Jason Axinn’s animated feature film, To Your Last Death, is gory thrill ride about trauma, inevitability, and just how awful our parents can be. With a bold animation style and a stellar team of voice actors, it’s no surprise that the film is a delightful piece of violent escapism in a time where we could all use a little distraction.
The film follows Miriam DeKalb (Dani Lennon, The Love Witch) a philanthropist with a dark past and an evil father (Ray Wise). He calls her and her three siblings to his office to explain their inheritance. But they aren’t getting money; they’re getting murdered. Using horrific torture devices, he picks off his kids one by one as punishment. However, there is another force at play as the Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) uses Miriam and her family as puppets for a cosmic game. I spoke to Axinn and Lennon about creating an animated horror film, what it was like to meet their heroes, and how they created a more evil version of Dick Cheney.
Mary Beth McAndrews for Nightmare On Film Street: The first question I want to ask Jason, you, is why did you want to tell this story in the form of animation rather than live-action?
Jason Axinn: Well, the script was originally developed as a live-action screenplay and the people that wrote the film, when they approached a production company, were told that it might be a more interesting path to do it as an animation. So that decision was made before I came onto the project.
NOFS: Cool. I’m a huge fan of there being more and more animated horror movies because I feel like animation really lends itself to the horror genre and the weird, crazy things you can do with horror. So what was the inspiration behind the animation style for the film?
JA: Oh, well I wanted to have it feel sort of like you’re looking at a comic book. There’s kind of a comic book style to it, but also there’s a TV show, you know the show Archer?
NOFS: That’s so funny. I was going to say it looks like Archer!
JA: Yeah, there were two shows that we aimed for stylistically. One of them was Archer and one of them was an Adult Swim show called Metalocalypse. So if you watch the film again, you’ll see clear homages to both styles and as production went on, we sort of gravitated closer to the Archer style. We’re big Archer fans, we love their aesthetic, that’s what we aimed for.
“Saw meets Groundhog Day […with] a very different kind of Final Girl.”
NOFS: Awesome. This is a question for both of you. What drew you to this project specifically?
Dani Lennon: When it was first pitched to me, by one of the producers on the project, it was just so unique, so original. And also when I had read the script, what I liked not only about the genre blend of Saw meets Groundhog Day, but the fact that our heroine was a very different kind of Final Girl. You can see it wasn’t stereotypical. It was one of those things where, you dream of this as an actor, where bells and whistles just go off and you feel like you have to be a part of this, you know? So it just, it just felt right and I was pleased to do it.
NOFS: Jason, what drew you to this project?
JA: Sure. Well, before I say… Dani was great in this movie. Dani did such a great job.
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DL: Stop, thank you.
JA: Yeah, I grew up watching the weirder animated movies, like Heavy Metal, Fantastic Planet, and American Pop. When I was a kid, for some reason they made a lot of really weird but interesting, epic animated movies. So I’ve always wanted to make an animated feature film, and this was one that seemed to be very different from anything else out there. And it combined sci-fi and horror, my favorite genres. It was a big, epic, crazy movie and it’s really hard to turn something like that down.
NOFS: So you’ve always been interested in the horror genre?
NOFS: Dani, I wanted to ask you another question. This is your first animated film voice acting role, correct? Is that correct?
DL: Yeah, with film. Because there are certain parameters that you can’t go out of. I’d like to think that my training is with a booth and to be able to convey emotion. Of course, you do have these limitations, so you have to have knowledge of how to use your instrument but also incorporate a piece of work that is essentially, in my case, emotional.
But I think I looked at it as though I was on a live-action set, if that makes sense. Because although I didn’t have a camera in my face, I certainly had a microphone and there were times where I got to work with other actors like Ray Wise, Bill Moseley, and Morena. I basically put blinders on and pretended I was on screen without forgetting that I couldn’t do certain things but could do others.
NOFS: That is so interesting. What was it like preparing for the role and kind of getting into the headspace of your character, Miriam?
DL: From the get-go, there was something organic about her character that I was attached to and it felt like a piece of me was already ingrained with her. I don’t know why we had this connection, but I was like, okay, I sense how much she loves her family and she would do anything for them. I get the humanitarian in her and she’s in a really emotionally damaged position. Of course I have to give credit to Jason because we did do some preparation. He and I seem to be on the same page and we just worked really well together.
“…I’m a big Twin Peaks fan so getting Ray Wise was a huge deal.”
