Shane Vader makes movies in Minneapolis. His current project, Higher Powers, took on some extra steam thanks to a Twitter mention from Guillermo Del Toro as well as a Forbes interview. In addition to boosting exposure, Mr. Del Toro also personally contributed to Shane’s initial indiegogo campaign. I caught up with Shane at the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “At Home with Monsters” exhibit, showcasing Mr. Del Toro’s personal collection of art and influences. We talked about Shane’s experience with Guillermo, Shane’s career in film and what it’s like working on a movie in Minneapolis. But first, we walked through the exhibit, as documented by our snapchat archive below. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Norm Coolman: So tell me about yourself. How long have you been making movies?
Shane Vader: When I saw the first Lord of the Rings I did a remake of the “mines of moria” scene with my friends in my basement. That was 2001… so it’s been 16 years.
Norm: Pretty much your whole life?
Shane: Yeah. Well, I was doing music for a while, and kinda forgot about movies. But if you go look at my… in Spanish class we did this thing where you put down what you want to be when you grow up and I wrote “director”, even though I didn’t really know what that was. I forgot about that for a little while, when I did music stuff, but… kinda got sick of that and was like “I should try writing a movie”. And that was like 10 years ago… I think it was when Hellboy 2 came out and like Dark Knight came out… I was talking to my friend and was like “I should try to write something.” So I just googled it, like the formatting and stuff. The first thing I ever wrote was about two kids who find an abandoned house, with like a book in it that describes everything that happens in one of the kids’ life. And everything was like… I’d say the first step for me getting into movies was like being a Christopher Nolan nerd and being like “oh we can do crazy twists”. Kinda like the Westworld show. Have you seen that?
Shane: Oh ok well it was written by Christopher Nolan’s brother, who co-wrote a lot of his movies. It’s totally a similar thing [to Christopher Nolan’s work], where it’s like, complicated and clever.
Norm: I’ve noticed watching your shorts that they’re sometimes complicated, but get done in like 10 minutes.
Shane: Yeah, I think I made like one thing that’s 25 minutes, but most of the stuff is under 5 minutes. But, what I was saying about the Chris Nolan stuff is- I was big into the time travel stuff, I was big into Lost. And then during that period I was starting to get into Quentin Tarantino movies, which is the other stereotypical “I should write a screenplay” thing. And that was more like, you can have an experimental structure, not just to be a smartass, but you can actually add to the story. So that was illuminating and I wrote a ridiculous screenplay that was all out of order and never finished it. The first one I ever finished was after the summer of 2009 when Inglorious Basterds came out and I was obsessed with that movie, I saw it 7 times in theaters. And so I wrote a movie about one of my friends in high school -named after him, staring him- and it was about him becoming a vigilante crime fighter, but all he does is like beat up a homeless guy. But it was like 180 pages, which is like… everything I read is like “that is the number that is way too long”. But it was like “oh you just got obsessed with Inglorious Basterds so you’re gonna write a million 10 page scenes”… So of course 17-year-old Shane was like “of course I’ll just do that”.
Norm: With the shorts you’ve done, if there’s a complex [plot] device, I’ve notice that it seems to get referenced in a humorous way.
Shane: With the shorts, I really have a hard time coming up with an idea that’s worthwhile. I’m better off if it’s just a series of jokes, a series of beats that build on each other. But as far as having some big idea, I think with everything I do, if it doesn’t coalesce around some idea or some contradiction I’m trying to explore, there’s no real reason to do it. The majority of the shorts I’ve done I did after hearing Dan Harmon’s WTF [podcast] interview. He started Channel 101 [in L.A.] where they do monthly screenings of shorts. Half of them are new pilots that people submit, and half are shows that the audience voted back in. If you’re in the top 5 [pilots] you get to come back and make two. You’re basically renewed or canceled by the audience. I did four pilots that played there, from Minnesota, when I was living here, and they didn’t have a lot of out-of-town stuff. I had heard that people had found video directing and producing work through [Channel 101]. I met some people who liked my shorts and ended up visiting there, went to their awards show. Ended up meeting someone where, that’s how I moved to L.A.
Norm: This was in 2013?
