Commentaries on Short Films About Distractions and Killers

Late last year, I directed a short film and starred in another. I’ve been waiting until I got the ok from a festival to post my short, and for my friend to post his. Amazingly, both happened at around the same time. What this post’ll be is a sort of commentary track. An actor commentary for Timothy Manning’s short, “distraction,” and a director commentary for my short, “A Real…”

Here’s a YouTube link to “distraction” and I’ll do my best to remember what happened.

A little prehistory before I begin. Timothy asked if I would help him make a short for his film class. He’s one of the Anchors Four (back in ’07, “Dark Knight” was filming in Chicago and through a long and miserable series of events [mostly involving standing outside a pub called Twin Anchors], we met Christopher Nolan) and I’m a sucker for standing around doing nothing for cinema, so I helped. I didn’t know to what extent, but that was fine. It turned out to be a very small shoot, with he and I, and another of the Anchors Four, David Gall. Timothy  was directing and David was the cinematographer (the person who decides how to light a scene and what lens to use [lenses involve what’s in focus and can go from having everything in focus to only your fingernail]), but I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do. I mean, I figured that I’d be a grip (a person who helps with equipment) or something along those lines.

The shoot started in Timothy’s room. He and I set up the room by moving stuff, putting up lights, and checking his storyboards (drawings that represent each shot). Since David runs on WT (wizard time: “A wizard is never late, Mr. Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”), we were… “gifted” some time to do loose lighting tests so that no time was wasted. A lighting test is when you set up a shot’s lighting and refine it. I was near the chair that was being used, so I became the stand-in (someone who stands in for the actor for various reasons, from nude scenes to drug parties). Timothy was gonna be the actor, but it would’ve been cumbersome for him to be a director and his stand-in. David came in around this time with his camera gear, so the two started doing camera tests (same as a lighting test, but with a camera). Being a director, it became clear to me that it would be best if I acted and Timothy directed because it’s a mess jumping back and forth, especially with the shots he had in mind. So when it came time to shoot and he was about to start his game of musical chairs, I took the acting one.

From here on, I can only talk about the acting side because it’d be insulting to him, and all directors, if I tried talking about the thing I had nothing to do with. So if you wanna know more about the directing side, drop him a line on the YouTube video. Onward to the first scene.

The stuff in the bedroom was the only thing we shot that night because the majority of the short took place in the day. The hoodie is courtesy of Timothy because he told me to wear it and I didn’t wanna look like me (hence the messy hair [it’s real, just a lot less combed than it would be] and lack of glasses). Part of the fun of acting is not being me, and part of the fun of a director acting is knowing what actors feel like (never forget how actors feel, directors). The scene was, as you can see, a quick one. I don’t think there’s much to say, acting-wise, here except that I hear my greatest contribution is the eye twitch. Ideas come from all over the place and if the director is confident in themself, they at least listen. They don’t have to execute it, but listening helps. Another acting thing, although this is more of a me thing, is that I was a fucking idiot for wearing those shoes. Me not shaving helped the look of the neurotic character and I tried to show the arc of his madness with his hair, but that didn’t work out, to me. The coat is also Timothy’s. I dress like a walking drawing. Onward to the next scene.

Ah, the first scene of the next day. David ran on normal time that day, so I was the late one by a few minutes. The short was shot in relative chronological order (usually things are made out of order for reasons involving locations, actors, and other things), which was another reason why I wanted that madness arc. Oh well. I hate when people on commentary tracks complain about the weather, so I’ll simply say that it was cold and my shoes were like wearing a thin pair of socks. It helped with the character, though, because there was a miserableness on my face that came naturally. It wasn’t because of the acting and the company I kept, they were fun. My original idea was to act more like Henry from “Eraserhead.” Very afraid of the world. But Timothy wanted more Al Bundy, and the director’s always right. I probably wanted the nervous twitching as a feeble attempt to stay warm on camera. The swing was a bitch because I couldn’t figure out a way to sit on it and swing in the way Timothy wanted, but David helped with that. The shot of the dog was the last thing of the day because he wouldn’t do what Timothy wanted (Timothy’s sister’s fella helped with that). My regret of that head-shaking shot is that I didn’t make my eyes increasingly more panicked. Onward to the next scene.

Being a director, I knew how to speak the language all directors wish their actors would. “Like this?” “Look where?” “Sure, for a dollar.” Very quick and to the point. Anywho. It was my idea to lay the seat down and bring it up for dramatic effect, but I’m not sure I pulled it off properly. The bird poop was sour cream and pepper, the bird was a mangled craft eagle stuffed with… pennies, I think. I also think he used one of the later takes (a take is the time between “Action!” and “Cut!”) When the bird fell because my first take was of genuine shock. And I probably giggled. Timothy probably doesn’t want this mentioned but a director must always be humble… In setting up the shot in the back of the truck, he had to climb through the back and the door being up helped with the (natural) lighting. He got distracted during one trip around and… Onward to the next scene.

Actually, I’ll talk about the driving shots by the trees first. Although they’re spread throughout, they were done in one go. I can confess this now because Timothy survived. During those shots, I drove without my glasses just in case the camera saw me. Under normal circumstances, I don’t have the best depth perception when I drive. There was a shot he wanted with his truck coming towards him and the camera as quickly and closely as possible before swerving around him. But, like I said, Timothy survived. Hooray. Him sticking with only directing helped out the strongest during these shots because he thought of a few that he couldn’t have if he was juggling two hats. Onward to the park.

