Sideways," "The Descendants," these are films that navigate the tragedy of the human experience in a very comedic, lighthearted way.
TG: I recently had "troubles” and my friend was like, well, you can either watch “When Harry Met Sally,” and feel sorry for yourself, or you can watch "Annie Hall" and keep a lively sense of humor about it. I watched "Annie Hall."
HP: Sounds like you both have a firm grounding in the Woody Allen school of philosophy.
TG: Well it means that you can like excuse all of your neurotic tics as like somewhat... artful? I don't know.
JA: Yeah, you know, some people bury their insecurities--we project these false fronts, we stand behind walls, we walk through life being some sort of happy-faced person. And when you wear it on your sleeve a little bit better, I think makes things a lot more honest and enjoyable, because we're not behind these walls. Not just us, I'm talking about just human beings. And I definitely would agree to watch “Annie Hall” over "When Harry Met Sally."
TG: Well I love "When Harry Met Sally" too, though!
JA: You know, it is one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. It holds up quite well.
HP: You guys are going to have to stop by Katz's Deli before you get out of town, then.
JA: I think that was actually--at the event last night [see video from Tavi’s musical performance at New York Fashion Week above] I was told that Katz's was really close to the hotel we were at. My dad came into town from Chicago and Tavi's mom came into town, and my dad was like, “Oh yeah, Katz's is like walking distance, this is great!” He was very excited. It doesn't take too many delis to excite a Jewish man and he was quite thrilled quite quickly.
HP: Since we're talking about delis, I want to know what your go-to's are.
TG: I like Manny’s in the city.
JA: Yeah, she took my answer. I try to raise my cholesterol by 80 points a week just by going to Manny's. The sign of a great restaurant is one that draws in people of every socioeconomic and ethnic background, and Manny's is one of those places, where the food is so good. Another one is, being from the Western suburbs, Johnnie's Italian Beef. It's literally the reason I come home to Chicago: Johnnie's is one, my family is two.
HP: It seems like the theme song, Tavi's cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," is something that the media has kind of has latched on to; was that something you were interested in pursuing from the beginning of the project, or was it kind of incidental that you got these rights and it became such a big deal?
JA: Kind of incidental, on a couple levels. One, the emotional truth of that song reflects the film “Cadaver.” It's consistent with the story we're trying to tell. I know when you see the trailer alone it seems a little bit dark, but it actually is a lighthearted love story, and it's honest, it's frail, it's powerful, it's fierce, it's everything, and it really reflects the song. Now at the same time, we actually happen to have Neil Young’s name randomly in a line of the script. It was Easter Sunday last year in Chicago, and [Tavi and I] went to a greasy spoon restaurant in Oak Park and were talking about it, so we went out to this little basement studio and we recorded--and we didn't know if Neil Young was gonna let us [have the rights to] use it. We just did it, and then we asked him. We were told by his rights people that “oh, you know, Neil young never says yes. Just send it in, it'll be a formality, but honestly, he doesn't care, he does not give out rights to his song.” Then one day we got “you're approved” and it was like, “what?” It was crazy.
TG: I just know that at Rosh Hashana services your dad was like “Neil Young gave you the rights, but don't tell Jonah I told you because he wants to be the first to tell you.”
JA: Yeah, he probably had a little deli in him that morning, was in a very happy mood. Maybe he'd had a few pickles.
HP: Where will Chicagoans be able to see this, and when?
JA: Well, we're excited because when Kathy Bates and Christopher Lloyd saw this, they said they’d actually be interested in coming back to do this as a feature film. So we're really excited to share the short because it’s an amazing little story. We're going to make it available soon, possibly by like digital download or something, but we're currently working to find an executive producer, like a Ron Howard or a Lee Unkrich, who did "Toy Story 3," to really come in and help us shepherd this thing into an even bigger story.
See the trailer for "Cadaver" below. For updates, subscribe to the film's Facebook page.