Toby Halbrooks returns to Sundance with ‘Dig’ |

Toby Halbrooks returns to Sundance with ‘Dig’

In Toby Halbrooks’ 10-minute film "Dig," a young girl watches her father dig a hole in their backyard. As the hole gets deeper, the neighborhood comes to watch.

"Dig" is one of the works that have been included in the Sundance Film Festival’s Shorts Competition, and Halbrooks is thrilled.

"I didn’t expect to get in, and feel super lucky to be invited," said Halbrooks, during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Calif.

This isn’t Halbrook’s first venture to the Sundance Film Festival. In 2011, he received a Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship for the film "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints."

In 2013, that film along with another Halbrooks-produced film, "Upstream Color," was accepted into the film festival’s Dramatic Competition.

The filmmaker was in Southern California last week to receive a producing award with his friend, filmmaker James Johnston, at the Independent Spirit Awards.

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"Dig" is Halbrooks’ first short he’s ever directed.

"As producer, you’re in the background, which has been totally fine," he said. "But I’m not going to lie. I’m excited to return as a director to the Sundance Film Festival and have a totally different experience."

When the opportunity to do the short came about, Halbrooks felt it was meant to be.

"I had always known that I wanted to do my own thing, but I didn’t have time," he said. "I wrote the script six months prior to the shooting and my producers David [Lowery] and James [Johnston] agreed."

Initially, Halbrooks wanted to make a story about a child’s perspective of the adult world.

"When you’re a child, everything seems magical and mysterious, no matter what the activity is," he said. "The highlight is the realization that what the kids find fascinating is really nothing special."

These ideas were planted in Halbrooks’ mind through some personal experiences while he was growing up.

"They weren’t really what happened with my own family, but in my neighborhood," he said. "I would watch people do things and I would think there was some higher purpose for what they were doing. But when I grew up and looked back at those experiences, I realized that they weren’t doing anything profound, or they were just doing something crazy."

In "Dig," the dad, played by Jonny Mars, an Austin-based actor who is known for playing fathers in films such as "Hellion" and "Black Metal," isn’t crazy.

"He just starts digging a hole and all the kids watch him," Halbrooks said. "In spite of not understanding what he is doing, his daughter totally has his back and stands up for him."

Mallory Mahoney plays the daughter.

"I work with a casting director in Dallas named Tisha Blood who is with Buffalo Casting, and she helped me set up a day where we called in 75 kids in three hours," Halbrooks explained. "It was overwhelming, but we ended up essentially calling half of them back."

From there, the filmmaker narrowed things down to three girls that actually appear in the film.

"The story is pretty absurd, and in my mind, we had to play it as straight as possible," Halbrooks said. "I didn’t want to get goofy and super cute, in spite of ending up with some pretty adorable kids."

Mahoney expressed herself during her callback that struck Halbrooks.

"She also has these big, beautiful eyes and I totally lucked out because she got it," he said.

In one absurd part of the film, the police show up to tell the dad he can’t dig a hole in his backyard, and the ending will be, to some viewers, profound, as the girl does her thing as the credits roll, Halbrooks said.

"I always knew how I wanted to end the film and make it kind of like a coda to the story," he said. "We shot the whole film over three days in my backyard and my house. It was a lot of fun and I will do it again."

Guitarist Daniel Hart, who played with Halbrooks in the choral pop band, The Polyphonic Spree, composed the score.

"Daniel did the music for ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ and we grew up together and have known each other for a long time," Halbrooks said. "I told him from the beginning that ‘Dig’ was like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ meets ‘The Sandlot.’"

The two listened to Lalo Schifrin’s melancholic, but easy-going score to "Cool Hand Luke."

"It sounded like a lazy Sunday afternoon, but when things go wrong the melancholy comes to the surface," Halbrooks said. "That’s what Daniel did."

Toby Halbrook’s "Dig" is one of the films in the Sundance Film Festival’s Shorts Competition and can be seen with a compilation of other shorts on:

Saturday, Jan.18, 6 p.m., at the Broadway Centre Cinemas 6, Salt Lake City.

Sunday, Jan. 19, 6:30 p.m., at the Redstone Cinema 1, Park City.

Wednesday, Jan. 22, 9 p.m., at the Temple Theatre, Park City.

Saturday, Jan. 25, 8:30 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 1, Park City.

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