SxSW 2016 Interview: THE DWARVENAUT director Josh Bishop
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/05/16 06:14:05
"THE DWARVENAUT is a documentary about a classically trained artist named Stefan Pokorny who is trying to save the human race with Dungeons & Dragons. His philosophy is that technology is kind of turning us all into drones and that good old fashioned physical human interaction is something that we are losing in our daily lives. With D&D, he hopes to restore some of that by bringing people around the table and having them game together and he does that in more ways that one. Besides being one of the gaming industry's most heavily sought after Dungeon Masters whose games sell out immediately, he is the owner and lead sculptor at a company called Dwarven Forge who have proven themselves to be the industry leaders in creating miniature terrain and figurines to game with and have amassed a huge legion of hungry fans. Since 2011, Dwarven Forge has been using Kickstarter to completely self fund their product, and it has proven to be a very successful business model for them . Every year they launch a new Kickstarter campaign to release new products and without fail they end up raising more money than the year prior. The campaigns are always a total spectacle filled with wacky videos and secret messages and they really utilize the internet and social media to completely captivate the minds of their fans. The film follows Stefan as he battles his way through his most ambitious Kickstarter campaign to date and simultaneously tells his incredible life story both past and present." Director Josh Bishop on THE DWARVENAUT which screens at the 2016 edition of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
Yes it is great to be screening at SXSW again! I was here last year with my film Made In Japan and it was a really cool experience. It's kind of surreal to be coming back again this year with a new film because to be honest I feel like the Made In Japan experience just ended.
My favorite aspect of Austin is really its diversity in culture and creativity. I have always been a fan of the music that comes out of this town and I just love some of the historical characters Austin has created like Gibby Haynes, Roky Erikson and Daniel Johnston to name but a few. I really love how Austin is it's own weird oasis is the midst of Texas. Any Texan will tell you it's unlike any other place in Texas.
Talk to me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work.
Like tons of people in this business I started off as a production assistant and just worked my way up from there. I was mostly working on commercials but really wasn't interested in building a commercial reel so I started work on MADE IN JAPAN with very little money. I kept working in the industry to make a living and did climb the ranks somewhat but I never gave up on MADE IN JAPAN and eventually 11 years later I finished it. I directed some other short form projects in that period as well, but MADE IN JAPAN was my primary focus.
So how did this new project, THE DWARVENAUT, come together for you?
My producer and co-writer Nate Taylor, a talented filmmaker in his own right, is a huge gaming enthusiast and and was already a big fan of Dwarven Forge and Stefan's before he had ever met him. He befriended Stefan and eventually started making all the video content for the Dwarven Forge Kickstarter campaigns and has since become their Creative Director. The idea for making a pilot for a reality show about Dwarven Forge started getting kicked around between him and Stefan. Nate and I had worked together before, and he thought I would really dig what Dwarven Forge was doing and would totally relate to Stefan, so he brought me into directing it. Indeed I was immediately fascinated by what I saw . After shooting a little, I truly felt we had something that was way more special than a reality show and eventually we all decided that this deserved to be a feature.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?
What keeps me going is just creating something that I believe in. The sheer thrill of being on location with my director of photography is enough for me to keep on keepin' on and then watching the film come to life as it's being edited, there's no feeling like it. I guess I do drink an inordinate amount of coffee however.
What was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
I basically jumped straight into chaos as soon as I came on board this project. We were in a time crunch and I had to start shooting immediately and it wasn't easy to get everything scheduled and lined up but our producer Nate Taylor really did an amazing job at making things run as smoothly as they possibly could. It didn't help that while we were shooting, MADE IN JAPAN got into SXSW and then a slew of other festivals. So I was obligated to travel a great deal on the festival circuit promoting that all the while keeping production going on THE DWARVENAUT. We would shoot a few days, I would get on a plane and fly to where-ever I needed to be, do stuff for MADE IN JAPAN then come back and immediately shoot again for THE DWARVENAUT which often meant getting on another plane.
Towards the end of production, we still had to shoot in Italy and we still needed to get the more staged stylized portions as well, but our schedules were so crazy that we could literally only make it work if we got it all out of the way in a specific five day window. We flew to Venice and shot there for a day, got on a train the next day and went to visit Stefan's parents grave on the other side of Italy and THEN traveled another three hours that same night to be able to get to Rome in time to have a full day there. We were on a plane back to NYC at 7 am the next morning and were in his studio in Brooklyn shooting again that night. The morning after that I was on a plane to Arkansas to attend the Hot Springs documentary film festival where MADE IN JAPAN was showing. It was insanity and 2015 proved to be the most tiring year of my life.
The most rewarding moment for me personally was visiting Gary Gygax's house, the co-founder of Dungeons and Dragons, with Stefan. He showed so much reverence and genuine awe for the man who created this game that it almost made me shed a tear.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you use to shoot, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
Unlike my last film this film is a single camera doc for the most part. There is some stuff in there that we did with an extra camera and an extra cinematographer but it is mostly all single camera. We knew that we wanted the film to have a strong visual style and not just feel like a regular doc but it was a bit of a dance to figure out what worked best for this material in particular. After the first two weeks of shooting we decided to pretty much go strictly hand held and my Director of Photography Michael Gomes really has an incredible handheld style that lent itself very well to the chaotic nature of the shoot so we pretty much stuck with handheld except for the staged stylized portions of the film which we carefully blocked out and lit. The camera we mostly used was the Sony FS7 and we had it outfitted with the Odyssey 7Q+ which basically functions as a monitor as well as an external recorder. Having the monitor on the camera like that was great in that I could constantly be watching the screen and could quietly direct Mike while I was directing the talent at the same time. Mike and I quickly developed a rapport which worked quite well.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
I really feel that the audience we are going to have at SxSW will be awesome and super fired up about this film. SxSW has a history of showing quirky films like this one and attracting the right audiences for them. I just can't wait to see how wild the crowd is.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?
I have been told that we will be having a special screening of the film at Kickstarter Headquarters in New York City. We have some other festival opportunities as well and we are also aiming to screen at major gaming conventions around the globe, Gen-con being the biggest of them all.
What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?
Interestingly our film is about that very subject in a weird way! Stefan has this theory that we are being turned into drones by our cellphones and computer screens and he is absolutely right in my opinion. I would urge that person to pay attention to what Stefan is saying.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
If your goal is to become a director then my advice would be to simply start making movies. Don't worry about where the money is going to come from and all that stuff. Just pick up a camera and make a film. You should read as much as you can and by all means get on as many film sets as you possibly can to see pros in action but if your goal is to become a director then you really need to be directing as soon as possible and no one is going to offer you that opportunity but yourself. Whether you aspire to do fiction, or documentary or experimental or whatever, it doesn't matter. Get a camera and go make a film. And then make another one and another on. Concentrate on translating that mood you have in your head into a moving image. Take advantage of the fact that there are plenty of other aspiring filmmakers as well and that they are probably willing to do stuff for free to gain experience so find them and bring them in on your projects and then in turn go work on theirs to return the favor.
And finally, what is your all time favorite movie?
My all time favorite movie? ERASERHEAD.
Be sure to follow the progress of THE DWARVENAUT at dwarvenaut.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte