Lighthouse International Film Festival Celebrates the World of Short Films

By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 11, 2015
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Short films have long gotten short shrift. Movie making started with shorts – with the French leading the way in Europe in the 1890s while Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes were the rage in the United States. We’re talking very short films, lasting a few minutes at most.

Movies gradually grew longer during the next couple of decades, finally reaching feature length. There was, however, still a place for shorts in theaters. Once upon a time people got their money’s worth when they went to a movie theater and laid down their dimes and, eventually, their quarters or dollars. Besides a double feature, they’d be treated to some shorts, sometimes live-action (think “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges”), often animated (think Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny), and a newsreel and/or travelogue.

Then Hollywood got greedy. Double features, like scheduled doubleheaders in baseball, were shelved. The disappearance of newsreels makes sense because television news had supplanted them, but why were shorts, even cartoons, consigned to the dustbin? Economics – theater owners want to offer as many screenings of a blockbuster hit each day and night as possible, so they had no time for shorts. Get rid of the shorts and you can squeeze in another show time.

So shorts disappeared from popular culture. The only places they would be screened were art theaters in big cities and large college towns and, of course, film festivals.

How far off popular radar did shorts drift? Quick, name some of this year’s Academy Award-nominated features. Easy – “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and the eventual winner, “Birdman.” Now, name the nominated shorts …

Yeah, thought so. (“Feast,” by the way, won in the Short Film, Animated category while “The Phone Call” took home the honors in the Short Film, Live Action department and “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” was the winner in the Documentary Short Subject competition. Didn’t see any of them in Manahawkin, did you?)

This past weekend’s Lighthouse International Film Festival on Long Beach Island showed that theatergoers are missing something special. Some 36 shorts were screened in seven blocks at the Long Beach Island Historical Museum in Beach Haven while an additional seven were shown before features at the festival’s other venues, the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences and the Island Baptist Church, which, interestingly, once was a movie theater.

It quickly became apparent that the variety of the shorts is incredible. And, after talking with filmmakers, the possibility was raised that a new Golden Age of shorts may be on the horizon. Indeed, it may have already arrived!

From Tennessee Williams
To Stag Films

First, let’s explore variety. It turns out that the inspiration for a short film can come from almost anywhere.

Just as filmmakers often cut their baby teeth on short projects before expanding into the realm of features, playwrights once wrote one-acts before tackling full, three-act plays (yep, three acts, not two – audiences of all sorts got more bangs for their bucks in the early and mid-20th century than they do today).

“The Palooka,” directed by Perry Martin, is a 15-minute short based on a 1937 one-act of the same name by Tennessee Williams.  It is one of his 70 or so “lost plays,” mostly one-acts, that were never produced in his lifetime. Martin’s “Palooka,” like the play, features an old, washed-up boxer who tries to relax a newcomer to the sport, “The Kid,” before he enters the ring for the first time. Little does The Kid know he’s talking to his childhood hero, Galveston Joe, who was once a contender. (Joe is now fighting under another name.)

 Zack Kron, who played The Kid, was in attendance. Kron said he was immediately attracted to the project considering he had grown up in New Orleans and therefore was a huge Williams fan. He also told the audience that one of the largest problems its director had making the movie was securing the rights for the play.

“They’re very protective,” said Kron. “The rights for the play are owned by the University of the South. We had to negotiate. Being low budget, it was tough, but we knew some people who had gone to the University of the South.”

Obtaining rights was also a chore for New Jersey director Andrew Keogh Ruotolo when he was making “The Rat Slayer of Hillside, NJ.”

The 27-minute documentary tells the story of Frank Balun and Lee Bernstein, a 1994 legal case that went viral long before that phrase had been invented. Balun, a World War II veteran living in Hillside, loved growing tomatoes. When rats started gnawing at them, he set a trap. One was caught, and Balun called the Associated Humane Societies to remove the critter. When the rat seemed to be escaping, its head already out of the bars, he beat it to death with a broomstick. Bernstein, the head of AHS, pressed charges accusing Balun of animal cruelty. The story spread across the world.

Balun was eventually acquitted, and New Jersey passed legislation allowing the killing of vermin. Bernstein, meanwhile, was lambasted in the media and even awoke one morning to find the corpse of a baby muskrat nailed to a cross in his yard.

