When I asked first-time director Tim Guinee about the challenges of adapting Horton Foote's play The One Armed Man for a short film, he laughed as he recalled a piece of advice from fellow filmmaker Peter Hedges. Hedges told him that in making a low budget film, you're not allowed to have challenges. You're only allowed opportunities.
The LA Shorts Fest runs July 24 - 31 and showcases 233 films ripe with "opportunity." Guinee's film The One Armed Man will screen on opening night along with films by Luke Wilson and James McTeigue. I spoke with Guinee and fellow first time director Dean Harada about the process of adapting a work for short film. Based on a short story by Richard Bausch, Harada's film Wedlock premieres on Friday, July 25.
Guinee and Harada echoed each other in sharing about the pressure and excitement they felt directing for the first time. Guinee brings a wealth of acting experience to his project. He has a closer perspective than many on Foote's One Armed Man. He's married to Foote's daughter Daisy and played the title role in a production of the play years ago with Foote in attendance at rehearsals.
He talked about the pressure he felt and the extraordinary circumstances around filming:
"It's very odd because a) you want to do right by great material and b) the great material was written by my wife's father. And c) which is sort of strange. My father actually died in the pre-production week right before we started filming. I had to miss his funeral to do the movie and so there was this very strong sense of wanting to do right by Horton and by his writing and I felt the secondary pressure of wanting this to be worth not going to my own father's funeral, wanting to do right by my father in the work somehow. Which actually wound up conferring a sort of sense of grace on everything, at least for me."
Philip Seymour Hoffman was executive director for The One Armed Man. I hesitated, but had to ask how far along into the production process Guinee was when he Hoffman passed away.
"Phil passed six months or so after we finished shooting. I think he passed a month before our first festival. I don't want to say much about it because people get salacious about that. But he was a dear old friend of mine who I really loved and I miss him as a friend and a collaborator."
In contrast with Guinee's acting experience, I asked Harada if anything in his music background had prepared him for directing. He talked about the performative aspect of his music career.
"I think because I come from a classical music and live performance background before I started writing music, there is something about that dynamic that carried over into directing. Particularly because it was a very small, tight ensemble cast it reminded me of working with my string quartet and trio. The dynamic of the small ensemble had me thinking about voices and how people play against each other. In music it's very sonic, but there's also a physical dynamic as well. You learn how the other person breathes. You learn how to track those subtle motions and gestures that tell you where the music is going or where you're going as an ensemble. So I think that helped a lot in regard to working with the actors. Also, just in setting up scenes because we rehearsed a lot. This was something that I felt was coming out of my own experience as a musician and a classical musician specifically."
While Harada describes Wedlock as a romantic horror film and Guinee describes his film as a prophetic and relevant social-issue drama, both films carry an element of suspense and characters trapped by the story that's unfolding. The filmmakers also sought to expand the vision of the original text by shooting in multiple locations rather than the one room indicated in the script and story. Harada describes that process this way,
"In Wedlock, there's a hotel room that is almost a character in the film. It becomes an enveloping personality. Getting out of that room is important. I don't think that it works to just stay in that room. I wonder if [Guinee] was attracted to the play for the same reason - a single act in a single location. Then you realize that you can't sit with that one thing. You have to give some space around it. If you stay in one room the entire time, you don't notice the room. Getting outside of that space, then you can describe the room. To give it some life."
Short film like poetry or short stories is a compressed art form. These films tell big stories in less time than an episode of Family Guy. Guinee calls it a "ridiculous form in a way because you can't ever monetize having made one of these things." He also admires short film for just this reason and talks about the freedom in taking chances and the high quality of work he's seen on the festival circuit.
Harada talked about the viewer and how short film encourages a different level of attention than a feature film. He describes the "increased density of what's happening on screen." He considered the differences between features and short films and settled on this metaphor -- "Short films are like a nice peaty scotch. Served like a shot of Lagavulin neat. So feature films are like beer, shorts are like whiskey."
Tickets are on sale now for the LA Shorts Fest. You can find the full schedule of films at the website.
Photo credit: Robin Holland/One Armed Man