A depressed croissant struggles to find meaning in the “upper-crust” life of bourgeois pastries. A lesbian Marxist chocolate croissant preaches revolution to the masses. A violent junk food uprising threatens the hierarchical status quo of the pastry world.
Sounds absurd? Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of “Croissant Man.”
At a screening in Los Angeles this summer, I saw 10 award-winning short films by emerging Asian-American filmmakers. One film immediately stood out to me: the pilot episode of “Croissant Man,” an animated web-series written and directed by LA-based filmmaker Tulica Singh.
I soon binge-watched the entire, nine-part first season of the show and was blown away by its visual artistry and profound, satiric wit. I discovered that I wasn’t alone in being impressed; since its Vimeo release in November 2014, “Croissant Man” has been to over 20 festivals and has won 11 awards, including Best Web Series at the LA Independent Film Festival; Outstanding Writing, Score, and Original Series at the LA WebFest; and Best Animated Series at the Austin WebFest. In an exciting new development, the show has been picked up for streaming by Amazon Prime.
Intrigued, I shot Tulica Singh an email, hoping for an interview. Soon after, on a sunny July afternoon, I found myself chatting with the charismatic 30-year-old filmmaker over lunch at The Sycamore Kitchen in LA.
DG: How did “Croissant Man” happen?
TS: I was in New York, and I was working as a barista. I would joke around with the regular customers, and one day, I was like, “What if croissants fought crime?” And then I thought—I’m actually going to do it. I took a real croissant, and I made little paper cut-outs for the eyes, stuck them in with thumb tacks, I got little Bratz doll boots and stuck them in—I just created this little shitty version of Croissant Man. I locked myself in my room and shot it on a digital camera and used a bunch of books as a tripod because I didn’t have one. I just did it, and it was a lot of fun! And then, when I went to USC to study film in 2013, I met these make-up designers. I told them my idea, and they immediately wanted to do it. So we did it! They ended up doing the puppet and set design for the show.
DG: What’s your writing process like? From where do you draw inspiration?
TS: Things always have to be entertaining in my everyday life, or I get bored. So I make dramas out of little things—literally. Also, as a writer, you’re just pulling from your own experiences. I’m pulling a lot from my own angst, and a lot of the relationships in the show are different types of relationships I’ve had. The one between the Pain au Chocolat and Churrita is very much an allegory on closeted relationships. It didn’t fully get developed, though—that was my least favorite storyline (laughs).
DG: It’s interesting you say that, because that was actually one of my favorite storylines! Not only because it’s a lovely twist—you know, that Croissant Man’s love interest is pining after a love interest of her own—but also that it’s this forbidden, homosexual and interclass relationship. Add to that the murky ethics of Pain au Chocolat demanding class equality just so she can be with Churrita—there’s just so much social commentary for a show that on the surface seems like a string of puns.
TS: I’m very happy you thought that! The kind of viewer I’m looking for is similar to—have you seen Mad Men? Not comparing Croissant Man to Mad Men (laughs), but I love that Matthew Weiner was like: You have to watch this, and you have to pay attention. That’s the kind of viewer I want. There are a lot of people who’ll only see Croissant Man for the surface, cutesy, oh-fun-pun thing. That’s to get you in, to get as many viewers as possible. Then you get people who’ll actually dive in.
DG: How do you strike the right balance? Do you ever worry that some people might just not get the layers of meaning and social commentary?
TS: Dita Von Teese—the burlesque dancer—has this great story about success and knowing your audience. When she first started out in a strip club, this girl who was very conventionally good-looking, blonde hair, would go before her—she’d go around and if there were 50 guys in the club, she’d get a dollar from each. And then Dita Von Teese would go up and dance, and it was very weird and different, and she’d have only one customer but that customer would give her 50 dollars. So it’s like, don’t cater to 50 people, cater to the one person your content really speaks to. And if that one person really understands the depth you’re trying to communicate—that’s the most fulfilling feeling I’ve experienced.
DG: I noticed a lot of genre pastiche in the show. There are homages to noir, detective fiction, and soap opera, among others. What informed your choice of genre and aesthetic?
