Not only does the Milwaukee Film Fest get bigger every year, it gets more Milwaukee every year. The Cream City Cinema program continues to spotlight some of the city’s established and rising talent, and 2016 features a remarkably strong crop of local filmmakers showcasing their creativity. The Milwaukee Show has been a highlight of the fest for the past few years, and like last year, the celebrated shorts program has been broken up into two nights. In preparation for the first installment (Monday, September 26, 8 p.m., Oriental Theatre), Milwaukee Record spoke (via email) to several of the directors behind this year’s films.
Saint Paul (director Xavier Ruffin)
Milwaukee Record: Most if not all Milwaukeeans will be familiar with the story of Damani Terry and his tragic death and its aftermath. Do you have a personal connection to this story that inspired you to make a film about it?
Xavier Ruffin: I don’t have a personal connection in the traditional sense. I haven’t spoken with the family the story is based on but I am connected to them through the human experience. Being from the same city and having witnessed things like this throughout my life I can relate to them. We were touched and compelled to tell that story because of that human connection.
MR: The title of Saint Paul and the Biblical verse you open the film with seem to suggest a theme of redemption.
XR: It’s more about contrition, penance, and understanding (or lack of understanding) than redemption. It’s about the inner struggle between “right” and “wrong” that St. Paul wrote about often with his murderous past.
MR: Who wrote and performed the music for the film? What made you choose them for the project?
XR: Well, it’s actually the other way around. Jon Frost and Jack Splash (frequent Cee-Lo Green producer and collaborator) chose me to bring the song to life visually and we conceited the film from there. Jon creates this great juxtaposition between his somber, introspective lyrics and Jack’s down-tempo pop synth sounds. The song sounds like it should be uplifting but when you listen closely and pay attention you can hear the turmoil in a man’s head struggling to do better.
MR: You incorporate animation seamlessly into some of the live action sequences. What can you tell us about the techniques you used?
XR: Almost every shot in this video has some VFX in it. With our budget, weather problems, and conflicting talent schedules we had to shoot what should have been a two-day video over eight days across a five-month span. So there is a lot of fake fall colored leaves that were shot in the spring. There are a lot of composite scenes where two or more actors weren’t actually in the shot together. A few of our characters moved out of state while we were still filming. One of our prop cars stopped working so I had to make a 3D model of it to finish the shots. Normally I’m pretty egregious with my use of animation, but in this video I used it as a necessity to complete the story.
MR: A lot of people were left searching for answers in the wake of these deaths. What do you hope we as Milwaukeeans can learn from them?
XR: Artistically, I wanted to recreate that moment and feeling of “why?” Why did this have to happen? But at the same time, try to humanize a character/person that so many so easily would write off as evil because we all come from the same place and it only takes one or two bad choices to turn your life upside down. There was an honest concern and rawness of emotion in the way we felt after this all happened, and I wanted to encapsulate that emotion in this piece.
Some Dark Place (director Cecelia Condit)
MR: Where did you shoot this film? Does this place hold some special significance for you?
Cecelia Condit: I shot Some Dark Place in the woman’s yard who was in the film, Gail Zivin. It is close to the woods where I grew up….just a half-mile jaunt through the woods.
MR: The film seems to take a hopeful view of aging, and even the specific challenges that come with it. Is that a conscious message you were endeavoring to express?
CC: I wasn’t trying to make this piece positive, but my friend Gail, who suffers from some memory loss, has a positive attitude about it. Just another stage of her life, she says.
MR: You utilize masks in a lot of your films. What can a mask convey that an actor’s face can’t?
CC: By putting Gail in a mask, I take pressure off of her face and I put more emphasis on her body and her movements. Even the doll and childhood is a mask in a way, full of the potential of an older self.
MR: Is there anything you miss about the process of filmmaking in the ’80s that can’t be recaptured now?
CC: In the ’80s when I filmed, everything was new, in a way. Now my world is opening up again, but the landscape in front of me is less immediately dangerous, which it was then.
MR: As your main character puts it, do you ever get the feeling that you’re on a different planet every day?
CC: I feel like every day is a different planet. I thought that things would slow down and be less immediate as I grew older, but that hasn’t happened. Things are not less intense or slower or less interesting. Though there have definitely been periods in my life less interesting and less honest that now.
