[Interview] "Unplugged" with Filmmakers Paul McComas & Holly Trasti
Updated: May 12, 2022
I sat down with Paul Mccomas & Holly Trasti, two filmmakers for Unplugged, an animated feature about a young rockstar who struggles with newfound fame, childhood abuse, depression & attempted suicide only to pull herself back up as the final girl in her own narrative. Based on his screenplay and novel, Paul serves as executive producer and co-director. Holly is co-director, associate producer and stars as the film’s lead actress, Dayna Clay.
Paul McComas, Christina Ricci & Holly Trasti
CODY: I’m currently in Turks & Caicos, interviewing Paul McComas & Holly Trasti, filmmakers for a new animated feature film “Unplugged." It has a pretty amazing cast including Christina Ricci. Do you want to tell me a little bit about your inspiration for the book and film?
PAUL: You mentioned Christina Ricci is in it, we’ve recorded all of her part. We also have Jeri Ryan of Star Trek: Voyager and Ed Asner, in what will likely be the last release from the late Mr. Asner.
CODY: That’s incredible that you were able to get Ed Asner’s part, sadly, before he passed.
PAUL: Well we recorded him last April and he passed about a half a year later. I had known him for a number of years and he had wanted to do the part. He kind of encouraged me to go ahead and get it. He was 91 at the time so we got it. We also have Louis Gosset Jr., who of course is an Academy Award Winner. Sheryl Lee, there she is right here on my shirt. We have Dana Ashbrook, also of Twin Peaks, John Doe of the punk band X, and our lead, Holly Trasti, she fronts a band called Holly and the Nice Lions.
CODY: It’s an incredible cast and I’m excited to speak with Holly as well. Is there a reason you chose animated over live action?
PAUL: Yes, several reasons. One is the pandemic, particularly if you’re working with older actors. I’ve mentioned a couple here. You don’t necessarily want to get them on set, let alone on location. You want to be as careful as you can and judicious…and safe. So there’s that. There’s also a sort of fantastical or magical realist element to the story that I think lends itself better to animation than to live action. There are things that need to happen that are somewhat ambiguous in terms of “is this real or is this within the heroine’s imagination?” If you did a live action, I think I would be concerned that it might come across as corny. Whereas you get some leeway in animation to lean a little bit further in that direction. You’re cutting out a lot of cost; you’re adding one huge expense, which is the animation expense. But you have no crew on set which means no catering, no lodging, no medic and beyond that no key grip, no cane operator, and on and on and on. It does take a village to make a movie these days, even an animated film— but a smaller village to make an animated film.
Ed Asner & Paul McComas
CODY: That makes sense. In a deeper way, to me, watching this unfold in animated form is almost indicative of how often individuals suffering with mental illness aren’t taken as seriously. As in their illness might not be taken as seriously as a physical ailment.
PAUL: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. You know it is not typical subject matter or theme for a cartoon or an animation. Our style is going to be fairly close to realism. We’re not going to have heads or eyes that are disproportionately huge compared to bodies you know, because it is serious subject matter. Though there is a fair amount of comedy, too. It’s serious at its core and we certainly wouldn’t want it to be mistaken for a children’s film or have people think we’re not taking it seriously. But going back to what you said, I can see how it might play with people’s expectations of what an animated film is going to be and what it's going to be about and what it's going to be like.
CODY: I shared a video of Billy Jensen back in January, the true crime journalist and podcaster. He just launched The Suicide Project where he is collecting stories of people who have thought about suicide, potentially have tried to commit suicide, but who have come out of it and have survived, like Dayna Clay. At some point during the pandemic, I think, he went to several bookstores to find literature on the topic and found it lacking. It’s such a taboo topic that people who are thinking about it, don’t have access to these positive stories. Dayna Clay, as a survivor, is one thing I love about Unplugged.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call (800)-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741
If you have a story to contribute to Billy Jensen's Suicide Project, send to firstname.lastname@example.org
CODY: Holly, how did you connect with Paul and what turned you to his book or screenplay?
