Student Filmmakers Summer Shorts Winner

Directors Kyle Garrett and George Seamer Move Forward

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…Just make a commitment to do something, anything, and follow it through to completion. It doesn’t matter if it’s the next great cinematic masterpiece, or even if it’s very good. If you just try, you are guaranteed to learn something and that’s really what we should be striving for.

George Seamer

“Inertia” Wins First Place in the Summer Shorts 2008 Film and Video Competition

Inertia, a 27-minute, poetic film directed by Kyle Garrett and George Seamer, won first place in the Summer Shorts 2008 Film and Video competition. Shot with one camera, the Panasonic HVX200, and filmed in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Vallejo, California, Inertia depicts the inner and outer struggles of four strangers – Ricky (George Seamer), Jane (Amy Sperling), Chad (Doug Rutsch), and Eve (Laura Floros; voiced by Amber Crosby). Floating through their mid-twenties the four interweave on one fateful day none of them are prepared for. The bleak outskirts of San Francisco acted as the backdrop for this view into a jaded generation.

StudentFilmmakers magazine talked with the directors of Inertia about their winning film.

What were your most favorite locations and scenes to shoot?

Kyle: This is hard. The five or so days we spent on Treasure Island, shooting the accident scenes were very challenging and memorable, but I really enjoyed shooting the introduction to Chad [Doug Rutsch] in his motel room. It was fun to go shoot in a seedy motel in the middle of downtown San Francisco, and with all the stuff we did to the walls and with the lighting, I felt it was the first time we had a chance to really design a location. It was also very early in the shoot, so we still had a lot of energy. That was probably the first night where, after we finished shooting, I thought we might not necessarily be wasting our time.

George: I really enjoyed the scenes we shot in Sacramento. That includes the office scenes with Chad, both interior and exterior, as well as the doctor’s office scene. We were there for three days, and I think that was the most productive period of the shoot. More shots were crammed into these three days than at any other time during production, and we just flew threw them. It helped that Kyle’s father owned the building, so we had free reign. We took over the parking lot, staked claim to one of the larger offices in the building and tore down partitions in the company weight room to build our cubicles. It was also at this point, about midway through shooting, that we really found our rhythm. When problems arose, such as actors canceling on us minutes before they were supposed to shoot, we just rolled with it and got it taken care of unfazed. Earlier, problems like this would have been devastating. Also, I didn’t have to act in any of these scenes, which was one less thing to juggle.

What were some other interesting things that happened while you were filming at these locations?

Kyle: While shooting on Treasure Island, there was a shot we needed to get of Eve [Laura Floros] riding her bike away from the scene of the accident. We wanted to get a tracking shot from the front, so I ended up with the camera in the trunk of George’s car. His trunk has very loose hinges, so we rigged it to stay open with PVC pipe and gaffer’s tape. Laura was all ready to go and so were we, so Bo Heimlich, our producing partner and entire crew, waited for my signal and started driving. But when she started to move, the whole rigging came apart and the trunk came crashing down on the top of my head and, much worse, the camera. The car screeched to stop, and I waited with bated breath for someone to let me out. Thankfully, when Bo opened the trunk, the camera was totally fine aside from a small ding on its handle. But that was really terrifying.

George: Both Dave Zapasnik [the office bully] and Doug Rutch [Chad] did a lot of really great improvisation during the filming of the office scenes. Almost any shot with Dave in it would end with everyone on the set bursting into hysterics. We realized while shooting that when he walks up to show off his new sunglasses to the female co-worker he needed to say something, but nothing was written. We just told him to hit on her and started recording. He launched into this ridiculous, hilarious monologue and didn’t let up for minutes. We just kept rolling, holding back tears, even though we only needed a few seconds. Likewise, there wasn’t much written for Doug to say on the phone when he’s cold calling. No one on set knew Doug actually used to be a telemarketer. When he launched into his old sales spiel so naturally everyone’s jaws dropped.

Who created your fourth character’s “wall”? Did you work with a set designer?

Kyle: We found the photos in various old books and magazines we either already had or bought at local thrift stores. We spent an entire afternoon cutting out the clippings. Then, on the day of shooting, George, Bo, and Amy Sperling (who played Jane) created Chad’s wall while I set up the lights and camera. I think the actual set-up only took a couple hours. The truly tedious part was finding the right clippings to convey what we wanted to express.

