We Bought a Cryptozoo

As their kaleidoscopic new film Cryptozoo lands in theaters, filmmakers Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski talk to Jack Moulton about misguided compassion, the beholder’s share, Akira, Watership Down and life imitating art.

Occasionally we watch a horror movie together, but I like to do things while I watch and Dash wants the lights down. We spend so much time together working so when it comes time to relax, I want to be as far away from him as possible.” —⁠Jane Samborski

Jurassic Park on acid.” This is the mystical world of Cryptozoo, the new film from personal and professional couple Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw. Cryptozoo takes place in a 1960s hippie society where mythological beings—griffins, krakens, unicorns, gorgons and the like, collectively known as cryptids—live among humans, though unhappily, since people have a habit of hunting them down.

We meet Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), a protector of cryptids, on a mission to rescue a baku—a Japanese supernatural creature that devours dreams—from the military, who plan to weaponize its powers. However, in collecting all the cryptids into a sanctuary that feels more like a mall (echoes of Disney’s Epcot are plainly hinted at), the cryptozookeepers begin to realize that those they’re trying to safeguard are likely better off without their assistance.

Loaded with clear allegories for xenophobia and colonialism, Cryptozoo has proven both a hit and a miss among Letterboxd members with the nature of its metaphors, even if we can all agree it absolutely skewers white-people-savior complexes. Shaw and Samborski placed careful focus on the casting, for example, enlisting Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia to portray Phoebe, a Medusa-esque character from Greek mythology, who assists Lauren in her journey to locate the baku, and provides an essential perspective and critique on Lauren’s overzealous activism.

Steeped in detailed and surreal world-building, the kaleidoscopic, hand-drawn approach can become pure sensory overload. More than a few of our members felt compelled to light up first and check it out again if it ever hits Adult Swim. But among those happy to be overwhelmed, Andrew found himself “captivated by its tactile imagery; its texture and sketch and color, the full-body chills and immense sense of self—it is beautiful and passionate.”

Cryptozoo premiered earlier this year at Sundance, where it picked up the NEXT Innovator Award for its makers. (Although only Shaw is credited as director, Cryptozoo uses an ‘A Film By’ credit to emphasize Samborski’s visionary contribution as animation director.) The couple had previously collaborated on Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, which is much more of a roughly sketched-out daydream, whereas Cryptozoo represents a more serious shift, and a step up in ambition and craft.

Making films is far from Shaw’s only enterprise. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he has written comic books, graphic novels, lyrics and plays. Meanwhile, Samborski has appeared in several films as an actress, and lent her animation skills to productions including Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Among their animation influences, the pair have mentioned the films of Ralph Bakshi, Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus, René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, Takeshi Tamiya’s Astroboy and the century-old films of Winsor McCay and Lotte Reiniger (especially The Adventures of Prince Achmed).

Shaw and Samborski sat down with Jack Moulton for a chat about expanding the scale of their work, life imitating art, the “heft and violence of Watership Down” and the best comic-book film ever made.

Cryptozoo director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski.
Cryptozoo director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski.

What stuck out to me when I finished the film was your ‘A Film By’ credit; it wasn’t just Dash, it had Jane’s name as well. How were the directing responsibilities divided in order to explain that credit?
Dash Shaw: It just felt like the most accurate way to describe the movie.

Jane Samborski: I make a lot of the decisions about character acting and I’m taking the voices and using them to inform my understanding about the characters. In some cases, I was able to use video reference of the actors, but most of their physical mannerisms are coming from my brain, so in that way I’m taking a directorial role. While there’s a huge amount of the aesthetic direction that’s coming from me, Dash is definitely the one steering the overall ship. There were a few instances in the film where I got a little off-message and he pulled me back.

DS: Maybe it’s even more confusing with animated movies because people are doing a lot of different things, so when it comes to crediting we talk about what we think makes the most sense. We could have written our names on the backgrounds to try and figure out who drew what, but it just seemed like a film by the both of us.

JS: Everything is by us, except this thing, and this thing, and this thing…

What I found really interesting about the film is the way that all the characters are so fallible. It demonstrates how an egocentric allyship can do more harm than good. Why was it important for you to explore that idea of misguided compassion?
DS: I think that that happened while trying to do something else. I had seen this Winsor McCay short, The Centaurs, and I wanted to write something Jane would enjoy painting. My first idea was about mythological beings, and then the next idea was that they were from actual mythologies in our culture and instead of being a fantasy world, they’re in our world.

That is when my mind went to these things that you talked about, like museums attempting to take imaginations from all over different cultures and introduce them to the public, and how that often damages the power of those artworks. There’s definitely a Cryptozoo movie that could’ve been made by a different person that didn’t get into any of this stuff, but because of my personality, those things ended up being embedded in the script.