HOLLY: Well Paul and I met many, many years ago in Milwaukee where he happened to be at a show my band was playing. We talked at the show and a few days later he sent me the book “Unplugged.” I read it and we stayed in touch on the Internet. And then fast forward to 2020 when he shared on Facebook that he had gotten Ed Asner to sign on for the feature production of Unplugged. Being familiar with the book I said “Well that’s amazing— or should I say fantastic!” as one fo the characters in the book always says “fantastic”. And then he just said, “You know what, private message me about being involved” and I assumed it would just be musically because there are a lot of parallels between myself and the protagonist in the book: both female musicians of the punk rock/riot girl variety. And he said, “Yes I would be interested in collaborating musically with you, but how would you feel about being a voice?” And then things just kept snowballing. The more Paul and I worked together, the more he was like “I just want you to be the lead.”
Charlotte Stewart, Sharon Parks & Spencer James Parks
CODY: Is there anything personal that draws you to this project, Holly?
HOLLY: Well obviously surface-wise there is the female musician thing. I don’t want to speak for everyone in the world, but I feel like a majority of people have had struggles with depression or anxiety or trauma. Without being incredibly personal, when I first read the book I was in a much different place than I am now and I related to it differently. And now as I’m out of the place I was then, I can look at the story as a story of healing, instead of a story of someone who is struggling. So that’s where I’m at right now with it.
PAUL: That’s been a decade I think. We’re coming up on 10 years since we met and you first read the novel. One thing that’s been great about having Holly attached in the lead role is we’re able to go travel to different places and record her in person, in studio, with some of these amazing supporting cast members. We flew to Austin to record with John Doe, we flew to Atlanta to record with Lou Gosset Jr. and in October we flew to LA to record with Christina Ricci, Jeri Ryan, and Sheryl Lee. And let’s say that I had managed to both cast and be able to afford, I don’t know, Margot Robbie or something - she’s not going to be able to just pick up and go to different cities with me. I very much wanted to have the actor playing Dayna in the same studio, in the same room, developing chemistry with all of these other terrific performers and then to be able to capture that magic in a bottle rather than trying to replicate chemistry in post.
Holly Trasti, Louis Gosset Jr., Paul McComas, Annie Leeth & Brandi Harrison
CODY: Paul, do you want to speak a little bit about the true story that inspired Unplugged?
PAUL: I think “inspired” is probably the word, because this isn’t based on anyone. I mean, to some extent, I wrote it as a fan of Kurt Cobain who wanted to imagine a would-be member of the 27 club, who manages not to join. At the same time, partial inspiration came from the fact that my first ever girlfriend did take her own life, 6 months after she had been raped at age 20. We weren’t going out anymore at the time that she was attacked yet I felt partially motivated by a desire to write a different and better history. The individual in question can’t be brought back but girls and young women, young people like her, can be shown a way away from the brink, can be guided back away from that wrong step.
CODY: It’s very Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in that way, it’s sort of the positive version of what might have happened to her, what might have happened to your friend perhaps if she had healed and the ending had turned out better.
PAUL: Yeah, it can go either way depending on whether someone has a support system or not, honestly. It’s important not to look at things like depression or post-traumatic stress as character weaknesses. They’re illnesses. Trauma is something that if left untreated can lead someone to spiral down into an endless pit. So the character in “Unplugged” she gets her help from a combination of medication and getting herself out of bad patterns that she’s gotten stuck in, getting back to nature, and to a great extent - meeting new people, including a new love interest and a new mentor. I didn’t want to try to prioritize how key each of those was in the grand scheme of things because you don’t know. I say this as a depression survivor myself, someone who himself has been too close to suicide attempts. Why do you come back? It’s for a whole bunch of reasons, throw them together and there’s no way to really quantify what is doing more than the other.
