Waking Life and Other Complex Creations: An Interview with Wiley Wiggins
by Dan Heaton
Wiley Wiggins first appeared in front of film audiences as nervous teen Mitch Kramer in Richard Linklater's 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused. Since that time, he has appeared in Boys, Love and a .45, and The Faculty. Wiley recently played the featured role in animated form in Linklater's ambitious and stunning Waking Life, which presented a groundbreaking format never before seen on the feature-film level. Wiley also worked as an animator on the picture, and he possesses significant background and experience in the design field.
When he's not acting, Wiley also devotes his time to writing short stories, which appear on his web site www.wileywiggins.com. He is currently working on his first novel, The Queen of the Ant-Lions. digitallyOBSESSED recently asked the 25-year-old about Waking Life, his DVD collection, the state of the film industry, and specifically the science fiction genre.
dOc: The exceptional Waking Life DVD recently hit the stores. How did you enjoy participating in the commentary track?
Wiggins: I had been looking forward to it for most of the week before, thinking about all the clever things I would say. Then, on the morning of the recording, I managed to somehow stick myself in the eye with my thumb. I can't explain how it happened other than to say that I am not very coordinated in the morning. I went to the recording with my head bowed and a damp paper towel over my eye. I'm happy to report that my eye is much better now and Rick did most of the talking anyway.
dOc: Were you actively involved in other aspects of this release?
Wiggins: I think they've got some of my unused art as an extra feature. As for anything else well, I'm not sure if they included my award-winning waffle recipe or my perpetual motion device schematics. I'll have to wait till Fox Searchlight sends me my very own copy.
dOc: Do you have much of a personal DVD collection? What are some of your favorite discs?
Wiggins: My own collection is rather small but here are a few of my favorites:
2001: A Space Odyssey (D: Stanley Kubrick): Unfortunately there aren't a lot of extras on this disc, but you can change the language to French, which makes HAL sound downright sinister.
Parents (D: Bob Balaban): I love this movie. It's everything horror movies can be but usually aren't. Randy Quaid makes my skin crawl in every scene he's in. Brian Madorsky gives one of my all-time favorite childhood performances.
Alien "Legacy": I got this and threw away the last two movies. It was cheaper than buying the first two separately. I didn't just throw away the last two movies, I think I broke them. It was my revenge for having to see them in the theater.
Solaris (D: Andrei Tarkovsky): I know Steven Soderbergh is making a remake of this now, but he's kidding himself if he thinks he can do better than the scene where Natalya Bondarchuk drinks liquid oxygen and then slowly, agonizingly, comes back to life.
Andrei Rubalev (D: Andrei Tarkovsky): Another movie from the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. There's a scene in this where dozens of naked pagans are running through a black Russian forest at night with torches and there's this sort of murmuring singing going on in the background. I imagine not a lot of people have enough of an attention span to watch movies like this anymore, but I attribute that to stupidity drugs in the water supply.
Repo Man: Special Edition: OK, so I don't really have this, but I want it really badly. My birthday is on November 6th.
The Thing: Collector's Edition Some of my more snooty film friends don't understand why I love this movie so much. Then I make them watch the scene where Wilford Brimley goes insane and throws a gun at the other characters after firing all its rounds at them. Ditto for when he buries his fingers in another man's face and drags him around by the skull. Plus the monster in this movie played checkers with me once during a particularly bad acid trip. Don't tell my mom I said that.
dOc: How did you initially become involved in Waking Life?
Wiley: Rick told me he wanted to do a project with Bob Sabiston (see interview), our animation director and wanted to know if I would be interested acting in it. That's all I needed to hear. I knew Bob from before the project (and Rick, from our film Dazed and Confused in 1993) and had actually played with a very early version of his animation software. I have a background in computer art and motion graphics as well as acting, so the project was perfect for me.
dOc: How difficult was it to grasp Bob Sabiston's rotoscoping animation process?
Wiggins: It seems like an extremely complicated method. It was really very simple and intuitive. The difficult part was drawing the same object ten million times. People who think we just magically pressed a button or something to turn it into a cartoon are fooling themselves. I believe there is a short tutorial about the process we used on the DVD.
dOc: Can you describe the daily atmosphere among the animators while working on this production?
Wiggins: A lot of people squinting at screens for long periods of time and an extremely eclectic mix of music playing on the stereo. It was a great group of artists and since most of them live in Austin, we all still keep in touch. We have a website displaying our individual artwork at www.wakinglifeartists.com.
dOc:I discover new elements of Waking Life with each repeated viewing. This is definitely a film that rewards watching it multiple times. Did the feeling of creating something really special exist during filming?
Wiggins: I don't think I really felt the electricity of it until the animation started. It was hard to really imagine the kind of movie it would become when it was just Rick and I and a couple of other people shooting in people's houses and coffee shops with a little DV camera.
dOc: Instead of simply presenting a few basic themes or ideas, Waking Life seems to celebrate the very act of thinking deeply about the universe and humanity. Did you discover some new, intriguing concepts from the speakers involved?
Wiggins: I'm interested in some of the trans-humanist ideas that Eamon Healy puts across in his 'neo-evolution' monologue. I had read some of Ray Kurzweil's work before (The Age of Spiritual Machines) and thought it sounded neat but was probably wishful thinking. I'd also hung out with a group of extropians in San Jose, California who were into a lot of the same ideas of life-extension and expanding consciousness, transforming/replacing the human body, etc... but it was only until recently that I had been hearing any really sound scientific theory about just how fluid what we consider "human" could become. I expect fashion wings and gills in the next 20 years now.
dOc: The story exists in a dream world where anything seems possible. Do you have many lucid dreams of your own?