George: I see the wall as a physical representation of what is going on in Chad’s head. We had a lot of fun setting up the wall and the detail of it that will never be seen in the movie. It was still important to us to get it just right and we didn’t want it to be random. There are pictures of successful people, important events, powerful animals and even handmade graphs of Chad’s charting things such as “friends made.” Everything is linked in long strands by yarn, all leading back to a baby picture of, presumably, Chad. There’s even one strand of photos of the world’s greatest philosophers through time leading up to a photo of Chad’s grandfather, Chad’s father, and finally back to the baby photo. It was a lot of work, but I really like the effect we got. As far as focusing so much on how each picture relates, [should we connect the tiger with the picture of the football team or with Albert Einstein?], hell, we needed something to do while Kyle set up the lights.

George has an amazing presence on screen. How were George’s scenes in Inertia shot?

Kyle: George’s scenes were very simple to shoot. This is purely my opinion, but since he wrote the movie and spent so much time with it before any of us did, I think having him play Ricky was a very easy choice to make, and not one where we ever considered an alternative. He knew the character very well, so my direction, just like with any other actor, was only to make adjustments to the performance as they became necessary. And the amount of preparation and discussion about this very thing [how to direct the actors, what we were looking for in each performance] that George and I had before we began shooting made directing very simple. This certainly holds true when it comes to how I directed George. In a lot of ways, he directed himself.

George: I don’t know how to answer this without feeling like I’m pulling one over on you or without feeling like a ponce. Before Inertia I didn’t have any acting experience and no experience making films at all. I really just wanted to write something. It was during the writing process, as Ricky became more developed, that I started seeing more aspects of myself in him. We always knew that we were going to burden our friends with all the roles in the movie and not hire professional actors. So when it came down to deciding who would play which role it just felt natural for me to step into Ricky’s shoes.

I’d like to mention here, too, that although Kyle and I worked together on every aspect of this movie we did play different roles on the set. Kyle has the film background and handled all the shooting and lighting, while I focused more on the actors. We did work conjointly on shot listing and we reviewed every shot together while filming to make sure we were getting what we wanted, but he handled all the technical stuff. This setup made it really easy for me to play a role in the movie because Kyle would have naturally been behind the camera anyway.

How were the actors directed for the voice-overs?

Kyle: There was a lot of room to try things in different ways. At first we would have the actors just read the lines. From there, we’d try to focus it towards something closer to what we were looking for. Since these were our friends, not trained actors, often times we would just read the lines ourselves to give them an idea of how we wanted it to sound. But there was a lot of room for the actors to give suggestions or adjustments to make it feel more natural for them, and they always had good insights. So it was a long process, but one we thought was very important to take our time with.

George: Much of the voice-over dialogue was changed during this process as well. At this point, the actors knew more about the characters than I did. If something didn’t feel quite right they would make suggestions that we would usually go with.

Did anything interesting or unique come up while you were recording, mixing, and editing?

Kyle: The entire process of creating the sound for the movie was probably the easiest, even if it was maybe a little bit tedious. The whole thing is summed up, in my mind at least, with George in the middle of a parking lot, mercilessly pummeling a large hunk of raw steak to get some good punching sounds. We did that kind of thing, off and on, for weeks. It took as long as the shoot itself.

George: I had no idea what ADR was before we made this movie. I can’t describe how hard it is to get someone, myself included, to repeat something into a microphone exactly how they said it when we were recording. I still have nightmares about matching up digital sound waves.

Not only characters, but objects are linked like visually poetry; hand-to-stomach, food, photographs, flowers, balloons and other objects. What was the writing process like? Did the script change much during production?

George: I went into the first draft wanting to write something about heroism. How anyone can be called upon to be heroic at any time. Kind of touchy feely, I know. That’s still in there a little, I guess, but the story soon became something else. I wrote about ten drafts and in each one the story became less about taking heroic action and more about just taking action, any action at all. It felt off, somehow, to have it solely focused on one character. I guess any action someone takes has an effect on someone else. More characters sprang up and I ended up with all these people caught up in their own little worlds, almost claustrophobically so, unable to see just how desperate they are becoming. They are all heading towards a catastrophe that we see happen at the beginning of the movie and they need something to happen, some action to be taken, in order to stop this catastrophe from happening again, over and over.  I wish I could say I went into each draft with this developing theme in mind, but really most of the decisions I made in the writing I made because they just felt right. There wasn’t a whole lot of thinking involved.

Both Kyle and Bo would read each draft, give extensive feedback and then send me back to my computer. It must have taken about six months, taking into account long bouts of procrastination, before we had a version all three of us were happy with.

Looking back, we spent a lot of time agonizing over very specific things, like single words or the relevance of a pause. It became clear from the day we started shooting – actually before that – from the day we started shot listing, that the screenplay was going to be pretty fluid. The scenes changed a lot through the shooting and editing process. Large chunks of scenes were promptly, and correctly, cut on set right as we were about to shoot them – those chunks, so easily discarded, sometimes containing the same words and pauses that we agonized over earlier. Some of the best scenes are the ones where the actors strayed away from the script and added their own take on the scene.