CODY: I was reading a statistic before this zoom, that every 15 minutes a woman in India is raped and then I read another more positive article about their National Organization for Women and how they’ve made a lot of strides this past year because they started a 24/7 hotline. Sadly, they’ve had more reported rape cases this past year in 2021, than in the past 10 years, but they aren’t really sure if the attacks have increased or just reports of them have. Before the hotline, some women didn’t have a safe way to report a rape or know that they had a right to.
PAUL: I’m glad you mentioned NOW - they do amazing work. I’ve been a supporter of theirs for a long time. We’re talking about more than half the human population for heaven’s sake, the female gender. It’s not even a minority, it's a slim majority that traditionally, historically and culturally have had fewer rights and a longer, more winding path towards justice.
CODY: So tell me what is next for Unplugged where are you guys at right now?
PAUL: We’re about 85% recorded I think.
HOLLY: Yeah, we’re working on character design to get animation rolling at the moment. And we’re working with Debora Iyall, collaborating for some music for the film as well.
PAUL: Debora Iyall, the lead singer of Romeo Void which is one of the great kind of Punk Wave bands from the early to mid 80’s. What else are we doing? Well we’re going to create a kind of sizzle or teaser reel in order to attract investors and hopefully a distributor or streaming service, co-production companies, maybe an animation company that wants to throw in with us. I mean we have this amazing cast and the script seems to call to people. I will say, that of all the talent that have gone ahead and said "sure send us a script we’ll take a look” there’s not a single actor who’s said “nope not interested.” Everyone has wanted to do it. And someone like Christina Ricci, you know she gets a lot of offers. So they’re seeing something special in here and you know what? I think they’re right. I think it is pretty special. But since you have a horror blog, I wanted to speak for a second on the horror elements of the piece.
Holly Trasti, Jeri Ryan & Paul McComas
CODY: Yes, please!
PAUL: There are two and in a sense they couldn’t be further apart. There’s the one that we’ve been discussing that has to do with real-life horrors: of depression and abuse and sexual assault and suicide. Then there’s this kind of campy, kitschy horror that’s represented through the character Christina Ricci’s role plays. So that’s the character within the character: this horror hostess named Ivana Viktimm. And I thought that Dayna, the lead, has been intermediately suicidal and so it makes a certain amount of sense for her to be drawn to someone who, for her job, portrays a sexy version of death. And what has to happen then, at some point as Dayna is getting better, is for her to retain her attraction to this person. But to the person herself, rather than to the morbid role. In this case when we’re talking about Ricci who has played Wednesday Adams once upon a time - she knows all about playing morbid roles. It was great fun working with her and all the other folks I’ve mentioned. Especially watching her slip in and out of these two very different characters: the character of Kit and then the character that Kit plays, the horror hostess Ivana Viktimm. And it was also a lot of fun watching Holly and Christina develop chemistry in real time. Directing that kind of talent and watching that chemistry develop, playing some small part in it myself, was an absolute thrill.
CODY: I can imagine. It sounds like an incredible, all-star cast. Are you guys watching Christina in Yellowjackets? She’s my favorite in the whole show.
PAUL: It is, in my opinion, the best thing on television right now. My wife and I are addicted. She [Christina Ricci] and Juliette Lewis both have to be Emmy nominated.
CODY: I hope so!
PAUL: There are so many people on the show who really ought to be, both within the adult cast and within the teenage cast. The directors and writers, and the people who were shooting it. It’s an amazing piece of work. Christina was actually in between sessions spent in Vancouver, Washington working on Yellowjackets when she came back to LA and worked with us for a couple of days. Christina is playing one of the great villains in contemporary television and I’m enjoying watching her go way off her rocker because with us she did anything but. With us she played a really wonderful, stable, compassionate, decent and loving person. So it’s a real kick to watch her in Yellowjackets. But, I mean, she has such range if you’ve seen her in Monster or Prozac Nation. Or as Wednesday Addams or even in Casper. Her work is always interesting…Now and Then.
