Building a film festival from scratch can be a lot of fun. My involvement with the sophomore edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (March 14-17, 2013) has involved negotiations with the Idaho Film Office (IFO) to increase media visibility for the event, in hopes of shaping the festival to become a desirable destination experience for out-of-state visitors wishing to combine recreational skiing with film viewing; a package that Idaho—and Sun Valley in particular—are uniquely poised to provide.
Although the admitted objective of a film commission like IFO is to woo financial investment from outside the state to produce films within Idaho, it likewise rewards local filmmakers with production grants and celebrates their accomplishments through the exhibition of a curated selection of films crafted partially or wholly within the Gem State. With exhibition being the weakest aspect of Idaho’s film culture, the role of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) as an exhibition venue has become increasingly vital. Producing a film that few will see is of limited value; thus, my hat goes off to SVFF for providing local talent a chance to shine and to, hopefully, be seen by a broader audience. Although the tension between national cinemas within an international network of distribution has been discussed at length, attention to the difficulties that regional cinemas face in achieving a national identity is equally important, though too often minimized.
Regional programming makes sense, of course. The Toronto International Film Festival—which has evolved into one of the world’s largest film markets—began as an effort of frustrated Canadian filmmakers wanting their films to be seen by the world. A comparable impulse is inspiring the development of the Panama International Film Festival, which—like SVFF—held its inaugural edition last year at about the same time. In fact, it’s de rigeur that nearly every major film festival includes a sidebar to showcase local product (the upcoming San Francisco International offers ‘Cinema By the Bay,’ for example). For me it’s been an interesting exercise to watch two film festivals—SVFF and the Panama International—being built upon similar impulses, if on dissimilar scale.
Clearly, in their initiative to profile local talent, SVFF has had to recognize that short form content is the best means to achieve a more comprehensive glimpse into film production in Idaho. An eclectic assortment of short films, student films and music videos have been selected for screening at the festival, including twenty short films, thirteen student films and fifteen music videos, which have been selected based on their focus on story, no matter the medium. These additional films and videos will complement the commendable lineup of thirty-three feature films to be presented throughout the festival weekend.
Of the selected short films, five are world premieres and one is a North American premiere. Idaho is well represented in the film and music video selection as eight of the shorts were filmed in Idaho, and nine of the music videos were made by Idaho filmmakers. One of the short filmmaking outfits that particularly caught my eye is All Fools Productions whose core triumvirate is Christian Lybrook, Tom Hamilton and Chris Brock. Their first short film, Crawlspace (2011), was accepted into the inaugural edition of SVFF and they are returning this year with their second venture, The Seed (2013), which has been partly funded by an IFO production grant.
What follows is a transcript cobbled from several conversations I have had with Christian Lybrook. One thing I need to stress about Christian is that he is adamantly non-auteurist, in the sense that he isn’t trying to grandstand or claim all credit for himself. This is actually quite an attractive quality. Lybrook has made it clear to me that both Crawlspace and The Seed are collaborative ventures with his creative partners; but, it just so happens that he’s the guy out in front because Tom Hamilton is preoccupied with a newborn and Chris Brock—co-writer, co-producer, assistant director and miscellaneous crew—is comfortable taking a step back. So as a caveat, though the following is a conversation with Lybrook, he is speaking on behalf of the team and wants that to be known up-front. Lybrook is the director of marketing and corporate communications at a nonprofit called Healthwise.
Keyframe: Tell me about the genesis of Crawlspace?
Christian Lybrook: We started working on Crawlspace in the spring of 2010. Three of us worked on it: Chris Brock, Tom Hamilton and myself. Through a lack of resources, we tend to do everything ourselves and we were casting about for our next project. Since Chris and I have a background in writing and story and Tom has a background in photography and film, those were the different moving pieces we had to work with.
