“Marvelous Fishman” | Nisan Dag

| March 6, 2015

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When you’re a humanoid with gills and scales, fitting in and making friends is a little harder than it is for most folks. Gus, a.k.a “the Marvelous Fishman,” grew up as the star of a freak show, but what he really wants is to find a true home and a family. With stunning visuals and a haunting ending, Nisan Dag’s film Marvelous Fishman examines what it means to be an outcast, and whether it’s truly possible to change one’s lot in life.


Monstrosities, Curiosities, and Wonders at the circus.

“Monstrosities, Curiosities, and Wonders” at the circus in Marvelous Fishman.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into filmmaking?

I relied on my imagination to survive the boredom of being the only child in the family. The couch would [become] a volcano, the red rug would be the lava and I’d have to step on the pillows to survive. Looking back, I think that kind of lonely childhood almost forced my imagination to grow. Also, the town where I was born and raised in Turkey is relatively small where not much was going on. It is so colorless and boring that the nickname for my town is “gray city.” I think I can also credit my gray hometown [on helping to] force me to be more creative. Making films and watching films have been an escape for me ever since.

How did Marvelous Fishman come into being? 

I’ve always been interested in freaks, not just because they’re unusual or interesting but because they’re outcasts. I felt outcast throughout my life just because I chose to be myself no matter what others would think of me, and yes that comes with a price. That’s why I connect with stories of misfits. The Elephant Man was an inspiration to me, but what I wanted to do was to create a more fantastical world and make a timeless story.


A pair of unlikely friends.

A pair of unlikely friends.

Would it be fair to call the film quirky? I found it deeply unsettling, haunting and sad, so maybe “quirky” is not the right word.

I agree; haunting and sad describe it much better. Gus, the fishman, has lived his whole life trapped in the freak show, and the idea of his family – and the hope that he can reconnect with them one day – is what keeps him going. Throughout the journey after his escape, he faces some difficult facts, but in the end we still don’t know the truth. Is he being manipulated by the circus barker, or was he disillusioned his whole life? The heart of the film is centered around these questions, so that’s why it’s not exactly quirky. However, there are some fun human (!) moments between Gus and the girl in the film.

The ringmaster of the circus.

The ringmaster of the circus.

What inspired you to create the character of Gus? 

Before making Marvelous Fishman, I made a short called Onion Boy. It was about an onion-headed man living in a world where “vegetable headed people” are a minority that are looked down on. The film was built around the concept of being different and an outcast, just like Marvelous Fishman. When making Onion Boy, I enjoyed giving life to an inanimate thing and humanizing the attributes of an onion; for instance, the Onion Man smells bad no matter how much deodorant he uses, and he makes people cry. I wanted to experiment with this more, take it one step forward toward realism, and came up with the character of Gus.

Gus, the Marvelous Fishman.

Gus, the Marvelous Fishman, hydrating on the road.

How did your actor deal with the prosthetics? Can you tell us about the makeup design and the practical, day-to-day application on set?

Since Gus is a fish above the neck, the most important thing in the design was to make sure we can still capture the facial expression when the prosthetic makeup was applied to the face. Technically, that means you can’t have a very thick layer of silicone around the facial muscles, but at the same time, the thicker layers give you a better design; with prosthetic makeup designer Adam Bailey, we tried to find the ideal balance between the two. On set, [actor] Matt Strickland was incredibly patient during the 4-hour long application and finessing. Since taking the mask on and off was so time consuming, he’d keep it on the whole day and drink his lunch with a straw. Yet aside from the physical difficulties, I think for an actor the most challenging aspect was that you’re giving up some of your performance…getting lost behind the silicone, since the mask doesn’t reflect all of the [facial expressions] 100%. I think Matt was brave to see this as a challenge, and he explored other ways of transmitting emotion, like paying more attention to his voice and his body.

Did you direct your child actor differently than you directed the adults? In general, what was it like to work with the actress that played Madeline?

