The “Boston Underground Film Festival” (http://bostonunderground.org) at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA is a hub for early film festival favorites, diverse programming, film culture and community along with multiple blocks of diverse short filmmaking visions. Whether it’s the celebration of local filmmaking talent with the “Homegrown Horror” short film block curated by Chris Hallock or the short film block that looks at the dark, twisted and humorous side of horror with “Fugue & Riffs”. After BUFF18, we had the chance to talk with six of these filmmakers as well as past and present members of these short film blocks at BUFF!
These New England filmmakers and their film projects includes Andrea Mark Wolanin (Cleaning House), Izzy Lee (Innsmouth – which played at BUFF18 before the feature “Antibirth”), Jim McDonough (Idiom Origins Vol. 1), Jarrett Blinkhorn (They’re Closing In), Corey Norman (Suffer the Little Children) and Alex DiVincenzo (Trouser Snake).
Thank you everyone for taking time out to talk about your craft, short films, BUFF and more…Let’s start here, your short films have been a source of conversation and a huge part of the short film block at Boston Underground Film Festival / BUFF18 this past year! Talk about your project and how this project challenged you as well as inspired growth as a filmmaker?
AW (Andrea Mark Wolanin): First – thank you! Short films can often get overlooked at festivals, so it’s always nice to hear feedback on your piece… even if it’s only 5 minutes long. “Cleaning House” was a great experience, though there were a few challenges on the project. The one that sticks with me the most, however, was the challenge in putting together my team. I was determined to get a majority female crew for the piece, and it took some intensive hunting by and through my network to find people. This is a prime example of being a woman in cinema – while women are getting more and more recognition, we still have a long way to go before they are empowered to get fully acknowledged as peers to their male counterparts.
IL (Izzy Lee): With “Innsmouth”, I’ve never done full-frontal nudity or anything explicit, so that was fun. I was able to get very surreal and add in a ton of subversive, feminist sexy sauce while advancing visually.
JM (Jim McDonough): The idea for making up “Idiom Origins” came from a desire to tell really silly crazy stories but have endings that are predetermined. With zero budget filmmaking I’m a disciple of the Robert Rodriguez school of “shoot around what you got” so in previous shorts like “Manicorn” I got the mask first and wrote a short around that, so this one was a bit more -idea first- props second.
JB (Jarrett Blinkhorn): With any filmmaker working today, your biggest challenge 9 times out of 10 is your budget. I think the budget was equal parts the challenge and the inspiration for “They’re Closing In”. This film was shot for around 40 bucks (80 if you include the pizza and soda), and given the fact we had no money, it forced us to think outside the box. For example, trying to figure out an elaborate lighting setup for the glowing mouths of the “creatures” just boiled down to using head lamps with a red filter (25 dollars of our budget ha). We didn’t have money for crew or cast, we didn’t have a makeup artist or G+E crew… It was just 4 people (5 when my brother was awake to slate) and we all had to think on our toes to get certain shots and effects. It’s much more fun to shoot a film with no money because everyone is there because they want to be, not because they need the money, therefore everyone gets invested, and we just have fun the entire time.
CN (Corey Norman): I feel “Suffer the Little Children” has been an extremely difficult one, but it was my own doing. I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was young, so I wanted this film to be as faithful as possible. It’s my love letter to King, and as such, I want it to be as near perfect as it could get before I send it to him. I’m still making tweaks on it to this day.
AD (Alex DiVincenzo): “Trouser Snake” is exactly what you think it is! It’s a comedic send-up to 1950s creature features, but the monster is a mutant penis. It was the second short film that I directed, following “The Horrors of AutoCorrect”. Every day on set is a learning process, and “Trouser Snake” was no different. Working with a creature presented a new set of challenges I hadn’t previously faced, but thankfully my crew included several other filmmakers to help overcome these obstacles.
What was this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival like for you and having your short film projects as a part of the various programming blocks? If this is more than your first time, what was different about this year compared to previous years?
AW: Every year at BUFF is great – their programming is always top notch, and with the stellar content being created in New England, It’s a privilege to have my pieces show in the “Homegrown Horror” block. My hope during production was to have “Cleaning House” premiere as part of the block, so I was delighted when Chris and the BUFF team (Nicole, Kevin, Bryan) were in touch with me about my film. This year was, as always, full of warmth and passion from the filmmakers, attendees, and BUFF team. It is special that year after year, the atmosphere and supportive environment remains consistent, it’s only the titles and names that change.
IL: My film played with a feature (Antibirth). As always, BUFF has been amazing. I don’t want it to end, even when I’m exhausted by attending day and night.
JM: My short “Manicorn” that played at BUFF last year was my first time going to a festival never mind having my own film play in one. It was a magical experience that I kind of just expected wouldn’t be equaled. But after having so much fun this year, I realize BUFF is really an amazing collection of people from the organizers and volunteers to the filmmakers and audience. But from the director’s side it was different this year in that “Manicorn” was on YouTube for 18 months or so when it played BUFF and as exciting and scary as it was, I had an inkling that if would play pretty well. This year with “Idioms Origins Volume 1”, I had only shown it a few friends so I was scared to death it would be a huge turd. The short played in the comedy block about half way through the program. After seeing the high production values of the other shorts in the program, I began to get insecure about mine thinking “jeez these other films are going to make my short using toys filmed in my house look pathetic.” I was so scared that a few films into the block I almost texted my good buddy and one of the BUFF technical directors Phil Healy (who had a role in the film) to remove it from the program. But I was totally psyched and relieved when the film seemed to have connected with the crowd.