NOFS: I was excited about To Your Last Death because I really am very excited about animated horror films. But I don’t think I knew how emotionally deep it was going to be in terms of being about a horrifically abusive father trying to sort through that trauma. I just wanted to hear your guys’ thoughts about that plot, which is both like very universal but also in some ways very almost applicable to now and the way that we kind of talk about politics and people in power
JA: What’s funny is that I know that the screenwriters based, not directly, but they based some aspects of Ray Wise’s character, Cyrus on Dick Cheney. Like there’s a Dick Cheney vibe or there are aspects of Dick Cheney’s life or personality. And so the idea is that if Dick Cheney tried to run for president and his kids knew or would reveal the real person and ruin him, what would Dick Cheney’s reaction to that be with his kids?
It’s a movie, but it definitely has a little sort of dark underlying tone to it that really flavors a lot of his performance and then the actions that he does. And in terms of the different characters, I don’t want to say too much about what happens, but the different characters do have different reactions to things and they’re also somewhat manipulated, indirectly by Morena as the film goes on. So the movie kind of dances that line between, is this really their reaction or is this being geared this way to manipulate Miriam into doing something that she does or doesn’t want to do?
DL: Yeah, and I completely concur with Jason, I would think with those underlying tones and how I approached Miriam with the situation, it’s so funny how things gravitate what’s happening now in the world. And so going back to the trauma aspect, we’ve all as human beings just being on this planet in this day and age have experienced trauma. Being Americans right now is a little traumatic. I was able to use that trauma and also I have similar, I would say, humanitarian endeavors and political endeavors as Miriam so it wouldn’t be hard to understand where she’s coming from with a tyrannical figure in her life, without getting too political.
NOFS: Moving back from the political a little bit, what was the brainstorming process like for each of the film’s torture devices.
JA: There’s definitely like design elements that we added or we tried to make things feel like they had originally been designed for military torture, sort of the evil Tony Stark. He [Cyrus] makes weaponry and torture devices for the military and then he repurposed all of them. Every torture device that’s in the film is a repurposed one from his catalog of stuff he sells. If you had to imagine what a horrible military torture device would be, it would also be very high tech, very well designed, and very strong.
NOFS: This question is for both of you, What was it like working with such big names in horror?
DL: I’ve been pleasantly surprised because I was cast without knowing who had been attached to the project. And the first name that I had heard was Ray Wise, and so I thought, “Oh, the devil, okay.” I was like, “Wow, this is good” Of course I’m a horror and sci-fi aficionado, so I just love it. So I was very excited, and then the list just kept going.
And Morena, you’re a virtual goddess. And then William Shatner near the end. But I got to say I don’t get star struck very often and I felt that I had great chemistry with Morena. She’s such a pleasant person and a joy to work with and Bill as well, but when Ray Wise walked in the room my heart skipped a beat. And I said to myself, “Okay, game face. You got this.”
NOFS: Mine would have too.
DL: So I went up to him and shook his hand and I said, “Hello, I’m your Miriam.” He said, “Oh, hi, I’m your father.” And then we went into the booth and we just had this connection where we’d stare at each other across the room and just go tit for tat.
“It definitely has moments of where the characters quietly reflect on normal conversations, but it’s also very, very intense and very violent at different times.”
JA: Getting William Shatner was a huge thing for us. Of course, he’s a legend and working with him was really interesting because he’s exactly the person you imagined he is. And he was really funny, really charming, a pro, knocked his lines out no problem. Just a great guy and shrugged his shoulders, was like “Nice meeting you.” It’s like one of those very pleasant, cordial, super, very famous sci-fi people. And he was great. He was really wonderful.
Morena was so relaxed. It was more like we were just all hanging out together. We got to record Morena and Dani at the same time and it was more like we were just hanging out. There was no awkwardness or “Who are you people?” or anything like that. She was super relaxed and fun and you can tell in her performance, she’s just tormenting you, casually and that’s just her sense of humor. Morena didn’t need any pushing in that direction.
And Ray Wise, I’m a big Twin Peaks fan so getting Ray Wise was a huge deal. The first question Ray had during recording was, “How over the top do you want me to go?” We were like, “How far can you go? What would be ten?” And so he showed us and we were like, “Yes, do that.” He was politely making sure that he wasn’t going to be too crazy for us. And we were like, “There is no such thing in this movie for your character.” There’s nothing more fun than working with talented people that are fun and generous and nice people.
NOFS: Yeah. I think that comes off in the movie, I feel like there was good chemistry between everyone. This film is just an amazing way to kind of look at inevitability. I feel like people think of animation as like fun, but for this film, this feeling is more like, “Ooh, this was pretty intense.”
JA: There’s a lot of gore in the movie. So intense is the right word. It definitely has moments of where the characters quietly reflect on normal conversations, but it’s also very, very intense and very violent at different times.