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The Secret Origin (and Super-Funny Videos) of Patrick Willems

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Filmmaker Patrick Willems has created numerous YouTube videos that make good-humored fun of our favorite comics characters and creators.  These creative, well-crafted videos provide comedic observations of comics culture, and portray funny, brilliant concepts, such as an Aquaman television drama, epic superhuman battles between comics creators, and alternate universe superhero movies made by iconic directors. Wanting to know more about the creator of these hilarious videos, Nothing But Comics emailed Willems to ask him questions about his background, his process for making videos, and his interest in comics.

In the trailer for your YouTube channel, you describe yourself as “one of the thousands of twenty-something white male filmmakers in New York City,” and declare that many of your videos are inspired by comic books. But what is your secret origin? What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

My secret origin is really a slow transition from age 6 to about 14 or so. I started out wanting to be a comic book artist. I could draw pretty well, and spent all my time drawing comics. When I didn’t have the patience to get better at perspective and anatomy and lighting and all that, I decided I just wanted to write comics. By that point I had become really interested in film, and around seventh grade I realized that whenever I’d come up with a new comic book idea, I was more interested in skipping to the eventual movie adaptation, so I shifted my focus and started getting into filmmaking. So clearly comics were a huge influence from the start.

 

Where does your passion for comic books come from? Are you currently reading any comics that you would like to recommend?

It can all be traced back to when I was 4 or 5 years old and my parents showed me the 1966 Batman movie. When you’re 5 years old you don’t realize that it’s funny, so it was pretty much the greatest thing I’d ever seen, which led to this really intense obsession with Batman that happened to coincide with the release of Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series. I would wear a homemade Batman costume to the grocery store and run around the aisles with the cape billowing behind me. There was no turning back. My Batman fanaticism at age 5 grew into a broader love of comics that obviously never went away.

As far as current comics I’d recommend, that’s tough, since I have something like 65 books on my pull list. Outside of the obvious ones everyone says like Saga and Batman, I’m really loving Gotham Academy. That one feels like it was created specifically for me. God Hates Astronauts and Squirrel Girl are two of the funniest comics I’ve read in ages. I obsess over every issue of Multiversity. And I’m overjoyed that Casanova is finally back. I’ll cut myself off there.

On your website, you draw a distinction between your movies and YouTube videos; you state that the latter are “shorter, sillier, and less intellectually challenging.” Based on your words, I’m curious about your regard for your video work, compared to your regard for movies. As a filmmaker, what are your thoughts about the quality and artistic merits of your YouTube videos, relative to your other film projects?

Wow, that’s a big question. It also reminds me that I need to hurry up and finish making my new website because the part you’re quoting was written more than three years ago and isn’t really accurate anymore. I started making YouTube videos in June 2011, and since then that’s pretty much exclusively what I’ve been making. At this point the distinction between “YouTube videos” and “movies” isn’t as clear for me as it used to be. When I started doing this, the videos basically seemed like cinema candy: bite-sized pieces of fluffy fun that could never contain the emotion or artistry of a good short film. But looking back, I think all the short films I made before 2011 are pretty shitty, and most of my videos are a lot better. There’s a video I made last year called “When Your Friends Get Engaged” that is more personal, emotional, and cinematic than any of my earlier short films, but it’s still technically a YouTube video.

The artistic merits of YouTube videos and what kind of medium they occupy are discussions that I imagine will be happening for years to come. One of the things I like about a YouTube video is that it can be anything. It’s a platform where I can release a satirical action comedy video about the comic industry followed by a downbeat piece about entering your late 20s. Obviously I have ambitions to create TV shows and direct feature films, but even if I get there I can see myself still returning to YouTube, since it’s a platform where you can do pretty much anything and immediately give it to the audience.

You recently released a parody trailer for an X-Men movie, as directed by Wes Anderson. At this point, how many parody or satirical YouTube videos have you created? How many are currently in production?

In total we’ve made somewhere between 150 and 200 videos in the past four years, and of those I’d estimate about 40% satirize or parody specific subjects. There are quite a few more coming up either in production or already written and ready to start shooting. We’re getting back to very “inside baseball” videos about the comic industry, which are a lot of fun and usually get a great response.

