You never know what you're going to stumble upon at the Vail Film Festival. An animated love sonnet, for instance. "Cadaver," a seven-minute short film, has some recognizable voices. Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates voice the main characters. Writer and director Jonah Ansell calls the film "a rumination on the duality of love. It's a fable designed to appeal to the hopeful romantics and the harshest of cynics. Tonally and lyrically, it's Shel Silverstein meets Shakespeare, with the edge of Edgar Allen Poe."
So how did Ansell, a virtual L.A. no name (this is his directorial debut), nab Bates and Lloyd, his "dream actors to play the roles"?
"We approached them as the total fanboys that we were," Ansell said. "We were anxious and awkward - I felt like Sam Weir asking out Cindy Sanders. There was absolutely no reason in the world they should say yes. And then, they read the script."
Ansell originally wrote the poem after his little sister, a med student at Northwestern, sent him a frantic e-mail.
"They were making the med students do some sort of creative assignment, like, 'tell us what you think this cadaver's life must've been like, write a haiku, or draw a picture,'" Ansell said. "I think it was intended to get the kids to realize that the body that they were going to spend the next semester dissecting was once a living, breathing human and that they needed to treat it with respect. So, I wrote this little poem, a love story in fact, about a cadaver who wakes up and begs the med student to help him say a last goodbye to his wife - who he didn't get to say farewell to, before he died."
It took Asnell 10 minutes, and he didn't think much about it. A year went by, "but something in the story kept drawing me back to it," he said.
Fifteen-year-old fashion wunderkind Tavi Gevinson is a close friend of Ansell's from his hometown outside of Chicago. She plays the med student in the film, opposite Lloyd, and performs a rendition of Neil Young's 1972 Billboard hit "Heart of Gold."
"It's game changing," said Gevinson, founder and editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine. "Cadaver is the least sappy but most tender love story I've ever encountered."
Though Ansell wrote the initial story in the time it takes most of us to take a shower, making the film was significantly more involved.
"It took us three months to create the characters, lock the storyboards and animate the film. Our brilliant composer Chris Thomas then led a 20-person live orchestra to create the score. Piece by piece, it was a labor of love with everyone going above and beyond to pour their hearts into it."
Seattle artist Carina Simmons designed the characters for "Cadaver," using Sharpie markers and her dark and gritty sensibilities.
"The entire film was hand-drawn with permanent markers on a living-room carpet in San Francisco," Ansell said. "We hosted weekend-long animation retreats and setup shop on the carpet like a fourth-grade class project. We drew, we scanned, we animated, we argued and the story came to life."
Right now Ansell is working on making the film into a feature length piece. Lloyd and Bates have "expressed interest" in returning for the feature, he said.
"I'm currently developing the story and we're working to bring the same animation team together to tell it," Ansell said. "We'd love to partner with a Ron Howard, Lee Unkrich or Tim Burton to mentor us as we take this tender love story from the living room to the cineplex."
Ansell, who lives in L.A., has a very personal Colorado connection, he said. He proposed to his wife in Aspen, while the two were driving cross country to L.A.
Her saying "yes" spurred his first animated project - a Save The Date video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC-g1DR4KsI) the couple sent out to their family and friends to announce the wedding.