The story for Crawlspace actually came from my purchasing a new house a couple of years before. I’d been in my new house for about a month and figured I’d explored it all, but one night before I went to bed I was putting something away in my closet and noticed an entrance to the attic I’d not noticed before. I closed the closet door, climbed into bed and began to freak myself out wondering about what was up there; but it was midnight on a Tuesday and I wasn’t about to investigate. But I laid in bed thinking about how there could be anything up there. As you know, the imagination can take you to all kinds of fun places. So I threw that experience out to Chris and Tom and asked, ‘What do you guys think of this?’ We transposed the idea from an attic to a crawlspace, probably because a crawlspace seemed creepier than an attic.
Keyframe: How did you settle upon choosing a genre to house this basic idea? This fear? It’s ended up being something of a ghost story.
Lybrook: Our first instinct is comedy because we’ve all been friends for years and have often sat around drinking beer and joking. Tom especially has a quirky sense of humor. But for Crawlspace we wanted it to be something different than anything we’d done. We wanted to stretch and grow and test ourselves a little bit. Chris gravitates towards darker stories and so we decided to explore that terrain.
Keyframe: And what about your backgrounds? Have you trained in filmmaking?
Lybrook: I have an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I took screenwriting classes, though most of my focus had been on prose, on fiction. During the early years of viral videos on YouTube, Tom sent me a stupid video that had gotten a million kazillion hits and we said to ourselves, ‘We can do this!’ Little did we know that, no, actually it’s really hard.
Keyframe: You can’t make a viral video.
Lybrook: That’s true; but, what I meant was that it was hard enough just to make a video. Our first project was inspired by this conversation we had over email. Anyway, I had a background in creative writing and Tom had a background in photography so we decided to try to make a video. It took us about eight months to make a crappy little short film.
Keyframe: Well, you’ve come quite a ways. For a short film, Crawlspace has good production values. Are you working on new projects?
Lybrook: Yes, we are. It takes us a while to get anything done, partly because we all work full-time jobs, but also because it’s just part of our process. Having a strong story is incredibly important for us. Though people laugh at me, Castaway is one of my favorite stories of all time. I love the fact that you have a guy on an island for two hours, which I find incredibly compelling. From their original idea, Castaway went through a hundred-plus rewrites before they got it to a place where they said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to tell a story now.’We took that to heart, even as we collapsed our normal two-year timeline into something briefer so we could shoot our second short The Seed.
Keyframe: Crawlspace premiered at the inaugural edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival?
Lybrook: That’s right.
Keyframe: Are you hoping to continue on a festival trajectory?
Lybrook: Yeah, but it’s hard. You mentioned its generic elements; but, it doesn’t neatly fit into horror or suspense or a thriller. We just describe it as ‘a creepy little film.’ We’re trying to figure out what would be the right venue for it and we’ve become selective as we’ve gone through the process of submitting. We actually try to talk to folks before we submit so that we have an understanding of what they want and they have an understanding of what we have to offer.
As we worked on Crawlspace, we knew that we wanted it to be a story about something deeper than a ghost. It was important to us that there be an internal conflict in the main character. I’ve been influenced by the films of Guillermo del Toro, especially Devil’s Backbone, which is creepy, yes, but it has heart to it. The same with Pan’s Labyrinth. Those are films we respect and emulate.
Also, we couldn’t have made this film without our two actors: Jim Lile and Kristy Leigh Lussier. We didn’t really have an audition. I’d worked with Jim Lile—who plays James, the protagonist in the film—on another project and I just saw something in his face. I sent him the script and we met for beer and I said, ‘What do you think? ‘ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’So we shot the whole thing, but we had this other character who was originally written as his best friend and—though Jim did a great job—the other person just wasn’t that great. We worked on it for a long time in edit and post, but it just wasn’t working. I came back to Chris and Tom and said, ‘This should be a former love; this shouldn’t be his best buddy. Because that gives us the ability to talk more about where he’s come from. Your ex can say things about you and have more insight into you than anyone else would ever have. That’s when we re-wrote the character and cast about and found Kristy. Her audition was over a beer. She was great. She was awesome. We were tremendously lucky to find both Jim and Kristy for Crawlspace.
Keyframe: The scene with Kristy’s character Beth provides the narrative’s crucial back story, if not most of the dialogue in the film.
