Smiling - IFP Phoenix 2013 Mystery Box Challenge Film

It's been a busy last couple of months. In October, I participated in a second consecutive IFP Phoenix Filmmaker Challenge. The challenge was to make a short film, five minutes or less, using a prop and line of dialogue created by other local filmmaker teams and chosen at random at the event's kickoff. Teams were given a month or so to complete this challenge, and a screening and awards were presented to qualifying teams on Thursday, November 14 of 2013. There, Studio Gaijin debuted our latest short, Smiling, at the Harkins Scottsdale 101 Theater, a truly great venue to showcase our black comedy/horror short about George, a troubled young clown who recounts his troubles with his sister to his psychiatrist.

From the beginning, Studio Gaijin, the team of director Shawn Esplin - who I worked with for Escape from Zany's Baking Company, was having troubles getting a workable script for the challenge. The original script Shawn wrote about a killer clown was simply too long for the contest, which we originally thought was going to allow longer submissions. Subsequent ideas and drafts were lacking in various ways. I wrote Smiling Thursday night, with filming was set to begin on Saturday, October 12th. It was a scramble not only to come up with a script, but also actors for the short. In fact, it was not until just four short hours before filming was expected to begin on Saturday that we found the lead actor for the short - Andres Galindo. I'm truly thankful that he was able to make the drive from way out in the East Valley onto set for two days and suffer in clown makeup and costume for the majority of the shoot.

 The poster for Smiling was one of the top contenders for the best poster award, but, ultimately, lost out. I'm really happy with how it turned out, however.

The poster for Smiling was one of the top contenders for the best poster award, but, ultimately, lost out. I'm really happy with how it turned out, however.

Despite some troubles and delays (most notably with sound during early scenes), shooting (which I was the cinematographer for) went over mostly well. I think our team can definitely improve upon our time management skills, but I've never been on a set that didn't take longer than expected on occasion. Unfortunately, Smiling was not terribly well receivedThe judging at IFP Phoenix challenges tends to favor safer submissions that don't cross genres too much, and, admittedly, my latest film was an obtuse combination of black comedy, horror, and drama featuring a clown who (SPOILERS) kills his sister. The result was nervous laughter - an act I was hoping for, but, overall, the audience seemed a bit too perplexed by the subject manner. I think the story could definitely have been improved with a bit more explanation and length, and others criticized the clown's acting for being a bit too over-the-top. In reflection, I would have toned down George the Clown's psychotic nature a bit, but I appreciated Andres's in-character acting style while shooting. Sometimes, you take your chances and lose, and I consider this a learning experience in terms of writing and helping direct an actor in a strange role. Of course, having more time for pre-production might have helped hammer everything out a bit more with Shawn, but it was a luxury we didn't have.

Still, I'm proud of how Smiling turned out, even if reviews were critical. While Escape from Zany's Baking Company was received with a fair amount of applause, I feel that technical elements were improved in our latest effort. Set design and costume were great, once again thanks to Amanda and Aaron (thanks for letting us use your house as a location too!). In addition, I like being a bit different than the rest of the pack, something our team has tried to focus on. Is it time to make a short that's more conventional in genre and writing style? Maybe.

I'm sure January will be another eventful month, as the IFP Phoenix Breakout Challenge is going on. Hopefully, IFP Phoenix will improve upon some shortcomings with their events - for instance, posters were not on display for the screening, and shorts were shown out of order from the booklet, which was also not particularly informative. I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, and I appreciate all the effort that must go into hosting these challenges, but, for the cost of admission, they feel kind of half-assed. Things may change with a new Filmmaker Challenges director, as the previous director had stepped down prior to the screening. Studio Gaijin should be participating in the Breakout Challenge, but I have no idea whether I will be writing this one. I'd also like to write and direct a longer piece in the interim after this upcoming challenge and the next one, so stay tuned. Let me know what you think about Smiling in the comments below!