It’s true that I work with each actor in a different way based on their needs and style, but I wouldn’t necessarily categorize that as directing children vs. directing adults. Every human being is their own unique thing and I try to redefine myself off of that while staying true to myself. With Madeline, we spent time at Central Park a lot. We went on a bike ride; I wanted to see how she was with bikes because we had a bike scene. It was also a good way to warm up to each other. After talking about the story and her character, sometimes we’d walk around and I’d ask her to be in character when she talked to me. That way I let her explore her own character and it helped me to understand her take on it too. Madeline is a real professional; it was so easy to work with her. She’d know all her lines so well, but she always felt present at the same time. I loved letting her improv with Matt too.

Madeline plays a young girl who befriends Gus.

Madeline, the young girl who befriends Gus.

Tell us about working with John Wakayama Carey, who was also the Director of Photography on Above the Sea and Fireworks.

John Wakayama Carey…what an incredible DP! I want to keep working with him for the rest of my life. I think Hollywood is going to discover him very soon though, so I’m going to give him my schedule two years ahead of time probably! He actually shot my first feature film Across The Sea, which played at Slamdance this year. I always say this about him: it’s as if there’s a magic way of holding the camera that allows you into the souls of your characters through their eyes, and John Wakayama always finds that spot so naturally as if a magnet is pulling him there.

Gus looking for a home in "The Marvelous Fishman."

Gus looking for a home.

The watercolor paintings give the film a storybook quality. How did you work with Jana Liptak to get the right look?

Aside from sharing the script and the film footage, I prepared references for each image that showed examples for lighting, colors, textures and composition. My dream was to make watercolor animation instead, but I had to keep it at stills because of budget limitations. In the end, I think it still worked out in creating the effect I was trying to achieve.

Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign. What did you learn? Would you have done anything differently?

It was a great campaign. I spent two full weeks making the video; some friends said that I was wasting time and that [the only] people who are going to be donating will be friends and family who won’t care about the video. Yet I proved them wrong. I got so many donations from strangers. I even got a job offer by someone who liked the video. So the presentation of the campaign does matter. The only thing I’d do differently would be to consider the amount of money it costs to prepare the perks and include that in the amount you need to raise.

Who do you cite as influences?

Back when I was making animated shorts, I was inspired by Maya Deren’s films, mostly the famous Meshes of the Afternoon. She was the one who drove me from animation to live-action, and gave me the idea of incorporating the magic of animation into live action. Other people who inspire me are Jan Švankmajer, David Lynch, Tim Burton, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson.

Nisan Dag, director of "The Marvelous Fishman."

Nisan Dag, director of Marvelous Fishman.

Tell us about your Columbia University experience.

It was a tough, transformative, eye-opening experience. It’s more than a film school; I think the experience at Columbia is something else. I’d normally agree with people who say, “it’s not about the school, it has to be in you,” but at Columbia, I gained a vision that I wouldn’t have been able to obtain through my own efforts. After that enlightenment, you still need to put that thing in you out there.

Do you have any advice for student filmmakers?

Don’t rush your first feature, of course, but make sure that “taking your time” doesn’t turn into a way of justifying procrastination. You know how they throw babies in the water and they figure out how to swim? I think that’s a good way of doing it. You’re still going to be a first-time director even if you wait ten years, so why not get that over with sooner?

Nisan Dag is a writer/director based in Istanbul and New York. Her first feature Across the Sea won the Audience Award at Slamdance Film Festival and had a theatrical release in Turkey. Nisan is currently directing for the MTV series Rebel Music and developing her next feature project.

Like Marvelous Fishman on Facebook: facebook.com/TheMarvelousFishMan

Follow Nisan on Twitter: @nisandag

Marvelous Fishman screens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: College Film Competition showcase on Thursday, March 5 @ 10:00pm, and Friday, March 6 @ 9:15 pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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