Fox In The Fan (director Carol Brandt)
MR: Was there a specific incident or story that you heard or read about that sparked the premise for Fox In The Fan?
Carol Brandt: When I was about 9 years old I read a book called Fat Men From Space. The story starts with a boy who begins getting faint radio signals through a tooth filling. The story follows him as he listens in on certain frequencies, eventually discovering an alien transmission from aliens who look like fat men dressed in tweed suit coats and thick black-rimmed glasses who want all of the world’s hamburgers or something like that. The idea of radio waves being strong enough to make their way into everyday objects is the thing that interested me the most, and what I wanted to explore in this short film.
The second book that really sparked my interest in radio waves and how they work, etc, was the book All The Light We Cannot See. There is a character in the story whose job it is to track radio signals using math and geometry. I’m still digging deep into research on the science of it, but apparently, there are entire clubs and events based around finding radio signals. It’s sometimes referred to as “fox hunting” (hint hint wink wink nudge nudge).
I love the idea of being able to track something invisible using mathematics rather than digital means (GPS, etc.), and am very excited to create a story around a character attempting to track a signal with only a homemade receiver and a pencil and paper.
MR: What brought you to Janesville, of all places, to shoot?
CB: The look and feel of the radio station there really lined up with what I was imagining. The owners were also very easy to work with in terms of letting us shoot there, so it lined up perfectly.
MR: The plot of this film utilizes what some people might think of as outdated modes of communication. Can you imagine a story like this working if you were to substitute modern technology?
CB: No way, it wouldn’t work at all. The short and the feature both take place in the pre-internet era, before all mysteries in life became searchable with a few taps on a screen.
MR: You’re referring to a feature-length film that ties in thematically with Fox In The Fan, correct? What can you tell us about that?
CB: Not much more than I’ve already said. The script is still in skeleton format, but I’m very excited to get it written and hopefully start putting things together for production later next year. I’ll just say that the short film kind of solves the mystery of the feature, in that there is a radio signal transmitting memoirs of a dying man, and nobody knows where it started or where it’s coming from.
MR: What are you most looking forward to about the Film Festival, other than seeing your work on the big screen?
CB: The film festival is one of my favorite things about this city. You meet so many people in such a short period of time, which for an editor like me who lives in a cave and occasionally forgets how to interact with other humans, is a great, great thing.
Shangri-LA (star and co-director Nick Sommer)
MR: Are there elements of this story that mirror your own L.A. experience?
Nick Sommer: Ha ha, of course. It’s very self-reflexive. Many of the characters and situations in Shangri-LA are loosely based on experiences my co-creator Drew Rosas and I have had in the film industry. I would say I relate most to our character Scribs, who is a struggling independent filmmaker trying to figure out ways to scam the system and get a level playing field.
MR: Were there a lot of unexpected hurdles to overcome, shooting in California as opposed to Wisconsin, or did you pretty much know what you were getting yourself into?
NS: It’s a totally different world. In Wisconsin if you tell people you’re shooting a movie they’ll bend over backwards to help in any way possible. In Los Angeles you need a permit to shoot anywhere and most people want money for locations. We’re independent filmmakers who have no money but still want to create art. That’s why we scripted Shangri-LA around locations and actors we had access to.
MR: Do you guys have a full story arc in mind for this series, or are you leaving it open-ended at this point?
NS: We already shot our entire first season and are currently in post-production of 13 episodes roughly 10 minutes each. There is definitely a full story arc in season one, with the possibility of future seasons.
MR: This is quite a departure from the horror-oriented stuff you’ve built your reputation on, although humor has always been a part of what you do. What was the biggest challenge in making the transition into straight-up comedy?
NS: We’ve always loved comedy and tried to incorporate it in all of our films. Just like horror, it’s a fun genre to create. That’s what drove us to finally make an offbeat comedy. We just make projects we enjoy and hope the audience is into it.
MR: Have you ever had a drink thrown in your face in real life?
NS: Ha ha, surprisingly, no. But I do seem like the kind of guy that would.
MR: Is Shangri-LA your entire focus these days, or do you have any other projects in the works that you can tell us about?
NS: Shangri-LA is definitely the main focus right now but I always have projects on the back burner. I have several scripts in several genres that I’d love to tackle in the near future. I’m also working on a few friends’ feature films coming up soon, too. Milwaukee is always making movies.