Shorts lovely, dark and deep
January 13, 2009
It’s the tale of two films.
In the first, a graduate student spends $2.50, the cost of tape for his DV camera, to tell the story of a young man’s thoughts as he makes love to his girlfriend.
He uses his brother and his brother’s girlfriend as leads and keeps the shoot to about an hour. He lays voiceover onto the tape and completes his project, a class assignment, just before deadline.
For the second film, about a pregnant teenager in the Bronx, he spends $15,000 and hires a crew of 20. The project spans a year and requires a variety of locations and a fleet of trucks.
Guess which film got into this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
"It doesn’t always work out the way you think it’s going to work out," said writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green, who studies at New York University. "When it came time to apply for Sundance, I was really pushing ‘Premature,’ but ‘Choices’ was the one."
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"Choices," a four-minute love scene, is one of the 96 short films selected for Sundance’s lineup out of a jaw-dropping 5,632 films submitted. It premieres Jan. 16 at 2:15 p.m. at the Racquet Club as part of Shorts Program IV. "It’s not about budgets, sets or stars," Green said. "I learned not to worry so much. People will respond to truth. Invest films with as much truth as you can."
The challenges to short filmmakers are well chronicled. One short filmmaker sold his car to buy a camera; another director flipped a house to finance her film. It’s a sign of the times. Many short filmmakers, like Green, work with small budgets and casts, restricted locations, a brief shooting schedule and an even shorter amount of time to tell stories.
But limitations also work in a filmmaker’s favor, insists Sundance shorts programmer Todd Luoto, and lead to unique voices and a fresh take on storytelling.
"Limitations often provide people with less pressure and more freedom," he said. "Filmmakers that have a high budget or a producer to please are often less experimental, less willing to try something experimental."
Luoto likes to tell aspiring auteurs in the short format that the festival’s only inflexible restriction is the length of the film, which, generously, has to be under an hour to qualify as a short.
Sundance accepted a record number of short films this year, up more than 10 percent from last year, because of an exceedingly strong applicant pool, according to Luoto. The films are relevant to everyday moviegoers because they showcase the next wave of filmmakers. Many of today’s popular mainstream directors, such as Spike Jones and Wes Anderson are Sundance short film alum. "People are ready for experimentation in the mainstream," Luoto said, "they’re just not always exposed to it."
Luoto credits the stellar quality of the films to the emergence of a "video culture" and more international outreach on the part of Sundance. Many of the filmmakers devoted to the short format studied film at school. Others, like the eight-year-old boy who submitted to the festival in October but was not accepted, are self-taught. "People are a lot more savvy than they used to be," Luoto said. "People are able to play around with software and equipment. Everyone can make a video."
Short-film enthusiasts can see festival favorites in a number of ways, either in the theater or at home. For festival goers, shorts are divided into different programs that each feature about eight films meant to sample the flavor of the U.S., international, documentary and animated films selected for 2009. The films aren’t organized thematically, although the documentary and animated shorts play together. Luoto likened the process of compiling short films into cohesive, two-hour programs, to making a mixed tape. "All the films are different, but they fit together. Our goal is that if someone only saw one shorts program, they would get a good sense of indie short filmmaking today."
For patrons who can’t make it to the festival, Sundance plans to release one short a day for each of the 10 days of the festival for free on iTunes. In past years, Sundance has posted more shorts to the web. They elected to scale back for 2009 to help protect filmmakers from piracy, but Luoto predicts a resurgence of web-based content in future festivals. "We needed to find a new aggregator, a middle man between us and the film," he said. "We needed to rebuild the dike, rebuild the foundation. My hope is that our online presence will increase."
Short films Luoto said audiences should look for run the gamut. "Chop Off" is a six-minute documentary made in the U.S. about an artist who amputates his limbs to champion freedom of expression.
In Shorts Program I, "Love You More" promises to please audiences. The film is about two teenagers who are attracted to each other because of a mutual interest in the Buzzcock’s single "Love You More" in the summer of 1978.