This was the longest scene to do because he wanted the train in the background and we didn’t know the schedule. It was one of the first and last things we did that day. We had walkie talkies that picked up some strange conversations you’ll have to ask Timothy and David about someday. This scene is the only time I’ll say something as an actor and as a director. The shot of the train going by went on for a lot longer and I acted out a building frustration that ended with my head in my hands, and I thought I did good. From a director’s standpoint, I would’ve let that shot play long because it would’ve been a break from the rapid cutting. The cutting works very well and the short doesn’t need any breaks, but it would’ve been nice to have one. I can’t say anything else as a director except that Tim did great because it’s not the kind of thing I would’ve made. My characters are tormented, not anxious, for one.

Oh yeah. That is a dogtag from “Battlestar Galactica” hanging from the mirror. Adama’s, I think. And the car driving alongside me is David’s, with the cinematographer driving it. Onward to the last scene.

There’s not much to say here. I did a little march but I don’t think that comes across. Stepping over the table and dropping was my idea. I’m more glad than I probably should be that my lip quiver registered. And I’m very glad that Timothy and David made some art. Hope they do more.

Now. Where’s my director’s hat…

Here’s my surreal short, “A Real…”

A little prehistory. I felt that I had to direct something before my birthday otherwise I’d be a failure as a director, so I did. I actually shot something with the intention to make a short out of it, but it was more therapy than anything narrative. So, with my friend, Marcus Harmon, I made a short film. We didn’t have a cinematographer because we didn’t need one. We had one lens and natural lighting. I did storyboard, though. I think the theme of making the short was “succeed no matter what.” The first night went fine, but I had to start later than I would’ve liked the next day, so I had to rethink my shots. I made sense of it all in the editing and my next intention was to record a voiceover, but the acting and the music I made did enough of a good job. Words would’ve only gotten in the way. Because of all these things, the short ended up far more surreal than I intended. Like with “distraction,” I can only talk about one aspect of “A Real…” so if you wanna know about acting, track Marcus down. I think he’s usually camped outside of Tom Hardy’s house with a butterfly net and a case of Red Bull. Onward to the first scene.

The scene was always planned the same, it was just a lot shorter and in a different place. Originally, it was gonna be on a road with an overpass behind him, but the road was used. Luckily, there was a side street seconds away that no one was using. The short as a whole became longer because of the song I made. I really liked it so I had to find clever ways to extend things without the end result looking like shit. The subtle fades work well in the shot of Marcus in front of my car, right? Well, it’s the same few seconds over and over and over and over again. The quick cuts to daytime were supposed to slowly change color, but I couldn’t figure out a way to do that. I truly hate the overuse of blue in cinema. I would’ve loved to have used red, but the nighttime shots have an orange tinge and the quick shots are supposed to represent the character’s opposite, so I used blue. For the first and only time. One of my proudest editing moments is when he stands up blillowing my coat, and the cut (going from one shot to another) happens on a flap. I should mention the wardrobe. It was a choice made by me. Maybe obvious. But I wanted the character to seem darker and more restrained during the night scene (the trenchcoat acting as a sort of body brace), and brighter and more free during the day scene. Marcus did the smartphone shot himself because I couldn’t put a camera through him without murdering him, and I had more short to shoot so I couldn’t. Hence the focus is off, but it helps the aesthetic (he was reading “Pinocchio,” if you’re curious). One of things I do as a director is not say action or cut. I like the performers to take charge of their work, so I say “whenever you’re ready,” and “that’s enough for now” (Eastwood does it and he started that when he did Westerns because shouting action spooked the horses). If I want them to be a little competitive, I say “surprise me” and “thanks” or “try again.”

The exterior moving shots were done on the way to the forest preserve for the next scene. I thought they’d be good to have later so I stuck Marcus and his camera out the window while I drove. The shots saved me when I realized I couldn’t get the shots I wanted. The first exterior shot has a strange filter because the character is going to a brighter place but it’s strange to him and he’s not ready yet.

The plant shot had a lot more before and after it, but we got there too late. It was actually inspired by another shot. It was a quick one, with him snapping a twig or plucking a leaf, so I made a scene out of it. Yes, I wanted it out of focus. He doesn’t know what he is yet. Another proud editing moment was making this scene as abstract as it is. It was a lot of fun cutting it into pieces and scrambling them. The camera was on a tripod and the light was Marcus’ smartphone wielded by yours truly. There was a particular attitude I wanted from the light and it’s hard to convey such things. Plus, Marcus was busy learning to murder and I was the only other person there. My direction to him was to think of the plant tenderly and slowly, hesitantly destroy it. As you can see, the brightness is sneaking in, with his clothes and the light, but you only see so much of him because he’s not whole yet.

The second exterior scene is speedy because he’s rushing to who he wants to be. I wanted to go backwards but the editing program couldn’t do that.

The park scene was fun because I doubt anyone knew what the fuck we were doing. Marcus was dancing around the camera to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” while I spun it around. The spinning shot was supposed to have more but the ground was uneven and the shot dipped at points and annoyed me. I think my hat was in frame a few times, too, so only one half of each spin was used. I mirrored a few shots so that he wasn’t going in one direction. It helps because he’s happy and psychotic. There was gonna be more after he spun around the post but I felt it was good to end there. He was supposed to see something off screen and become really excited, and you see that it’s a playground full of children. I didn’t cut it for censorship reasons. Heavens, no. The flow of the short made the shots superfluous, and I got the idea to make the short cyclical.

Well, that’s it. Big thanks to Marcus for acting and letting me use his camera.

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