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Interview with Eusong Lee – “Will”

Highlighting Featured Student Filmmakers Stay tuned, as we continue to highlight filmmakers featured on Film School Shorts. If there’s something that Eusong Lee’s alarmingly simple short animated film Will does, it is recreate the sublime effect of how we choose to remember trauma. Though it’s been nearly fifteen years since the events of 9/11, the heart of Lee’s powerful and elegant 4-minute short film is the juxtaposition between the real and the wished. Made at CalArts School of Film and Video, the Student Academy Award-winner is featured in the second season of Film School Shorts. We caught up with Eusong over email to discuss design, the film’s reception and his time studying at CalArts. imageHi Eusong. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your film Will.

I am Eusong Lee, originally from Korea and Canada, and currently living in LA. I went to California Institute of Arts for the Character Animation Program. Currently I am working at JibJab as a director and a designer, and also working as an illustrator and filmmaker on my own [projects]. Will is a short film about a girl who is dealing with the loss of her father from the incidents of 9/11. The film was made when I was in third year at CalArts, back in 2012.

9/11 is touchy, even 10 years later. What inspired you to make Will?

I was inspired by a song that musician Julian [Kleiss] played at his concert, and his song was inspired by a page from a book called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I actually avoided reading the book and just read the single page that inspired Julian. It basically had this idea of ‘going back in time’. Then I storyboarded the film several times over and over, came up with a reasonable metaphor to make [going back in] time part of the story. I did a lot of research and visited New York as well. The mood I could feel from the area was a big inspiration. Yes, that was the craziest part when I visited New York. As soon as I stepped into the World Trade Center Area, there was a deep, heavy mood in the air, even 10 years after the incident. Another big inspiration were voicemails from people in the towers at that time. I could find many of them on YouTube and every single one was very selfless, caring and assuring their love for their family or lovers. All of those were big inspirations.

imageYou told me once that, as a self-described “outsider”, you had a different perception of the events of 9/11. Can you explain? How did that affect the way you approached Will?

I was very young. I saw it happening on TV when I was a kid in Korea. As far as I remember, I didn’t really understand what was going on. The loss of people was a hard concept to grasp at that time too. It felt like a faraway world’s story from where I was. Now that I have grown a tiny bit more, the sense of losing someone is quite more clear and realistic to my mind. Regardless of whether it is tragic, natural, sudden or expected, I think no one can measure or compare the weight of loss. When I was approaching [Will], I revisited my memories of loss. Of course, it’s not so pleasing.

image Tell us a little bit more about Julian Kleiss and his music.

Julian Kleiss is a super talented musician from Austria. I met Julian when I was in my first year at CalArts. He was playing on a grassy knoll in front of a dorm. I found out his room was right next to mine, so we hung out from time to time. I really enjoy watching a musician playing music. As far as I know, he was already very famous back in Austria. Julian had so much life and innocence in the most passionate way about music. Julian always brought pure joy within his music and peacefulness in his personality. I asked him if we could collaborate when we were in first year and I thought it was the right time when I heard his music by the end of second year.  His album came out recently and of course, it is a very, very, good one.

One writer described Will’s aesthetic style as “trendy minimalism.” Is that accurate? How do you feel about that kind of terminology and categorization?

Yeah, I saw that. I’d say it is quite accurate. I hope I don’t sound like I have a big ego or something, but I do have mixed feelings about it. The writer [wrote] very, very good words about the film and he meant it in the best possible way. And I really appreciated it. There is nothing wrong with being categorized. I do see graphic aesthetics and minimalism quite often, so it definitely has become a trend. Maybe I am simply part of the digital artist generation, so it could be just a natural thing.


However, my choices of art direction were definitely not because it’s “trendy” or “hip”. Making an animated film (or live action) requires efficiency, especially when it’s one person doing everything. Graphic, simple but still elegant, designs will let you keep up pace with film production, so my decision was made. In the beginning, I had a more traditional and rendered feel to the character designs, since I came from very academic training. In the process of simplifying my design, I tried my best to be original in the way that made the most sense, but I guess everyone else was doing that too. Haha!

Something I’ve always wondered: the film is full of modern technology, but the aesthetic style is, for lack of a better word, retro.  I’d say that the way the main characters are drawn, for example, and their wardrobe seem locked in the 1960’s. Was this an intentional choice? How does that affect the way we perceive a modern event?

I was more oriented to the feeling that the design gives you. One thing I wanted [was] the father to be a very reliable and strong father. Wide shoulders and the big shape of his design was meant to be a little bit old-fashioned: a strong father figure. Once the shape language is down, you come up with clothes that go along with the shape, and it should be smooth. The daughter is a lean, fragile, sensitive character: so, a bit exposed, short pants and T-shirts worked well as they are casual. I didn’t really think of the era of things, but there is something very typical and strongly impressed [in the] feeling from designs, which feels a little old fashioned and retro. I was more drawn to those things.

Where’s the little girl’s mother?

She is doing good. Probably in a different room. The mother was there in the first pass of story. By the time I was doing a third story pass, it seemed too complicated for a 3-4 minute short film. So I just simplified it to the daughter and father and focused on them.

imageDid Will evolve throughout the filmmaking process in ways you didn’t expect when you started? Was there anything about Will you doubted throughout the process?

I feel like this could be two different questions. Well, this short film was going to be a music video project for Julian and I was going to finish it in 4 months. However, the more I researched, I realized how big this project actually was. Research alone took 3-4 months. And I ended up making [over the course] of one year. So, that was something that evolved and grew over the process. The scale of responsibility was necessary to deal with the 9/11 incident. imageI didn’t have much doubt. But I had fears, such as what if someone told me, ‘What do you know about this event, you have no relation, no direct connection or any sort to this incident’ ? There were people who asked me why I made this film, or [that I shouldn’t] make this film. As much as the topic is personal and sensitive, I had to be very careful, respectful and bold at the same time. It sounds complicated but that was some sort of doubt and fear.

What part of Will are you most proud of? If you could change one aspect of Will, what would it be?

I really tried my best at that time. It is better to have it just be what it is right now. If I would touch it right now, I am sure I would ruin the innocent passion I had back then.

Audience reaction: what’s it been like?

Luckily, a lot of people loved it. And I thank them back as much as I can. There were people who teared up in front of me. Also, I’ve gotten letters from actual victims with deep and sincere appreciation. Even people who were not connected with the incident have given me very kind comments and their stories. One of my favorite stories was about a father who watched the film with his daughter. They watched the film after dinner and the next morning, when he was about to go to work, his daughter told him to not go to work. I do feel almost bad that I made the daughter worry, but…I am also happy that it had impacted people in a way. Apparently his wife blamed him for watching such a film with his daughter. Oh well.

image You took home a Student Academy Award for the film. In retrospect, what comes to mind when you remember that experience?

I learned a lot about live-action people. They seem to have quite a different vibe from the animation industry. Nothing better or worse, just quite a different world. I do believe that there are some mindsets and spirit differences in the production process. That was the most interesting thing: meeting all the amazing and experienced people from the industry and newcomers like me.


(Actress Quvenzhané Wallis (left) and Eusong Lee, winner of the silver medal in the animation film category for “Will,” during the 40th Annual Student Academy Awards on Saturday, June 8, in Beverly Hills.)

Ever considered live action filmmaking?

Yes. But I think there are more things to break in the animation world.

Can you tell us a bit about your family? Are there any other artists in your family?

My father used to be an engineer and now he runs a company that makes parts for cars. My mother is a world history/geography teacher. I have an older brother and he is a motivational speaker. It’s funny how me and my brother ended up in such occupations, but I believe there is a lot of influence from our mother, who is both an educator and storyteller at the same time. That’s how history works, I guess. And my father’s hobby was photography and editing videos. I had a lot of his influence alongside with my mother’s influence. I have a cousin who is an illustrator, on my mother’s side. Other than that, on my father’s side, most of my other cousins are doctors, lawyers and bankers. And somehow I ended up in animation. Often they told me that, “We don’t have much artist blood in our family. It’s weird and awesome.”


(Art by Eusong Lee: “no strings”)

In general, how do you motivate yourself when you’re frustrated with a project?

I ask myself ‘how bad do you want it?’ and tell myself ‘keep going’.

What keeps you up at night?

Eminem, Monster drink, wine and low light keeps me up at night. And of course, the desire to finish what I started on that day is important.

Name three artists in any medium that inspire you.

Daisuke Tsutsumi. AKA Dice. He is the man. Dice is an art director at Pixar. Beyond being a great artist, he has spread good influence around the world with his art. Projects that he has done have built libraries in Africa, helped his homeland Japan, as well as kids around the world by charity. I admire his lighting, skills, interpretation and understanding of the art side of animation. But more than that, what he does as an artist to people is more inspiring. “If you make people dream more, do more and learn more, then you are a leader.” I think Hemingway said that. I do think he is a good leader on many aspects. He is the one who I was very impressed by. I can think of many names who I pick up great things from, but I think he is the only one who is my hero.

What’s the meaning behind your blog name, “King of Pine?”

King of Pine is what my name means in Chinese characters of my Korean name. Most Korean names are based on Chinese Characters. It’s just how it is. It was given by my grandfather.


(Art by Eusong Lee: “fights”)

What was your relationship like with your CalArts’ instructors?

Um, I was very open and also open to disagree with some instructors in the healthiest way possible. I am sure I was just a quiet kid. I listened to them carefully. But I was also busy coming up with my own way of doing things. It doesn’t mean I was being a rebellious kid. It’s just that learning rules from good teachers and breaking/interpreting them was my job at the time. So I’d say I had a healthy relationship with professors.

What was the most surprising things about CalArts when you first arrived? Were you considering any other schools before CalArts?

