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Altruistic Models, Recovering Veterans, Looney Tunes and More at TheWrap’s Short Film Showcase

Directors of six Oscar contending short films discuss their work

Last Updated: December 5, 2019 @ 4:12 PM

The directors of an eclectic array of six short films gathered at The Landmark in Los Angeles on Tuesday for TheWrap and Shorts.TV‘s Short Film Showcase, where the filmmakers discussed their inspirations and the challenges behind their work.

Joining TheWrap’s awards editor Steve Pond for a Q&A panel were filmmakers Chris McCaleb (“15 Minutes at 400 Degrees”), Bonnie-Kathleen Ryan (“Real.Live.Girl.”), Jeremy Merrifield (“Balloon”), Asher Jelinsky (“Miller & Son”), Pete Browngardt (“Curse of the Monkeybird: A Looney Tunes Cartoon”), and Mohammad Gorjestani (“Exit 12”).

When asked about the inspirations for their work, some said their shorts came from a very personal place. Bonnie-Kathleen Ryan wrote the script for her film “Real.Live.Girl.” while she was working at the rooftop watering hole Skybar while taking care of her family. From that experience, she wrote a story about a camgirl who shows herself off online to support her Alzheimer’s-stricken father.

“I knew about the dichotomy of going out to work and being objectified and then going home to a family that I loved but didn’t know about the person that I was out in the world,” she said.

Family was also a drive for Jeremy Merrifield, who worked for a long time in New York’s Broadway theater community and was inspired by his 12-year-old nephew and what it means to grow up in a world that expects men to behave in a certain way. The result was “Balloon,” a film about a junior high school student whose attempts to stay under the radar and avoid bullies are derailed when he gets superpowers.

“We hear so much about these school shootings and every time, the shooting is done by a boy,” he noted. “The way we raise so many boys in our society, they end up being bullied into becoming ‘stronger,’ and then we all are shocked when they become bullies. Doing this film helped me examine what my nephew was facing and in doing so helped me reexamine what I went through growing up.”

And some just did it for the sheer passion of filmmaking. Such was the case for Pete Browngardt, who directed the Looney Tunes cartoon “Curse of the Monkeybird.” In it, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig go on an expedition in a cursed temple, and for Browngardt, it was a chance to add his take on the two iconic characters to those of decades worth of animators who came before him.

“It was kind of like working with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin or Abbott & Costello in that they are these iconic archetypes. I wanted to pay homage to the classic Looney Tunes cartoons without directly copying them, especially when it comes to Daffy. I was inspired more by the silly, loony Daffy of the 30s and early 40s rather than the greedy Daffy from later on.”

Chris McCaleb created a more adult comedy with “15 Minutes at 400 Degrees,” about a widowed company owner who spends his days chatting with an online model who keeps him company online while he cooks his dead wife’s recipes. But his night is turned on its head when he is attacked by a desperate single father he fired a year ago, who in his anger has now plotted a revenge plan to raid his former boss’ house.

“It’s a story about desperation. Desperation for human contact and desperation for money,” McCaleb said. “One of the challenges was filming a story where one of the characters is not physically in the room and another who cannot move. We had a room for Crystal’s [the model] scenes upstairs and the rest of us were downstairs. We shot it all live over the course of three nights, which happened to be the shortest nights of the year, shooting from 8:30 PM to 5 in the morning.”

Asher Jelinsky had a different personal challenge when finding the right place to film the short “Miller & Son,” a film about a trans woman who runs her family’s auto repair shop by day and expresses her femininity at night.” Jelinsky, who identifies as gender non-binary, was confined to the Los Angeles area to find an auto shop that looked like it came from a rural setting, and to their surprise found one in Santa Clarita run by a trans woman.

“The stars sort of aligned in that moment,” Jelinsky said. “The owner became our mechanic consultant and she was a big help because I didn’t know much about car repair so she helped with a lot of the detail of those scenes.”

The importance of finding a way to express oneself was also at the core of the showcase’s documentary, “Exit 12,” Mohammad Gorjestani’s exploration of a New York based dance company founded by a military veteran who fought in Fallujah during the Iraq War. The company was created to help veterans express their trauma and frustration with war through dance, and the film also highlights its work to make the country a better place.

“I’ve seen people wear shirts that say ‘If you don’t like how we do things here, I’ll help you pack,’ and I’ve wondered why people who have a more progressive vision of American ideals are the ones viewed as outsiders,” Gorjestani said. “So it was really important to make this documentary about a group of veterans who aren’t happy with what is happening with America, who are questioning why they fought in Iraq and need to find a way to cope with what they saw as soldiers.”

The panel followed a screening of the shorts introduced by Linda Olszewski, vice president of global acquisitions for Shorts.TV, which sponsored the showcase with TheWrap.