I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
WHAM, a short film that I wrote and directed last summer is premiering this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. It’s a great festival and I’m really excited to be a part of it, in fact so excited that I’m waking up at 4am on Friday to fly in early so I can enjoy a full day of meeting people and seeing great films. If you’re near Birmingham this weekend, check it out.
The film will also screen in Washington, DC at the very excellent DC Shorts festival on September 8 and 10. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it back home for the screenings because of work, but it’s my first screening near my hometown in Maryland and it feels good to get to show m friends and family back home what I’ve been working on for the last few years.
And finally, it’s coming to Chicago for the first time on September 22 at 4pm at the Middle Coast Film Festival. I love this festival. The Deadline premiered there last year, so it will always have a special place in my heart (they programmed Off Book too). I’m a little sad that they moved it from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago because I liked the excuse to take a road trip. It’s screening at the Davis Theater. Come see it and have a drink at Carbon Arc if you’re in town.
OK, technically we won for best Illinois short. They had a category for films made in Illinois or Wisconsin. Really nice folks up there.
Off Book is getting its Chicago premier on Tuesday! It’s playing on the Midwest Shorts night at the Midwest Indie Film Fest, alongside some other great shorts.
The screening includes five short films and an opening night reception that starts at 7pm.
I’m belated in reporting this with being so busy lately, but I’m really excited that The Deadline has found a home for its world premiere at the Middle Coast Film Festival.
It’s a really wonderful and up-and-coming festival in Bloomington, IN. The dates are August 10-12 and I’m planning to drive down with some of the cast & crew, plus some filmmaking friends that are also screening that weekend at Middle Coast. And Off Book also got in! I love festivals that are driving distance because my recent life has been sadly bereft of road trips.
Our talented editor, Paul Myzia, put together a really sharp trailer for Off Book, which has been rolling along nicely on the festival circuit (playing Middle Coast in August and Austin Revolution in September).
Here’s the trailer:
Catching up on some great news from the past month for a few of my projects.
- The film premiered last month at the Twister Alley Film Festival and was nominated for best screenplay, best actress, and best supporting actor in the short film category. And it took home the award for best comedy short film.
- I was nominated for best director at the Portland Comedy Film Festival last month.
- Off Book was the winner of the Los Angeles CineFest for May 2017.
No official announcement yet, but I have word that it will be premiering soon at a film festival…
A new untitled project
I’m directing a short that I wrote on June 10. This is my first directing project in a year and I decided to make something quick and relatively inexpensive while getting together money and a script for a feature film.
The new project is basically my version of a rom-com, if the film ended after the meet cute because everyone was so traumatized.
Two weekends ago I attended the Portland Comedy Film Festival. I only saw shorts there, although there were a couple features that played before I arrived. Here are a few that I both enjoyed and are currently available online.
Cauliflower, directed by Natasha Straley
Groundhog Day for a Black Man, directed by Cynthia Kao
Jihadi Street, directed by Yulia Fomenko
I still don’t know how I feel about this one but it’s so rare to see a comedy this risky and I really want to see what Yulia does next.
If last year was about learning how to plan for and execute production, this year has been learning about festivals.
I’ve had mixed feelings as one short has been doing very well on the festival circuit and the other one, the one that I put all my money (and credit) into and basically poured months of my life into–that one, The Deadline, is 0 for 9 so far with festivals.
Some of the ones I applied to were long-shots, but some were not. Like the Portland Comedy Film Festival, where another film I directed, Off Book, got me a best director nomination but The Deadline wasn’t selected.
The frustrating thing about it is the lack of feedback. You just get a letter that invariably states that “there were so many great submissions this year but we had to make difficult decisions.” I guess there’s no real easy way to say no to people. And it would be a tremendous amount of work to write a personal note to everyone that submitted.
I’ve been showing The Deadline to some filmmaker friends, ones with more festival experience to get their feedback. Mostly I’ve gotten the response that at 13 minutes and change, it’s hard to program. The sweet spot for shorts is 3-7 minutes. So I cut a minute out of it and I may cut another minute and a half out of it in the next month to see if that improves things. It’s not ideal — I would rather show a truncated version than let the original version sit on my hard drive. But I’ve been able to find areas where the story slows down a bit, places where a cut doesn’t change the story, just changes how its told.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to cut when the sound is already mixed and the score was written for a certain length. I can kind of cut around the score or use audio effects to hide the cuts in the soundtrack, but there’s not much leeway in certain areas.
Off Book is only seven minutes and it’s more of a typical comedic structure with a high concept that gets executed pretty efficiently. It’s definitely easier to program and more of an audience-pleaser, while the Deadline meanders a bit more and sits in some moments longer, which makes it less likely to get a shot.
Anyway, I don’t wallow in the defeat. I’m making another short next month and have plans for a feature, maybe even as soon as this year. Making The Deadline was like going to film school and in a way this is the final lesson. Regardless of how it does, it was worth it and I stand by the work.