Shane: Yeah 2013 I moved there. I crashed on her couch and got some work – just did like freelance video stuff for a year. I basically moved there with no money and never got past having no money. I was able to pay rent for a while, but it was all just like… I never really had time to write or work on my own stuff, it was kinda just like “I gotta find the source of money for this month”. I’m more productive creatively if I’m not putting all of my creative juices in my livelihood. I’m sure if I had a job with not too many hours, I could make it work, but when I was freelancing and trying to turn some of that creative energy into not paying rent it was just like… “I just want to watch something, I don’t want to make anything”. It’s exhausting.
Norm: That’s interesting that you realized that. Did you have people in your life that were giving you tips?
Shane: I’d say I made the decision more or less based on experiences. Part of it was, I’m kind of a shut in… and the way the business works is going out for drinks and talking to people… [In addition] I never felt like I had enough money to do that. I met some really cool people, but everyone’s kinda fighting to find a job. Before I moved out there I was like, there’s this weird economy out there where people are making a living making like, youtube videos and I was like “I can do that!”. I was unemployed for a while, I worked for MPR until my grant ran out, so I didn’t have a job and I was sitting around feeling bad about myself, but when I started making the Channel 101 stuff and people liked it, I felt like I could go do this. So I moved out there feeling very anxious to prove myself and then after a year, I was like, yeah I could do this, but I had no money… so since then, that’s when I came back and started working on Higher Powers.
Shane: Yeah, I started writing [the Higher Powers script] summer of 2014 and I didn’t have a finished draft until fall of 2015. But it was like the best time that I had writing anything. That’s why I’m trying to make it. I finished like 4 or 5 screenplays over the last 10 years. One of them I sort of tried to make. I had a guy out in L.A. that was like “we might be able to make it”. But this is the first one where I was like “this is gonna be a cool movie”. I want to have this movie on my shelf. No one else is making this movie right now, it’s not just a version of a different movie. I think it was the end result of me learning how to do stuff. I think the big thing was like, oh I’m not gonna try and write out a page of a scene unless I have it in my head already. It was the first time where I really figured out the whole story, the whole way, without making myself sick of it. My writing process is typically writing the same thing over and over again, in more refined forms. Ideas and beats and then it becomes dialog and stuff. So this time was the first time where I outlined it to the point where, when I was writing it, I didn’t hate what was coming out.
Norm: Did this happen in your head?
Shane: I *tried* to start writing it, but I felt like “this is the wrong thing to do at this point”. I had to just spend time thinking about the story and outlining and planning.
Norm: With the shorts were you more intentional about writing things down and making everything very structured?
Shane: Well… more than one of my favorite shorts were more like, improvised. Where we didn’t really have a script, but we were able to kind of shoot this and that and then tie it together with a joke at the end. …what I can do well in the shorts is like, keep a pace and maintain a lack of logic or an internal logic that’s built on jokes rather than trying to tell a poignant story.
Norm: With [Higher Powers] are you intentionally trying to avoid humor?
Shane: Ah.. not at all! I think a lot of serious stuff happens in it, I don’t want it to be something you can’t take seriously, I want all the thriller beats to work… But at its heart, it’s a satire. I see the lead performance as a comic performance. …It’s presented straight, but there’s jokes in it. I’d like it to be as funny as possible. …I think my favorite movies are like, I’m kind of excited, kind of creeped out or in shock and not sure which… I think that’s one of the things that I took from Tarantino, just kind of balancing tones. That is something that I did *not* take from Christopher Nolan, because his movies are just kind of… one tone! …I love those Batman movies, I think they’re so fun, but maybe I don’t enjoy those movies the way I’m supposed to! I dunno maybe I do… I think everything I love makes me laugh. Even if it’s a perfectly executed drama, even if it’s like horrifying, I’m probably gonna laugh. Breaking Bad does that for me, Eastbound and Down is like my number one favorite thing of all time. That is tilted, it’s comedy at first but goes to such dark places. …I love comedy I love making people laugh… and that’s kind of part of the thing where… with my shorts.. It’s hard to figure out a short idea… and what I tend to do [with the shorts] doesn’t represent at all the kind of feature ideas I have… but I always try and have as much of the comedy in there as I can. …That’s one of the main things that I’ve liked the most about the script… it’s been fun.
Norm: Awesome, I’m really looking forward to it. That’s kind of it for my main questions… the only other questions I really had are like local-themed. What’s it like making a movie in Minneapolis?
Shane: Yeah this is like the first time… well when I went to L.A. it was like my first time working with like a real crew, a cinematographer who wasn’t myself, worked with actors who weren’t just like my friends and family. Since coming back, I worked on a couple music video projects over the last few years where I brought in some actors, cause I finally had experience casting.