I knew I wanted to make animated short films, so Calarts was perfect. The biggest thing I learned was that there isn’t one way to make great work. I came from a very academic way of approaching drawings, paintings and visual art in general. I was into very traditional conté life drawings. But I met people who I felt like they were geniuses. Some really stood out with innocent passion to create and be professional at the same time. And of course, they really made their own way of making art. Calarts broke entire thoughts I had about what makes good art.


(Art by Eusong Lee: “hide and sick”)

What is your advice to prospective film students picking a school?

Knowing your own personality and the personality of the school is very important. Just like some jobs often require a specific personality, different art schools have people with specific common personalities. I don’t know how schools pick people so accurately. You could go to another school to be a painter or designer. But if you want to direct, let your own voice and stories out, and do your thing, Calarts is the place.

What have you been working on since Will?

I make illustrations as I always do and I started working on another short film right after Will. But, right now, I have to figure out complicated visa stuff so everything is on hold. Still, I think about  stories a lot and different projects I’d like to do. That’s my personal side and I started working at Jibjab right after my third year at CalArts. I have been working as a designer and director. JibJab has another up and coming branch called Storybots. We are developing big things here and I am excited to give it my best! image

What’s next?

For now, I am going to try to do what I can do alone on my personal work. Now that I have a full time job, making a short film is a very hard thing. But I can still make foundations to make films in the future, such as comic books, scripts and new styles of art. I think my next goal would be doing a comic book or scripts. Either way, it’s good filmmaking practice, I believe. Also, I must travel more.

Watch the film:

[youtube] Eusong Lee is a Los Angeles based Director/Designer. He currently directs and designs shorts at JibJab/Storybots. Also, Eusong is actively making his own artwork to be used in his filmmaking. Follow Eusong on Follow Eusong on

INTERVIEW with “Drøm” director Dennis Alexander Ogburn

Both delightful and grotesque, Dennis Ogburn’s Drøm is the kind of nightmarish, experimental cinema that elicits a few smirks and giggles, albeit recessed in the dirtiest parts of our minds. To describe the film would be futile: it really has to be seen, heard and even felt.

Made at USF, Drøm screened as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum

Tell us a little about your background and about your film.

I grew up in Eugene, Oregon with my mother, father and brother. Film has been a constant in my life ever since about the third grade, and we have remained close to this day. It’s the constant that has created the hopeful yet delusional filmmaker I am today.

I think we can safely categorize your film as surrealist. Or maybe not. What’s your take?

It is safe to say that Drøm exists within, but not limited to, the parameters of surrealism. The majority of the film’s content deals in dreams; it comprises most the film, beyond the more reality-based bookends that start and finish the film. But even those beg a certain surrealistic interpretation perhaps. Drøm embodies surrealism in its evocation of absurdity. Absurdity as an aspect of surrealism is very attractive to me, I suppose. It provides a vehicle to explore and cultivate absurd ideas. As dreams rarely make cohesive sense, the film depicts that quality, attempting to have fun with that opportunity and present some rather absurd situations.

It’s funny, because sometimes surrealism is seen cinematically as something deadly serious. But when you look at old films by Bunuel and René Clair, they have whimsical elements. What do you think?

I agree that surrealism in film is more typically applied seriously. I think that’s what interested me approaching surrealism from a lighter, more comedic angle. But the motivation was not exactly to show the silly side of surrealism, but rather to lightly make fun of serious art films that use it so somberly. In that way it is satire. If the movie itself was a person, it would be a very pretentious disillusioned person that took themselves and their imagery very seriously, I however laugh at this person. If I have made my film correctly, I hope other people will find this person funny as well.

Ok, your main character gets rubbed up on by a guy in a dog suit and a librarian with an endowed booty. Why the character’s disinterest in sexual interaction?

I actually never considered sexual disinterest a theme of the film until you just now pointed it out to me. It certainly seems true though now that you mention. To me, more than my character struggling with sexual disinterest, he is disinterested in interaction with others, he simply wants to be alone. But it is certainly true that two sexual advances are made against him. I suppose I belong to the school of thought that, the film’s meaning is ultimately decided by its audience. So both our interpretations, all interpretations I suppose are valid.

Audiences generally have a predisposed idea of what they’re getting into with a film, and sometimes, an experimental film really throws a wrench in people’s cogs. I mean, when people listen to classical music or look at an abstract painting, they don’t seem to be as panicked about finding a solid meaning. What do you want or need for your audiences to take away from your film? And do you feel narrative is sometimes an unfair measuring tool?

If my audience was limited to but one reaction and one only, I’d want them to think the film is funny. To make my audience laugh is my simplest objective. Like mentioned earlier, I believe that once I’ve made it and pushed it out into the world, the fate of the film belongs to the audience. I don’t think I have any specific responses I wish to achieve, I want people to like it of course, but I am happy with a response in general, and it has been a source of entertainment to me since I have shown Drøm to witness people’s varying responses. I feel measuring through narrative as a general system to interpret film is sort of silly, different films put different significance on narrative; Drøm is not a film that does. 

In one way Drøm is meant to be an absurd exercise in surrealism. In another way, in its most surface level interpretation, it is a story of a man, a man who does not want to sleep, the reasons why are hopefully self evident by the end of the film. To me an overarching theme; the one I thought of while writing and making the film is the idea of unwanted attention. Loneliness is a common character trait in film, and an  even more common theme in art as a whole. I wanted to explore a character who existed in the inverse of that depiction, one that enjoyed his solitude. The absurdity, beyond the very obvious application of, frisky librarians and cake molestation, is that solitude seems to be unobtainable for him. Solitude cannot be reached even in his dreams.

Tell us about the circumstances of this film as a class assignment. How were feedback and presentation handled?

The film assignment began from a sentence prompt I drew from an envelope. The sentence as I vaguely recall said “things that keep you up at night”. So, I imagined a character trying to keep himself awake and all the things he would do to remain awake, but very quickly became more intrigued why this character was so apprehensive about sleep. Then each scene more or less presented themselves to me, I couldn’t tell you where those ideas came from exactly, it was as if I was catching butterflies in a pitch black cave, I didn’t exactly recognize what I’d caught or know where it came from for that matter, but I can say for certain that I was the one who caught them, I am the only one that has access to the vacant, odd cavernous cave that is my brain. Once the ideas exposed themselves, I committed them to paper in the form of a script and a storyboard. It was through these that I primarily communicated my vision for Drøm to my collaborators. But given my inadequacies in articulation, a lot of their cooperation was probably in faith that I wouldn’t crash us into the side of a building.

My professor Danny Plotnick structured the semester so we regularly present our work to the class and receive feedback from both sources. For this particular project, that particular feedback was never all that encouraging at first. But, the response I got at the final screening, that included films from all the advanced production classes at USF, was the best response I have ever received, so it made up for it.

I’m seeing Lynch, I’m seeing Maya Deren. Am I on the right path? What filmmakers have influenced you?

Lynch I would admit is my closest and truest inspiration for Drøm; Deren I am unfortunately unacquainted with. Beyond David Lynch, the influences are an amalgamation of a bunch of things, I’m unsure, at least consciously of the influences beyond Mr. Lynch. But beyond this particular film, Wes Anderson is a major influence and inspiration to me, my previous film, Skills, admittedly would have been a different film if it wasn’t for the excess of time I have spent in the company of his movies. Other notable influences to me include, Woody Allen, early Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, David Wain, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino to name a few.

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

My advice to future film students, is to make a film first, at least try to. See if you enjoy it first of all. Hopefully this can allude some sense of what interests you most about it, where your talent lies and what you might want to learn more about. Apply those conclusions to schools, or maybe apply them right to your next film.

No one says you got to go to film school. But to offer a less romantic response, go to a school in a city where you want to make your career, because other than experience, a great benefit film school provides is its connections.

Describe your film in a single word.

My word to describe Drøm is “odd”. The word represents its truest embodiment. Plus it is vague and interpretive, just like Drøm .

Dennis Ogburn is a San Francisco-based student filmmaker. He is currently producing a short subject documentary about Prince.

Drom screened as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum

INTERVIEW with “Last Stop in Santa Rosa” director Elizabeth Lo

Hauntingly simple and beautifully executed, Elizabeth Lo’s short documentary Last Stop in Santa Rosa profiles BrightHaven, an animal care organization that provides sanctuary to animals at risk of euthanization. Lo’s film delicately balances her subject matter, visually echoing a line uttered by one of her subjects: "What we see is what we see from the outside".

Made at Stanford UniversityLast Stop in Santa Rosa screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum

Tell us a little about your background and about your film.

I grew up in Hong Kong, and went to Tisch at NYU to study film as an undergrad. Then I spent three years in New York working for various television documentary series, including OWN’s Our America with Lisa Ling – which taught me a lot about producing and writing. Through Last Stop in Santa Rosa, a portrait of struggling animals in their twilight years, I hoped to raise more universal questions about what it means to induce death – or prolong life – in both people and animals. At its core, this is a film about the dilemmas we face when our loved ones near the end stages of life.

How were you first introduced to the Pope family?

My own dog died a few years ago, which led me to want to make a film about a family who was grappling with the life and death issues that come with caring for an elderly animal. But in the course of my research about pet euthanasia, I discovered the animal hospice movement: instead of putting pets down at the end of life, animals were hospiced in the same way people are.

At that point I came across BrightHaven, one of the leading animal hospices in the Bay Area, and met its founders, Gail and Richard Pope. When I spoke with them, they were incredibly warm and philosophical. They had controversial but convincing views that made me rethink all of my presumptions about the ethics of pet euthanasia. That’s when I knew I wanted to make this film.

Three minutes in, a woman asks, “Was she meant to live?” What role does destiny play in your film?

Destiny is less at play here than the ethical dilemma that the woman, Gail, faces. When she asks whether the blind disabled dog was meant to live, it’s there to complicate the film’s view. What happens when a dog who would have been euthanized because of health reasons is allowed to live – is it better to exist and suffer, or not? I wanted to let audiences come to their own view on these questions that don’t have easy answers. 