JB: This was my first year even attending BUFF let alone having a film programmed into the festival. Having a wife and a daughter means I do not get out much so it was basically Christmas for me to get out of the house and see mother fucking Wendigo on 35, and I know a fair amount of Rhode Island filmmakers but man… Boston people are so much more my speed. The Homegrown Horror screening felt like a home that I never knew how to get to. Not only the films are great, but you see old friends, work buddies, and you can’t even go to the bathroom without having a good conversation (which is how I met you Jay). And that bathroom has a “Zombi 2” and “The Roost” one sheet so it’s cool in my book.
CN: I’m a huge fan of BUFF. This is our second year attending, and I love the general attitude of the audience. Their rambunctiousness makes the films even more enjoyable. This year though, I was so surprised how quiet the crowd got when Suffer screened. That made me smile.
AD: The “Boston Underground Film Festival” is my favorite film fest. As I am from Massachusetts, I always try to attend even when I don’t have anything playing. The movies, the people running it, the audience, the theater; they’re all wonderful. It’s truly an honor to have my silly short in a line-up alongside so many talented works. “Trouser Snake” kicked off the block of locally-produced shorts this year. It was exciting to set the tone for the evening, and it received a great reaction. This was my second year playing at BUFF – “The Horrors of AutoCorrect” played in 2015 – so I was a bit better prepared for it. It’s still a nerve-wracking experience to show your work to an audience for the first time, particularly to one as smart as those who attend BUFF, but I’m pleased to say both years went off without a hitch.
In your experience, how has the platform of short films changed the way filmmakers approach a career and portfolio of work? How has it affected you?
AW: I think short films have definitely enabled more people to create and begin a career – in fact, many major filmmakers first made great short films. Polanski’s “The Fat and the Lean”, Burton’s “Vincent” (1982), Marker’s “La Jetee” (what Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was based off of)… even directors and production companies that have already made successful careers still turn to short films. Shorts are a vital way to build up to a feature length for growing filmmakers, to learn the role of director, and to learn how much hard work goes into making a film. As platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are developing, having a rack of these to prove your ability and vision are very helpful in getting funding and followers. Short films have definitely enabled me to continue creating. After “Mundane” in 2013, I began a grad degree while continuing my full-time job; if I had restricted myself to only making feature length films, I would have had to wait until now to begin making them again. Creating “Penta” and “Cleaning House” allowed me to continue my practice as a filmmaker, an outlet for storytelling, and to expand on my view of filmmaking – while still leaving time for school and work and (a tiiiiiiny bit) of fun.
IL: It’s let me hone my craft and is preparing me for bigger things, like features.
JM: It’s a great double edge sword. The easier and cheaper it is technically to make films; the more people you are competing with for eye balls for the stuff you make. So there is plenty of great stuff out there made for peanuts. So it’s liberating that filmmaking is no longer just reserved for those of privilege. And with that comes the reality that it is harder to stand out from the crowd. In my case I am not sure if I’m really good at one area (I often write-act-dp-direct-edit my own stuff) but I think I do have a good sense of what makes my stuff unique. I think discovering one’s own voice can be one of the hardest thing a young artist can find. Not to be corny but art to me is about one’s own expression of the human experience, and the only thing one can truly offer unique is their own individuality. So you hope to make each short more challenging and better than the last one while keeping to your own originality and hope someone watches. But if something does connect we are in a really cool place where things can spread fast.
JB: I feel like if you are writing a feature film, and you can’t condense it down to what could be a 5 to 8 minute film and still hit all the important beats and establish your characters, then your story might need some help. So far for me, I have produced and second unit directed on feature films, but being the sole director/writer/DP has only been for short films, and I feel that is the best way to learn and train yourself to direct your first feature. A buddy of mine has been trying to convince me to shoot a feature for a few years, and most of the time I said “I am not ready”. Mainly because I still had so much to learn… And I still do to this day. But one thing that is obvious when looking at my previous work is that with each film you can see a distinct improvement whether it be the lighting, camera, or editing, you can pick up on something that can say “Better, not quite there yet but it’s getting there.” And that is just more motivation to keep making content… To get better.
CN: Short films have given us the opportunity to create and experiment. The budget is much more doable than on a feature, and the short turnaround time gives you a chance to turn out several pieces a year, thus allowing you to constantly keep something touring the circuit. This is essential for filmmakers trying to gain notoriety. At the same time, it allows you to take creative chances and grow with each new endeavor.