You embraced the opportunity to utilize thin lines in Cryptozoo, as opposed to the thicker lines of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, which opens up what you can achieve cinematically. Can you talk about expanding that scale and how that may have approached your limitations?
JS: It definitely was one of the first aesthetic decisions that was made in the film. There’s a broad simplicity to High School Sinking, so we wanted to zero in on fewer but more specific drawings. I was doing quite a bit of minor puppet work, especially in the latter parts of High School Sinking. I really love working in that way, so this was a match that played to an aesthetic that I responded to for a long time. It was logistically a lot more difficult as it’s very hard to turn in space with a puppet, so there were definitely times where we would run up against a problem and then throw out our rulebook and do cell animation. But I think that is the joy of setting up your own rules—you keep them as long as they’re useful to you.

Your film acknowledges very early on that “utopias never work out”. On the other hand, perhaps utopias never work out in movies because they’re just not dramatically interesting to explore when they succeed. What are your thoughts on sculpting a utopia in commercialized fiction?
DS: You kind of know that it’s going to fail as soon as the movie starts. It’s a good fall. I find utopian art very inspiring and beautiful and that’s what I like about a lot of the art of the 1960s. I would not put this movie up against that imagery.

JS: Yeah, a utopia is certainly something we all want to experience but not necessarily something we want to hear a story about.

DS: That’s something that’s famously said about what’s really powerful about early seasons of Star Trek, and seeing all of these different people working together.

I imagine it was strange to be working on Cryptozoo for so many years, and then you have a storming-the-capital scene in your film, which premiered at Sundance only a couple of weeks after it happened in the real world (for very different reasons). How did that make you feel regarding the film’s timing?
JS: It was a bit of a freak out!

DS: It was strange, even if we didn’t have that line in our movie, just to see that going on. It made me think of this art school thing, the “beholder’s share”, where the artists make 80 percent of the work in their time and place, and then the last twenty percent is completed in the viewer’s mind, in their own time and their place. You have to love that hand-off.

JS: The world changed so much over the course of making the film. Dash wrote the film before Trump was elected President. We started out with a script that we thought was talking about really interesting things that felt a little bit further away. As we worked on the project, it got closer and more real, so we just hoped that we were able to talk about it with honesty. The project feels like something larger than us and that’s really exciting.

When you look at some of the reactions, you can see how it’s really easy for audiences to dismiss the movie as too weird, but I do feel there are many accessible and mainstream elements to the plot. What are your instincts for playing in and out of the comfort zone?
DS: One of my first ideas for wanting to make animated movies is that they would have a pop-art quality. They would be blockbuster movies that have been defamiliarized—they’ve been messed up, disorientated, changed, altered in some way. High School Sinking is like Titanic, and Cryptozoo is like Jurassic Park. There’s a blockbuster movie inside of them, but we keep veering away or disrupting it in some way that might make it seem stranger. It was right there as one of the first missions of making these films.

JS: I feel very differently. I love the experimental stuff, but if there wasn’t a clear story through-line, I would get bored. It’s the perennial music-video problem—it’s all gloss and no heft. So we have that clear action-adventure storyline to pull you through this crazy ride. We feel differently about what it’s doing for the audience, but it seems to be working, whichever one of us is right!

Are there any hidden or background details in the animation that you’re concerned people will miss?
JS: For me, if somebody felt that there was so much going on that they wanted to watch it two or three times and they found something new each time, that would be the best thing ever. The idea that I would be able to make something that is worth multiple viewings far outstrips worrying that somebody is going to miss something I did.

What was the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
DS: I wonder if Jane is going to say Watership Down

JS: I am! That was my favorite movie as a child. I liked to torture my friends with it. It’s particularly that segment right at the beginning when they tell the myth of El-Ahrairah—it’s so expressive and less representational, but it also has this heft and violence. It was definitely the first adult animated film that I saw. My parents wouldn’t buy it for me because it was at the local library, so we’d rent it again and again and I’d watch that beginning segment over and over and it would get scratchier and scratchier, so eventually the VHS just snapped from me watching it so many times.

DS: I would have to really dive deep to come up with a really good answer to that but for some reason the one that pops into my head right now is Todd Haynes’ Poison. I saw it at the School of Visual Arts. Poison felt like a collage movie with three different parts that kept pulling a special combination of ingredients. It felt like an art film and it also had very overt genre elements that were being used in an unusual way. It was one of the key movies to me that had a great independent spirit.

El-Ahrairah faces a challenge in the prologue to Watership Down (1978).
El-Ahrairah faces a challenge in the prologue to Watership Down (1978).

What animated films have you seen recently that blew you away?
DS: I want to plug an incredible movie we just saw at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Bubble Bath, which is a restored Hungarian film from 1980. I hope it will get a US release.

JS: We were also lucky enough to see an exhibit [at Annecy] for Michel Ocelot. I had seen the Kirikou films, which are phenomenal. I really like his work.

Do you have any movies that you often watch together?
DS: We really don’t watch movies together. I wish she would watch movies with me!

JS: Occasionally we watch a horror movie together, but I like to do things while I watch and Dash wants the lights down. We spend so much time together working so when it comes time to relax, I want to be as far away from him as possible.

DS: I’m really glad we saw Bubble Bath together.

JS: That one was just amazing.

You’re a comic book writer, Dash. What’s the greatest comic-book movie ever?
DS: Akira.

JS: Yeah, hands down.

Cryptozoo’ is currently screening in select US theaters.

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