Most ‘new directors’ that come on the scene have a history;
they’re not grown in vats or elevated to the big chair after cleaning pools and
handing out blowjobs. (Oops, sorry Troy. Did you want a clean introduction you’d be OK with your mom reading?) And Troy Nixey definitely has a history; he spent over a decade honing storytelling chops in the grinding world of monthly comics publishing.

His short film, Latchkey’s Lament, showed off those chops when it played at the Toronto Fest; unfortunately I didn’t see either of the two public screenings, but I have seen Latchkey’s a couple times now, and it’s a great debut. This is a guy with a real design sense and a mind for stories that aren’t the same cookie-cutter genre bullshit. And to consider a costume and CGI-heavy story as your first effort, then see it through successfully shows that he’s got the stomach to make it through the feature gauntlet.

Before we did this interview, Troy and I had been hanging
out and drinking for a few hours, so this is a little more long-winded than most interviews. If I had a better recording, I’d just hand it over to Troy
to edit down as the audio commentary for his film, especially since the music
from the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel is constantly and soothingly present in the
background. Feel free to imagine that as you read.

You’ve said that
your background in comics was always going to lead you to this, so that seems
like a good place to start.

retrospect yes. I’ve always been a storyteller, even more than an artist.
Having the ability to draw made comics a natural avenue to take. My first real
introduction to a comic book store was in grade seven or eight and I thought it
was the greatest thing ever. I started reading stuff like
Camelot 3000 and Ronin.
Those were my introduction to comics. So I had a tendency to go towards the
stranger stuff early on, and I eventually found my way to the superhero stuff.

All I remember from
Camelot 3000 is Bolland’s image of
Morgan le Fay’s pustulent back.

got me too, and the giant guys with the domed helmets, all that.

it opened up this world to me. I liked to tell stories and I always drew, and
it seemed a natural fit. I graduated from high school early, started to work
for some small publishers and it rolled out from there. I started out working
for thirty bucks a page for Slave Labor Graphics and worked my way up to the
bigger companies.

What was your first
published stuff?

was called Prey, for Monster Comics,
an offshoot of Fantagraphics. It was terrible! I wrote and drew it, and there
was no way I should have been doing that at that time. It was this Conan kinda
thing…just awful, awful. When I did conventions someone would show up with a
copy and a huge smile on their face. I’d sign it and thank them very much and
then shudder when they walked away.

worked on a myriad of things over the next few years but I still hadn’t found
my comic voice and then, as we were talking about earlier, I saw The
Nightmare Before Christmas
, and was really blown away. When you’re
younger and you see superhero comics doing really well, you assume that’s what
you’re supposed to do. Not this different stuff/ alternative stuff — I’m
supposed to draw superhero comics. And that’s when I realized, no, superhero
comics isn’t what I want to do. So I started doing the odder work I’m known for
and thank god I did, because that’s when I found my voice and realized what
kind of stories I really wanted to tell. After that I got to do things like
Batman The Doom That Came To Gotham
with Mike [Mignola], and I could sort of fold myself/ style into that. It was
the best of both worlds and for a while I thought I had found my niche.

in hindsight I never felt creatively satisfied at all in my comic career. Ever.
I always found it very frustrating. It’s a very lonely job. You sit at home and
draw, and send it to your publisher and that’s it. It always felt hollow. I’d
see my friends who were drawing comics, and the passion and desire they had for
the medium, and I’d wonder why I didn’t have the same passion. They drew all
the time and if I didn’t have to draw, I wasn’t drawing. I only drew because I
had to pay the bills. I no longer got any enjoyment from it.

kind of pig-headed I wouldn’t allow myself to realize that maybe comics wasn’t
the right thing for me. Then when Phoenix Pictures optioned Trout, I got a pretty good option and
that gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for. I have always loved movies
more than comics so it made perfect sense to try and direct a short film. I
jumped into it with both feet.

knew that the short, whatever it was going to be, had to be told in the voice I
had struggled so long to find in comics. I started working on a concept and
really fell in love with the idea of trying to bring to life an inanimate
object and trying to illicit an emotional connection to the object from the
audience. Everyone talks about the Keyfiend and how crazy and creepy he is, but
to me it’s about the keys.

had a lot of fun during pre-production but it wasn’t until the first day on set
working with the cast and crew that I knew comics were done for me. It was like
a light switch being turned on. Oh THIS is what I’m supposed to do. It still
took another three years to complete Latchkey’s, but I knew that making movies
was what I needed to be doing.

next three years were really difficult. It was costing me twice what I thought
it would and taking twice as long as I had planned but I still had to do it,
even during the many times I thought the project was dead…I had to keep pushing
forward. I was not a happy guy during that time, but I needed to experience
that, and appreciate what it takes to do this, because it’s not easy and you
can’t fool yourself that it is. I’m very proud of how it turned out and it’s
nice to bring it to TIFF, show it to people I don’t know and have them
experience an emotional connection to two little keys.

