It’s not every day that a short film resonates across the globe, managing to connect emotionally with people of all different ages and backgrounds. But in the case of If Anything Happens I Love You, from directors Will McCormack and Michael Govier, this is precisely what happened.
Executive produced by Laura Dern, and guided visually by up-and-comer Youngran Nho, the dynamic duo’s first animated short centers on parents who struggle to deal with the death of their daughter, in the aftermath of a school shooting.
A meditation on grief and memory that speaks powerfully to the tragic prevalence of gun violence today, without a word being said, the striking, minimalist short was the first to break into Netflix’s Top 10 list of most-watched programs. Upon its November release, it quickly went on to be streamed tens of millions of times on the social networking platform TikTok, generating countless reaction videos and meaningful social conversation, surrounding a societal issue that truly struck a nerve.
Below, McCormack and Govier reflect on the inspiration behind the short, its “surreal” debut and what the level of attention it garnered tells us about the world of today.
DEADLINE: How did you come to work together on If Anything Happens? And what inspired you to make it?
WILL MCCORMACK: We met at an acting class in the Valley and became friends immediately. We’re both writers, so we would end up meeting in Griffith Park. We would get avocado sandwiches at Trails [Cafe] and talk about what we were working on, and we were both interested in writing about grief, and wrestling with some loss in our own lives.
The initial kernel of the film [was], Michael had this beautiful visualization of these shadows that would represent these vessels that people couldn’t reach, because they were in too much agony. I thought, “Wow. That’s really powerful,” and we took it from there. We developed a script and it took a year, but we found an incredible animation director, Youngran Nho, who’s a genius. We absolutely fell in love with her and the way that she was able to visualize the work, but it really started from two writers meeting, talking about something that we wanted to mine in our own lives.
DEADLINE: How did you land on a school shooting and its aftermath, as the specific framework for the story?
MICHAEL GOVIER: I think the reason we got to that is, Will and I both grew up in a world where the most dramatic thing you had at school was a fire drill—or maybe some goof called in a bomb threat, but there was never a bomb. But now, these threats have become so serious and so real, and in such a wonderful place of learning and protection, it’s just unfathomable for us to contemplate that this is a reality, that kids have to go through active shooter training, and these other kinds of training, which we never experienced. So, it was just showing the grief that still lingers on in the community, even though maybe the news cycle has left them, and what that grief looks like.
DEADLINE: In prep, you consulted with the Everytown for Gun Safety nonprofit, meeting as well with those whose lives have been affected by gun violence. How did they help shape your film?
GOVIER: We wrote the script, and then brought it to [Everytown] because we were sensitive about the material and wanted to get their input.
MCCORMACK: We’re both great admirers of the work that they do, but moreover, as storytellers, we wanted to be really scrupulous with this material. We wanted to be authentic about the process of grief, so they were huge allies to us, as storytellers.
Then, we met with a lot of parents who’ve lost kids to gun violence, and we had [a proverb we found] tacked to the top of our corkboard, which is, “When your parents die, you bury them in the ground. But when your child dies, you bury them in your heart.” And it was something that was like a North Star. We really wanted to be able to tell this story, to pay tribute to these parents who have lost kids, and [have them] know that their stories matter, and their lives matter. And even though the news cycle is fast, and there has been some normalization with this in culture, it’s not normal. One kid dying in one school is one too many, so we were very thorough about how we approached the story—because it is sensitive, sensitive material—and animation felt like the perfect avenue for this type of story.
DEADLINE: When you approached Youngran about the project, she had just graduated from CalArts. How did you come to connect with her?
GOVIER: We connected with Maija Burnett, a professor at CalArts, and had some wonderful conversations. We said, “This is a thing we’re building. Do you have any people to recommend?” And she recommended her. We had a wonderful meeting, and Youngran read the script and goes, “Oh my gosh. This reminds me of Father and Daughter,” which is one of [our] favorite short films. So, we just clicked, and from there, we were all on the same page. It was just a wonderful meeting of artists, and everyone upping everyone else’s game.
DEADLINE: How did you conceive of the film’s visual style? From what I understand, you were using watercolors on paper to create something that felt raw and unfinished.
MCCORMACK: We had a cardinal rule that for the most part, anything that didn’t need to be in a frame, we would remove, because we were looking for complete parsimony and leanness in the style of the storytelling. We wanted to capture the desperation and loneliness of grief, so we were looking for something really barren. Then, we talked so much about color.
GOVIER: After we spent a year on those 12 pages for the script, we probably spent the next bulk of our time on color and flow, and what color means, and the representation of color, and how it goes from monochromatic, very muted colors at the beginning, to almost a black-and-white look. [It’s] muted, and then it’s earth tones, and then it goes into splashes of color. And then, even when you get into the memory with the daughter, it’s still filtered through the present-day lens of grief. So, that’s why if you look at the frame, the edges aren’t complete. It’s not fully washed with color. It’s still through the current lens of the conversation that [the parents] are having in the bedroom. Then, at the end, you see color and warmth start to come back in, when it shows that representation of love, hope and togetherness of the parents. And it didn’t solve anything, but it just shows that they’re still there, and how brave it is to keep going.
