Advice from the director of the best short film EVER!
04 July 2018 — Zac
We've just launched our short film contest in partnership with BAFTA and thought it would be timely to reach out to the director of one of our favourite short films ever made (The Gunfighter) and ask some burning questions about how him and his crew managed to create such an ambitious short film. If you've not seen The Gunfighter before (have you been living under a rock?) take the time to watch it below - it's definitely worth every second:
Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself? What it's like to be Eric? What are your passions/hobbies?
Ok, let's see. I was born in New York City and was pretty sure I'd never leave until one day I woke up and found everything about the city exhausting. I moved to Los Angeles ten years ago expecting a cultural and spiritual wasteland but instead found a delightful, exciting yet somehow calming place that I now call home. I have two young children who are amazing and terrifying and wonderful. I love music and film and television and I play video games from time to time although far less than I used to now that I have kids. I've long been obsessed with politics (since before 2016, thank you very much) and I think that if I didn't work in film, I would most likely work in government. Oh, and I also love food. Not making it (I can barely boil an egg), just eating it. Huh, most of my passions seem to involve consuming things. What does that say about me?
How did you get into directing/filmmaking?
I've loved movies from a very young age. I started making my own short films in college and spent a semester abroad at the Film Academy in Prague where I got my first formal training. After college, I stole a copy of Final Cut Pro 1.0 (sorry, Apple) and taught myself how to edit. I told everyone I knew that I was an editor and eventually someone believed me and hired me to edit some short comedy films. Which led to editing some comedy television. Which led to editing some comedy films. I wound up editing a bunch of Hollywood comedies like Role Models, Brüno, The Dictator and Daddy's Home. Editing is a great career but it wasn't completely fulfilling so after each film that I edited, I would direct a short film to scratch that creative itch.
How did 'The Gunfighter' project come about?
The Gunfighter came about because I was on the hunt for something a bit more... ambitious. I wanted to make something more stylish and visually polished than what I had done previously. So when a co-worker of mine, Kevin Tenglin, passed me a short story he had written about an audible narrator in a Old West saloon, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a short film out of it.
Where inspired the idea for this film? At what point did you get involved?
Kevin sat down one day to write a Western short story. He didn't intend to make it a comedy. But Kevin's like me... he's always likes to poke fun at things. It's hard for either of us to take anything very seriously. So he found himself poking fun at the genre instead of embracing it. I thought the resulting short story was brilliant and I convinced him to adapt it with me into a short film.
Visually what were your film references/influences?
We basically just tried to get it to look as much like Django Unchained as we possibly could. We shot in the same location they used. I told my DP to ape Robert Richardson's lighting style (which basically involved blasting light from above while keeping everything else balanced). I tried to move the camera as much like Tarantino does as we could. Which was basically impossible because we only had one weekend to shoot the whole thing but I think we managed a few fun visual flourishes.
What sort of budget were you working with and what were there any restrictions caused by this (if any)?
We made the whole thing for $25,000 which seemed like an immense amount of money when we started but it went quickly!! Period films are expensive (duh) and we ended up cutting a ton of corners but I don't think too many seams show. Our biggest restriction was time. It would have been lovely to have a third day but there was no way to afford it.
Could you tell me a bit about the crew and cast you chose to work with? How did things go during the shoot? Any obstacles?
I've worked pretty much exclusively with my DP, Jon Aguirresarobe, for everything I've done. He's a master of light and just a delightful person to work with. Aside from him, though, we pulled everyone else from the commercial world. Kevin and I had both been working in advertising and we discovered that a LOT of immensely talented crew people were willing to work for peanuts on something they genuinely liked as opposed to the soulless commercials they were used to.
About half the cast were people that I had worked with on other short films that I'd made. Our terrific casting people, Susan Deming and Dorien Davies, found everyone else. It was amazing how many great actors were excited to work with us purely because it's just so damn fun to put on those costumes and fire up your Old West accent.
We actually shot and edited the entire film with a friend of mine doing the narration before we approached Nick Offerman to play the narrator. I knew the best chance we had to get him was to present him with a near-finished piece... put our best foot forward, so to speak. I had worked with people who knew Nick and they passed the film onto him and, fortunately, he loved it. We got him in an ADR booth for one and a half hours and he killed it.
The shoot was about as smooth as it could go. We had negotiated a very, very good rate for the location but as a condition of the deal, we were only allowed to shoot inside the saloon and not on the street outside. The first day, the owners stayed all day long to keep an eye on us but the second day they went home at lunchtime so we ran outside to grab a couple of shots on the street and then ran back inside. Shhh, don't tell anyone!
In retrospect, is there anything you'd do differently if you could re-shoot the film?
It's such a small thing but there are two "fuck"'s in the film... one near the beginning and one at the very end (literally the last word in the film). In retrospect, I think it would have been funnier to only have the last "fuck". You have to be judicious with your "fuck"'s, ya know?
What camera was the film shot on and why? What lenses and other camera gear did you use and why?
We shot with the Arri Alexa using vintage Cooke lenses that my DP owns.
How did this short film impact your career?
The Gunfighter has been an amazing boon to my career. It got me an agent and a manager and a ton of meetings. It also opened the door for me to directing commercials. It really has helped me way beyond what I would have imagined.
Have you since done other short films? Would you consider doing a feature film in that style?
I've since done a couple other short films one of which, Werewolves, I'm especially pleased with.
I don't think that The Gunfighter would work as a feature but I'm currently developing several feature film ideas that seem more suited to long form storytelling.
I noticed the same style of comedic narration was used in your Old Mout Cider ads - Was this inspired by The Gunfighter? What are some of the challenges of creating a comedic video/film/commercial?
Yes, obviously there's a lot of... overlap between the two projects. Ha. I was a bit put off at first by the idea of aping my own film for advertising but then I realized that if I didn't do it, someone else would so why the hell not? If that sounds like a rationalization, well, it probably is. We all have to pay the bills though, right?
What has been your most ambitious project yet? What went well and what went bad on that project?
The Gunfighter is definitely my most ambitious project that I've made and it went pretty great, all told. I'm currently writing a feature about a guy who becomes friends with a ninja and if I ever get to make it, it will definitely be way more ambitious. Wish me luck!
What kind of things would you advise an upcoming filmmaker to think about if they were looking to get into filmmaking or commercial work?
This business is full of rejection. You get rejected constantly, practically every day. The "successful" ones are the ones who pick themselves up quickly after they get knocked down. You may get 100 "no's" before your first "yes". Don't give up. Keep creating, keep collaborating, keep dreaming. God, that feels really cheesy to write but I honestly believe it. Good luck!
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