Tribeca Festival: ‘Mars’ Provides Refuge for its Writers

The animated film “Mars” — about a ragtag group of civilians visiting the red planet on a trip financed by a billionaire with an asteroid-sized ego — will premiere Thursday at the Tribeca Festival. It will mark the end to a bittersweet journey for the film’s writers that began more than a decade ago.

“Mars” was written as a live-action film in 2012 by Trevor Moore, Zach Cregger and Sam Brown, the founders of the comedy group The Whitest Kids U’ Know. They met thanks to living in the same dormitory at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where they performed lots of gigs. From there came tours of the city’s comedy clubs and a television show that ran from 2007 to 2011.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, they decided animation was the best way forward for the feature and opted to crowdfund the film. But in August 2021, tragedy struck when Moore died in an accident.

“It did seem kind of unfathomable to complete this movie without him,” Cregger said during a recent video interview with Brown and Timmy Williams, who is also in the comedy group. They, Darren Trumeter (the fifth member of the group), and Moore, who completed his recordings before the accident, provide the voices for all the characters in “Mars.”

“Trevor’s death changed everything,” Cregger said. Before Moore died, the group was having regular interactions with fans on Twitch and other social media platforms, which helped fuel interest in “Mars.” Continuing that was difficult. “When he died, it kind of became like, this hurts every time,” Cregger said. But they felt a responsibility to their fans, who helped fund the film, to complete the project.

But the long production process has also been a blessing, Brown said. “Not to treat this like a therapy session or anything, but Trevor passed away and we’ve been working on this for years and years,” he said. “There’s part of me that is really dreading having it come to an end because it really does feel like we’re still working with him, and I think it’s such a gift that we have this.”

Cregger estimated they raised a few hundred thousand dollars to make the film. The amount was a mix of a crowdfunding campaign, selling merchandise and royalties from the television show.

“The crowdfunding was kind of a blessing in a lot of ways,” Cregger said. “It gave us the money to make the movie, but we also had accepted money from a lot of people,” which was an obligation that weighed on them. “We’re pretty disorganized, lazy guys and I could easily see us not finishing the movie.” But “if we don’t put ‘The End’ on this and get it out into the world, I think we’re like con artists,” he added.

Williams agreed: “Then we’re bad. We’re like criminals.”

During Covid, Trevor got the script into the hands of Sevan Najarian, an animation and special effects director he had worked with. They had a conversation about making an animated film for cheap, recalled Brown. Pivoting the script from live action was fairly smooth, but there was a learning curve over what animation entailed. “You kind of have this idea: animation is all just drawings and backgrounds, so you’ll do anything,” Brown said. “But in reality, every new space needs a background design and someone has to think about the layout of that.”

Najarian, directing his first full-length feature, said his first step was starting with the voices. “We want to draw characters based on what they sound like,” he said in a telephone interview. The collaboration was a fruitful one. “They are great writers but there weren’t a lot of visual notes in the script,” he said. “We were able to shape the world visually and they really gave us a lot of freedom.”

The ability of Najarian and his team to visualize the script was evident to the writers right away. “One of the first things they showed us was the background for the dentist bar,” Williams said.

The audience will see the bar within the first few minutes of the film. That is where Kyle Capshaw (voiced by Cregger) meets his friend Cooter (voiced by Moore). The script named the bar the “Holy Molar,” but Najarian and his team gave it a logo that is a tooth with a halo and angel wings; designed the barstool cushions to look like the bottom half of dentures and a beer called “Molar Lite;” and threw in a “Tooth Tunes” jukebox.

The bar scene is also where we learn about Kyle, who fears that too much of his life has already been decided. “There are literally no important decisions left for me,” he tells Cooter. On a whim — and suffering from cold feet over his engagement to Candace (voiced by Trumeter) — he decides to enter a lottery to win a trip to Mars, which is set to depart on his wedding day.

“Mars” definitely earns its inclusion in the “Midnight” section of the festival, which is for surprising and shocking movies for mature audiences. The movie has coarse language, sexual situations and over-the-top violence.

“There is a scene with me and Darren’s character that’s going to be my favorite thing to see how people react to it,” said Williams, who plays a character named Wimmy Tilliams, a religious man who is forever changed by the Mars experience. “Can we call it a love scene?”

“Tender scene, let’s say,” Cregger said.

Brown said that jokes from the script were assessed to make sure they worked in today’s climate. “Part of the appeal of the movie is that we had those jokes that we wrote in 2012,” he said. But they reviewed the script to “figure out what’s funny about it that isn’t problematic today.

Cregger added with a laugh: “I think it’s also very, very important to say that any part of this movie that anybody thinks is offensive or crosses a line, Trevor wrote that,” he said.

More sincerely, Cregger is thankful to everyone who backed the film. “We had really, really supportive fans who believed in us and gave us the opportunity to make this movie we wanted to make forever,” he said.

“We were never going to get a studio on board to do it. So this is not just our movie, but it is the big ‘our’ — our online community. That’s who we made it for and who owns the movie.”

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