Do you believe the Popes were defying or fulfilling the destiny of the animals?

This is one of the major questions that the film struggles with. At the end of the day, it’s almost impossible to know. But after meeting the Popes, and reading more about the animal hospice movement, I do believe that pet euthanasia is something that should not be considered an expectation at the end of life, but a last resort…because (like Richard says in the film) we just don’t know what the last stages of life are like for animals.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

Errol Morris is the filmmaker who got me into documentaries in the first place. I watched Vernon, Florida while I was at NYU, and it made me realize documentary could be art, not just information. Recently Lucien Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan blew my mind again. Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, and Mike Leigh are huge influences too. Their aesthetic and storytelling styles are amazing and inspiring.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would your profession be?

I would want to be a documentary distributor, so that I can promote nonfiction films that I don’t think get enough attention – either stylistically, or in terms of their message.

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

Jim Brown was my mentor and professor at NYU Tisch while I was an undergrad, and was a huge force in encouraging me to make documentaries that pushed formal boundaries. At Stanford, all my professors have been amazing, and have had a huge impact on this film – Jamie Meltzer, Kris Samuelson, and Jan Krawitz were all incredible at steering the film in the right direction, pushing me to retain my own voice as a filmmaker, and letting the footage speak for itself as much as it can.

What do you recommend most about your film program?

The friendships and collaborations that are made possible by Stanford’s small class size, and the rigor of the program (we see each other every day), means that no matter how overwhelming things get, we’re in it together. This type of intensive immersion in a program has been more rewarding and productive than I could have ever imagined. The professors are also extraordinarily present, talented, and informed. The program’s theoretical and historical component has exposed me to so many seminal, radical filmmakers that I had never known before, and it’s changed the way I understand documentaries.

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

Pick a school that fits your objectives as a filmmaker, producer, and artist. 

Describe your film in a single word.


Elizabeth Lo is an M.F.A. candidate in the documentary film program at Stanford University. She is now in pre-production for her next documentary short. 

You can check out Elizabeth’s personal website at

Check out for about the Bright Haven Organization:

Last Stop in Santa Rosa screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum

INTERVIEW with “Bright Ideas” director Tony Alfaro

Inspired by the best of physical comedy, Tony Alfaro’s Bright Ideas presents the curious predicament of an illustrator unable to change a light bulb without, well, painful results. Part Looney Tunes and part Buster Keaton, Tony’s film assures “no light bulbs were harmed in the making of the film” (we didn’t get a chance to confirm this, but sounds sketchy).

Made at Diablo Valley CollegeBright Ideas screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum. We caught up with Tony to talk about light bulbs and more light bulbs.


Tell us a little about your background and about your film. I must know what true life events inspired any or all of it!

I guess it could be said that Bright Ideas is inspired by true events. I work at a receiving center for rescued children, and on a slow day I was tasked with changing a few light bulbs that had burned out. While I was hanging over the top bunk and stretching to a point where my hand could barely reach the bulb, I realized it would have been easier to just grab a ladder. But at this point I’m already acrobatically maneuvered in a way where I’m not giving up. This is the moment where I had the “bright idea” to make a film about all of the troubles one might go through to change a light bulb.

Tell us about the film’s soundtrack, which is great.

I can’t take credit for the music. I found the royalty free site through Google. With their great selection, simple categorization, and searching method, the main theme pretty much found me. The other two were added later to break things up a bit.


Shooting a light bulb directly, especially when the light is fluctuating, can be very challenging in terms of exposure. Did you have any particular lighting challenges?

The biggest challenge that I came across was figuring out how to light a room that was supposed to be dark. I wanted it to be believable that the light bulb had gone out, yet also light enough for the viewer to see. Phil Grasso recommended that we back-light the actor which better accomplished the illusion of a dark room.

The dinner scene is hilarious. What are your major comedy influences?

Most of my inspiration for this film came from slapstick comedians like Rowan Atkinson, Lucille Ball, and most of all Charlie Chaplin. Humor has always been a big part of my family and creating something funny that could make them laugh is really what I wanted to accomplish. While we were in post-production on Bright Ideas, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was incredibly scary for all of us, but my mom remained calm and strong and is now on her way to recovery. I dedicated this film to her and I am so glad that she is here to support me. The best reward after it was complete was being able to see her laugh. Bringing a smile to her face is all I could have hoped to accomplish with this film.


Comedy is all about timing, but in film it’s thrice as tricky! The timing must be just right in the writing, acting, filming, and ultimately editing. Did any of the jokes change throughout the course of production?

Yes! The whole dinner scene was not initially planned. It was originally written with the implied idea that the character borrowed the ladder from the neighbor, but Vin Parr suggested that he steal the ladder. So, I just ran with that and then came up with the whole salt thing while driving to the set of our first day of filming. This actually ended being one of my favorite parts.

What do you recommend most about your film program?

The thing I love most about the film program at Diablo Valley College is how hands on it is. The best way to learn is to go out and do it, and with the amount of projects and tools we are given, we have every opportunity to just pick an idea and make it happen. Even if you don’t have a camera or expensive lighting or sound equipment, all of this is available to us through the school. So I’d say to anyone with the dream of becoming a filmmaker to enroll in the film program at DVC. The resources are all at your fingertips and you’ll have so many chances to work with other students who have the same goals as you. It’s really just about getting yourself out there and giving it a try. Every experience is a learning experience.


Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

I really want to thank my professor Kristy Flanagan for nominating Bright Ideas for this festival. Just having my film played along with some of the amazing talent this year is an absolute honor. Kristy’s teaching techniques allowed me the freedom and opportunity to challenge myself and learn new ways to accomplish my goals in the film. Her editing and film classes were a great way for me to try new things and expand my knowledge.

How much of your school experience was spent learning what others had done versus actually doing yourself?

While I’ve always paid close attention to detail and how each shot was done in major motion pictures, my experience in school has been a good balance of recognizing other’s techniques and creating myself. It is great to have the freedom to get your hands dirty and learn through trial and error, however if we have the opportunity to learn from other’s experiences it just makes us that much more prepared.  We had the privilege of having many examples of clips that pertained specifically to the assignments and helped us know what to watch out for when it came time to begin a project.

Describe your film in a single word.

“Ouch!” There were several times during the making of this film where Vin Parr went above and beyond what was asked of him, and he has the bruises to show for it!

Tony Alfaro is a Bay Area based writer and director. He is now in pre-production of his next short film Echoes of Her which he plans to release May 2014.

You can check out Bright Ideas on Vimeo at :

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Bright Ideas screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 5, 2014 @ 4:00pm.

INTERVIEW with “Entropic Apogee” director Bill Manolios

A paraplegic senior races to a set of train tracks, using his motorized wheelchair as a speed demon in the desolate landscape. But as the looming train whistles, he changes course and returns to a garage that doesn’t quite conform to the logic of time and space. This is Bill Manolios’s Entropic Apogee, a surreal, melancholy journey that is equal parts nightmare and redemptive journey.

Made at The Art Institute of California – San FranciscoEntropic Apogee screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum. We caught up with Bill over email to chat about his film.


Hi Bill. Tell us about yourself and your film Entropic Apogee.

The story of a man looking for meaning in his life is one that I can relate to deeply. Before dipping my toe into filmmaking, I experimented with pursuing careers in physics, photography, and most recently as a nuclear chemist in the United States Navy. Any professional satisfaction I’ve received has been trumped by the nagging question of “What if?” This drove me to explore the story of a man with emptiness at his core and his quest for answers that we can all relate to at some point in our lives. I created this film with the thought that the only deep satisfaction we’ll ever receive may be in those moments of fantasy when we dream of a better future and romanticize our past. Littered with references to my childhood and built on hopes for my own future, Entropic Apogee is the story of one man’s search for truth.

How did you cast your lead?

The task of finding the right actor was intimidating because there was only one character in the film and no dialogue. The character’s depth was something I wanted to work out with the actor. As a result I placed more value on the man behind the performance than on what I thought I knew of the character at that time.


It was important for me to find an actor who could personally relate to the character in a way that I couldn’t, someone older and married with children. Equally important was finding someone who was willing to tolerate the experience of working on a film set with inexperienced college students. Most of all, I was looking for someone excited about the script. I fortunately found someone who’d worked on some of my classmates’ films, and I never had to audition more than one person.

Entropic Apogee has some impressive sound design. Did you have sound in mind when writing or filming?

Most of this story is told through sound design, and that idea began with the script. I wanted to tell the story from a mixed perspective through the use of an unreliable narrator. The goal of this technique is to keep the audience unsure of whether the events on screen are fantasy or reality, so we approached the sound design with the idea of blurring the lines between synced, diegetic sound effects and the non-diegetic score.


Throughout the film musical elements are used as sound effects and sound effects as musical elements to encourage the audience to question the trustworthiness of their own ears. They must decide for themselves whether the story is being told through the character’s eyes or from an objective point of view. The purpose of this is to establish a sympathetic link to the audience, who can then relate to the character’s own questionable view of his surroundings.

How was the box room constructed? Was any of it composited in post?

Everything you see on screen was achieved in camera with the exception of the occasional dramatic color cast. The set was constructed with 168 light fixtures mounted into a wooden frame and 168 softboxes crafted out of 12” cube cardboard boxes. Each column of lights was wired in series independently of the others and assigned its own channel on a DMX controller to visualize the character’s emotional state and the journey through his memories.


From an objective viewpoint this room is an abstraction of a typical garage or storage shed where anyone might be expected to store artifacts from their past. Subjectively, and through the character’s eyes, this room represents the cumulative experiences of his entire life. This is where we used the lights, arranged in a 24x7 grid, act as a representation of time, including its perceived movement forward and backward.

