he day begins like any other: the sun rises, the rooster crows, the farmer jumps out of his bed and into his boots to greet the new dawn. But there are shadows of what’s to come; subtle hints that, despite the glaring brightness of this country morn, things are about to get real dark. A barn owl swings a dead mouse from its cruelly hooked beak; the farmer’s pre-breakfast chores include the shoveling of a mound of manure; and the oblivious grin he wears as he shovels tell us that what we’re in for is not your childhood’s Porky Pig cartoon.
Far from it. Nick Cross’s “The Pig Farmer” quickly sheds the aggressively pastoral innocence of its opening shots to become a cautionary tale about drugs and foxes with real estate connections. As it descends into a nightmare of drug-induced horrors, images of WWII concentration camps, 9/11, and Saw III are inevitable. And, frankly, hilarious.
I recently had a chance to speak with the mad genius behind “The Pig Farmer,” filmmaker Nick Cross.
Charley Cvercko: So, Nick. Obvious first question: what was the genesis of this idea? what was the first thought you had that became “The Pig Farmer”?
Nick Cross: I was looking to do a really simple cartoon, something that I could write really easily since my last film, “Yellow Cake,” had been a bit more tricky to write. So I thought of some simple classic cartoon ideas: old memes that were used a lot in the old days. The first that sprang to mind was a barnyard cartoon. The idea kind of built from there organically.
CC: But you didn’t want it to end there.
NC: That was just the leaping off point.
CC: Did you write it completely beforehand? Or did some of the imagery generate new ideas as you went?
NC: I always write my films visually, using storyboards. So yes, the imagery kind of spawns other images, and it builds kind of like a montage.
CC: Do you do all your own animation? Every frame?
NC: Yes I do all of it. Everything except for the music.
CC: How long did it take to complete “The Pig Farmer”?
NC: It took ten months from start to finish.
CC: I like how it starts out in a very safe place. We’re thinking WB, Porky Pig on a farm, etc. Then the first indication that things might get a little darker is when we see him, not hoeing corn, but shoveling sh!t.
NC: I think if you are going to take a film to a dark place, it’s good to start out a little light. It adds to the contrast.
CC: Plus it pulls the suckers in a little deeper right off. “The Pig Farmer” goes south pretty quickly, though. You clearly want to get to the good stuff: blood spatters and Auschwitz jokes.
NC: It seems to get a bigger reaction from people, I guess because it messes with their preconceptions. Also, because I work in a sort of conventional animation style, people expect it to be something that it isn’t.
CC: Do you hate pigs?
NC: [Laughs] No, not at all. I hate cartoons of pigs.
CC: Yeah, Porky was never my favorite.
NC: I like the original Porky. He was just a happy little kid that always had crap things happen to him. They turned him into a bland character later on. I love old comics from the thirties: Herrimann and Milt Gross, Winsor McCay.
CC: I love Herriman, he was downright Joycean, with his surrealism and gender weirdness. I’ll have to look the other ones up.
NC: Windsor McCay did “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” which was a really bizarre comic. He was also one of the first animation pioneers.
CC: Did he do “Gertie the Dinosaur”?
NC: Yeah Gertie, and a bunch of other weird ones, like one about a giant mosquito.
CC: What are some of your non cartoon/comics influences? Directors, writers, artists, etc.
NC: I love surrealist artists like Magritte as well as artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. Film-wise, I love Kubrick—he’s my absolute favorite director. I also love old film noirs, like Detective Story, On Dangerous Ground, T-Men, etc.
CC: On Dangerous Ground: that’s the Nicholas Ray film, with the blind girl, right?
NC: Yeah, with Robert Ryan. Nicholas Ray is great. He did a film I think with James Mason—Bigger Than Life—where Mason plays a drug addict.. Really creepy and cool.
CC: I have the bluray of that! “God was WRONG!”
NC: [Laughs] That’s my favorite line.
CC: —How the drug allowed Mason’s character to see the decay at the center of suburban life, and the device of the drug allowed Ray to put words into a character’s mouth that were extremely subversive. I like that kind of misdirection.
