FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Zach Passero writer and director of The Weird Kidz

A cool chat with the creator of a cool cartoon

James Whittington
August 26, 2023

We love horror themed animation at NYX and anyone looking at our daytime schedule will discover plenty of gems so we were so pleased to see Zach Passero's animated feature The Weird Kidz at FrightFest. Here he chats about this cracker of a cartoon.

NYX: Where did the idea for The Weird Kidz come from and why did you choose animation?

ZP: The idea for THE WEIRD KIDZ came when I found out my wife and background artist on the film, Hannah was pregnant. The idea of parenthood started to make me pensive about my own childhood and how our future kid was going to have one. I started remembering old adventures, friends, influences, movies, and imaginings. I also remembered that I had always wanted to make an animated feature film since I was a kid and had yet to do it. All of this stewed into THE WEIRD KIDZ.

NYX: Did you design the characters yourself?

ZP: I did the character designs and animation for the film. They were each based on friends I had, people I knew, and projections of real and imagined versions of myself. Since the film centres around pre-teen and teenage characters, I wanted their design to look like it could have come out of a high-schoolerʻs sketchbook.

NYX: How did you go about casting the right person with each character?

ZP: While I was writing the script and tinkering with character designs, the actors that I wanted to play each role came to mind. They were all people that I knew I would love to collaborate with and whom I thought would have fun with the project.  I feel really fortunate they everyone I was hoping for was willing to be a part of the film. And each actor brings so much life to their character. The voices and personalities still tickle me. And ultimately, they informed the animation and expressions of the characters.

The only character that was difficult to cast was Dug. Part of the problem might have come from the idea that Dug was basically me at age 12. We had pretty much wrapped up recording everyone’s role when it dawned on Lucky and myself that my sister, Tess would be perfect for the role. She had done some acting as a kid and even more, she basically grew up with Dug. We recorded with her, and she was just perfect.

NYX: Are they based on anyone you know?

ZP: Each character is based on someone I know mixed with a little projection of myself or my internal self at different times in my life. In that mix there are dear friends that I grew up with, characters I knew peripherally, and versions of myself that existed or that I had hoped existed.

NYX: How long did the movie take from script to screen?

ZP: From script to screen, the whole process took just over eight years! I know that sounds insane. Especially when you can sit down and just watch the work in 81 minutes. This truly was an autonomous project. While I had amazing support from producer Lucky McKee and Charles Horak, the production team for the entire film can be counted on less than 2 hands. I was the sole animator on the project. Hannah was the sole background artist. The reality of us starting a family needed us to continue on our day jobs alongside THE WEIRD KIDZ. I feel fortunate to get to work as a feature film editor. In the course of making THE WEIRD KIDZ I edited 9 feature films. Iʻd work 8 - 10/hrs per day on my ʻday jobʻ and then go home and work 6 - 8 hours/night after the family had gone to sleep. In that, the finishing line for THE WEIRD KIDZ stretched out.

NYX: How hard is it to get funding for an independent cartoon feature?

ZP: Itʻs extremely hard to get funding for an independent feature. And even mores an indie animated feature. The film began largely self-financed. With Hannah and myself as the production team, we weren’t paying ourselves. The money went to paying actors, software, the sound design, score, music, and finishing. We were really fortunate that along the way, we started to get support and grants from the community around us. We live in El Paso, TX- a beautiful desert town on the border with Mexico and New Mexico with a personality completely separate from stereotypical ʻTexasʻ. We were fortunate to receive a nice grant from the Museum and Cultural Affairs Department there, as well as a few other generous community entities like the Rio Bravo Film Fund and Paso Del Norte Film Fund. When the push came to shove we launched a modest and successful crowdfunding campaign. And eventually had a few angel investors that came in for the final stretch so that we could really focus on the film and stick the landing. I am so grateful for the support we had - monetarily and in encouragement. They were essential.

But, yes. It is EXTREMELY difficult to get independent financing for an animated feature.

NYX: This is you first feature as a director, what lessons in directing to you learn whilst in production?

ZP: The process was so blended for me. I was animating, directing, and editing all simultaneously at any given time. That said, my best directing lesson there was to lean into my editing brain when planning the scenes out before animating. In that, I could economize the shots and what was needed to tell the story of the scene. It kept me from animating shots that would later be cut out.

I think the only part of the process that I felt the directing was distinctly separate was in working with the voice actors. In that, I learned how important it is to have conversations about what you want or what your intentions are, but then to let that go and see what the actor is bringing and interpreting. Itʻs a collaborative process, and in that, the magic is found. It was such a fun process.

But I think the biggest overall directing lesson from the whole experience was to have an idea/roadmap of what you want, but be open to the changes that come from moment to moment- from collaborators, or from your own gut.

NYX: Will Wyatt’s cool song get a release?

ZP: Oh man, I hope so. Itʻs such an earworm of a tune! One of my great joys was when after one Annecy Animation Festival screening, the majority of the audience left singing “Hey, Girl”!

NYX: Its part (in my opinion) Scooby-Doo, part Beavis and Butthead, part coming of age movie, part ‘50s B-movie how would you describe it?

ZP: Oh man, there are pieces of all three of those influences in there, for sure! I think Iʻve come to describe it as an animated 80s coming of age gateway horror comedy with roots in 90s independent animation like LIQUID TELEVISION.

NYX: Would you like to do more adventures for the Weird Kidz?

ZP: I absolutely am up for more adventures with THE WEIRD KIDZ. I know exactly where they are all going from the end of the film forward. It will expand the influences to include more genres that I love- expanding coming of age, gateway horror, and comedy, but also bringing in my love for juvenile delinquent films and suburban horror.

NYX: Will you be nervous when it gets its European premiere at FrightFest 2023?

ZP: I am nervous before every screening. I have a few obsessive checks/rituals that I do leading up to each one. But mostly, that nervousness is excitement to get to share the film with such an incredible audience. I feel very fortunate to be sharing THE WEIRD KIDZ at FrightFest.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

ZP: Currently, Iʻve been plotting out the next adventure of THE WEIRD KIDZ and getting ready to write that, as well as planning another little more surreal and abstract animated film.

The latter will likely be the next thing I spend an insane stretch of late nights on. But Iʻm really ready to drop back into animating. After 8 years of it being my late-night meditation, Iʻm really missing it.

NYX: Zach Passero, thank you very much.