You produced, directed, wrote, edited, and color corrected this film. Some filmmakers prefer having all the control; others argue it limits the creativity that can be found in collaboration. Can you list both the pros and cons of wearing many hats?

This is a situation where I had more time than money. Every cast and crew member volunteered their time to work on this film, which is typical for a film school environment, but knowing how much time would have to be invested into each of these roles, I couldn’t expect any of my classmates to sacrifice that much of themselves while also balancing school, work, and their own films. The editing in particular was time intensive due to its relationship with the sound design. The benefits of collaboration might have been diminished by this strategy, but the film certainly wasn’t constructed in vacuum. Edits were critiqued and reviewed weekly in class. Going back as far as the script, every decision was sounded on by a room of students and faculty.

Biggest challenges of making this film? Anything surprisingly easy?

Set construction was my biggest oversight on this film. It might only take 15 or 20 minutes to build a softbox out of aluminum foil, paper, and cardboard, but when you multiply that by 168 it becomes extremely time consuming. Wiring a light bulb is easy, but anything done that many times is a chore. You become aware of muscles that you didn’t know you had.


Conversely, the easiest part of this film was casting and directing my actor. The entire film rode on one man’s performance, which was worrisome initially. When it came time to shoot, the process was smooth, because we had worked out all of the details during rehearsals. My actor developed the subtleties of his character without the need for direction.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

I regularly look to Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg for inspiration. Visual storytelling is most appealing to me, and no one does it as well as they do.

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

The truth is that each of my professors has something to offer, and all of them will have had an impact on every film I make, creatively and technically.


Would you have been able to make the same film without attending your school in particular?

If I hadn’t attended film school at all, definitely not. If I went through a different film program, there’s no way to tell. It might have been better or worse, but I definitely wouldn’t have come out of it with the same film. This work is a reflection of my teachers and classmates as much as it is of myself.

What do you recommend most about your film program?

Both the students and teachers at this school went above and beyond what was expected of them. If you approach your work with enthusiasm and devotion they will reciprocate that attitude back to you.

Describe your film in a single word.


Bill Manolios is a Hampton Roads based freelance colorist and director of photography. He is currently writing the script for his first feature film. 

Visit Bill’s website at

Entropic Apogee screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 5, 2014 @ 4:00pm. It will also screen at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival as part of the SHORTS 4: NEW VISIONS showcase at the following time/s: Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 5:30 PM; Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 5 PM.

INTERVIEW with “The Drowned” director Dio Chen

The opening image is water, and immediately the feeling looms that there is no way out. We’re introduced to a ragtag group of survivors who must escape the water, or they will drown. As they fight their way to the camp, a place of solace, something is undeniably not right. Where exactly are they?

Made at the San Francisco Art InstituteThe Drowned screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum. We caught up with Dio over email to chat about fish and their inalienable rights.


Hi Dio. Tell us a little about your background and about your film.

I am Dio Chen, from China. I moved to San Francisco half a year ago, making films and theatrical works. I am now studying at the San Francisco Art Institute in their graduate film program. The Drowned is a 7 minute symbolic narrative which comes from my nightmares, about people being lost by the illusion from the outer. It presents a story of our inner truth going from womb to tomb, and then finding itself again.

In only 7 minutes you managed to cover a variety of amazing locations! Where did you shoot?

Tub at home.

Cave and dry land in Cliff House  in Golden Gate Park.

Plains in the East Bay.


Inside a truck.

Seafood market in  Chinatown.

Elevator at school.

What camera did you use to shoot underwater?

GoPro! Because it is accessible. I had no budget for others.

What made you choose the ocean for your film?

For me, the ocean represents unlimited freedom. Besides, there’s always a theory about humans coming from the ocean,  so the ocean also represents the homeland, the motherland. On the contrary, the earth (desert, cave, stone) is scary, authoritative and powerful!

The fish scene is easily one of your most evocative images, a heartbreaking metaphor essential for your film. Was it difficult? Were animal rights a concern?

The shooting of those scenes [were the easiest] part of the whole film, because there was only one human character and then some fish. It was easier to control the presence of the image and sound. But as we shot in a private commercial location (seafood markets), time limitation was the main issue.

But as far as producing, it was really difficult at that time to locate a seafood market. Almost all the seafood markets required us to [obtain] permission from the city for shooting. We asked about 12 seafood markets and fish companies, and only one allowed us to shoot the whole scene in 2 hours (including preparation).


Animal rights was a concern. As for this film, it is indeed about animal rights. We did shoot the scene in a seafood market, and [while shooting] the commercial fish scenes, we maintained non-interference and a neutral attitude. So , I believe that instead of individual salvation, it is better to improve the audience’s awareness, and this is one of the main factors why I produced the film.  Audiences will consider more about fish themselves. Yes, fish did die in this film. but it is also an effort to reveal the unfairness toward fish.

Your style of production design is very distinct. What inspired your color palette and was it the brain child of you, or your crew?

I did have a great production director help me design the color and together we made the costumes on a low budget. In the post-production, we also strengthened the color conflicts and union. 

What filmmakers have influenced you?

I love Stanley Kubrick . He was weird but amazing . He was a kid more than a director.


Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

My four professors in SFAI gave me a lot of suggestions and ideas for the film! Christopher Coppola suggested I strengthen the characters’ emotions. Anne Colvin helped me style the whole film. Lynn Hershman-Leeson did help on editing! Chris Kubick gave lots of suggestions about the rhythm of film. All of their efforts shaped the film.

Would you have been able to make the same film without attending school?

I think I could not. I was inspired by my teachers and schoolmates, as well as from my other art practice and art theory class!  I would really love to stay here to make art, even not only film!

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

Teaching style is so important, as well as inspiration from schoolmates. Our school encourages more experimental and artistic filmmaking, about conceptual rather than tech, which fits me well. We can examine the creative process itself.

Describe your film in a single word.


Dio Chen is a filmmaker from China. She is now exploring boundaries in film, video installation and performance art. 

The Drowned screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 5, 2014 @ 4:00pm.

INTERVIEW with “The Bench” director Antonio Cola

A young woman illustrates a railway station’s bench while she is waiting for the train. Meanwhile, an unknown man sitting on that bench starts flirting with her. Then, something happens. So begins Antonio Cola’s mysterious short film The Bench, a film as much about cinematic form as it is a tale of two strangers connecting.

Made at De Anza CollegeThe Bench screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum. We caught up with Antonio over email to chat about his film.


Tell us a little about your background and about your film The Bench.

Thoughtlessly, I think that I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was born. I know it might sound prosaic but it’s real. Unlike other kids, I started speaking very late. I was probably over 3 years old when I was able to complete an entire sentence orally. For some reason, my mouth just rejected any phonetic articulation and I projected the world I was experiencing through my eyes. Even though I’m terrible at drawing, when I was a kid lines and colors drawn on a piece of paper were the only means of communication I knew. Growing up, I obviously improved my speaking faculty but I always felt it wasn’t my way of communicating or, at least, my preferred language. That’s why I wrote a lot during my adolescence. I used to keep a journal, I was continuously jotting down pitches for stories, I wrote many naive poems. On one hand, I always tried to escape from the boredom of daily life, but on the other hand I was just looking for a way to tell the world I had introjected. As time went by, I found myself holding a B.A. in Journalism and Communication while in my other hand I was snapping picture with my reflex 35mm. My lifelong contradiction was still affecting my sailing route in the ocean of an unstable identity.


Eventually I came to the point of resolution when I started my Master Degree in Filmmaking at Cinecittà. Since then, I realized that the lens attached to a camera, was my missing piece, the artificial limb that makes me a normal being, the ideal brush that allows me to paint my own world. So because of my internal isolation and lack of a solid identity, I started investigating the themes of loneliness, absence, distance, lack of moral values, emotional “schism” between human beings and society which drive my stories towards the existential journey into the boundaries of the soul. That’s why I always thought of making movies as a endlessly personal therapy of understanding that made me an independent filmmaker very personal in [my] form of storytelling. That’s why I believe that The Bench is a strong screw that holds the picture of my artistic belief at the wall of my aesthetic research. The Bench is a layered story with a simple structure that lies on many subtextual pillars. It tells about the reason of waiting, it deals with the genesis of an obsession, it talks about love and its potential failure, and it raises the crucial filmmaking question of point of view.

Your film communicates a lot in less than 5 minutes. Was time a challenge or goal for you during conceptualization?

I firmly believe that there is no proper time to tell a story. Time is always something relative for a filmmaker, whether he deals with the whole narrative length or the internal length of a single shot. I support the idea that time is subordinated to the filming part because the director and his style define the relationship between natural time and fictional time. Two different filmmakers can develop the same story using a completely different temporal structure. That’s why we are all able to enjoy productions such as Entr’acteby Renè Clair or Empire by Andy Warhol. Although rhythm and visual pace are fundamental tools of an experienced filmmaker, I’d rather lead the narration through the space and the mise en scene. Every time I am behind the camera, my only concern is the frame and its composition, the plastic value of the shot and its aesthetic reason. What really challenges me [is] it’s being able to satisfy my personal idea of the narration through the choreographic interaction of the camera and the framed space. I never accurately plan how long I want a movie to be; its length is just a consequence, ever an immanent characteristic. So speaking of The Bench I would say that time wasn’t a challenge, at least as much as the logistic solutions to […] the production limits.

Shooting the bench through the iron gate gives a subconscious imprisoned feeling, but could represent things other than confinement, like segregation, or things out of reach. What does the iron gate mean to you?

The iron gate is the incitement and the limit at the same time. It’s the semiotic synthesis of two equivalent forces that throw the female character into stagnation. I feel that when an emotional or psychological crisis first hits somebody, stillness is the most comfortable “place” where hurt feelings can be protected from disruption, and love can be the most disruptive of the feelings.


