How 90s rap, Shel Silverstein, and Oak Park influenced a former Chicagoan director

How 90s rap, Shel Silverstein, and Oak Park influenced a former Chicagoan director

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.
For Jonah Ansell, Chicago mattered. His experiences growing up in and near the city in the Western suburb of Oak Park directly nurtured his creative pursuits. His latest work, Cadaver, is a lushly-constructed and visually-mesmerizing graphic novel and animated short film starring Oak Park teen and fashion/media mogul Tavi Gevinson, Academy Award winner Kathy Bates, and Christopher Lloyd. It tells the story of a cadaver who wakes up to tell his wife a final goodbye only to discover a truth about death he did not know in life. A mix of child-like storytelling with more mature themes, Cadaver is a testament to the power of the grand narrative in creating works of fiction. The film plays April 23 at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. A discussion and book signing follows. Tickets are available online.
“I didn’t appreciate how nurturing of an environment I was in until I came back,” Ansell said about his experiences growing up in Oak Park. Ansell’s family moved to the suburb from the city when he was young. It was his experiences attending William Beye Elementary School, growing up on Humphrey Avenue, reading voraciously – that shaped his love of storytelling. Ansell counted one experience – painting murals on the walls of the elementary school – as particularly affecting.

“This concept that this communal space doesn’t just have to be a walk through and that you can empower kids to do what they want to do was powerful,” he said. “The idea that you could make stuff and comment on the human experience as performance stuck with me.”

(Cadaver/MCA Chicago)

Cadaver began as a poem Ansell wrote for his sister on her first day cutting open a dead body in medical school. The poem was a means of providing a touch of humor and humanity to the medical profession.

“We as humans are not islands,” Ansell said. “We’re not separated from what we do in life.”

Although he claims she rejected the work, the story stayed with him long after he wrote it.

“In this light-hearted whimsical ride, I realized there was a worldview about how people are, what life is, what love is,” Ansell said. “It was all wrapped up in this little tiny poem.”

This story of the human experience soon sprang forth as a fully-formed narrative.

The work begged for a visual component that was as immediately captivating, but still embraced the small scale of the project. More than 400 artists working in a variety of mediums were interviewed for the project. The crew eventually chose Seattle-based 2D animator and artist Carina Simmons. Simmons’ illustrations are angular and visceral with a style more realistic and human than not. Emotions are vividly drawn and felt by audiences.

When creating Cadaver, which in its simplest form is a love story, the crew saw Simmons’ work as a complement to the emotional scope of the story.

“You have to be careful that it doesn’t come across saccharine or sugary sweet,” Ansell said. “We knew we had to add a little edge, so it would emotionally land where we were attempting for it to land. That’s where that artwork helped clarify the film we were trying to go for.”

The animation took about three months and the entire film production took six months, with the artist stationed in Seattle, the animator in San Francisco, and many of the crew based in Los Angeles.

(Tavi Gevinson and Jonah Ansell/MCA)

Casting actors was surprisingly less complicated. Gevinson was the first hire. A longtime family friend, Gevinson was the first person Ansell approached and she immediately signed on. The two previously worked together on another film, First Bass, shot on location at Wrigley Field.

In terms of Lloyd and Bates, Ansell and his crew created a wish list of people they assumed would reject them and the two actors were at the top of their list. However, after emailing them and providing a few visual samples of what the work would look like, both signed on.

“It was a Hail Mary,” Ansell said.

Ansell cites influences ranging from George Carlin to 90s rap.

“For a kid growing up on Humphrey, this had a positive impact: what you can do with words, how you can bend words, how you would bring energy to what you’re saying,” he said.

Ansell also said he looked toward the storytelling structure of some of his favorite childhood authors: Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein.

Ansell’s summer mornings were spent outdoors playing with friends, but his afternoons were often spent reading. This love of reading informed the creation of a graphic novel in addition to the film.

“Whenever you have an idea for a story, you always wonder, what is the best medium to tell this story?” Ansell said. “[With books] you can linger, you can pause, you can flip the page back. You can’t do that with film.”

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt’s essays for WBEZ’s Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.