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Interview: The Creator of “Caine’s Arcade” Has His Perfect Moment

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by on April 20, 2012

The movie Be Kind, Rewind coined the concept of “Sweding” – recreating famous movies using costumes of cardboard and other found objects. But in the YouTube sensation Caine’s Arcade (as seen here at Nerdist.com), a nine-year-old went one step further and made a fully interactive arcade from cardboard boxes. Filmmaker Nirvan Mullick discovered Caine when he stopped in at the auto-parts store run by the boy’s father. Over two million hits later, both Mullick and Caine have become internet celebrities. We spoke to Mullick about his work with young Caine, and what’s next for the filmmaker.

Nerdist: When did you shoot Caine’s Arcade?

Nirvan Mullick: I shot it at the end of the summer, October 1st and 2nd, but I didn’t post it online because I didn’t finish it right away.

N: After the events of the film, did Caine maintain the arcade? Or did it die down and then liven up again once the short made it online?

NM: He kept it going, and he’s made a lot of modifications since. He had basketball season, so he was gone for most of that. After basketball was over, he kept the arcade but wasn’t getting many customers still. So he made a little cardboard snack cart that he put on a skateboard to bring in extra business. He was selling little drinks and stuff. I told him, “I promise you that I’m going to finish this film, and I hope that it brings you some customers. Thank you for being patient.” He’s pretty happy because now he’s got more customers at his arcade.

N: So since the film is out, he’s started it up again, and he’s got a steady flow of patrons?

NM: Oh man, there’s people there every day, even when he’s at school. Some just show up to take pictures. He feels really proud of what he’s done. And he should be proud.

N: Were you surprised by how viral the video has gotten, or after the flash mob, did it just seem like a natural thing?

NM: I’m surprised. I mean, the flash mob felt viral. We got 130 people into Caine’s Arcade. But this is viral on a different scale. This is the world. We made the film with the goal of making this kid’s day. That’s what the film was about. Now, it’s gone beyond that. It’s become about making this kid’s future. The whole internet and the whole world has kind of rallied around that. We set a goal of $25,000 and launched the film. A day later it had raised over $60,000, and now it’s over $145,000. That’s since Monday. He’s going to keep raising money not only for his college, but also for some tutoring to help catch up on his reading and prepare him for college. We’ve also talked to Caine and his dad, and we’re going to be starting the Caine’s Arcade Foundation. It’s going to be about fostering and funding creative kids who are entrepreneurs. It’s just going to keep growing. Caine’s really excited about helping other kids raise money for school.

N: How is his Dad’s business doing? Does it translate into more auto parts business?

NM: It has translated into more auto parts business. But he’s had zero time to ship any orders. He’s both tremendously proud and enjoying seeing his son getting all this love and attention. He’s getting calls from parents from all over the world and orders from people who find his eBay store. He hasn’t had time to deliver the parts that he normally does. He got a call from his cardboard box supplier, who saw the video and saw that his cardboard boxes were in the video. They’ve been doing business together for years. Everyone has just been enjoying what this kid is bringing to the world, because it’s all positive.

N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a filmmaker? We see you have some animation credits on IMDB.

NM:  I studied experimental animation at CalArts. I spent two and a half years making a short film called The Box Man, which is actually about a guy who lives in a cardboard box. It went to the AFI Film Festival and it went to the Cannes film festival, and it was a Student Academy Awards finalist. But it was an animated short film, and nobody really sees those. That was before the internet was really here, before YouTube and Facebook and all that stuff. I directed the title sequence to Willard. I’ve written a few features, had a script optioned that was developed as an animated series. I’ve also been working on a one-second film for about ten years, which is a non-profit collaborative project. You can check that out at http://www.the1secondfilm.com/

N: That’s the one that Colbert did a story about, right?

NM: Stephen Colbert donated eleven bucks to be a producer on it. There are about twenty or thirty thousand people who have their names in the credits of it. It’s been a sort of ongoing experiment that I had to put on the back burner because funding was kind of slow. So I started a creative agency called Interconnected with a business partner. We use marketing and social media tools for non-profit work with disability rights in Africa, World Enabled, CicLAvia, The Open Hand Initiative and many others. A couple weekends ago we shot a flash mob/viral video that Marisa Tomei showed up for. So we’ve done some cause-based, collaborative viral social media stuff. One of the videos I made for The 1 Second Film was featured on Youtube’s homepage, and that raised seven thousand dollars in a day. But I’ve never had something happen quite like this.

N: We can’t help noticing that in your credits, you’ve got one movie about a guy who lives in a cardboard box, and another about a guy who creates his own little world. Do you see a common thread through those into Caine’s Arcade?

NM: Yeah. For me the common thread in everything I’ve made is this idea of perfect moments. That’s what got me into animation. I used to study philosophy, and I was reading Sartre’s Nausea which talks about perfect moments, and I started thinking about how you can take hundreds of hours to make one perfect second of animation as beautiful as possible. So you end up taking three years to make a film about a guy in a box and nobody sees it. But as long as you’re into the process , it doesn’t really matter.  That’s what I saw with Caine when I learned he hadn’t had any customers, but had spent all this time building this elaborate world. You could tell he was in it just because of this obsessive need to create. Yes, he wanted a successful business, yes he was doing it for a purpose. But that’s not what it’s about, with Caine. It’s just about making something, and making it better, because that was satisfying. He’s being compared to Steve Jobs and his obsessive design iterations, and redoing things and thinking about the user experience. Forbes has written two articles on him: one is called 9 Reasons Why The 9-Year-Old Founder Of Caine’s Arcade Will Be A Billionaire In 30 Years. It kind of breaks him apart and shows his entrepreneurial spirit.

N: He certainly has the drive and the ability to gather the resources. We can see how Caine’s experience connects to that of a filmmaker, in terms of the mindset of needing to create.

NM: Waiting for customers is kind of like waiting for an audience. You make films and you put them out there in the hopes that somebody sees them. I was lucky enough to stumble across Caine, and have been lucky enough that people have responded, and are paying it forward. There’s a lot of good will out there. The first big post about it was on BoingBoing. If you read some of those posts, they bring tears to my eyes. It’s people sharing nostalgic memories of perfect moments of their own childhood. One of my favorite stories is this guy who has worked on The Simpsons for like seventeen years. He had to go see Caine’s work so the next day, with his wife and his kids, he drove over there. As soon as he saw it, the real cardboard arcade, the reality of it is more beautiful than the film is. It’s really there, and you see the space, and the neighborhood it’s in. It’s such a visceral experience, he just broke down and stared crying. His wife and kids were just watching him, and Caine’s dad was crying, and this guy was just bent over on this auto parts counter shedding tears. I talked to him on the phone, and he said, “Have you ever seen that movie Ratatouille, where the critic at the end is eating the soup?” He said that’s what happened to him, seeing what Caine had built. It brought him back to being a nine year old boy and building these dreams that you had. His dad didn’t support him like Caine’s dad did; they didn’t have a good relationship. It just brought him to tears.

N: As a filmmaker moving forward, what are you interested in pursuing next? More documentary? Animation?

NM:  I like to make perfect moments in whatever form they might come. This has opened up a lot of doors for me. There are people offering feature film deals based on Caine’s Arcade. There are some series projects in development based on Caine’s Arcade. And I still have other projects that have yet to be seen. It’s been pretty overwhelming. But there’s a lot to do. I’m still figuring out what’s happening here.