Over time, stillness itself cannot contain anymore the roaring impetus of those ferocious unhealed feelings, so there comes the moment when the female character begins that process [that] I call the “existential developing of nothing.” She changes the static and redundant reality into a dynamic obsession and, in order to do that, she links her feelings to objects able to recall pleasant memories of the past that comes back to life. In other words, she cheats on her own feelings to balance her existence, raising a gate of untrustworthy realities. That’s probably the ultimate meaning of the iron gate to me, the thin high wall that divides her from the actual reality; the rotten mask of pretentious lies that saves her from a moral judgement but, at the same time, a sort of crumbling shelter that protects her from the definitive failure of integration that would be chaos.

The film changes drastically depending on how the viewer interprets the relationship between the couple. Are they strangers? Haunting memories of past lovers? Who are they to you?

The ambiguous identity of the characters is crucial to define my recurring cinematic argument, the point of view. As art form, filmmaking defines different worlds and realities. To me, making a movie means to draw a line that separates the logical interdependence between a human being and the natural world; it means to find the analytical spot from where we can observe different faces of a single relation. Cap in hand, I like to think of filmmaking as a speculative act.


If I should describe my idea of filmmaking, I would take as an example the movie Blow-Upby Michelangelo Antonioni, where even a fixed reality like a photograph that depicts a dead body can be turned into a lie or at least accepts an undefined truth. In this movie, Antonioni seems to decline the paradox that, through the lens, reality loses its universal value becoming ephemeral but this is exactly why it becomes realer and deeper. That said, the two characters in The Bench can be anyone and anything. They can be lovers, they can be strangers, or they can be hints of vivid memories. Through the angles and the mise en scene, the narration claims the fictional relationship between the characters and the story but also charges them with so many different existential reasons that make them multidimensional. In this kaleidoscopic of colors, I probably think that the characters are just two faces of the same loss, the loneliness of who leaves and who stays; they are just two skillful aerialists flying on the arena of a socially disconnected world.

A recurring theme is freedom. The iron bars disappear at the end. The wedding ring is removed. All reinforced by the lyrics of the ending credits song. However in addition, your characters emote sadness. Tell me, are they sad because they dream of freedom and cannot attain it, or because they are free, but solitude is the cost of said freedom?

The attempt to achieve freedom is surely palpable throughout the entire movie. The whole diegetic reality is created by framing and caging, and there is a subtle force that relegates the characters to a bidimensional space (f.i., the pages of the notebook on which the female character draws, the mask of the photocamera that the male character is using to take picture, etc.), pushing freedom away from them. So their struggle to gain freedom, readable from those actions of taking off the wedding ring, putting away the notebook, and ideally breaking the iron gate, miserably fails when the guy sadly fades away.


At this point the girl doesn’t have anything left but her loneliness to embrace. That’s why the voice over says “Every day, at the same time, I go back to the place where you left…” That’s why the characters emote sadness. Visually, she gets out of the shelter to get into a tunnel, a scene that seems to suggests that freedom is unachievable because implies loneliness, therefore is not sharable. Sadness is sharable but implies pain. This is a existential inequality that the characters seems not to be able to solve. 

Which part of making The Bench was the most fun for you?

I consider The Bench a short about improvisation because whatever we planned in pre-production dramatically changed. We had to scout different locations until the day before the shoot; we had to deal with missing equipment on set, and with a call for sick from one actor. Although I don’t work with solid storyboards, the case of The Benchwas a little extreme to me because I had to make up ideas of mise en scene, angles, and shots very frequently. But at the same time I can say I felt great enjoyment from that because this way allows you to experience the purity of filmmaking, where passion and desire of telling a story is all worth it. AsOrson Welles said in an interview to the Cahiers du Cinema "it takes a couple of actors and a camera to make a movie." And looking back at The Bench I can say it was right. All it takes to make a movie is passion and courage, the same passion and courage that pushed filmmaker like Truffaut and Godard to change the cinematic language, the same passion that has been challenged movie makers to keep alive this art, the same one that will keep attracting new waves of video makers in the future.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

My filmmaking background has always been geographically influenced. When I was a teenager I got to know the Italian Neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague, later on the Scandinavian Cinema, then the New American Cinema, then the Chinese Cinema, and so on.Filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Ingmar Bergman, Zhang Yimou, Kim Ki-Duk, deeply influenced my storytelling and my visual style. In addition to them I became a huge fan of Federico Fellini and a deep lover of Michelangelo Antonioni. What I loved about Antonioni was his mastery of telling story about alienation and existential incommunicability perfectly conveyed with breathtaking complex long takes which made the characters feeling entrapped in their sick psyche.


What I always admired about Godard was his incessant search of innovation. Starting from the idea that movies are based on a non-conventional language, Godard broke all the rules that had been established so far. I always saw him as an avant-guardist and an accomplished revolutionist among the auteurs. For this reason I probably ended up appreciating a lot the entire work of Wong Kar-Wai who is able to blend the poetic narration of Antonioni with the linguistic innovation of Godard.

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

I don’t know if I have [a] favorite professor because it is like answering what’s my favorite movie. I think that when you study filmmaking, you don’t really have a favorite subject or a favorite person to relate to but you feel more that every teacher has something unique that you can learn from. So any of them have influenced somehow the genesis of my movie. Susan Tavernetti (Professor of History of Cinema) was the North Star who led me through the process of creation with a high critical point of view about the aesthetic of the movie. Zaki Lisha (Film/TV Department Coordinator/Chair) walked me through the process of breaking the rules with consciousness. His unceasing pointing out the necessity of following a strict nomenclature of rules in order to compel the audience made me develop a personal style which goes against the regular narrative structure to serve the internal dramatic structure of the movie. Dennis Irwin (Film/TV Department Instructor) helped me to make stronger the multidimensional aspect of the short focusing the development of the story also on the development of the soundtrack. Barak Goldman (Professor of Screenwriting) was by my side every moment with his exquisite support and advices that make him a sort of mentor.

Would you have been able to make the same film without attending school?

I honestly don’t think I would have been able to make the same movie in terms of development and production opportunity. There are some stories that are made just for one movie and movies that can be shot only in a certain time. That’s why I think that The Bench shows the lightness of a short simple story and the complex energy of a “naively” production. Being surrounded by other valid filmmakers, being motivated by other storytellers, and being challenged to set free your creativity by the professors is a plus that can be inferred from my movie, tout court, with all its potential and its limitations. Film schools give to students the authority to “fail”, the drive to experiment. Shooting while in a film school, it’s like driving a fast car without the license. So exciting!

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

According to my personal experience I would suggest anyone apply to De Anza college because it has an incredible film program. But more important than anything else I don’t believe that [there] exists one film school that will fulfill students’ artistic need, instead I think that there are artistic personalities that will fit certain film school. So my only advice might be to define well your specific personality before start looking for a film school.

Antonio Cola is a San Francisco-based freelance filmmaker, cinematographer, photographer, and editor. He is now in post-production on his short film The Ballad of Ayako & JessieHe is also working on the final draft of his first feature-length The Spinning Ring and on his first theatrical play There Must Be a Place.

The Bench screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Beyond Film School: Bay Area Student Filmmaking Showcase at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum. on April 5, 2014 @ 4:00pm.

INTERVIEW with “Grand Canal” director Johnny Ma

Johnny Ma’s Grand Canal (大运河) docks with the explosiveness of raw personal storytelling. The tale of the tragic events of a boat captain who must collect a debt as remembered by his ten year old son, the short film manages to be many things: a diary, a hard-hitting fictional narrative, a quasi-documentary, a deconstruction of cinematic form. What’s hard to nail is a description of the film’s impact, which for this writer hovered between the adrenaline of seeing a filmmaker on top of his craft and the unsettling emotions that the viewers are left to explore.

Made at Columbia UniversityGrand Canal screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s A Modern Family short film showcase. Johnny’s previous film The Genius from Quintino (O Genio de Quintino) aired in our first season of Film School Shorts, so it was an extra pleasure to catch up with Johnny and talk about the joys of casting, the praise Grand Canal has received and what to do when you’re trying to film the uncontrollable.

Hi Johnny, how have you been?

Really good. Glad to be climbing out of a one month writing binge inside my “cave” to hang out in sunny San Francisco. It’s awesome out here!

You’ve described Grand Canal as a “Greek tragedy told in a Chinese pop song.” Tell us about the film.

Grand Canal was shot in the winter of 2013 in the water canal town of Gao You (six hours from Shanghai), and it was made as my thesis film at Columbia University. The story is about a Chinese boat captain trying to collect a debt from a dangerous local mob boss in order to keep his fleet of boats. 

Even from the beginning of development, I always wanted the final film to have a timeless quality, as if the same story could’ve happened in any generation or culture. Rather than a short film, it should feel like a sweeping novel or Greek tragedy that transcends the running time of 20 minutes. The story is firmly wrapped around one particular 90’s Chinese pop song to help focus the emotional journey for the audience. The goal with this framework is to make the story hopefully bigger than any screen it’s playing on. I want the audience to literally want to jump into this world and be in it. 

Grand Canal adds another international setting to your filmography. What were some the challenges and benefits of filming in China and how did it differ from your O Genio de Quintino shoot in Brazil?

The Brazil experience will always stay with me throughout my entire career because of what we endured and accomplished together with my best friends and collaborators. In the darkest of times of trying to make Grand Canal in China, I always found comfort in knowing that we experienced all of these difficulties before in Brazil and in much harsher conditions, and so I just had to relax and let things take their natural course. For example, I was really stressed out about casting in Brazil and whether or not the right person would eventually come around; it took us three weeks to eventually find Ricardo who became the main protagonist in O Genio. In China, it took two whole months before I finally met Mei [Song Shun]. But I was never once stressed about the casting because I knew if I was patient, someone like him would eventually come around just like it did once before in Brazil. And when I finally did meet Mei, it was the same feeling I had when meeting Ricardo in Brazil. I knew this was it. 