Norm: Were you casting in Minneapolis?
Shane: Yeah, for the music video I did stuff through craigslist and the MN film board, various audition sites like that.
Shane: Yeah.. exactly.. But those projects… I really concluded that I don’t want to be my own cinematographer for anything this big. So, once the indiegogo project was a success, thanks in a huge part to Guillermo [Del Toro], I was like… Ok, the plan was just to shoot a bare-bones teaser where I would just shoot it with my camera, but once we got a little more money than we asked for, I thought “maybe I could try to find a cinematographer”. My cinematographer friend from L.A. was like “dude you gotta make this look really good”. He motivated me to make sure we had everything we need. I almost thought about flying him out but, with the amount of money we got… I was like “if we get a *bunch* of money, I’ll fly you out”, but it ended up making more financial sense to find someone local. I connected with a cinematographer here through a friend of mine. It’s been my first time, besides a little PA gig, working locally in a larger capacity. We’re renting stuff from Cinequipt in Brooklyn Center. Our cinematographer is bringing a camera that’s like, 30 times better than mine in terms of what it cost. Definitely in terms of picture, we’ve got some cool lenses. We were supposed to shoot in December… we launched a second campaign to shoot the first 6 scenes, the first 7-8 minutes. Another friend in L.A. was like “I don’t think a teaser is enough”. But a short there’s more of a clear destination for that. Thanks to Guillermo – he made it bigger than it was from the start. But with the second campaign .
Norm: Real film stuff!
Shane: Yeah! It was supposed to be a fall day, but it was snowy and windy out, so we were gonna shoot interiors, but the actor was sick so… We were gonna shoot the whole thing, but we ended up shooting 4 days before the end of the campaign and I threw together an edit real quick… we ended up about 3/4 of our goal [for the second campaign]. Which I still consider a success… I know what I would have considered failing and that wasn’t it. But I still need to pull together some more money. We’re gonna send the teaser out to a few actors and hopefully find someone interested. The plan is to shoot the rest of the short by the summer and have it done in time to submit to the festivals in the fall.
Shane: Yeah! Casting is hard. And casting around here… when we have a movie entertainment system that is so skewed… it’s so largely white. So when you go and try and cast the role of a 30-40 year old african american woman, when you’re looking at casting in Minneapolis for that part it’s an even smaller pool. But we ended up finding someone and I’m excited to make a movie with her. …But part of it is, if we’re gonna get real actors, we want to be able to fly them out. But we don’t have enough money to do that right now…
Norm: This is real Minneapolis film-making stuff
Shane: Yeah, this is my first time making real filmmaker friends, and it’s 100% because of Guillermo that I’m getting out of my shell and meeting more people. I took his “now go make it” tweet as encouraging, but also “nut up or shut up”.
Norm: We’ve talked about Guillermo and your influences, is there anything that you really feel like you bring that’s unique?
Shane: Wouldn’t it be great if I said “no”?! Well I just saw the movie Get Out and… I feel like that’s exactly the kind of movie I want to make. With the state of the modern world… So many things are just looking 10 feet behind. As I was writing it, Ferguson was happening. At first I was like, “I don’t want to write about cops, everyone hates cops”. But then I was like “wow, everyone hates cops!” I think [Higher Powers] is a subtle enough critique… it starts with police, but it is also about… all power, who they serve… I hope that, by the time I’m done making this, police corruption will have gone away, but I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon, not in the next four years.
Norm: I’m looking forward to seeing it! That pretty much wraps it up… the one last question I do have is, in your Forbes interview, you’re quoted… when you’re deciding whether or not to tweet at Guillermo, you’re quoted as saying “S**** it”…
Shane: “Screw it”! That was a really adorable censorship! I think [Simon Thompson] did that!
Norm: Haha.. Ok great!
Shane: I would kick myself if I didn’t promote my Patreon: wutbett!
Norm: Is this from [Teen Detective’s] “Wet Butt”?
Shane: Yes… but I wanted it to be more presentable!
Norm: Nice, some monthly income then.
Shane: Yeah, we got about 14 bucks now, which almost cancels out the Patreons I support! …but we are coming up with some fun perks for that, if anyone wants to support local artists! …but I forgive the billions of people in this world that don’t support it!
Norm: Thanks so much Shane!