Michael Govier and Will McCormack are the directors of Netflix’s animated short If Anything Happens I Love You. This very emotional film tackles difficult subject matter about grief and loss. Here, they share with Awards Daily what made them want to tell this story and the way they wanted to tell it. They also talk about the positive experience of making this emotionally resonant film and what it has meant to them both personally and professionally.
Awards Daily: What was the inspiration for If Anything Happens I Love You?
Will McCormack: Michael and I met in an acting class in the valley and we just became fast friends. We discovered we were both writers, and we would meet and talk about what we were working on. I think we were both interested in telling stories about loss and grief, partially from wrestling with some of the grief in our own lives. Michael had this gorgeous image of these shadows. The shadow souls represented grief and agony that people can’t reach when, in times of loss, they are in too much pain. I thought wow, that is such a beautiful poignant representation of what grief feels like. This sort of disconnection. That was the leaping off point, and then, of course, we kept reading about the recursive tragic gun violence that we have here in the United States of America. We thought about what it would be like to tackle that type of loss of a parent losing a child, and that was really the providence of the idea.
Michael Govier: Then we just wanted to focus on one story, one family, so we could see what that impact looks like. So many people have had loss in their lives, but in telling one story I think it was able to connect to a lot of people with different kinds of grief, even if you haven’t experienced gun violence.
AD: Most definitely. I went in not knowing the premise, so I was just observing this couple, trying to figure out okay, are they just distant from each other, and then realizing oh, it’s much worse than I thought. And made me think about my own son.
WMC: I think the film has created a lot of reflection and a lot of reflection on time specifically. Like the time we have, the time we give each other, how much time we’re actually here, and how special that is. Maybe it’s not the longest amount but its quality with all the wonderful lives you touch. So there’s a lot of reflection I feel in the piece.
AD: One part that jumped out at me was the choice of King Princess’s song “1950” that started up in the kid’s room. What went into choosing the song that was played there?
MG: We love that song! First we are both big King Princess fans. It always just felt like the perfect jam song that represents the daughter and represents her life. This is a song that the daughter probably played all the way on the trip to the Grand Canyon, screaming, play it again, play it again. Everyone does it when they find that favorite song. You just keep playing it forever because you never want this song to end. The song is such a representation of her, so when that song comes back on, they probably haven’t heard it in a year, and it floods through them all these wonderful memories that they had. We were very lucky to get that song.
WMC: Yeah, we were so excited to get that song. We are both such huge KP fans. We dropped it in the animatic, and we listened to it thousands of times. It’s just a beautiful ballad that’s also wistful, and lyrically we connected to it. Like Michael said, it just felt like the girl in this little film would have this as her jam and listen to it a thousand times.
AD: The scene that stopped me cold is her going into the school and the shadows of her parents trying to block her. I kept thinking, oh, no, are we going to hear the noise? And then we do hear the gunshots and we even hear kids screaming. Was that a difficult decision to include that, or was that something you thought was really necessary for that moment?
MG: We worked on that scene a lot because it’s a very delicate scene. Everyone knows what’s going to happen, and your imagination is going to be ten times worse than anything we could do. Because that experience is worse than anything, but we also wanted to make it clear that the daughter was murdered. But we want to do it in a clean, simple way that does not glorify this. We just wanted to make it a reflection of the loss. It’s really about this loss and this tragedy and just a random act of murder. We wanted the reflection to be on that.
That walking to school part is one of my favorite sequences because I feel like that has so much love from the parents wishing they could take back that day, wishing I could stop you from going to school, when I hug you just say, please don’t go to school that day. All of us have those moments when we see people for the last time, you are like, ‘Hey, I’ll see you later,’ and then a car accident occurs and you’re, like, oh my gosh, I wish that day when I said I’ll see you later I would have given you a hug or told you how much I love you or how much you mean to me. I think our loved ones know but there is a lot to grapple with for the people that are left behind, missing these wonderful souls that are gone.
WMC: I think that’s the moment of trauma, in people’s lives that they get stuck in. Thinking about what they could or couldn’t have done. We worked on that school scene probably more than any scene because it’s really sensitive and we want to be thoughtful and we wanted it to be impactful but we do not want to sensationalize it in any way. So at the end of the day we decided not to visualize it, but to hear it.