In hindsight, things should’ve been much more difficult in China as we had much bigger ambitions. But having the Brazil experience helped to put me in the right mindset and focus my energies on the right things. Rather than being stressed about things that I had no way of controlling, I just let things happen and then tried to make the best of the situation. 

Your lead Mei Song Shun is phenomenal. How did you cast him and the rest of the actors?

I mentioned before about the similar “feeling” when I met the lead actor of Mei in Grand Canal and Ricardo in O Genio. That “feeling” actually came from a much more practical, visceral reaction to both of their unique hairstyles. Ricardo had this insane wild man hair that drew my eyes to him as soon as I spotted him. 

Mei also had this really interesting hairstyle that drew me straight to him amongst a dining table of 15 people. I saw it as soon as I walked into the room. He had this ponytail that made him look like a battled warrior hero from the ancient Dynasty days. It was like he should have been born 1000 years ago, and being born in the modern day has displaced him from his natural place in time. The idea of a character that is looking for his rightful place in the world has always fascinated me, and being born a thousand years too late is just the most tragic thing because that kind of character will never be able to find his true “home”.  I loved that we can see it right away from the way Mei wears his hair and, in a subtle way, his pony tail said everything I wanted to say with my film.

Do you have any unique ways of working with your cast? Any methods?

I usually look for real people that embody the same qualities of characters in the original script, and we let their real life and story color what we want to explore. Both Ricardo from O Genio and Mei from Grand Canal are not actors, but real people who are literally living the life that the film was depicting. 

I learned from my experience in Brazil that rather than trying to encourage the main character to “act” as I did with Ricardo, that perhaps it was much more useful to just spend time with Mei to get him comfortable with the filmmaking process so that all he is really doing is reacting as himself in any given situation. 

I definitely I think I’ve improved and learned from my own directing experience from one film to the next. There are moments in Grand Canal [where] what you see on the screen is literally as real as it gets, but it was not necessarily originally written that way. For example, when Mei cries at the wedding it was only written in the script as, “Mei looks across the room at his wife and ponders what he would do next”. But on the day of filming, it was one of the last things we shot on the very last day. I knew Mei was already in a bit of a state. So I gave him a beer and whispered in his ear that today was the last day of production and everyone was leaving tomorrow. I didn’t know what it would do except to make him feel more alone, as his character should feel at that moment in the story. But as we began setting up the lights, Mei really began to cry and it was such a deep cry that it just broke my and everyone’s heart. 

I nudged the cameraman to start filming right away even if the lighting wasn’t ready. I knew because of that moment, the entire film was changing in front of my eyes and took on a deeper and more emotional meaning. I didn’t know what it meant for the film, but I knew it was a special moment that we captured. 

Tell us a bit about the film’s wedding, because it’s to my understanding that it’s not entirely fictional.

It’s a 100% real wedding of over 1000 guests. That was the day probably I was most nervous, as there was nothing we could control. I knew there were things we needed for the story and if we didn’t get them, it would be disastrous as there was no way to repeat anything at the real wedding. So with the team we strategized and made a very precise plan and possible backup options to cover any missed story points.

This was such an exciting way to make a film that brought back all of my documentary experience. I knew that certain things would not work out but that there would be some new discoveries. I’ll just talk about the actual marriage ceremony and the exchange of vows. When we shot it, I had no idea what it would be like. All I could do was get our camera guy behind and cover the moment. And in all honesty, it didn’t look like much from where I was sitting in the audience. 

But when I saw the footage, I was just blown away by the pure emotion that was captured on the newlywed’s faces. The original script began in a completely different way, but when I saw the footage of the marriage vows, I knew I had the beginning of the film and that forced me to also look at the entire structure of the film in a different way. 

This is clearly a highly personal film. Can you talk a bit about your personal life and how that account is mirrored in the film?

I’ll keep the ending twist a secret. But I would just like to say the film is personal to everyone that was involved, and not just myself as you might think from first viewing the film. The final film consists of elements of my life, Mei’s life and all of the people that were involved. It’s an ode to the collection of stories, songs, and people I’ve experienced during the time living and making the film at Gao You.

The film has does have both elements of fiction of reality, and I experimented blurring the lines of narrative and documentary. It is my hope that rather than waste their time trying to figure out what’s real and not real in the facts, the viewer would see all of it as just a story. I love Herzog’s idea about facts and truth, and that real truth is not necessarily fact, that there is a poetry of truth that facts will never fully reveal. 

And if you felt something after watching the film, it’s because of the story and the emotions depicted in the film are honest and truthful; maybe not in the facts, but definitely in the poetry of trying to get at another kind of truth. 

What did you shoot on? Can you talk a bit about the film’s grainy and raw aesthetic?

We shot the film on 16mm. I really wanted to shoot on the format because of the timeless quality it would give to the canal settings and it is absolutely crucial in achieving the 90’s Chinese filmmaking style. I wanted the final film to literally look like a film that was made in the 90’s rather than a film made in 2013 about the 1990’s. 16mm is great for that. 

Logistically, it was really difficult getting 16mm in China because film is pretty much dead there. And to actually buy film stock and develop the film in China would even cost five or ten times more than they would in the U.S. So we had to literally smuggle the film stock in from Taiwan through certain connections we knew. And if we were caught and forced to pay the custom fees, we would not have been able to afford any of it. Luckily, the filmmaking gods were on our side.

The film has been selected as one of the ten best shorts at the Toronto International Film Festival.  How does it feel having your work recognized on such a large platform? Have there been any practical ramifications from the festival’s honors?

Playing at TIFF is awesome! Toronto is such a wonderful festival and for that one month of the festival, everyone just talked about films in such an intelligent and interesting way. I usually spend my time at TIFF watching other films and getting inspired from them for my own work. For that, festivals have been really great and because of some of the festival honors, our feature project is getting traction and we were able to take our feature project through the Sundance Lab. Grand Canal really serves as the living proof that we can really pull off what we say we want to do in the feature script. 

However, I feel that waiting or hoping for festival honors is really dangerous because after going around the festivals for a while, you realize that there is so many other reasons why a film gets into a festival and wins an award that sometimes have nothing to do with the quality of the film. And so I really hate the idea that because of festival honors, one filmmaker gets to make his feature and another doesn’t because he did not get as many honors. This is utterly ridiculous. It’s always nice to get honors, but as long as we are clear that it should have nothing with our desire and motivation for the next project. 

The ending is unique to say the least. Was the third-act fully realized during pre-production, or was it something that came about during the production or post?

The ending twist or reveal is something I always wanted to explore in a film before. And unconsciously without telling anyone on set or the actors, I made backup plans during shooting to make it possible to explore this option in the post-process without crew and the actors’ knowledge. Everyone on set was making a film with a different storyline than the one that is in the final product. It was only after the editor put together the rough cut of the original film that I had enough confidence to suggest looking at possibility of a different way of framing the entire film. 

What filmmakers have influenced you?

I always loved filmmakers that are the pure storytellers, guys like Abbas Kiarostami and Werner Herzog. They tell stories in such simple but always unique methods in each of their stories. 

I admire Abbas Kiarostami for the way he is able to tell a small story but with such large spiritual and worldly meanings, and Werner Herzog for the energy and the scope of the dreams of each of his characters. 

For Grand Canal, I also watched a lot of 90’s Chinese filmmakers such as Jia Zhang Ke and Jiang Wen. I immigrated to Canada in 1992 and basically missed out on an entire generation of exciting Chinese filmmaking. I even made a conscious choice to shoot Grand Canal aesthetically as an homage to 90’s Chinese films.  It was my way of exploring a completely blanked out period of my own upbringing as a Chinese person. 

You made this film at Columbia University. How did any of your instructors or mentors influence the film? Would you have been able to make the same film without attending Columbia University?

Columbia has some of the most amazing mentors: some are very nurturing and others can be extremely tough. All of it is a workshop to continue challenging you and pushing you to take new risks in your exploration.

I remember a professor made a harsh critique about O Genio that was absolutely true, but it was still hard to swallow. But rather then wallowing on it, it lit the fire for me to prove him wrong on my next film. And he was the first person I showed the rough cut of Grand Canal to. And it sure felt extra good when he turned around after watching the film and said, “That was good.”

I was making very different kinds of films before Columbia, and technically I don’t think film school really gave me anything I didn’t know or couldn’t have learned from just making more films. More than anything, the Columbia experience really challenged me to explore the question of who I am as a storyteller and figuring out my voice. And I do really feel that with Grand Canal, I am finally starting to successfully communicate who I am and share what is going on in my heart and in my head. And more than anything technical, that is to me the hardest and the most important thing we can do as a storyteller. 

What do you say to the people that argue you don’t need a film degree to make films?

I think this statement is becoming more and more true. The industry is changing so fast, and slowly [a] film degree does not have the same value as it once had. I definitely don’t think you need a film degree to make a film. Anyone with a DSLR and a desire to tell a story can do it now. But a good film… hmm, that might take a little more work and luck, and film school helps put you in a place where you are at least not alone in that exploration, and they do know something, and can at least help point you to the right direction. But the road you will always have to walk yourself. 

I don’t know how my journey as a filmmaker would be different if I didn’t go to Columbia. I only know the road I traveled. So I guess all I can say is that I’m happy with where I am now, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction, and the film degree certainly helped with that.

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

I think everyone’s experience in choosing the film school and also their experience in it will be different. And as any storyteller with his/her own unique voice, you also have to figure out your own criteria in making this important decision. And it might just be as simple as a visceral feeling that this is the right place for you, as I felt when I first saw Mei and Ricardo’s hairstyles. I will always trust those basic instincts much more than rational logic.

What’s next for Johnny Ma?

Well, I’m done now as a student filmmaker, and in July I’m off to China again to start making my feature about marriages and pollution. I feel I’m ready for the challenge now to take that next step because of my experience of film school and making Grand Canal. I know it won’t be a easy journey, but that’s also the fun of it. 