How many days did
you actually shoot with a crew?

days at the old factory, and then a day at the house. It’s the same house they
shot The
Witches of Eastwick
in, this amazingly huge, beautiful house, and we
shot in one tiny corner! It was the servant’s entrance, so not even the main
entrance. It used to be a nunnery; it’s sort of a historical house and
apparently haunted, but we didn’t hear or see anything. The guy that takes care
of it lives there with his family, and he was surprised that the small entrance
was all we wanted to shoot.

I don’t think I could have shot this anywhere else other than in Vancouver.
Yeah, we paid for the location, a nominal fee, and most of the people on the
crew donated their time. It was like that across the board. Some cinema
magazine, can’t remember which one, keeps voting Vancouver as the best place to
shoot an independent movie. Really talented people and vendors will cut you a
deal because they’re building relationships with potential film makers who will
come back and pay full rates once they get established. Vancouver is fantastic
that way.

You and I share an
affinity for locations, I think, and you have a really great one here. And one
that no longer exists.

was the old Progressive Engineering Building in Vancouver. Any metal coupling,
like you see on a bridge or a fire hydrant or whatever, has to be cast by first
making a wooden pattern and then molds were made from the patterns. So all those
wooden objects you see on the shelves in the film are the patterns for the
molds. The guy who let us shoot there now makes furniture out of them. This
place was very close to where I used to live in Gastown in Vancouver. After my
first visit I fell in love with the old place. I was really happy we were
allowed to film there.

there was a ticking clock. We knew it had been purchased by a developer and
knew it was going to be torn down, we just didn’t know when. We had to approach
the developer, and they were helpful and let us shoot there. We had to wait for
to finish, though. I think we were the last people to shoot

great as the old place was it was hazardous as hell. You’d see standing pools
of oil that seeped up from the ground and it was always cold and wet. One of
the guys rigging lights upstairs put his foot through the roof, so maybe it was
time for the building to go. But it held a lot of history and it was sad to see
a hole in the ground where a few months earlier we’d shot. Knowing that condos
are going up in its place is sad.

Isn’t that always
the case, where you find a great location and see the visual potential that you
fail to consider how much it’s actually going to suck to shoot there?

It’s funny, because when we were talking about what camera we wanted to use,
originally we planned to shoot high def, but because of the tight space there
was no way we could fit a hi def camera in most of the locations. So we shot
with a DVX 100, which is like a $6,000 consumer level camera. We did research,
and it doesn’t really like primary colors, but it LOVES browns. And it loves
smoke; you have to pull a Tony Scott and smoke the hell out of your location
because smoke gives it atmosphere and depth. Some digital cameras seem to
compress everything, and make a location look really small and flat. So smoke
is a magical thing, it restores all that depth and atmosphere, and you get the
beautiful god rays.

And of course, you
have a narrative use of smoke in the film, as the Keyfiend expresses himself
with puffs of smoke.

it worked. We had a pocket fogger in his helmet that worked remotely. We went
through a couple of those. It was hit and miss. By the end we were burning rope
in the top of his helmet. The camera had some difficulties picking that up but
it worked in enough places, and in the right places, that it’s fine. When he’s
angry or emoting it’s there.

You built some real
costume pieces for the Keyfiend, too.

a big fan of Nosferatu. He was the biggest inspiration for the Keyfiend. You
can really see it in the Keyfiend’s face. Plus they’re both vampires…the
Keyfiend just happens to be of the mechanical variety.

that the camera likes earth tones, and thinking about the era, we immediately
went to leather as the costume material. I approached my friend Misty
Benavidez, who is an amazingly talented seamstress. The leather we bought was
still in the shape of cows. We needed a lot of leather. As she sewed it, I
worked on other parts of the costume, the gloves, boots, mouthpiece and helmet.
We’d get together and sand the costume, rub dirt and shoe polish on it, spritz
bleach on it, whatever we had to do to age it. She really nailed it.

was cool about getting the costume done early in the process was when we
brought it to the other people involved, like effects people and everyone else,
they saw the level we were aspiring too and that raised the bar and proved we
weren’t messing around. She really threw down the gauntlet…hahaha.

Did you build the
key mouth, or is that CGI?

shell was cast in fiberglass with two servos inside that controlled the opening
and closing. They were painted out in post. The mechanical gag inside is CGI.
There’s no other CGI on him, it’s all practical. The face was a prosthetic done
by my friend Ryan Nicholson and the fine folks at Flesh and Fantasy.

was great. He was completely supportive. He donated space in his shop for us to
build the Keyfiend’s big desk, my friend Darcy Davis welded it and assembled it.
Ryan gave us a huge deal, basically we were paying for supplies and materials,
and he donated his time and expertise. He did a great job. He’s completely
crazy, but in that great way I think that’s common in most practical effects

And the guy in the
suit is one of the few real humans in the film.