NC: Exactly, I love that sort of thing. But I get in trouble from drug purists about the way I depicted drugs in “The Pig Farmer.”
CC: Yes, it’s kind of parodistic. But why would you treat the drugs with any more reverence than the pigs?
NC: Yeah, they accept that a pig can walk around and hold a gun but murder while on LSD?? Outrageous!
CC: There’s a lot of horror film imagery in “The Pig Farmer.” could you ever see yourself doing a horror film?
NC: Not an overt horror film. I think reality is horrific enough. It’s weird because a lot of the most horrific stuff I put in my films, I actually laugh the most at. I try to make it absurd.
CC: Yeah, it’s more fun to make it funny. That’s the thing about the drug portrayal: I see it as more of a parody of how drugs are depicted in movies, etc. Like have you ever seen old episodes of Dragnet or Kojak, where “hippies” are “tripping” and saying things like “groovy baby”? Your drug bits are more like that.
NC: Yeah exactly! I was using them as symbols more than trying to be documentary-like. Like the fox with a peace symbol around his neck, etc.
CC: It’s like when people can’t tell the difference between a racist joke and a joke about racists.
NC: I think some people just don’t understand satire.
CC: Do you see yourself doing live action? Or is it all animation for you?
NC: I doubt I would enjoy doing live action as much. I like drawing. Working with actors is too much like hard work.
CC: And you can’t do the same things to them that you can do to cartoon pigs.
NC: [Laughs] Exactly.
CC: Did you debate with yourself at all before using the Auschwitz and 9/11 imagery? I mean, do you see a potential audience reaction in your mind when you’re working? Or is it just “all in,” no sacrifices for possible reactions?
NC: No, the Aushwitz thing was kind of an afterthought. When I was drawing the gate it just came to me. I don’t really concern myself with audience reaction at all. I’m actually surprised that some people were offended by the 9/11 thing since I didn’t really put it in any sort of context. It’s just part of a larger narrative that seems to make sense as I’m making it.
CC: And nightmare/trip images would of course include such things as 9/11. It’s become part of our cultural history.
NC: It’s sort of like the fox is planting those thoughts in his head—like weird conspiracy theories and stuff to motivate him to commit murder.
CC: Because that’s what foxes are like.
CC: So, animation today: do you have any favorite animators currently working?
CC: How do you feel about Anime?
NC: I like some of it. I don’t watch tons of anime. I love Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff of course. Does that even qualify as anime? I don’t know.
CC: It’s a long running debate. What’s your theory for why all anime characters look alike?
NC: I guess all animation is sort of inbred, so new animators are influenced by older animators, etc. So in Japan it all goes back to Tezuka, and the way that he used to draw, with big eyes.
CC: There are certainly styles that people tend to stick to. Disney princesses all look alike too, and your work has obvious references to past artists’ work. Didn’t you work on Ren & Stimpy?
NC: Yeah i worked on that. I was an art director at Spumco for a few years. Which means I did all kinds of stuff: designing and painting backgrounds, drawing storyboards, and doing character layouts, etc.
CC: With John K, or after he was fired?
NC: I worked with him after he was fired. He was hired to do new episodes a few years ago and I worked on those.
CC: So what’s next? any projects in the works?
NC: Right now I’m working on a feature-length animated film called Black Sunrise.
CC: Are you doing every frame, or do you have some help this time?
NC: Right now, I’m doing it all myself. I don’t really have any real financing so I can’t afford to hire anyone to help me.
CC: Are you looking for financing? Or are you determined to do it yourself?
NC: I’m not actively looking for a financer. I’m applying for some grants and have a few people donating funds to it. But nothing official.
CC: What can you tell us about Black Sunrise?
NC: I find it really hard to describe what my films are about as I’m working on them. But it’s basically about a person who lives in a sort of alternate reality where the world is in a sort of oppressive police state, but he himself is pretty much unaware of it. So he sort of sleepwalks his way through his life, going through the motions until everything starts to collapse around him and he finally wakes up.
And thus ended a really great interview. You can watch “The Pig Farmer” at indieflix.com.