TS: Originally I wanted to noir, but I like color. (laughs) A lot of the decision-making comes from the aesthetic, because things look so beautiful. We’d even have a concept, write it out, but sometimes when you set the camera down, and you’ll notice the light catching something and oh my god, it’s so beautiful, that you’ll change the concept. There was a lot of improv in the shooting.
I really like soap opera, so there’s a lot of melodramatic comedy. A big inspiration is David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” For example, in “Twin Peaks,” the characters would randomly watch this cheesy soap opera, which would reflect what was happening in the show. You can see that in “Croissant Man,” too. And when Peanut hits her head in the bathroom and there’s a dream sequence in a red room? That’s taken from the White Lodge in “Twin Peaks.”
DG: Let’s talk about the many dream sequences.
TS: Yeah, my sister pointed out that there’s a dream sequence in literally every episode. I think it’s a funny way to resolve something and to explain what a character is feeling. But it’s also a space that is really important in everyday life. You figure everything out in dreams.
DG: What were the specific challenges of directing on a miniature set with puppets instead of actors?
TS: It was pretty hard since we had to puppeteer the characters, and we didn’t have any experience marionetting or doing stop-motion. I just had to get in there and move things around. You don’t get a chance to rehearse. I do a lot of pre-production, but you often have to throw it all away because you don’t know what it will look like until you have the frame. Getting the characters to move—I have PTSD about it. I’d rather move the camera and do some beautiful dream thing than move the puppet.
DG: That was something I noticed while watching the series. The visuals feel very dynamic and fluid, despite the fact your subjects are immobile. How did you achieve that?
TS: After we shot for the first day, in 2013, we learned we had to move the camera. It’s so hard to move the puppet. We realized you could animate it if you moved the camera in, so we did a lot of the soapy “gasp” moments. A definite pro of this genre is that you can move the camera to reveal things. I tried to plan as many camera moves as possible. And if we can get the puppet to move and camera to move at the same time, everyone’s really happy.
DG: I thought the textured lighting really added to the dynamism. It made that small space feel big and full.
TS: Credit goes to the DPs. I worked with seven on the last season and they really had to get used to this aesthetic. Because as a cinematographer, you’re often trying to recreate real life. But I’m like, no, I want a hyper-real look. I wanted every frame to look like a painting. On big sets it’s much harder to get such a textured look—you need powerful lights and shadows. But on a small set like this, it’s a lot easier, faster, and cheaper.
DG: So on a project like this, in which so much hinges on the look, the set design and aesthetic, how important is production design?
TS: It’s everything. It’s absolutely everything. Everyone on set becomes a designer. Like this one time, I had to just ask, “Can someone make a tiny straitjacket?” And one of the producers got on it and made this tiny straitjacket with gaff tape, and I was just amazed. Everyone just gets very good at MacGyvering.
DG: What were your stylistic influences for the show?
TS: Mad Men. It has this subtle, beautiful camera movement. And it’s so meticulous. And Clueless, which I think is a perfect movie (laughs). It takes this microcosm of society and it really nails it in terms of satire—a kind, empathetic satire. Aesthetically, impressionist art was a huge influence, as was Picasso. We actually tried to recreate the Blue Period in Croissant Man’s apartment. We didn’t fully achieve what we intended to, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
DG: The web series is a format that is fast gaining popularity. What do you think makes it such an attractive option for young filmmakers?
TS: There’s this idea, with TV, that people can only watch things in half-hour and one-hour blocks, and that’s very strange. But successful web series, like High Maintenance, have some episodes that are 12 minutes and others that are two minutes—the story dictates the length. I love that. The Internet space lifts that restriction because it’s on your own time, it’s more like reading.
There’s also this idea in TV that you have to cater to this “audience.” People are afraid of disappointing this fake audience that nobody knows—it’s a bunch of mannequins in a room. With a web series you’re allowed to make something more specific and personal, which comes off as more authentic. For example, Broad City is the New York I know, much more than, say, Girls.
Binge-watch “Croissant Man” at https://vimeo.com/channels/croissantman!
First published in Post- Magazine, Oct 8, 2015. Illustrated by Michelle Ng.