Shorts at the Aspen Shortsfest

The Independent caught up with a few of Aspen’s featured directors to talk briefly about their films, careers, and Aspen experiences.

Martina Amati, director of A’Mare

A’Mare, a haunting film about two Italian children finding something unexpected in the water, is director Martina Amati’s debut drama. Amati was trained in Theatre Set Design at Milan’s Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera and is an avid freediver — the hobby inspired A’Mare’s underwater theme. Prior to directing A’Mare, Amati served on the creative team that launched MTV Italy and directed several documentaries.

How did you come up with the concept for this film?

I wanted to my first drama to merge my passion for the water with my memories as a child growing up by the Mediterranean Sea. My father was a sailor and I spent a lot of time on boats with him and my sister. Both my sister and I learned from a very early age that there is something very simple and magical about taking a boat out to sea.

What do you feel that the man in the water represents?

In southern Italy many illegal immigrants die each year attempting to swim to shore. I didn’t have the time to investigate this issue in 15 minutes, so I tried to expose it from the kids’ point of view and leave the interpretation open to the audience. In my heart the man in the water represents my father’s death, but I don’t think that is relevant to the audience and I did not intend to explain it in the film. Sometimes it is better not to know the motivations behind a story.

When did you decide to use underwater photography? How was that experience?

I filmed underwater before for a documentary about free-diving. I am a free-diver myself and I aimed to bring to the screen the emotions I experience in the water.

One of the first things I decided to do when making A’Mare was to work with two cinematographers – Dennis Madden for the dry shots and the overall photography of the film and Fabio Ferioli for the scenes underwater. I had worked with Fabio before; he is a great free-diver and we decided to film underwater without air supply — every underwater shot in the film was taken while diving. This is in contrast to a commercial I recently shot — we had a big crew, monitors, air supply and all of that — it was great, but in drama I like to prioritize the emotions.

How did you find the lead child actors?

I went to the Eolie Islands, a collection of seven small volcanic islands just north of Sicily, to search for kids to cast. I developed the story and the dialogue in collaboration with local children in order to capture their natural behavior.

Has the success of A’Mare led to any new opportunities?

Definitely. I have just been awarded a grant from the UK Film Council/Pulse short film scheme to make I-DO-AIR, a highly visual piece set in a swimming pool, and have been invited by financiers to develop my first feature film, which will be set in the UK. In the meantime, I am developing a more ambitious 20-minute short about gymnasts, in English, which I hope to shoot later this year.

Destin Cretton, director of Short Term 12

Destin Cretton’s story was one of the most inspiring of Sundance; the young Hawaiian native won best short film and was so stunned and happy he could hardly think of anything to say at the podium. His film, set in a facility for at-risk children, is decidedly darker, but is clearly the work of an empathetic filmmaker able to find the humanity in all of his characters. Cretton has been making movies since he shot videos with his parent’s VHS camera as a child, and Short Term 12 is inspired by his own two-year stint at residential facility for troubled teens.

The film is based on real life experiences. When did you decide you wanted to make a movie based on this time in your life? What it something you always wanted to do, and if so, why did you make it when you did?

Working with those kids was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It was an experience that opened my eyes to some harsh realities that I never knew existed and it forced me to grow up a lot. I had written a few scenes based on my experience there, merely as a way to deal with it, like writing in a diary. When I was ready to do my thesis film, I went back to those original scenes and began to write what would become the script.

How were the challenges of Short Term 12 different from those of your other films?

I decided from the very beginning of the process that the most important thing for this film would be to create something that felt real. The best way for me to do that was to let things unfold naturally. It was actually a challenge for me; I’m used to being somewhat controlling in every shot of my past films. It was a huge lesson for me in letting go and trusting the other artists that I’m working with.

You had not originally planned to cast Phoenix Henke, Brad’s Henke’s daughter [Brad stars in the film]. Can you explain why you changed the script for her and discuss whether it a hard decision to make the change?

We originally weren’t planning on using Phoenix in the film because there wasn’t a part for her; all the leads were males. But we brought her in to audition and thought we’d use her as one of the background characters. We didn’t have anything else for her to read, so she read the part of the lead male character at the time, and she played it so incredibly well, I decided to re-write the part to fit her. And I’m so glad I did.