The film "Miracle Fish," about a boy who wishes away the world, and "Acting for the Camera" stand out to Luoto in Shorts Program II.
"Instead of Abracadabra," a Swedish film, will excite audiences who see Shorts Program III, Luoto predicts and "Sparks," the story of a rock star who may have burnt down her own house, rounds out a strong lineup in Shorts Program IV, Luoto said. "Netherland Dwarf" of Shorts Program V is another film that has received early buzz.
Young and the restless
The 2009 shorts lineup features 14 filmmakers under 30. Chadd Harbold is 22. He directed a short film whose title refers to the human posterior. The film is about a man whose doctor diagnoses him with a cantankerous attitude problem. He sold his car, moved to New York and bought a handheld high-definition camera to start making movies with the film’s writer and Harbold’s high school buddy, Bryan Gaynor, who is 21.
Gaynor wrote the script for a class in college and everyone hated it, Harbold recalled. Everyone except Harbold. "I got him drunk one night and convinced him to let me direct it," Harbold laughed. The film cost $1,500 to film and took one day of filming. The finished product is 10 minutes long.
It is the fourth film Harbold has directed, but Sundance is his first major festival. He may be young, he says, but he’s an old hand at making movies. He’s been doing it since he was 12. "It’s one of the smallest films I’ve ever made, and my first comedy. The three others are humorless sad bastard films," he said. It was not only the first comedy, but the first film of any length, for lead actor Gavin McInnes.
Harbold decided to submit his film to Sundance because he got tired of just posting videos on YouTube.
Harbold was home for Thanksgiving in Columbus, Ohio, sitting in the movie "Australia" with his parents, when he missed a call from Sundance. The next two hours in the theater were among the longest in his life. He said that experimenting on his own has helped teach him how to direct. "Making shorts helps you learn how to be a filmmaker," he said. "I think I could make a feature now."
Success based on rejection
Getting rejected from a women’s directing workshop in Los Angeles took a fortuitous turn for Coley Sohn, the writer and director behind the short film "Boutonniere," about a teenage girl’s struggle to prepare for high school prom. She wrote the film to submit to the conference. After receiving her rejection letter, she decided to go ahead with the movie anyway.
Sohn has been acting and writing for years, but "Boutonniere" is her first project as a director. "I think it’s the control freak in me," she explained. "I think earlier in my career I didn’t have the confidence to direct. It’s been gratifying for me to write something and see it come to fruition."
To start the project, Sohn and her girlfriend first had to find a house they could trash. "We were looking for a sad house, Anywhere, U.S.A.," Sohn said. They settled on a relatively inexpensive home in Eagle Rock, outside Los Angeles. "It felt like what I wrote," she said with amusement. "The location was so embedded in the film."
Once she received word from the festival that her short had been accepted, she broke into a cold sweat and refused to go to sleep. "I was so scared I was going to wake up," she said.
Short films, she’s learned, are like going out for grappa. "You get little bits of a lot of different things," she said. "A feature is a lot more of a commitment, especially for people who have short attention spans."
BYU director takes on hush-hush topic
Even the title "Nobody Loves You, Nobody Gives a Damn" could reasonably make Lee Stratford’s professors at Brigham Young University cringe. Stratford, a 30-year-old film student at the private Mormon college, directed the short film about a mother struggling to care for her infant as she hobbles around in a full-length leg cast. Never mind the sexual awakening she experiences in the 15-minute film, shot mostly in Provo. "It’s about a girl in a cast with a baby she doesn’t like, that just screams all the time," Stratford explained. "She thinks that hooking up with guys as they come will make her happy."
No wonder he shot the film outside class. "Because of the content, it’s likely BYU wouldn’t have let us make it," he said. Stratford and writer/producer/editor Rebecca Thomas spent $250 on the film and shot it in one weekend. "It’s kind of freeing in a way," Stratford said of the project’s restricted budget. "It forces you to have to work within really cheap boundaries. It’s actually cool how little we made this movie for. We’re just two people who like movies."