Viewers might say the story is very relatable for a lot of 20-something year olds, as well as for those who were once 20-something. What inspired your film’s beginnings?

Kyle: I recall George finding me in our living room late one night, fairly drunk, and telling me we needed to “do something.” I thought that was a bit of a loaded thing to say, but he clarified and told me that we needed to make a movie. And he wanted to write it. I thought it was a great idea, because I had been thinking about trying to make a movie outside of my film school curriculum, and I knew George was a good writer.

George: I guess we were, and are? Those 20-something year olds. I’m not so arrogant as to attempt to define a whole generation, but I guess there’s a sense in people our age of wanting to do something, to take action, but not really being sure of what action to take. That theme is kind of represented in the movie. I think that feeling is why we started this project. We just wanted something to do.

We might have seen some dolly shots; there were definitely low angle shots, and subtle camera moves that enhanced scenes rather than showing off skills and technique. Could you talk a little bit about the camera moves in relation to scenes?

Kyle: I thought after reading George’s script that we would best serve the story through subtlety. Still, it’s easy to get carried away when dreaming up shots, and I think we were definitely both guilty of this early on. So, when George and I were inventing shots, we would be careful to make sure any camera movement was motivated. Dolly moves would only be employed if they were revealing something about the characters or the story. That’s true of any other bit of camerawork we did. Still, there is a lot I’d go back and change now, particularly in terms of composition. Shooting this movie was a great way for me to learn a good deal about how to shoot a movie, which I realize sounds kind of like a dumb thing to say…but it’s true. And I think editing, just as importantly, gave me ideas about how not to shoot a movie. I got to see what worked and what didn’t.

How did you shoot and edit the floating flower sequence?

Kyle: Here is another example of something I’d love to go back and reshoot, because we could have saved ourselves a lot of headache by doing things differently. We filmed this one, tiny shot well over a hundred times, in a bunch of different ways. What ultimately ended up in the film was a shot where we had the flower mounted to the camera via a crazy contraption that Bo concocted with wood and string and tape. I handheld the camera with the flower strung up right in front of the lens and lowered it very slowly with a bit of a swaying motion. Because of the impossibility of duplicating this move, we had no plates for compositing. Bo worked tirelessly for several days to paint out the string frame-by-frame, without the help of a plate or even a clean background, because what was out there in the frame beyond the flower was very busy. Lots of trees and bushes and gravel. Somehow Bo pulled it off. But I’m pretty sure some green screen could have really altered the difficulty level. Life could have been so much easier.

How did you shoot and edit your slow motion and time lapse sequences?

Kyle: The great thing about the HVX is that it has an intervalometer that allows in-camera time-lapses. So we did those that way, taking a frame every other second for several minutes at a time. George got very good at standing still. The camera is also capable of variable frame rates. We shot our slow motion footage at 60 fps, and I really love how it looks. I’ve never been much of a fan of 24 fps footage that is just time-remapped into slow motion, but, before this, that was always how I had to do it. So I was very glad we were able to capture true slow motion for our movie.

If you could share a piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers around the world, what would it be?

Kyle: It sounds really simple, maybe overly so, but – just make the movie. Take your time, be thorough, make sure you’re working with people you trust and like to work with, but don’t worry about whether you’re doing things the “right” way, and don’t get overly discouraged if it becomes difficult at times. There’s a solution to every problem, whether it’s technical, budgetary, or logistical. There are a lot of different ways to get to a completed movie, so the only thing you can really do wrong is to end up not taking the steps to get there.

George: Like I drunkenly said to Kyle that night a few years ago, “let’s do something.” That’s the most important thing. Just make a commitment to do something, anything, and follow it through to completion. It doesn’t matter if it’s the next great cinematic masterpiece, or even if it’s very good. If you just try, you are guaranteed to learn something and that’s really what we should be striving for.

What are you and George working on next?

Kyle: Right now, I’m editing and mixing a project for a friend of mine, and writing a feature-length that I hope to start shooting with the same team sometime next year. I just finished a first draft, so there is a very long way to go. I’m trying not to think about all those awful logistical things that go with it; otherwise I’d never finish writing it.

George: I’m grinding my way through a feature-length screenplay. I think Kyle and I are going to come to fisticuffs when we both finish our features at the same time and need to decide which one we are going to shoot. I have no doubt, though, whichever one we choose, we will get all the same people involved. I am getting a little antsy to actually shoot something so there might also be another short in our near future. One that isn’t nearly a half-hour this time.

Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, December 2008 Edition.

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