Johnny Ma is a NY/LA/Beijing based filmmaker. He is currently in development on his first feature length narrative project Ten Thousand Happiness.

Like Grand Canal on Facebook.

Grand Canal screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s A Modern Family short film showcase on March 18, 2014 @ 9:00 pm.

INTERVIEW with “Lan Yan” director Danielle Schmidt

The lives of Shanghai residents and the impending demise of their living quarters is the subject of Danielle Schmidt’s documentary Lan Yan. Made as part of the International Documentary Workshop at San Francisco State University, Schmidt’s touching short film examines a community quietly at terms with an imminent relocation.

Lan Yan screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s Why We Rise short film showcase. Danielle used to intern with us at Film School Shorts, so it was an added bonus to get to catch up with her!


Hi Danielle. We miss you at KQED! How are you holding up these days?

I’m doing great!  Excited to be screening Lan Yan and working hard on my newest short narrative The Invaluable which will be premiering later this spring.  I miss KQED and KQED Presents though!

Can you tell us a little about your background and your documentary Lan Yan?

I’m finishing up my final semester as a Cinema major at San Francisco State University.  I’ve dabbled in documentary work/broadcast journalism here and there, but Lan Yan was definitely my first documentary I’ve been very proud of, or that resonated deeply with me.  Lan Yan is a documentary about finding community and support in a low-income neighborhood in Shanghai known as Lan Yan, and the pros and cons of living in this kind of community (a Shikumen community) when the isolated and fast paced skyscraper culture that surrounds Lan Yan is becoming the norm.  I created this film with a group of five other teammates from both SF State and Shanghai Normal University as part of SF State’s Summer Shanghai Documentary Workshop.  

Tell us about the International Documentary Workshop between San Francisco State University and Shanghai Normal University. How does the program work?

You apply to the program (usually around this time) and a certain number of students are selected (about 12).  You then spend a month being hosted by Shanghai Normal University.  You have a week to explore the city and research ideas, pitch an idea to the professors leading the course, and do all pre-production.  Once the film ideas get picked by the professors (four films), you split up accordingly and have a week or so to shoot.  The last week is spent editing 24/7 in a computer lab on SNU’s campus and getting your 10 minute or more cut ready for a final screening.  


Ok, how does one plan a documentary shoot from across an ocean? Where did you find your subject Mr. Zhang?

We stumbled across Mr. Zhang while walking around Lan Yan, looking for someone we could interview.  We had seen the neighborhood while exploring a nearby slaughter-house-turned-upscale-mall and were all immediately intrigued.  Most of the residents, although friendly, were extremely wary of being filmed.  His daughter, Zhang Jing Fang, was eager to help us out and was just generally curious by us.  She introduced us to her father who sat with us and, after getting to know each other, agreed to do the documentary.

 He’s very comfortable on camera. How was the relationship between Mr. Zhang and the crew?

We got along well.  Obviously there was a language barrier for some of us, but thankfully most of our crew (our Producer, an SF State student, included) spoke Mandarin, so that helped.  He’s just all in all a very laid back and kind man.  He took us into his home and let us film everything with ease.  It was like he was born to be filmed.  We all agreed we got very lucky.

What struck me most was that the residents know that the place will one day be gone. One of the residents says, “I believe this place will be demolished.” How do you feel that knowing that your home will soon be destroyed affected your subjects and the community at large?

It’s tough because, yes, they have all formed this close-knit relationship, but you have to think of the living conditions as well.  Shikumen are not the best, and there is the desire to have some personal space.  Like Mr. Zhang states in the film, you want what’s best for your child, your family, too.  So I think there’s this struggle. Nothing’s black and white.  The issue is complicated and you can’t just take a side.  Like with everything, there’s pros and cons.  


You let the action play out rather than have an invasive camera. It feels very hands off, yet it’s very precise. The images are also startlingly beautiful. Can you tell us about the film’s cinematic style? What have you seen that influenced the way the film is shot and paced?

Jamie Oliveira is an AMAZING cinematographer.  She brought some great visual ideas to the table, and it totally shows in the film.  Such as the use of static shots.  I really think it helped ground the film and assisted the overall soothing pace.  We also just wanted to show people what exactly we were seeing as we saw it.  This was something impressed on us by our instructor, Greta Snider.  The idea of letting the audience discover your subject in the same way you discovered the subject.  There was no need to show talking heads or archival footage.  It was just about being in the moment and observing.

Tell us a little about the production. How many people were on the crew and how was the workflow handled?

There were seven of us: Jamie, Pawara Soh, Lu Xin, Qian Ling, Wang Ting, and Zeng Lingzi.  It was the first time most of us had worked together, so it was interesting trying to convey what you wanted to do in such a short amount of time when you don’t already have a mutually understood language and groove to go off of.  We talked everything out though and tried to keep it a very collaborative process.


I like the different worlds of the men and the girls. There’s a great moment where we go from a heavily smoke filled room of men playing mahjong to young girls goofing around on the concrete.

It was great because you got to see different aspects on Lan Yan.  You have a lot of older people living there, but then you also have young kids as well, and they all occupy themselves differently, like in any culture or community.   


Has Mr. Zhang seen the film? If so, what did he think?

They both have.  We weren’t able to be there, since we actually finished the film here in the U.S.  But one of the filmmaker’s, Zeng Lingzi, showed it to them.  They were very moved.  You can see a picture of them watching the film on our Facebook page!

How much footage did you shoot and how long did it take to edit?

A LOT of footage.  Hours and hours worth.  We were smart about it though.  We were constantly offloading at the end of the day so that, while we were out shooting one day, our editors were back at SNU logging footage and piecing together an assembly cut so that we would never fall behind.


 Did you always know you wanted to major in film?

Not always, but since very young.  Like everyone, I had that film that just made things click, where after watching the behind the scenes, I just knew what it was I wanted to do.  It’s funny, but for me, it was Lord of the Rings.

Why SF State? What do you recommend most about your film program?

SF State is great for documentary and experimental film—arguably one of the best—the instructors are all working professionals, and we’re just in a great, creative city.  The possibilities are endless.  The narrative program is unique and wonderful too.  SF State prides itself in teaching students how to tell a good story, as opposed to just learning the technical mechanics of filmmaking.

How did any of your instructors or mentors influence the film?

As I mentioned, Greta’s advice really helped shape the pacing/structure of the film.  She was also constantly reminding us to think about who are audience was, which also helped make the film relatable/universal. 

What is one thing you learned from film school that you never could have learned studying on your own?

The stories.  You constantly hear the anecdotes and stories from your instructors about their own real experiences in filmmaking, and this somehow turns out to be the thing you remember the most.  Because it’s real and relatable.

What’s the most surprising thing about SFSU?

We’re still one of the few schools that requires students to learn to shoot on film.  This isn’t surprising, but it’s a fun fact.  

What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?

Do your research—every school specializes in something different.  Also, try to be open.  Apply to as many film schools as you can.  The best fit might surprise you.  

Danielle Schmidt is a San Francisco based filmmaker and student.  She is currently in post-production for her Thesis film The Invaluable, which screens at The Roxie later this year. 

Lan Yan screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s Why We Rise short film showcase on Sun March 16 @ 9:10PM and Mon March 17 @ 8:40 PM.

INTERVIEW with “Requiem for a Robot” director Christoph Rainer

An alcoholic robot with daddy issues roams around NYC in Christoph Rainer’s short film Requiem for a Robot. Made at Columbia University, the film eschews high tech VFX and instead presents us with a Bender-like hunk of junk that seems straight out of a Gondry film.

Requiem for a Robot screens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts. We caught up with Christoph over email to talk about drunk bots and A Silver Mt. Zion.


Hi Christoph. Tell us a little about yourself and your film Requiem for a Robot.

I’m a bearded, 2-meter Austrian, who just loves to make movies more than anything. My short film Requiem for a Robot is an extremely cheap and silly (robot) coming of age film. 

The film has a very evocative sound design. Where in the process, from start to finish, did music and sound design become a driving factor and how did it affect editing decisions?

Most of the music in my film is written by my incredibly talented composer, David Furrer. Only the final track in the film is by the Canadian band A Silver Mt. Zion. For the grand finale of my film, I always had their track in mind and shot it accordingly for this piece of music. In general, sounds and music are extremely inspiring for me and define the films more than its look. I always think that: with imagery, you reach people’s eyes, but with sound you reach their soul!


Ok, so we have an addicted robot with daddy issues, yet living on daddy’s dime. Failing, or at the very least floundering, family dynamics seem to be a recurring theme for your films. Could you speak on that?

Yes, it actually really bothers me. With each film I intend to make it not about ‘my’ family dynamics again. But as soon as the film is finished and I see it for the first time through the eyes of an audience member, I always realize it is much more about my own family than anything else. I hope I will get over this at some point.

Tell us about this robot. The costume’s crudity is key to the film’s enjoyment, almost like seeing the strings of a puppet. Yet, even with its monotonous voice, we start to develop an emotional tie to the robot. Can you talk a little about this?

Since I did not have any budget for the film, I knew that I had to make the look of the robot a virtue out of necessity. So my producer, Max Haslberger, and I just recycled cardboard boxes, old plastic cups and delivery plates with silver spray. But we also borrowed two big, old lenses from a friend, because we knew that the eyes will be the key to connect and feel with the robot. People often say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. We wanted this to be true for our robot as well. And in the case he doesn’t have one, we wanted to see the lack of it in his eyes.


I have to nerd out on this: how did you create the LED mouth?

The LED mouth was actually just a silly T-shirt that we taped inside the cardboard box.

It was a very simple solution and allowed the great actress inside the robot, Iris K. Shim, to talk freely while the LED shirt was reacting to it.