Daniel Lomas is his name. He has a mime background. Since there was no dialogue
and he was going to be in this heavy costume, I was very aware that we needed
to find someone who could sell it all with his body. So immediately you think
of a mime, and we were surprised to find out that there are a couple of mime
schools in Vancouver. He jumped all over it, and loved being in the costume and
makeup. The last day was like a 21 or 22 hour day, but he didn’t complain once.
We were so lucky to find him. A lot of other people wouldn’t have approached it
with the professionalism and enthusiasm that he did.

I assume you’d
storyboarded everything out?

For a 17-minute short I think I had 65 pages of storyboards. Being able to show
storyboards to people really helped. You really have to pre- plan for an FX
heavy project and being able to draw was very helpful.

How’d you deal with
the CG keys on set?

built the key to scale out of thick wire and attached it to a stick. Not only
was this helpful for size reference, but we’d puppeteer it through the shot for
timing and blocking, eyelines. It helped Daniel in terms of knowing what he
needed to do and where he needed to be. As rudimentary as the shots are they
were also helpful reference for the animators.

There’s a bit in
the movie that comes out of nowhere — this big hammer booby trap near the end.

my love of Looney Tunes. There’s the shot where the camera pans down as the
Keyfiend is listening to all the noises upstairs, and the idea is that it’s
ridiculous that the key is capable of making all that noise. But it’s totally a
Looney Tunes gag that comes from out of nowhere. I love that. Notions of a
living, bouncing key aside, it’s so implausible that this thing could do that.
You know you want the key to win, though, and what more ridiculous way than
creating a giant booby-trap?

played with sound cues a lot. I’m a big fan of hearing stuff that is revealed
later, and using sound as a storytelling device rather than showing everything.
So that plays into the booby trap, too.

The film sounds
great, overall.

SOUND is responsible for the sound. When we took it to them they were really
excited and kind of freaked out at the same time because there was no usable
location sound. Everything you hear was 100% created through Foley and sound
design. They looked at it knowing it was a lot of work but still agreed and
gave me a hell of a deal at the same time. Jeff Davis, who did a lot of the sound
design, did amazing work. Every time I’d go for a session, I’d say ‘yeah, it’s
great, but it needs this and this…’ and, you know, they’re a company. They have
other work to do. So he’d be taking notes and looking at me like, my god…

day we mixed it I had the biggest smile on my face. Watching it in this
pristine studio on a big screen and there’s two engineers mixing it on a giant
board and the sound is booming. I’d watched it a hundred times, but to finally
have it all come together was amazing.

Jeff Tymoschuk, the composer, wrote music that blends really well with the
sound and still finds the themes to tell the story. I’m a big fan of signature
themes for characters, and he did a fantastic job. I really wanted to pound you
emotionally with the sound and music, especially since there’s no dialogue.
Music for me replaced the dialogue. Are you going to have keys talk? That would
kill it. If the keys don’t talk why would the Keyfiend talk? So you replace
dialogue with music.

Did anyone call you
crazy for being a first-time filmmaker with a main character that was CGI?

People already knew I was crazy. How the CGI came about is a story in and of
itself. We had approached a company that agreed to do the CGI at a certain
rate, etc. We agreed and went ahead and shot the film. As we were gearing up
for the CGI the company dissolved. I really freaked out, because I didn’t know
where else I could get the CGI done and I had spent quite a bit of cash to that
point. That was a real rough spot and the film sat dormant for quite a while.
I’d become friends with one of the guys at the company, Trevor Adams, and he
started working on it on his own at home. He got the ball rolling and then Ken
Meyer, another one of the guys from that group, came in and spearheaded the
rest of the animation and everything else flowed through him. What eventually
happened was that a lot of the guys from that company started working on it
from home. It probably took twice as long to get it done, but the fact that we
got it done at all is a major accomplishment. We did the color-correct and the
off-line at a post company, but everything else was put together through home
systems. The guys worked their asses off and I feel lucky to call them friends
after all we went through.

How was your first
time seeing this projected in front of an audience?

was freaked out about it. I didn’t know what the quality would be, because we’d
shot it on this consumer level camera. I was worried it would look like shit
blown up. I knew the sound would be good, and it actually sounded better than I
expected. It was LOUD. But the image held up and I was really happy about that.
First night, the theater was sold out, and it played the next afternoon to
almost a full house. I was nervous the first night; the film played second in
the bill, so it was nice to get it out of the way. The second show was a lot
easier. And my original intent was served, because in the Q&As afterwards,
people mentioned having made an emotional attachment to the keys. That made me
really happy.