2005 - NR - 7 Mins.
|Director: Scott Peehl|
|Producer: Sydny Brown, Dan Gates|
|Starring: Cheyenne Jackson, Joe Griffin, Allan Fried
|Review by: David Rolston
|Official Site: www.filmingk.com/|
You’re walking home from work to your cramped New York City apartment one rainy night, a walk like so many others you’ve taken, where your legs carry you past people you barely notice, and your mind wanders. Only this night, you catch something from the corner of your eye, something shiny and unexpected on the back of an electric street sign. Your eyes are drawn to a round metallic item, that’s noticeable, but just out of reach of the average passerby. On closer inspection you realize that someone has affixed a DVD to the back of the post, amongst the tattered remains of the numerous signs and posters that had adorned the same place in the past. Strangers walk silently past you, minding their own business as New Yorkers do, and no one seems that interested when you climb the base of the pole and pull the DVD down to take a look at it. It’s unlabeled, so you put it in your briefcase and head on home. Although you’re not expecting much, you can’t help wondering what it might contain. Something strange? Something interesting? Something sexy? Or perhaps, nothing at all? By the time you arrive at your apartment and open the door, your curiosity is palpable. You barely bother to close the door behind you, before you’ve reached for the DVD player, hit the eject button, and loaded the DVD into place….
When did must see TV get so intense?
This is the premise of “Curiosity” an accomplished seven minute short film from New York based Director Scott Peehl and producing partner Sydny Brown. “Curiosity” has the look of a feature film, a strong lead performance by an up and coming Broadway actor, and manages the near miraculous feat of generating genuine suspense and palpable dread in a few economical minutes, and in the tradition of Hitchcock and DePalma, does so without a single word of dialogue.
“Curiosity” is one of a number of short films included on a new compilation from TLA Video, titled “Celebrity Mix.” The very existence of “Celebrity Mix” sheds some light on an interesting aspect of the film and television business – that a good short film is one of the many ways that filmmakers build a portfolio, and that it’s even possible in many cases to secure the services of professional actors and actresses. The film stars Cheyenne Jackson, who has appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, most notably “All Shook Up” for which he received rave reviews, but is otherwise relatively unknown outside the New York theater scene. Handsome and athletic, Jackson exudes likeability as a yuppie everyman, and without the benefit of dialogue, manages to convey a rapidly escalating sense of unease purely through facial expressions and body language.
However, I suspect that “Curiosity” ultimately was included on “Celebrity Mix” as much for the success of its story telling, and the combined skills of its filmmakers as for the recognizability of its star, when one considers that the other films in the collection feature far better known actors including David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Felicity Huffman, Taye Diggs and Jim Belushi.
I’ve seen more than my fair share of student films, shorts, and experimentals, and I know the amount of money, time and work that can go into making them. I also know how hard it is to produce anything passable, much less unequivocally successful, given the constraints. Most short films that manage to succeed on their own terms, are either animated, documentaries, or comedies. It’s rare to see a short film that attempts suspense or horror, probably because audiences just aren’t very forgiving when it comes to their expectations of a good thriller. Thrillers are technically challenging, and doubly hard to tackle when you have a limited amount of time to set the tone, and reveal enough plot to draw the audience in. To be fair, Peehl and Brown, and the filmmakers who worked with them to create “Curiosity”, while certainly mostly young, are not students on their first assignment, but working professionals who have been plying their trade in the world of industrials, television, music videos, documentaries and advertising. There are many reasons short films like these are made, and in the case of “Curiosity” we have a text book example of a short film that is intended to demonstrate that a pair of young filmmakers are ready for the big time. The story of how they came to this point is equally as interesting.
Peehl and Brown met as roommates in Seattle some nine years ago, and eventually discovered that they shared a mutual interest in film making. They collaborated on short projects and eventually moved to New York City, and started a production company named Filmingk, doing commercial work to pay the bills, and low budget do it yourself(DIY) documentaries and shorts shot on video to feed the spirit. Over a period of a few years Peehl had built up a nice portfolio, including a well received comedy lampooning temp agencies.
Peehl says about Brown, “We have a great creative relationship and a great working shorthand. He is my right hand and brings so much to the creative process. We are sorta Coen Bros about it all.” New York City certainly is a challenging place to try and build a portfolio, from the astronomical cost of living, to the stiff competition for jobs, and the simple day to day challenges of getting around the big apple. Peehl is thoughtful, upbeat, and curious about people and the human condition. When asked if New York is a good place for a struggling filmmaker his answer is “NYC is the kind of city where you have no idea where the day will take you. An interaction at a coffee shop can lead to a whole new career. The East Village is filled with creative and amazing people that inspire all sorts of things.” You’re not quite sure how seriously you should take his engaging optimism, when you read the Filmingk description of their ongoing documentary project “YNYC” which feature New Yorkers who are asked to explain “…why anyone would choose to live in the most crowded, competitive, dirty, and noisy island on the earth?” It’s a dichotomy that only makes Peehl that much more intriguing.