I’m sure as of 2013, you’re getting this a lot, and I apologize, BUT what did you think of how Spike Jonze’s Her handled the idea of sentience in a modern age? What can tales of self-aware AI tell us about ourselves in the 21st century?

I think Spike Jonze handled that beautifully and created all sorts of interesting reactions from the audience. For me, AI is always such a phenomenal tool to simulate and mirror our own species. Eventually we have to ask ourselves, how do we differ from those artificial creatures? What makes us special? What makes us human? And what does that even mean?

I think this mirroring effect brings up an infinite amount of crucial questions [that] everyone has to face for themselves.


Your ending requires elements that are well out of your control to occur while filming. How does a student even begin to coordinate such a shot?

The final shot in the film was a pure battle against nature. Or at least that’s how me and my collaborator slash girlfriend at that time, Claudia Wölfl, experienced it. It was just the two of us with two cameras and a bunch of fireworks. It was New Year’s eve, so we had to shoot at exactly midnight to get the most background fireworks on screen. We were running out of time and it was also cold as hell. Furthermore, a harsh snow wind kept blowing the robot away. At one point, me and my girlfriend were already panicking, we just poured gasoline all over the robot without noticing that my girlfriend had a lot of gasoline on herself. The entire undertaking was stupid and reckless - there are really no other words for that. But all of a sudden, when we already had given up, everything just came together and both cameras were capturing the tragic ending of the film. And the best part of it: nobody got hurt! I still can’t believe how it all of a sudden worked out magically. It felt like a miracle. I am eternally and deeply grateful to Claudia!  

What training did your film program provide you with to best tell your story and how has it influenced you as an artist? How are you different now?

I had the privilege to do my bachelor degree in directing at the Viennese Filmacademy in Austria, where Michael Haneke tried to teach us something about filmmaking. In retrospect, the Filmacademy seems like an artistic arena for each [student’s] personal quest to find his voice. The main question often seemed to be, who are you as an artist in our world and what concepts do you have to offer? Even though I think this is an extremely important focus, I realized that this approach often ended in technically and conceptually well executed films which had little to no emotional impact on a broader audience (no need to say that I speak out of my own experience here. 

With a Fulbright scholarship, I was able to pursue my master degree at Columbia University in New York. Their film program left the artistic progression more to each student and just made sure that each of us received the full tool kit of filmmaking to perfectly execute our ‘visions’, but also communicate them to an audience. I feel that I’ve learned a lot about how to not only ‘speak’ to an audience, but actually how to be ‘understood’ by them. I think that’s what every human being desperately wants: not only to be heard, but eventually to be understood. Even though the awful truth is that it is never completely possible. All we have left is the profound attempt of trying. 

I think the teachers at Columbia have a very good understanding of the basic and efficient tools of audiovisual storytelling. They are eager to pass them on to each student, but even more than that they want to be able to understand, where each student wants to go eventually and share the right tools at the right time with them. I benefitted a lot from the mix of those two film programs!


Any advice for fellow filmmakers?

Just three basic rules:

  • don’t burn your girlfriend!
  • don’t let money ever stop you! (I think my film is a good example: it cost $200 and won $20,000 at the Toronto Film Festival! A huge budget will never make an audience care! Never!)
  • don’t listen to anybody’s smartass advice, especially not mine!

Christoph Rainer is a filmmaker from Austria. Currently, he is attending Columbia University in New York City.

Requiem for a Robot screens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts film showcase on Tue March 11 @ 1:30PM, Wed March 12 @ 9:30 PM and Fri March 14 @ 9:15 PM. 
All screenings at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

INTERVIEW with “Play Things” director Matt Stryker

Just like that, you’re dropped into a scene: a bruised boy sits on his bed holding a toy. Context? That’s where you the audience comes in. Made at the University of Austin in Texas, Matt Stryker’s Play Things might as well include the viewer as an action figure: we’re plopped and posed and molded by the hands of a powerful imagination.

Play Things will screen as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts. We caught up with Matt over email to talk about exposition (or lack thereof) and filming a dreaded sex scene.

Tell us a little about your background and about your film Play Things.

I’m currently a student filmmaker at the University of Texas in Austin, been out here for about 4 years now. I’m originally from West Orange, New Jersey and have wanted to be a director since roughly the 7th grade when I made a terrible parody of Jurassic Park in my English class (It was called Wordassic Park and is over 40 minutes long just to paint you a picture). After that I started taking an interest in what goes into making a movie and did the New York Film Academy’s summer programs for the next 4 years, cementing my obsession and making some of the best friends I have still to this day.
Play Things is a hard movie to pitch just because the directions it takes are hard to talk about without spoiling the experience for the audience but I’ve always felt its tagline got the general idea across nicely: A coming of age story about sex, death, and dolls. That captures it for me in a very vague way.

This was not an easy movie to watch and you deal with some raw topics, but you reveal them in a calculated and very effective way. Like Hitchcock would say, you play us like a piano. The layers of the film peel slowly away like an onion, and initial interpretations are constantly challenged. Can you talk a little about that?

Thank you so much! Also sorry. The Hitchcock comment is very appreciated because when I was actually pitching the short to my class, I told them I wanted to shoot it as if Todd Solondz made an Amblin film but Hitchcock drew the storyboards (Rear Window was very much an inspiration for this among other things). That’s all just to say that I wanted to tell a story that could work on a visual level first and foremost, and forgo needless exposition. By just dropping the audience into the scene, I think it forces them to pay closer attention to the details being presented and in a way gives them a similar perspective as the lead child. Without having any prior context to the scene, they have to constantly make their own inferences as the information comes to them. I want to always try getting my audience to think.

The sound is spare and effective. I still keep hearing those crackles and crunches. Can you tell us a little about its design?

Yeah, the sound design was something I was very conscious of while working in post. It all goes back to trying to draw my audience into the story as much as possible. Because they’re not getting any dialogue, I feel like every slight sound carries more impact, acting as subtle clues to an already vague story. Maybe too subtle, I’ve gotten some crazy interpretations as to what’s happening, but I THINK there’s enough there for people to reach general answers as to what’s going on. For me, there’s something more true to life in the uncertainty where we have to draw our own interpretations.

When dealing with this kind of subject matter and situations, what did you learn from working with a child actor? How did you direct him differently than an adult?

At this point I’ve made two shorts that feature young boys at a point of lost innocence. It’s a weird, unintended niche to be in but the only reason it works is because I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the boys I’ve cast in them. Deke Garner is such a trooper and ridiculously talented for his age, the movie couldn’t have happened without the maturity he displayed in the role and the supportiveness of his parents. The first two days of the shoot he was actually extremely ill and couldn’t perform for more than a few hours at a time before being too sick to continue. I felt so sorry for him, but he and his family offered to actually delay their vacation in order to get what we needed. I’ll always be grateful for that. In regards to directing Deke, it was interesting because I wouldn’t tell him what to do but rather talk to him almost as an inner conscious and see how he reacted. I knew we’d be taking out the majority of our sound for post work so I could talk to him in the middle of takes and he’d adjust accordingly. Dan [Hershbergeron the other hand needed very little from me. I’d set up the scene and beats for him and he’d run from there. I was incredibly fortunate to have both of them, cutting their performances together was a wealth of riches.

I have to ask: what was it like filming a sex scene? Any tips for other filmmakers needing to film the same?

Honestly, I was terrified. It’s the first sex scene I’ve ever done and finding the right tone for the lovemaking was a high wire act. It may be weird to some (my parents) but I do consider the short to have a dark sense of humor to itself and the introduction of the lovers was a large part of that. Too broad and everything becomes cheapened; too tender and it wouldn’t have made the impact I wanted it to have on the boy and audience. If I had to give advice on filming the same, I’d say to rehearse and put the time into making your actors as comfortable with the action as possible. We basically got together on the day and shot. [Actors] Carley and Bejan were great and they’re both filmmakers themselves so they were incredibly game and supportive, but I wish I’d been more prepared in general for that day. I could have used the practice more than anyone else.

The couple’s lovemaking is wild. The room is red and there’s a picture of Che Guevara in their room. Am I reading too much into that?

Maybe just a tad, but that’s a great catch. My good friend Rory Harman is a very talented artist and I loved the production design he contributed to the film. I told him I wanted each room to feel like it was representative of its character’s headspaces, so while the boy’s is blue and melancholy, the lovers’ are reds and extremely passionate. I wanted the rooms to be almost totally separate worlds that we were only getting windows into, making all the more powerful when the two manage to correlate towards the end. As for Che, I think that had less to do with the fact that it was Che than that it was another set of eyes staring onto the scene and tying back into the voyeurism of the whole story. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve made Play Things so the intentions on some decisions get a little fuzzy after a while.

What training did UT provide you to best tell your story and how has it influenced you as an artist?

As much as I love UT, I think the biggest thing it’s offered me are connections to a grossly talented pool of students. I’ve made great friendships and working relationships here and I hope to collaborate with the people I’ve met in Austin for the rest of my life. The city just feels like it’s on the cusp of a filmmaking boom and there’s so much personality to be mined from it. Hopefully I can be a part of that.

Any advice for fellow filmmakers?

If I had to give advice, I’d say things that seem obvious…are often taken for granted. First and foremost, make something that you’d want to see, regardless of if you made it. So many student films feel like they’re appealing to what others might want than what you would want. There’s got to be something personal to you in there, otherwise it’s for no one. Also, please please please feed your crew well. I’ve been guilty myself of not adhering to this when the budget’s low, but when you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. A positive set can make all the difference in a production.

Matt Stryker is an Austin based filmmaker and editor. He is currently in the midst of thesis productions with his fellow classmates.

Like Play Things on Facebook.

See the trailer for Play Things:

Play Thingsscreens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts film showcase on Tue March 11 @ 1:30PM, Wed March 12 @ 9:30 PM and Fri March 14 @ 9:15 PM. 
All screenings at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

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