MG: Our sound designer Michael Babcock, who is an incredible designer–he’s worked on films like Inception and Wonder Woman, these huge huge movies, and he was able to help us take that section and carve it out and build it out in a way so it is just audio based, but you feel all these feelings because you’re thinking them even though there’s not a lot visually on screen at that moment. You are looking at the school, you are looking at abstract blue and red police lights and then it’s just the girl’s phone, so it’s very simple but it carries so much through sound.
AD: Michael, this is your first directing opportunity, and Will, this is your first time directing animation. What was the experience like working in animation for the first time?
MG: I have done other directing work. I moved up through the theater, so I’ve been doing direction but I’ve never crossed over to the medium of animation. But I’ve always been a huge fan of the medium, and writing things for it. And you know how things build but then they get stuck in development and never come to full fruition as far as them being actualized out in the world. So it was just so wonderful to have something that we cared so much about to be completely finished and so well-received.
WMC: I worked at Pixar for a couple of years so I’ve seen and communicated with artists before, talked about how words can be represented visually and vice versa. The animation felt very organic. I think talking to storyboard artists is not dissimilar to talking to actors. You are really just trying to get to the heart of something and no matter how you get there you’re just trying to get to the middle of the thing. That feels like what we’re doing whether you’re writing, directing, acting, producing–living it felt very organic.
Film is a team sport. I think Michael brought out the best in me as a filmmaker, and we just had this team of people, from Gary Gilbert and Maryann Garger, our producers, to our all female animation team; I felt like everyone was there making the movie for the right reasons and that doesn’t always happen on all projects. Looking back at my career I think it’s rare that everyone is in unison, we got really lucky everyone was there and on the same page and making the same film and I think we knew that from the jump and it was really exciting.
AD: You mentioned the all female animation team. Was that a conscious effort or did that just come about naturally?
MG: It was not a conscious effort. We were basically looking for the best animation director and we reached out to Maija Burnett, who is the professor at Cal Art. We said, “Hey, we’re looking to interview recent grads for some new young up-and-coming talent.” Because we also wanted to create opportunities for other people. This was a wonderful opportunity that Will and I were given that we got to direct something that we might not have been given and we wanted to give that opportunity to everyone on the team. So, for a lot of people on this team it was their first time being a lead animation director, or lead animator, a lot of firsts. Then we found Youngran Nho (animation director) and she and we just clicked so perfectly. She became the other part of the team, and it was just a perfect pairing. So then from that we trusted her and her vision and we said, who else should we hire? And she said, I know some more people, and we are, like, great, and they are all Cal Art grads.
We interviewed them and brought them on, then all the sudden you looked around and I was, like, hey, they are all women, this is wonderful. Then you start to hear stories that this is actually rare. I didn’t know this going in. We just hired these wonderful people. Then we’re hearing what you are doing is strange. And I was, like, why is this strange? That’s when it became even more surprising even with our composer, when our executive producer Robyn Klein, who ran Hans Zimmer music studio, brought it to our attention that 5% of all film and TV is composed by women. Only 5% of women get to compose in all of film and TV. So we had a female composer and again we did not think that that was rare. I knew that the statistic was going to be lopsided but I was shocked that it was 95 to 5. And I am so proud that we are part of moving that percentage in the right way, so we are doing what we can to help, and obviously it’s far from even some kind of balance, but we are happy to provide opportunities for outstanding people.
AD: You mentioned the shadows for the grief and the animation style that you used is 2D and has very little color to it. How did you decide on that style?
WMC: We talked about the style everyday, we were really, really specific about it. We thought that we could do a lot more with less, we were going for total parsimony and minimalism style for a couple of reasons. That sort of parsimony feels barren and lonely like grief can feel, and also I think just showing the bare essentials of the scene really highlights grief that’s acute. I think it really excavates the emotionality of the scene and also I think it works well in the memory scape. It kind of feels like clips of memory. When you remember the past you don’t remember necessarily what was in the room, but you remember how you felt. So when we leaned into that style it was scary but also really exciting as a storytelling. Michael and I sort of had a cardinal rule that anything that didn’t need to be in frame we would remove it. We kept stripping it and stripping it and it really served the story. Michael always liked to say that the story led the style so we kept stripping it and stripping it and it was exciting, scary but exciting. But we loved how it turned out.
