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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Lifelike' Director Tally Abecassis

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Lifelike' Pitch: Lifelike explores the fascinating and increasingly-mainstream world of stuffing and mounting dead animals. Funny, touching, and sometimes just plain absurd, Lifelike will make us think twice about human nature and our relationship with animals.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
One taxidermy competition. One recently-deceased Jack Russell Terrier. One freeze-drying machine.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
It's my first time at SXSW and first time at a US festival.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
I always wanted to be a painter because I liked those funny-shaped artist's palettes they hold in their thumbs (at least, they do in children's books). I also liked the idea of wearing a beret.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I apprenticed at a production company and did every job from PA to researcher to AD, gradually working my way up the ladder. Eventually, I proposed a project to the producer and she liked it.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Whoa. I hadn't thought of it that way.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
I had a real soft spot for Fozzie because he was such a spaz and wears his heart on his sleeve. But I always wanted to be as kick-ass as Miss Piggy.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
The details of production are pretty standard doc fare. Most people want to know how I found the subjects and how we filmed them.

A friend had suggested that I look into taxidermy as a doc subject and I wasn't sure what to make of it. When I found out that there are taxidermy competitions, I knew that I had found a story. I drove around rural areas in Ontario looking for potential competitors facing a challenge at the upcoming competition. Then the crew and I went up to film the selected taxidermists several months before the competition, as they were preparing their pieces. The shoot culminated in the actual event, which was loads of fun for us.

As for the freeze-dried dog, the pet taxidermist put us in contact with its owner, Janie. Janie had just lost Wonder, was in the grieving process, and was really motivated by the idea of helping other people make the decision to preserve their pet. She was surprisingly open to filming so we followed her going through the process of getting the dog done, right up to bringing Wonder home. That last sequence (when she picks Wonder up from the taxidermist and brings him home) was complicated because there were alot of delays on her end and it ended up taking place when we were in the edit. It was a gamble and we were literally editing without knowing how things would turn out.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Making this film was actually remarkably smooth!

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
The film Roger & Me¯ changed the way I viewed documentary. The way it covered an important issue in a fun and entertaining way completely excited me. American Movie is my favorite documentary of all time. I also love the work of Steve James (Hoop Dreams¯ and Stevie¯ in particular).

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Wonder the freeze-dried dog.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
That person on the bus, in line at the post office, or sitting next to you in a park bench that you end up telling your life story to. People always seem to talk to me.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I can't imagine ever saying that.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
It's hard to picture somebody running to see a movie after reading a bad review.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
I don't think it's really an issue in documentary. People haven't heard of most of us.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
People are nervous that the film will be gory, but it isn't. It's a film about people, obsessions, and the age-old craft of animal-stuffing. And it's funny.


Lifelike, directed by Tally Abecassis, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Lifelike website.

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originally posted: 02/27/06 14:23:09
last updated: 02/27/06 14:24:19
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