It's probably safe to assume that most people aren't thinking about the Academy Awards when they make low-budget short films. But it'd be a mistake to assume that about the director and producer of "Wish 143," the British short now in the running in the Best Live-Action Short category.
"We always wanted to aim at the Oscars," director Ian Barnes (left) admitted to TheWrap this week, after coming to Los Angeles for the Nominees Luncheon. "Whether we could get there was a different situation – but it's the number one award on the planet, and so it was always on our minds."
"In a way you’re taking a big leap of faith when you make a short film anyway," added producer Samantha Waite. "If there's ever a time not to be cautious, it's then. So we decided that we would aim high in every sense, from our casting decisions to film festivals to aiming for the Oscars."
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The film is a touching, understated tale of a 15-year-old boy with cancer, who, when visited by a representative from a Make-a-Wish-Foundation-type group, announces that his wish is to lose his virginity. The short was written by Tom Bidwell, who as a teenager was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had his own encounter with "the Wishman": he asked for a trip on the Concorde, and got a miniature pool table instead. (He also survived.)
"I was looking to do a short film, and I asked all the writers I know for scripts," said Barnes, a television director for the BBC, ITV and Channel4 in the UK. "When I read Tom's, it sent tingles down my spine."
Barnes and Waite made a list of their dream cast, which included known British actors like Jim Carter, Jodie Whitaker and Dean Andrews; all of them said yes, whereupon Waite (right) cobbled together money from the BBC, the arts foundation Lighthouse and Working Title Films. The filmmakers took out loans, threw in some of their own money and ended up with about $20,000 – enough for a shoot consisting of four very long days, one of which was spent contending with the tail end of a hurricane that swept over their location.
Why make a short, a form with limited distribution and uncertain prospects, when Barnes could have been doing more lucrative work on television, and Waite could have continued with a TV and feature career that has included the Oscar-wining doc "Man on Wire"?
"You work under certain constraints with movies and television," said Waite. "But with this we could really go for it and say, 'This is what we want to do.' You don't get that level of total freedom when you have 10 or 12 million dollars – you get it when you have 15,000 pounds."
"I don’t think we wanted to answer to anybody," added Barnes. "We wanted to make this our way."
His vision for the film, he said, was simple: "It was never about sex. It was always about a young boy wanting to become a man."
He also shot the film simply and straightforwardly, aiming for the biggest possible audience. "Sometimes when I do other shorts or TV, I like to do things that are a little bit out there, that might take the viewer by surprise," he said. "But this film didn't need anything fancy. I wanted to basically let the script do the work, and not restrict it with anything too gimmicky."
Starring newcomer Samuel Peter Holland (who was willing to shave his head) as the teen, the short was finished with suggestions from Barnes' neighbor John Harris, a film editor who is currently nominated for "127 Hours." "We've got two Oscar nominees on one street in North London," laughs Barnes.
It had a qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles, and won the audience award at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival after receiving, Waite said, 22,000 votes. "I don’t think either of us ever imagined 22,000 people seeing our film," she added.
And now, even though they had their sights set on Oscar from the start, they're finding the entire experience a little surreal.
"It's mad," said Barnes. "It's like being fired out of a cannon, boom. After the start of March, we're gonna go plop into a lake – but at the moment we're all just holding hands and flying through the air."