Balun and Bernstein (the latter, by the way, gave us the Popcorn Park Zoo in Lacey Township) have both passed away. But Ruotolo was able to interview Bernstein’s widow and other people familiar with the case, such as Vincent and Linda Voltaggio. Still, he needed to include TV news clips in his documentary. That costs money, so he went to Kickstarter and raised over $5,000 for his project.

What interested Ruotolo in the story in the first place? His father was the Union County prosecutor at the time and had recommended, to no avail, that the charges be dropped.

Many films have a personal connection. Chris Ordal directed “Grace,” a story about addiction and recovery, but Marisa Vitali created, helped produce and starred in the 15-minute narrative feature. Vitali had once been an active heroin addict who went through recovery.

Then there’s “Stag,” directed by Kevin Newbury. In 1963, a 15-year-old tomboy, Francesca, wants to know what is going on when her father’s friends gather at night in her basement. She eventually sneaks down and discovers they’re not playing cards as she was told, but watching stag films.

“Stag” was written by Donna DiNovelli, who told the audience after the film’s screening that she had been inspired to write the screenplay after her father had given her his collection of stag films. Clips of some of them were used in the movie (no worry about obtaining rights there considering they were illegal when they were made and nobody wanted his or her name associated with them).

“Ella At The Library” is a short short, just 8 minutes long. It stars Sam Garland as Ella, a grad student who desperately needs to check out a book in a library’s reserve section so she can prepare for her dissertation’s oral defense the next day. The stodgy librarian, played by Natalie Carter, is not amused; after all, rules are rules. Ella finally resorts to a bribe, trying to give her foe a $100 gift card for books. That doesn’t work, even though you’d think a librarian would like books. A gift card for a sex emporium, however, seals the deal! The joke was almost missed because, as Garland explained, the crew was unable to get a good shot of the gift card during the action. They got around that problem by including a close-up of the card in the film’s credits.

Garland also produced the film and wrote the script. What inspired her?

“I was a nerd in school,” the actress said. “I was always in the library. Part of my story is to poke fun at myself.”

The variety of shorts was truly incredible.

 “Runaway Overture,” directed by Adam Grannick, tells the stories of two artists – one young and desperate to get to New York City, the other aging and finally deciding to give up his career to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter. It has no dialogue at all, but rather is played out to the strains of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture.

“Social Innovators of South Africa,” directed by Lebogang Rasethaba and Rowan Pybus, is an energetic and enthusiastic documentary about a dance troupe called the Indigenous Dance Academy in the outskirts of Johannesburg. 

“Blunderbus” is a pre-road trip comedy directed by Ash Lewis. Two longtime friends, Dylan and Paul, played hilariously by Anthony Guerino and Max Lodge, have planned a cross-country road trip for years. But Dylan has blown their savings, straining their friendship (Paul having sex with Dylan’s sister doesn’t help, either). Dylan’s solution? Steal an ice cream truck and make the trip in that.

We could go on and on talking about wonderful but oh so different films. One thing they all have in common, however, is that they all required months, if not years, to make from conception to completion despite their short lengths. All of the filmmakers also had to scramble to raise money and overcome many obstacles.

Years and Years

Down to 12-Hour Limit

It took two years for Ruotolo to release “The Rat Slayer of Hillside, NJ.”

“It was filmed in about 12 days,” said Ruotolo, “but it took hours and hours of editing.”

Plus, as mentioned earlier, he had to get the rights to include old news clips.

“I wrote the story 4½ years ago,” said Vitali of “Grace.” But it cost her about $30,000 to translate that story to the screen. It took her a long time to raise that sort of cash.

“I was working, saving every penny,” said Vitali. “I finally went to (the crowdfunding website) Indigogo because Kickstarter is all or nothing.” (You have to reach your goal to receive any funds.)

Garland had to raise only about $3,000 to make “Ella At The Library.” “That was basically for permits and insurance,” she explained.

Her holdup was finding a library in which she could film her movie.

“I called every library in New York City,” Garland said.

Finally, Marymount Manhattan College agreed to let her film at its library. But she was limited to one night, 12 hours, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Whew!

“Stag” is a period film. Finding the right props and costumes posed its own set of problems.

“We did judicious shopping,” said director Newbury. “We just found all of those great relics from the ‘60s.”

It is clear that making a movie, even something as short as “Ella At The Library,” is a time-consuming and laborious process. So why do filmmakers do it, especially since screenings at film festivals promise to be the only reward? Even success at that level isn’t guaranteed, especially if the name of your film includes the words Rat Slayer and may be of interest only to New Jersey residents.