MCCORMACK: The leanness of style worked well, I think, too, when you go into the memory of their time together, because the things that were important are excavated, and I think that’s how memory works. When you remember what happened years ago, you don’t remember what was in the room, but you remember the spirit of the moment and how you felt. So, I think just putting the lens exactly on that, by making it smaller and simpler, visually, was able to make the story fuller, in terms of emotion.
DEADLINE: What did the pipeline for the short look like?
GOVIER: The pipeline was interesting because we don’t have the resources that a lot of big animation studios have. So, that’s why we had to spend so long on the script. We had to distill it down because we didn’t have the luxury to explore it in storyboards, or even in an animatic. We didn’t have the luxury like, “Okay, let’s rough animate this section three times and see what works.” So, that was a very interesting challenge, and I think it made us better writers because it forced us to really get to the story.
As far as the process, it’s like this is a mom-and-pop shop. It was created on my dining room table, Will’s dining room table and Maryann Garger, our producer’s dining room table. It was the three of us, and when Maryann joined, that was the other big blessing. She believed in us, supported us, and helped us build out this wonderful group. But there were only three animators on the team—these three wonderful women, all CalArts grads. It couldn’t be more indie.
DEADLINE: Will, I know you contributed to the script for Toy Story 4, but this was the first animated short for you both as directors. Was there a learning curve in taking this on?
MCCORMACK: From my own experience, I write some big movies now. I just handed one off to Disney, and it’s painful to let it go because as a writer, I’ve thought about it for two years. Because I wrote it, I think I know where the camera goes, and how I want it to look.
And I’m happy to have that job; I love being a screenwriter. [But] this is something that really came from our loins. So, when it came time to direct it, not that we were overly confident, but I think we felt that we were the right people to direct the film. Because we had created it, there was a direct line, for us, to story.
And I’ve been able to work at Pixar, and work with storyboard artists, and talk about scenes, and see their representations of what I’ve written. So, I like that back and forth, and I’ve had that discourse with artists before. But really, directing and talking to your animation team, to me, is not dissimilar to talking to actors. You’re really just trying to get to the center of something, and being an animation nerd, and being obsessed with animated short films, we watched hundreds in preparation for this film. So, I really felt like, “We can do this.”
And Michael’s such a great partner. I think visually, he brought out things in me, and gave me the confidence to direct. So, it was just a really great partnership.
DEADLINE: If Anything Happens has registered in pop culture in a way few shorts ever do. What was it like to witness this response to your work? And what do you think this engagement says about the world at this moment in time?
GOVIER: It’s crazy.
MCCORMACK: Yeah. I have friends from Brazil and Italy sending me screenshots. I’m middle-aged, so I don’t even have TikTok on my phone. But my niece texted me the day after the movie came out and said, “Uncle Will, your movie’s trending on TikTok.” So, I downloaded it, and there were these videos of all ages of people, but a lot of kids from around the world, showing themselves before the movie, during, and after, sobbing. So, you’re watching people watch your movie in real time, and I thought, “Has this ever happened?”
It was so surreal and so moving, because I think everyone’s been holed up in their rooms for months, and they’re looking for this emotional release. Moreover, I think kids keep getting shot in schools, and no one does anything. So, I think that this was kids saying, “Oh, this is our story, and no one’s stopping it. We need this.” So, it was really a moving, cathartic thing to experience.
GOVIER: Then, people are reaching out, writing us personal notes and letters, and things on different social media platforms, saying, “Thank you so much for making this film. We feel seen.” They’re sharing their stories, and it’s giving them this moment of collective grief, and allowing them to grieve. I mean, people want to get these emotions out, and this film is just trying to give you space to [do so], if you want.
MCCORMACK: I think more than anything, it felt like an emphatic declaration that people want to feel, and that people are open to a 12-minute film. It doesn’t have to be 120 minutes. You can have the same or better experience in 12, and that really felt like a win for short films.
DEADLINE: What kinds of resources would you recommend to those who are currently grieving, or to raise awareness of gun violence?
GOVIER: Everytown, and then Our House Grief Center. [They are] a wonderful resource, especially if you’re going through any kind of grief, and we’ve been working with them, as well, just so people have resources to get the finest support.
DEADLINE: What gives you hope that America can successfully grapple with rampant issues like gun violence? Obviously, we, as a nation, have failed to do so for a long time.
GOVIER: I think these kids give me hope. These kids that have responded so much, that’s that next generation that’s going to help drive change, and they give me a tremendous amount of hope.
MCCORMACK: I agree. I think if the world is going to change—and I think it will—with the climate and with guns, it’s going to be through the kids. Kids are going to make the change. I think people underestimate them, and I would not count them out.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you both? Do you have plans to reteam as directors?
GOVIER: We’re currently developing an animated feature. Will and I are going to direct again, and we’re real excited to get the band back together.
MCCORMACK: Yeah. We’re excited to make a feature with the exact same team. It was just such an enchanted filmmaking experience, and those are hard to come by. So, we want to try to do it again.