Tell us about the process of making a YouTube video. On average, from inspiration to final cut, how long does it take you to make a YouTube video? Who writes the scripts for the videos, and how much improvisation occurs during filming?

There’s a core team that works with me on the videos: Mike Curran, Matt Torpey, and Jake Torpey (yes, they’re brothers). I’m pretty much the director and showrunner, but it’s very collaborative. Usually the ideas or concepts start with me, and I’ll e-mail the other guys about them to get their thoughts. We have weekly meetings where we’ll flesh out ideas, break the stories, and turn an idea into an outline. Then we send scripts back and forth, everyone contributing notes and ideas until we get it ready to shoot. Shooting sometimes takes a few hours and sometimes is spread out over a week or so with multiple shoots. For the cast we pull from our great network of actors, who are mostly friends from high school or college. Once we’ve got it all shot, I lock myself away to do the post-production work, which varies in time depending on how much the internet distracts me.

We usually plan pretty far ahead and are writing multiple videos at any given time. On average I’d say one takes about a week and a half to make.

You seem to have a lot of talented friends that are recurring stars in your videos, such as Michael Curran and Matt Torpey. Can you tell us more about them, such as how you met them, and their level of involvement in creating the films?

Mike, Matt, and Jake are friends from high school that I dragged with me to New York City to work on these videos. They’re all funnier than me, so I count on them for a lot of the humor and jokes in the scripts. Our meetings consist mostly of them riffing hilarious material as I do my best to steer them in the right direction so I can get what I need. They’re also all better actors than me, so they’re the primary on-screen talent in the videos.

Your videos satirize comics characters (Aquaman, the X-Men, etc.), creators (Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, etc.), companies (DC, Marvel), and fans. When creating a video, what factors do you consider when choosing characters or creators to satirize?

Well, sometimes these videos are topical and sometimes they’re just standalone ideas. I follow the comic industry pretty closely, so if there’s something in the news, like a new Marvel or DC event or that time Grant Morrison and Alan Moore kept dissing each other in interviews, I might have an opinion about it, and then I’ll find a way to filter that opinion through my style and humor and make a video that says something while also being visually dynamic and funny.

For the ones not connected to any current newsworthy topic, it’s a matter of considering whether the idea is funny and visually interesting, if it’s going to be creatively fulfilling, what I’m trying to say with the video, and if it’s within our resources to do it. Especially when selecting characters to use, there are a lot that we simply can’t pull off. I have plenty of ideas for Galactus, but a Galactus costume isn’t in our budget.

It is one thing to make fun of a character, but do you ever feel bad about making fun of a particular creator? Do you ever think, for example, “I hope I don’t come across as too mean”?

Whenever I make fun of real people it’s in a pretty lighthearted way. I can’t imagine Morrison or Moore getting mad about the cartoony versions of them that showed up in videos. I’m pretty much always a fan of the people we’re satirizing, so I have no reason to do anything mean-spirited. And anyway, I have to keep in mind that I might end up hanging out with them in a bar at a convention a few months later, so I don’t want to create any awkward situations for myself.

Have you received any feedback about your videos from the comics creators or companies that you satirize?

Actually, yeah. A couple years ago Scott Snyder e-mailed me to tell me how much he enjoyed a video where we portrayed him as a little kid. Since then I’ve gotten to know him better and he’s continued to have a great sense of humor whenever we’ve brought his character back. And with the same video, Joe Quesada tweeted about how much he enjoyed it, which is very nice, considering that in the opening scene the Marvel offices blow up and all the employees die.

To conclude this interview, I want to give you the chance to talk about or tease any upcoming projects that you would like to share.

I don’t want to give away any specific videos, but I’ll say that a bunch of the stuff coming up next is very comic industry-focused, with a sort of companion piece to the “Marvel Creative Summit” where Mike and I took over Marvel. We’re finishing up the scripts for a really ambitious web series we’ll hopefully shoot in the spring. That one is a totally original idea. And yes, there are more Alternate Universe Comic Book Movies on the way. The next one is already written and the awesome essential prop is already built, so we’re ready to shoot as soon as the snow melts here in New York.