“We’re getting rejected by many of the film festivals,” said Ruotolo. “We really need some word of mouth.”

Well, there’s the pure love of art. Why do people spend months rehearsing for a community theater production that may be seen by only a few hundred people, or stay up late at night writing a novel that may never be published?

Then there’s the hope of a breakthrough, that your shorts body of work may impress supporters enough for them to cough up money for a feature.

Steve Monarque, the director of “Simpler Times,” thinks he may have hit pay dirt with his 33-minute comedy.

It tells the story of an elderly man who has had to move in with a child and spouse. All he wants on his first morning of their home is a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The high-tech coffeemaker scares the hell out of him, and he can’t find a newspaper when he secretly drives into town. He’s not about to read his news on a tablet, loving the feel and smell of print.

As the film moves on, the man finally attempts to tackle the mysteries of technology, even purchasing a Bluetooth. But he is so overwhelmed when trying to figure out how to use it that he has a heart attack and collapses on a table.

“Simpler Times” is a funny, and very human, flick. But what puts it over the top is the performance of its star, Jerry Stiller, who, along with the late Walter Matthau, may be one of the finest portrayers of grumpy old men in history. And a special guest performance by Stiller’s wife and comedy partner, Anne Meara, didn’t hurt, either, especially since it would be the last time the couple performed together.

“In the original script,” explained Monarque, “it ended with him dead on the table. But one day I was at Jerry’s house, and Anne walked in and said, ‘Where’s my part!”

So he added a final scene, with Meara visiting Stiller’s character in the hospital and putting a smile on his face by reading to him from a newspaper.

Of course Monarque added the scene.

“They’re one of the greatest comedy couples in history, along with Burns and Allen and Lucy and Ricky.”

Monarque realized that he had hit the jackpot. Yes, his film told a funny story, but if he had filmed it with unknowns it never would have attracted the attention it has.

“A stroke of luck could happen to anybody at any time,” he concluded. So he’s ready to advance to feature-length films and is working on one already.

“Get the names and the money comes,” he said.

Change May Be
On The Horizon

Building a solid foundation with shorts and then moving on to features is a long tradition in the world of independent films. The three panelists at Sunday morning’s Breakfast With The Filmmakers event at Joe Pop’s Shore Bar in Ship Bottom all had gone that route.

Director Onur Tukel had two features screened during the weekend, “Abby Singer, Songwriter” and the festival’s closing film, “Applesauce.” But he started with shorts.

“I made four or five shorts,” Tukel said, adding, and perhaps showing his age, “on Super 8.”

“I started with shorts, on 16mm,” said Dena Seidel, who directed the full-length documentary “Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South,” which was screened on Saturday. “I did a lot of artsy narratives,” she said, laughing.

“I did a lot of shorts,” said Tim K. Smith, the director of the full-length documentary “Sex and Broadcasting,” which explored the world of independent radio and New Jersey’s legendary WFMU. “But I would strongly recommend people stay with shorts for a very, very short time. You will go through an enormous amount of pain either way, but features are easier to sell. Get out there and make feature films.”

The times may be changing, though. Seidel is not only a filmmaker, but also director of the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking. Her students, she said, have a totally different outlook toward features.

“Young people don’t want to do feature films,” she said. “Twenty minutes is long for them.”

She added that they just don’t have the attention span to watch a feature, to say nothing about making one.

Tukel disagreed, saying action and superhero movies can still attract youngsters. The problem, he said, is how do you make movies like that on a very low budget.

Seidel, however, stood her ground.

“Most young people are watching things on a cell phone, they’re watching it on a bus, they’re watching most of their videos on the Internet.”

Youth culture, she said, is going to create huge changes in the film industry. You can’t shoot a movie that will be seen on a phone the same way you film a movie that will be seen on a large screen. And young filmmakers are more desirous of getting a lot of play on the Internet, where a short film might possibly be seen by millions, as compared to entering festivals, where a short film may be seen by dozens.

The new big thing among her students, Seidel said, is creating a web series, which she said is really “a series of shorts.”

Sure enough, when many of the shorts filmmakers at the LIFF were asked what their next project would be, they said, “a web series.” Meanwhile there are thousands of shorts available on the World Wide Web with more being added every day.

Maybe, just maybe, shorts will once again have their day in the sun.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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