CODY: Yes! That soundtrack is epic. I forced it on my kids sometime during the pandemic.
Christina Ricci in Yellowjackets (2021)
PAUL: Well I’ve been elevator pitching, in terms of just people asking what Yellowjackets is and I say it’s sort of a female “Lord of the Flies” meets Now and Then. Because there are these two narrative lines, that are of course decades apart, much like Now and Then. But it’s also got that dystopian reversion to savagery-thing going on and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Yeah, I’m really happy for her that she’s gotten - if I can make a little pun on the cannibalism - she’s gotten a really meaty role.
PAUL: I have a question for Holly, if that’s legal.
CODY: Yes, please!
PAUL: Ok. Like I said, it’s been so fun to watch you work with all these different folks, and I’m wondering if there’s a moment or two that really stand out for you from when you were playing the part of Dayna, alongside some of these enormous talents playing the characters within Dayna’s life?
HOLLY: Well I forget what exactly the line was, but I think it was the last day we were recording in Austin with John [Doe], and it was when he did those tender little kisses into the microphone when he was saying “goodbye" to my character and Kit’s character. That was very lovely because it was so genuine and tender, it felt real, you know?
PAUL: Right. Yeah.
HOLLY: I mean, we’ve worked with so many amazing people, I probably have one for each person we’ve worked with and it would be a rather exhaustive list. But when we were with Louis Gosset Jr., every time our characters would interact he would just look straight at me like “this is it.” He was just there, he was super present. He was a very giving counterpart. I mean they all were, but him especially. And then in LA, Sheryl Lee was emanating some sort of magic. I don’t even know how to describe it— the glint in her eyes, her overwhelming smile that just took over the room. Our characters were at odds a little bit, she played a hitchhiker and I pick her up and we have very different backgrounds. But it’s fun to play at odds with someone that you like so much, if that makes sense? So that was fun. And of course, Jeri Ryan and Christina Ricci, they are just pros! It was just so lovely to be doing scenes with someone who is basically driving with their eyes closed, like they’ve driven this road a thousand times before and you’re just along for the ride, but also adding to it? It was really nice. It was an amazing experience.
Holly Trasti, Sheryl Lee & Paul McComas
PAUL: I remember Sheryl looking across at you and smiling that smile and saying, “Holly you are just so fun to play with!” And when Jeri Ryan was playing your agent, that was also an at-odds kind of situation between the characters. Her character was ordering your character around and your character was pushing back a lot and there was a really nice, and quite funny tension that the two of you were developing. Because her role is mostly comic relief - the way she played it and the way it was written. And the audience is put into Dayna's’s shoes and Jeri was just relentless, like you would expect such a character to be. And I remember watching you and…I was going to say “watching you and Christina ride horses! Because your characters were riding horses, but you were just standing at a pair of mics in a studio. But that easy patter between the two of you as these characters are starting to build their relationship, we might as well have been out in the Badlands. I might as well have been watching you guys just riding side by side. It felt that way.
HOLLY: Yeah working with people who know the tone that needs to be brought, and then you bring it together, was just really lovely.
PAUL: I feel like you and I have both learned a lot about acting and directing from working with some of these folks, these veterans.
HOLLY: It would be a shame if we didn’t.
CODY: It sounds incredible! Well I am really excited to hear more of what is in store for you guys and please keep me updated. I love Dayna's story. I think it’s definitely one that needs to be shared and it’s important. It’s one of strength and resilience and I think that— like you said Holly— the struggles that she goes through, they appeal to a lot of people and they can be translated to a lot of everyday struggles. And mental illness especially is something that affects many people.
PAUL: We could say that unfortunately, it’s very relatable. But then we could say that a positive ending, you know, fortunately is very accessible. Cody, I want to thank you for your interest and I will say in the time I’ve spent looking around your site, the thoughtful treatment of the horror genre is always appreciated.