For most of his 20s, adulting robbed Nathan Blackwell of the childlike wonderment he had always experienced when making films.
A decade ago, the filmmaker reignited that artistic drive. He and his friend Craig Curtis founded the Phoenix-based Squishy Studios. Influenced by the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, their specialty has been taking the genre films they love and giving them a humorous and quirky twist.
“I responded to normal people responding to absurd things or absurd people experiencing normal things,” Blackwell says. “It's a balance of fun, imagination, and irreverence.”
Blackwell found his creative voice just as YouTube was becoming a household name. Not only does the Squishy team have the web series Voyage Trekkers and Normally This Weird under their belt, but they also have dipped their toes into the world of advertising with ads for ChiChi’s brand products.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Squishy Studios’ inception, fans have an opportunity to put away their laptops and silence the smartphones they'd normally use to watch Squishy content and see the studio’s greatest hits on the big screen at FIlmBar on April 20, including the spy comedy Until The End Of Everything, the bloody hilarity of Zombie Team Building, and the debut of Eden Valley Claim, a tribute to silent film that they shot on celluloid.
Originally, Blackwell, who has been a full-time freelance filmmaker for six years, wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything to mark the occasion, but since the director uses a lot of the same cast and crew for his productions, he saw this as a way to reunite his filmmaking family.
“We consider ourselves a troupe,” the director says, “This screening is a culmination of this experience. I thought it would be great to have a chance to come together again.
Blackwell spoke with New Times about some of his creations that are near and dear to his heart.
In Until The End Of Everything, the audience controls the fate of gentleman super spy Ethan Hazard on his top secret assignment by shouting out what he should do next, but it becomes increasingly clear to the secret agent that the viewers’ desire for entertainment is at odds with Hazard successfully completing his mission. The film is a hybrid of a video game, a Connery-era James Bond film, and an absurd Choose Your Own Adventure book. The series of gamebooks would prove inspirational to Blackwell in the years to come.
New Times: What did you like about the Choose Your Own Adventure books?
Blackwell: They were so imaginative. It was like a text-based video game. We ended up doing the season one finale of Voyage Trekkers as a Choose Your Own Adventure. On the Voyage Trekkers’ Facebook page, we did a text-based story where the people reading it would actually vote in the comments for what they wanted to do.
Voyage Trekkers follows the voyages of Captain Sunstrike and his inept space crew. The web series became Squishy Studios’ most prominent creation. The show works so well because it puts heroic characters in absurd real-life workplace situations. According to Curtis, the high-concept show almost didn't happen.
“We'd always assume it was too impractical and too expensive to ever make,” Curtis recalls over e-mail, “Eventually, the pieces came together in order to create…little vignettes of the funniest parts of an episode in a web series format.”
Originally six episodes long, Voyage Trekkers turned out so well Blackwell and Curtis made it an even 10. The demand for the second season was so high that Blackwell and Curtis turned to the fans for funding. The duo was able to add special effects and give Captain Sunstrike a command bridge. There is even a series of humorous public service announcements featuring characters from the series.
When did you know Voyage Trekkers would be your flagship show?
Blackwell: After we did those original six episodes, it felt like I wanted to do more. There was a chemistry with the cast and we decided this might be something. We decided to do four more episodes to fill in the gaps of the first six. The whole premise of the first season was to make something fun. In season two, we would bring our A-game. We wanted to do more storyline.
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Season two is more visually dense than season one. You have to watch it a few times to pick up the visual clues you’ve left.
I love creating a universe. A lot of people asked me why I didn’t do a Star Trek spoof because I could have landed 20 times more views if I had. I wanted to create my own world and the rules and details of it.
This surprisingly heartwarming award-winning short Logan Must Make Star Wars, the titular character goes back in time and accidentally kills director George Lucas. Logan then must impersonate the director to ensure that the greatest science-fiction film of all time still gets made. Like many titles in the Squishy Studios filmography, Logan Must Make Star Wars was part of the 48 Hour Film Challenge at the Almost Famous Film Festival where it won several awards, including the Brock H. Brown Best Script Award and Best Director.
My favorite moment is when the cast and crew are watching the finished film and they are so proud of what they did, even though their version of Star Wars is extremely low-budget. You see how much fun they had making it. Is this a personal film for you?
When we did this movie, I was nearing 40. I’d been happy with the films we’d been making. I’m not Steven Spielberg. No one has given me $100 million to make anything, but I have to be happy with the things that we’ve done with the people that we’ve done it with.
Squishy Studios 10th Anniversary Screening is on Thursday, April 20, at FilmBar, 815 North Second Street. Admission is $7. For more information, visit thefilmbarphx.com.