How have your life and career path changed since your Sundance victory?

I’m not really sure. I’m not directing a feature film yet, but I do have an easier time getting people to read my scripts. I’ve really been spending most of my time traveling around with the film to different festivals, which has been really fun.

I’ve read you plan to do a feature length version of Short Term 12. How is that plan progressing?

Yes, I’ve already written a draft of a feature script that’s based in the same world as Short Term. Now it’s just a matter of getting feedback and getting into the rewrites. And then hopefully there will be someone out there who connects with it enough to want to help me make it.

What sets Aspen apart from other festivals?

Aspen is a festival unlike any others I’ve been to. It’s rare to find a festival that really celebrates and takes care of the filmmakers. And I was definitely taken care of. I was able to chat with local high schoolers about my film, meet some wonderful people in the film industry, and hang out with some of the best short filmmakers in the world. I also got to spend a day on the slopes. I couldn’t have asked for more.

David Cooke, director of The Morse Collectors

David Cooke has no formal background in film; he made his first short in 2001 while backpacking in Sydney, Australia in response to an ad in a local paper. He liked directing and took a short filmmaking course in Belfast in which he was taught to “beg, borrow, and steal” to fund a film. He made several films before meeting Crawford Anderson-Dillon and Gary Sugarman of Hub Media, the production company that funded The Morse Collectors, a story about two children who begin to transcribe Morse code messages from a dripping faucet during World War II.

What inspired the idea that a dripping faucet could be sending Morse code messages?

Pol Mag Uidhir, the writer, gave a fantastic explanation while we were doing the Q & A’s in Aspen: as adults we like to believe that we are all somehow connected — to each other, the place we live in and the things around us. If we are connected in that way, then if something almost unimaginably horrible happens in the world, everything around us must be affected in some way, everything around us must be trying to tell us that a terrible, terrible tragedy has happened.

I was interested by your choice to have no adult actors with significant roles in the film. Can you explain the thinking behind the decision?

The children’s mother is probably incapable of looking after the children — she is waiting for news of her husband — so the responsibility falls to the eldest child. Since on one level the film is about the relationship between the brother and sister, I thought we should spend all of our time in their world. I wanted to create the sense that the house they live in is a self-contained world of its own — it helps the audience believe the messages might be real.

Can you briefly why you chose to film digitally, and the pros and cons of the decision?

The budget really made the decision for us; we simply couldn’t afford film or even full HD. The DOP, Angus Mitchell, and I also own a small camera hire company, so we decided to use our JVC251 with a 16mm lens adapter so we could control depth of field.

We also decided to do the off line edit on our suite but when we went to see the company doing the on-line edit, Street Monkey, they suggested we avoid the HDV compression by connecting the camera from the HD/SDI directly to Final Cut Pro using a HD capture card. This really worked well for us as we were able to review the footage instantly and the editor was able to start cutting scenes as we were shooting them. By the time we finished our four-day shoot, we had three quarters of our rough cut completed. I’d definitely use that method again.

What were the challenges and rewards of working with child actors?

We found two really great actors in Katie Boyle and Oisin O’Connell after spending a long time trying to find them. Katie was 13 at the time and she was very focused and professional. Oisin was only seven, so I spent most of the time concentrating on him. We had his mum on the set, which helped — we actually got her to play the mother in the film. The main thing I did was to make sure that we had time to shoot close-ups of the kids in almost every scene. This meant that if a few lines weren’t great in the master, we could always pick them up in a close-up.

How do you feel about the success The Morse Collectors has had on the festival circuit?

I’m delighted. We’ve won several prizes, including an Academy Award qualifying prize. This means that we now enter the film for consideration for the 2010 Oscars. It’s nice to know that we’ve made a good quality film and, hopefully, it will provide a solid launching pad for my career.

How did Aspen compare to other film festivals?

Aspen has a really nice feel to it, quite laid back but it’s obvious that you’re amongst some of the best short filmmakers around. It’s much smaller than some of the festivals that I’ve been to but this really works in its favor. You get to see most of the films and get to know most of the filmmakers, and since it is short films only we’re the center of attention. It’s nice not to get lost under the feature films for a change!

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