Wiggins: Every once in a while, but they're usually pornographic.
dOc: The animation in Waking Life is both strikingly beautiful and groundbreaking in a creative sense. How is it different acting for the camera when you realize all the scenes will be animated?
Wiggins: I considered acting differently, but in the end I did not consciously alter my performance in any way. I always try to stay as subdued and natural as I can. I dislike exaggerated or hammy acting, even in some comedies.
doc: I was surprised when Waking Life was ignored for an Oscar® nomination in the Best Animated Film category while Jimmy Neutron, Shrek, and Monsters, Inc. received nods. While the Oscars typically miss the boat, was this absence still irritating?
Wiggins: I was irritated at first because we worked so hard with such limited resources and it seemed like a no-brainer, but I think in the end I'm happy to stay as far away from that end of the entertainment industry as possible. I think that a spectacle as perverse and self-indulgent as the Oscars® could only really be rationalized if the attention and awards were going to molecular biologists attempting to cure cancer.
dOc:What moments or statements in Waking Life stand out in your mind? I love Louis Mackey's question about whether fear or laziness is the most universal characteristic, Guy Forsyth's comments about being asleep in life's waiting room, and Richard Linklater's dream discussion in the finale, just to name a few.
Wiggins: I love Ryan Powers' reading of Rick's monologue about leaving the planet... It's more the unfamiliar intonation and beat of his speech than the words that affects me. It sounds very alien and sort of familiar at the same time. I also like the creepy man who walks out of the convenience store, "As the pattern gets more intricate and subtle, being swept along is no longer enough."I think that says it all right there.
dOc:Richard Linklater seems to exist apart from many directors in his approach to people and our complex thought processes. What's it like to work with him on the set?
Wiggins: He's one of the only directors I care to work with. I trust him and I trust his instincts.
dOc: How have you grown as an actor since the success of Dazed and Confused?
Wiggins: I'm not sure. I'm still a reluctant actor sometimes, and on the opposite end of things I'm probably a little hurt and disappointed that I didn't get more commercial success or more parts. In the end I think it's for the best. Most of the people in the mainstream movie industry are vipers. It's not an unwarranted stereotype.
dOc: I've met people who loved Dazed and Confused but would never sit through Before Sunrise or Waking Life. Yet all three films share a similar human sensibility. Do you think mainstream film audiences have been conditioned to ignore thoughtful movies?
Wiggins: Either that or most people are just sort of dumb. I choose to believe that they just aren't used to films that have a few ideas in them along with the exploding heads and "happily ever afters". I don't browbeat people for not liking the same kind of movies I do, but I think it's a shame that there aren't more opportunities to see the kind of movies that me and my friends like. It's the homogenization of art that I worry about, not the public's taste.
dOc: You've also done a good deal of writing. From where/whom do you draw inspiration for your work?
Wiggins: Hmm, I don't know... bad potty training? (Just kidding, mom.) I would have to say: bad dreams and an unrelenting, almost maddening internal dialogue that is sometimes complete gibberish and must be put on paper before it makes my head explode.
dOc: Some of your writing has a science fiction feel to it. What are some of your favorite (and most hated) science fiction films?
Wiggins: A lot of my favorites were listed in the DVD section; 2001, Solaris, Stalker, Metropolis (Fritz Lang version, although the anime is cool too), 1984 (1984 version), Alphaville, A Clockwork Orange, THX 1138, La Jette, Alien, Aliens, Blade Runner, Dune, A Boy and His Dog, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, and City of Lost Children. Take your pick of the worst. Alien Resurrection is one of my least favorites. I'm not too keen on the last two Star Wars films either.
dOc:The science fiction genre definitely has stumbled in recent years. If you agree, why do you think this drop-off in quality has occurred?
Wiggins: The people who turned movies into mass-produced foodstuffs figured out that most of the people interested in science fiction were teenage boys, so now all science-fiction must be for teenage boys.
dOc:Speaking more broadly, what are some of your favorite (and most hated) films of all time? What type of film really draws (or repels) you?
Wiggins: I think I've listed some above, but there are so many movies I love I can't keep track of them all in my head whenever I want to start suggesting titles. It's indefinable what draws me to a movie. Something different or unexpected. A character that feels real, a scene that maybe seems out of place or doesn't just move the phony plot along. A realistic character in a sci-fi or horror film always grabs me... I think Harry Dean Stanton in Alien is a perfect example. I like characters in movies that I might meet at bus stops, not cardboard cut-out heroes and villains and love interests. I hate pandering self-referential pop-culturey jokey crap in movies. I'm sure Kevin Smith is probably a nice guy, but his movies drive me nuts. Hate 'em. Swingers is another movie I can think of that I hated with a passion.
dOc: You also produce your own web site that contains your writing, news, pictures, and other items. Why did you decide to create this page?
Wiggins: Because I'm narcissistic? Probably to give myself a place to vent and post some miscellaneous fiction I write. I've been active with computers and the internet since I was really young, so it's just sort of natural for me to network with people that way.
dOc: The web site mentions a possible Dazed and Confused Special Edition DVD in the future. Do you have information about the material that could be on this disc?
Wiggins: No official word. There exists a lot of really amazing "making of" footage that would be imperative to put on it.
dOc:You have directed a few short films, including Binary Cancer Tacos. Can you describe these films?
Wiggins: Nothing worth describing yet. I'm trying to raise funds for two new shorts right now. The videos I have made in the past have been a very silly and careless mix of live action and compositing animation and were for my own benefit.
dOc:Finally, do you have any current projects in acting, directing, writing, etc. in the works?
Wiggins: I'm finishing my first novel, "Queen of the Ant-Lions" and helping my friends David and Nathan Zellner get a sci-fi project off the ground.