MG: Then we took that same thought into our use of color where in the beginning of the film where it has more muted colors and greys, and then when it goes back to the memory section you see more vivid colors because they’re going back to this memory. But if you look at the frame the edges of the frames are still gray and washed out because it’s still dealing with the present moment of grief. So the whole film always had this imprint of the current feelings of the parents that they are expressing inside the bedroom. So when they go back to this wonderful memory– oh, my gosh, we’re all together, the family was here and we went on this beautiful car trip, we saw the Grand Canyon but there is still the known fact that the loss still exists and the grief is still there. We still wanted that to have an imprint even on those wonderful memories.
WMC: One other thing I wanted to add to our gifted all female animation team is our composer Lindsay Marcus, who is a straight up genius. I think one of the cool things about independent film is people get to do jobs they wouldn’t normally get to do, like Michael and I, we get to direct a film, we get to hire the best people for the job. Also you don’t think the movie is going to end up on Netflix, and then 64 million people are going to watch it on Tik Tok, you are just literally trying to finish the movie. So in that you are not beholden to any studio, or you’re not trying to make a movie for somebody to sell. You are really just trying to tell the truth, and I think there is something about that that is captured in independent film that you just get lucky because you really are just making a movie straight from your loins because that’s all you have.
You just have the story and you are not trying to sell it, you’re not trying to please the studio. I think there’s something magical about independent cinema that allows people to step into roles that they are built for and they are made for but wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. Youngran Nho wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity at a studio but for us there was no other person in the universe who could have been our animation director. And that feels really exciting.
MG: I just want to echo what Will is saying. We pitched this script around town and everyone said no because it was too sad, and also no one is going to let you direct it. It’s a catch-22. We weren’t going to be able to direct because, and not going to allow Youngran Nho to be the animation director because, if you haven’t done it, then you’re not allowed to do it. So with independent film, we said let’s just do it, we know we can do it and we all believe in ourselves, and everyone upped everyone else’s game and we were able to accomplish this.
AD: Speaking of people involved, how did Laura Dern come on as an executive producer?
MG: I’ve known Laura and Jayme Lemons, her producing partner, for years just from around town and I just admire the work that Jaywalker Pictures does, and Laura’s just an iconic actress and figure. So we invited them to an early screening because Laura and Jayme also do a lot of work with Everytown for Gun Safety who were friends of the film, and I just admired them as storytellers and what they’re putting out into the world. Again when you make an independent movie sometimes you get lucky. So Laura and Jayme saw an early screening, and they got in our corner. It’s really good when you’re making a tiny independent film to have Laura Dern and Jayme Lemons in your corner. It feels good.
WMC: It was amazing. They both came to the screening, watched this early animatic cut and they were, like, we want to be involved, how can we help? And we were, like, uhhhhhhhhh, Laura Dern, you can help however you want. We were so flattered, like, uhhh, oh, my gosh. She was, like, do you need some walls painted? I’ll help. We’re, like, yes Laura, let’s do this. It was just incredible. A conversation I thought we’d never have.
AD: Any final thoughts you want to share?
MG: This has been an amazing crazy experience, to build a little film, built around my kitchen table, Will’s kitchen table, and Maryann’s kitchen table. And now all of a sudden we are on Netflix; it went viral on Tik Tok. This thing was beyond anything we could possibly imagine, and we feel so blessed and lucky that this many people get to see it. We thought we would just be in some film festivals and that would be just amazing. That was our goal. Then all of a sudden we did get into film festivals. Then we got into this huge platform, and the world is seeing this. We just love it and love everyone who’s watching the film and expressing themselves to us and telling us how much the film means to them. I just feel so lucky.
WMC: Yeah, we’re really grateful to Netflix. They took a chance on us for a little tiny movie and a hard movie. We have had people from all around the world reach out to us and it’s really humbling. I think it’s also a good day for short films. Sometimes you don’t need a hundred twenty minutes, you can do it in twelve, and that to me is exciting for short form content and it’s exciting for short films. Michael and I are just animation nerds, and we watched hundreds of short films preparing for this. I just think it’s cool that a short film like this is being broadcast around the world and people get to experience short stories because they can be really powerful.