Lybrook: True. And it’s been great to work with Kristy and Jim. None of us are getting paid. People come to these small film projects and they bring every ounce of energy, talent and fear that they have. When we were working on Crawlspace, a buddy of our’s built the crawlspace set in Tom’s garage. We worked on it every night for a week. We were supposed to shoot on Saturday morning and Friday night we were still putting that thing together with the help of volunteers.
Our first shot was of Jim at the end of the film. That was the first thing we had to do because we had a child actor that we could use for only one day. Jim just blew us away in that scene. Those were real tears coming down his face. What he brought to the set and the project was so impressive. The word I have in mind is ‘sacrifice’ because he really gave something of himself in that scene. That kind of generosity on the part of an actor is awesome.
Keyframe: You’ve spoken to the value of independently producing films here in Idaho, and it’s been interesting for me to see so much production work being done here in Boise, but I can’t shake the awareness that exhibition is, unfortunately, very weak here. What’s to be done with these films once they’re made?
Lybrook: We’ve been without any local forum of exhibition for a number of years, which has been a problem because many local filmmakers relied on the now-defunct Idaho International Film Festival to show their work. The Sun Valley Film Festival emerged as a huge opportunity and we considered ourselves fortunate to have been included. Don’t get me wrong, we worked our tails off to create Crawlspace; but the opportunity to see it with an appreciative audience showed us how hungry the audience was. They were like, ‘This is awesome. We have our own film festival! Why did it take somebody this long to create a film festival in Sun Valley?’
Dana Sabina Plasse, who was the director of the festival at that time, was accessible. I had been frustrated because we had been submitting Crawlspace to festivals but not getting very far. So I sent her an email and said, ‘Hey, I just want a little more information on what you’re looking for,’ and she was awesome, she said, ‘I’m going to be in Boise next week. Let’s get together and have coffee.’ I was taken a bit aback because she was busy trying to pull together this film festival—they pulled the inaugural edition together in just a couple of months!—but she took the time to talk to me. SVFF did a great job. The audiences were well educated and were, I think, pleasantly surprised by some of the films they saw. What it did for us was that it showed us that we weren’t just three guys throwing something together with a kegger in the back yard anymore. People would come up to us and ask what we were doing and we could tell them, ‘We have a short film in the festival.’ The positive reception pushed us to consider that we weren’t just three guys goofing around in the back yard and that this was actually something we could start to make happen.
Keyframe: Or take more of a portfolio approach and be three guys with a kegger in the back yard and make films. One doesn’t cancel out the other. In fact, that’s the fun part of it.
Lybrook: Great point. In fact, that’s how we did it in the beginning. We’d invite all our friends over, ply them with beer, and show our films. But we wanted to do more than that. So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we get Crawlspace out there? How do we figure out what other people are doing and create a community screening? ‘ Isn’t that the purpose of community? To bring people together to share the same experience.
Keyframe: So you do believe there is a film community here in Boise?
Lybrook: Oh yeah!! But we’re still growing. People are doing awesome stuff. People are learning. We consider ourselves in that group, definitely. But the evolution that I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve lived here has been incredible and I expect it to continue. I think when you create something, you’re so close to it that you go, ‘It’s as good as we can do.’ Right? Another great thing about SVFF is—not only that the experience legitimized us in our own eyes—but gave us credence through the feedback from others. There are so many insecurities involved in a creative endeavor, but I really get off on the collaborative nature of filmmaking. It’s not like sitting at home alone working on a piece of prose fiction.
Keyframe: There appears to be a thematic linkage between Crawlspace and The Seed. Both depict compromised masculinities caught in the grip of the death horizon. These are men unmoored by grief. Can you speak to that?
Lybrook: You’ve nailed it. In my mind at the end of the day both films are about loss and finding the right way to move forward. Each character has to do it a little differently. Their struggle, their conflicts, are slightly different; but, both have reached a place where they deny themselves the ability to reflect on where they are with their experience of death. By the time the audience catches up with them, they’re forced to confront these past events in their lives that—due to their masculinity, or their socialization, or their upbringing, whatever it is—they haven’t been able to do.