AD: Short films, coupled with the accessibility of digital technology, has completely changed independent filmmaking. Some may argue that it over-saturates the market, as everyone can make a movie, but that’s what I find so exciting. The cream rises to the top. I, for one, do not currently have the means to make a feature – though I’m working on it – so the short film format always me to flex my filmmaking muscles and hone those skills to better prepare myself for the eventual jump into features.
Does the aspect of a certain time limitation for a short films motivate you or frustrate you? Why?
AW: I love the medium of the short film. I always think of the supposed shortest story ever told, purportedly written by Hemingway – “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn” – or the spate of two sentence horror stories the circulated the internet a couple years ago. There’s something beautiful about the challenge of the short film, to create a story worth telling in a fixed amount of time – and on a minuscule budget, as you frequently get with independent film. While I am looking forward to working on my first feature length film next year, short films are a special type of medium, and not one that I feel I can ever fully abandon.
IL: I think it’s awesome. It’s a great challenge to tell a succinct story in a short amount of time. It’s fun and there’s no financial pressure like with a feature film.
JM: I think for me with where I’m at, it all begins and starts with the idea and story and being a slave to where that takes you. On the one hand, maybe there is a ceiling to making films on zero budget but I get to creatively answer to no one. Originally my plan for this piece was it would be 2-3 minutes long with very little green screen and effects. 5 months later by the time it was completed it became my most ambitious technically and it clocked in at 11 minutes. To be able to have something organically quadruple its running time, one can only do that can on a zero budget short. Having said that, after making over 30 shorts and sketches I would love to take a crack at a feature if the right idea and story came by.
JB: Both. Almost all of the short films I have done we try to shoot in one night. It’s motivating because we say “when that sun comes up… We physically can’t shoot anything else and HAVE to be done”. I also don’t go out drinking with friends… If I am going to spend a night with buddies, we like to make sure we have something to show for it. Whether it’s a music video, short film or even just music, that is what we do to have fun, so the time restriction is exciting to us all. It’s only frustrating when the sun is about to come up and you realize you still have more setups and no time.
CN: The running time limit forces you to be hyper focused on your storytelling and I think that’s something all filmmakers need to experience. I’ve noticed that this has drastically helped me with the pacing of my longer work.
AD: The time limitation of a short film can be both motivating and frustrating, but I lean toward the former. The format forces you to be creative, as you only have a short time to entice an audience and tell a story. They’re also a lot easier to pull off, since the commitment is minimal, and people are more willing to donate their time.
How much of an impact has film festivals become too short film makers?
AW: I would say that it’s had a sizable amount. It’s the only real way I know of to get your film up on the big screen! It’s also a great way to be able to circulate your films outside of your own country – people in Moscow might not have found my work by searching for “short horror films” on the internet, but were introduced to it through the Russian Horror Awards in January. I think that festivals allow us to grow our networks, too – at BUFF this past year, I met around 5 New England filmmakers I had never met before, and probably would never had met had it not been for the fest.
IL: Heavily. I discover new films as well as people I want to collaborate with — or at least meet or avoid. It’s always exciting to see what’s new and weird on the big screen.
JM: The experience of going and participating in buff this year and last has had a tremendous impact on my life. I say that more from a personal perspective than a filmmaking one. BUFF has its own little amazing weird community. And to call so many of these folks friends has really brought me so much bliss.
JB: I think festivals are the most important thing to short filmmakers. I have done many shorts in the past, and when they were done they went on my Facebook and to my friends… A few people would watch it, some would say “cool”, some would probably block me, and that’s it. With my latest short we got into festivals and it not only helped get our film into more eyes and gain traction as a filmmaker, it also gave me so much life experience. Just from working on this short film I have had so many drinks with so many new friends in many different cities. To me, it’s so rewarding to make more friends and have fun with like-minded people that you wouldn’t have the chance to do if you didn’t at least gamble on submitting to a few festivals. Also you get to see your work shared with so many others on a big screen… What’s better than that?
CN: I think film festivals are an essential step for short filmmakers to take. We live in an internet based culture when online material is very disposable. By limited your screenings to festivals, you create a demand for your films. The hype that comes with this has allowed us to sell lots of copies and actually recoup a lot of our budget. We’ve also brokered several distribution deals as a direct result of these festivals.
AD: Film festivals are very important for short films. Since they are rarely widely distributed the way features are, shorts often find life at film fests. Beyond that, it’s up to the internet to promote your work, where it’s nearly impossible to gain traction since there’s so much content out there. Film festivals also give filmmakers a unique opportunity to see their work live with an audience; a rewarding experience.
Stop by tomorrow for part 2 of this massive and infamous New England filmmakers conversation.
Find out more about these horror filmmaking masterminds at:
Andrea Mark Wolanin (Cleaning House) / http://3point14.net
Izzy Lee (Innsmouth) / http://www.nihilnoctem.com
Jim McDonough (Idiom Origins Vol. 1) / http://facebook.com/Friday-Night-Films-232750700152235
Jarrett Blinkhorn (They’re Closing In) / http://facebook.com/jonestownpictures
Corey Norman (Suffer the Little Children) / http://www.bonfirefilmsonline.com
Alex DiVincenzo (Trouser Snake) / http://facebook.com/grimbridgeprods