Eventually, Filmingk took the major step of optioning a horror thriller from friend and aspiring writer Scott Hess with the B-movie title of “Coney Island Horror”. Despite their portfolio of shorts, and Peehl’s well received feature length documentary “Mindflank” to their credit, he and Brown felt they would need something in their portfolio that would demonstrate to potential investors, their ability to make a big budget Hollywood suspense thriller. One day while walking down the street Peehl saw a video attached to a light post, and took it home. Although it ended up being a run of the mill music video, he was immediately struck by the possibilities inherent in asking “what if it contained something different?” Curiosity’s deceptively simple and intriguing premise is also very much of the moment, in these days of viral marketing campaigns, ubiquitous affordable video recorders, and the prevalence of digital technology as a platform for media.
A pitch at a Sundance film festival party enticed a would be producer to back them. They developed the idea, and Peehl created storyboards with FrameForge 3D, a popular $350 software package that allows pre-visualization by building a virtual set and allowing a director to plan his story in detail, and then render storyboards. The storyboards would turn out to be instrumental in landing Cheyenne Jackson. Brown convinced a mutual friend to get the storyboards to Jackson, who as it would turn out, had seen “Mindflank” and been impressed by it. With a traditional script that features no dialogue it would have been much harder to communicate the carefully crafted sequences Peehl had in mind. The storyboards also helped sell Jackson’s agent who allowed his client to sign onto the project. They also used the storyboards to interest Dan Gates, an associate producer for RSA films. With Gates on board as executive producer, they were able to secure the services of a larger and more experienced crew than they had originally expected to use. The entire film takes place at night, with an opening sequence on a New York City sidewalk. Used to a shoestring budget, and Guerilla documentary style of production, Peehl was convinced by Gates and Brown that for a project like this they needed actual permits. Having the location access they needed was important if they were to have any chance of achieving the shots the script required. Freelance cinematographer Ian McGlocklin Sinclair was brought in to shoot the film, and succeeded in capturing a crisp feature film look, using a borrowed Canon XL2 mini DV camera and a minimal light package. The composition of the shots, lighting and camera movement help create the impression that you’re watching a much bigger film, which is one of the ingredients that sets “Curiosity” apart from the run of the mill short. Peehl is quick to credit Sinclair’s contribution to the look of the film saying: “..they (cinematographers) can get great footage out of a hi 8 camera if they know what they are doing. I owe a great deal to Ian for that.” “Curiosity” was not without it’s hurdles however. With the cast and crew in place, and shooting set to begin within a week, the Producer backed out. Brown and Peehl found themselves scrambling to find the money they would need to go forward, borrowing from family and friends, and going so far as to gamble their rent money on the project. The film was shot in three nights, and thanks to meticulous planning, they got what they needed. In true feature style, “Curiosity” was shot out of sequence, which can be a tricky proposition for an actor who has to provide a sustained emotional arc. Peehl borrowed a technique from one of his idols, John Carpenter, and employed a ten point “scare” scale, to help his lead actor understand the level of suspense intended in each scene.
Post production was done on Peehl’s G4 Mac using Final Cut Pro HD 4.5. The simple effective score was created by Peehl using Apple soundtrack. While he only had intended to use it as a scratch track and as inspiration for a band he hoped would compose and record a score for the film, Peehl found “It was so effective in the early screenings that I just tweaked it for the final.” John Carpenter would no doubt approve.
Since the completion of “Curiosity” Cheyenne Jackson has landed his first role in a theatrical feature as one of the passengers aboard “Flight 93” from English director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy). The film is a dramatic retelling of the passenger revolt aboard the hijacked 9/11 plane that crashed near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania – territory far from Jackson’s background singing and dancing on Broadway, and much closer to the character he plays in “Curiosity”.
Peehl and Brown now have the calling card they had hoped to create, made with a budget that by Hollywood standards wouldn’t cover the down payment on a producer’s car. The film was selected for the Palm Springs Intl. Festival of Short Films in September of 2005, which in short order lead to the "Celebrity Mix" deal. Peehl and Brown are talking to financiers about their “Coney Island Horror” project, and not surprisingly the possibility of expanding “Curiosity.” Recent films “Darkness Falls” and “Saw” both began their lives as tantalizing shorts, in a tradition that includes the shorts that were precursors to “South Park”, the Coen’s Blood Simple and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “Curiosity” feature some day, I think it’s more likely we will see Filmingk, and the names Scott Peehl and Syd Brown in the credits of our local multiplex in the not too distant future, precisely because they are the types of young filmmakers who will be a part of the coming wave of graduates from the DIY digital generation. These filmmakers share the ambition, drive and influences of their predecessors, but are armed with prosumer tools, and have emerged with a finger on the pulse of a new generation, raised in the age of the internet. Even in Hollywood, rules are changing at the speed of a fiber optic cable connected to a home computer more powerful than anyone could imagine only fifteen years ago. Expect “Curiosity” to appear on the film festival circuit in the coming year, or pick up the “Celebrity Mix” DVD, and you’ll be able to tell your friends a few years from now: “Oh yeah I saw this cool short film they did back when nobody had heard of them.”