In the narrative example of Crawlspace, guilt piles up on you over the years. The character of James in Crawlspace has to do something to deal with it. James makes an active choice to move back home to confront his past. In The Seed, Boyd (David Stevens) is forced to deal with his loss in another way: through the arrival of the seed, which becomes a puzzle for him to figure out. In a way he doesn’t realize that he’s healing through the manner in which this experience is happening for him.
Keyframe: Another linkage I found between the two shorts is their structural reliance on genre. I get the sense through the shorts that you’re practicing up to do some suspenseful thriller that will terrify me down the line. Whereas Crawlspace entered the realm of the ghost story, The Seed unabashedly explores an unsettling alterity, an alternate reality in effect, that abstracts into the metaphorical without ever truly explaining itself. In fact, science and its methodologies clearly offer no explanation. Is All Fools Productions ramping up to create a tense genre feature?
Lybrook: We’re just starting to talk about the next project. One of the reasons we work well together is because there is an unspoken sense that—even though there’s nothing new under the sun—we’re still committed to doing something original. In both Crawlspace and The Seed, we are creating worlds that can be accepted as close to our own and somewhat familiar, so that audiences won’t disconnect and say, ‘Forget it. I’m done.’ As we look towards our next project, there’s an element of the foreign and unnatural—natural for the world these characters move in—but unnatural for us.
Keyframe: The intriguing tension is that you’ve couched your narratives in naturalistic imagery, even as there’s something supernatural informing the narrative. With regard to the character of Boyd in The Seed, it’s my understanding that this go-round, in contrast to Crawlspace, you used Catrine McGregor as your casting director and she found him out of Salt Like City, Utah. Can you speak to your decision to move in that direction? To use a casting director and to secure talent from out of state?
Lybrook: We were talking with Peg Owens in the Idaho Film Office who we had met at SVFF last year. She saw Crawlspace and became a supporter. Unbeknownst to us, she reached out to Catrine McGregor and asked if Catrine would be willing to help us out. She described us as having lots of potential but making it up as we went along and felt that working with a professional casting director would move our filmmaking to the next level. Peg was absolutely right. We were lucky to find actors Jim Lile and Kristy Lussier for Crawlspace—I had worked with Jim on another local project and we found Kristy through Craig’s List—but, with The Seed I wanted to make sure we did a thorough job of casting. Catrine helped us reach out past the people we knew to bring in talent from elsewhere.
Keyframe: The natural habitat for most short films or music videos is online, where they tend to become available. However, you’ve been given an opportunity to have an in-cinema world premiere at a film festival with a live audience. What is the value for you in that experience?
Lybrook: As I mentioned before, I spent probably ten years writing prose fiction. I’d get up in the morning and write for two hours every day before going to work and, as you know, it’s a lonely task. As a writer you’re sitting there in front of your computer with your characters in your head and it’s not a shared experience until you go to a reading or something like that. What attracted me to filmmaking was the collaborative nature of the process. And in a way we extend that collaboration to our audiences. We purposely leave ambiguity in our narratives because we consider it more fun. It’s more fun for me to watch a movie and have to figure things out and create my own interpretation of what I think is going on. What’s really fun is to then screen the film with an audience and open it up for Q&A to hear people’s reactions, and they often come up with ideas or interpretations that are completely within the realm of believability in the universe that we’ve created, even if those ideas or interpretations never occurred to us.
The only problem with being purposely ambiguous in a narrative is that you have to ask yourself if you’re putting enough in to keep the audience invested. There’s a line you have to maintain and not cross that will push people away, saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on so forget it.’But if we’ve done it right, that’s when it’s fun to engage with audiences to find out what they think.
My conversation with Jim Lile and Kristy Lussier, the actors of Crawlspace, can be found on The Evening Class, as is my conversation with SVFF Executive Director Ted Grennan. Please keep posted to dispatches at both Fandor and The Evening Class for continuing coverage of the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival.