On Friday, November 9th, I had the pleasure of hosting the Charm City Fringe Festival experimental short film program involving ten filmmakers. These filmmakers had two months to create a short film to support a 9-minute score composed by Rick Szybowski.
Rick is an experienced composer in the indie film world, having composed the scores for a number of feature and short films, both docs and narrative. For our program, Rick scored a movie that didn’t exist beyond his imagination. The tone was melancholic, and the structure was subtle but evident. When he returns to the opening theme at the end, there is a real sense of evolution and resolve. The moments of silence were perfectly placed. Listening to the score, you felt like the movie was already there, you just needed to peek inside Rick’s skull to see it.
The rules: 1.) filmmakers could not alter the score. 2.) All the films needed to clock in at the nine minutes and three seconds composed by Rick. 3.) The music cues in all the movies had to start and end at the same time. Diegetic music and audio sweeps were allowed, as long as it did not alter the score. 4.) You could turn in a rough cut, but you only had two months to write, cast, prep, shoot, and edit.
Two months later - the day of the screening - Fourteen filmmakers became ten, and twelve movies became eight.
Ultimately the night was 8 short films with the same score, and completely different visual interpretations of that same score. Again, with how palpable Rick’s score was, I found the various interpretations that much more impressive.
This experiment was twofold, in that on one hand it would be a challenge for the filmmakers to contrive a story to match the tone and dramatic structure of the song, but, on the other hand, there were the possible effects on the audience - who, by the second or third movie, could start to anticipate the dramatic cues, and may have already developed a visual association to the music.
Personally, and perhaps slightly diabolically, I was interested in how the films affected the filmmakers during the screening. As the filmmakers had spent so much time with the score in the context of their own films, and through this process building emotional associations, they then had to sit and watch other filmmakers’ images over music that they had already personalized. On top of this, the order their movie screened would affect the audience’s experience of the movie.
The filmmakers who accepted and executed this challenge include Ryan McGlade, Dina Fiasconaro, Tommy Vita, Eric Cotten, Andrew Nguyen, Maxwell Towson, Daniel Supanick, Sumaiya Ananna, Nicole Powell, and Jonathan J. Ryan.
Filmmakers Eric Cotten, Andrew Nguyen, Daniel Supanick, and the team led by Sumaiya Ananna (including director Nicole Powell and co-writer/actor Jonathan J. Ryan) executed their movies in a classical Hollywood style in regards to continuity and narrative, each with a distinctive voice. The other filmmakers (Dina Fiasconaro, Tommy Vita, Maxwell Towson, and Ryan McGlade) chose a more abstract point of entry into the score. Even within the more traditional executions, however, there were a myriad of interpretations.
While Eric Cotten tells the story in “BASTA!” of a woman (well played by Leesa Ashley) who has emotionally isolated herself, and the damage that does to her family, Daniel Supanick’s “Good-Bye” focuses on a man (played by Jay Ruiz) who falls for a modern day “War of the Worlds” scenario on the internet news (seemingly a dramatic spoof on “fake news,”) where he frees his cat and empties his apartment in preparation for a nuclear war.
Eric’s movie is very frenetic and emotional with a large talented cast, while Daniel Supanick’s approach was quiet, spying on an isolated character. They were similar in two regards, however. 1.) how they hung their stories on the structure of the music, and 2.) they both opted for challenges in casting, where one cast a baby, and the other a cat.
Turning to another film shot in a classical style, we enter Andrew Ngyen’s beautifully shot Pillow Talk through an embracing and happy couple (played by Devin Brooks and Wenston Black.) Often when a couple starts off this happy in a story, something in the gut tells us things are going to go terribly wrong, and in Pillow Talk, it is not long before things take a turn for the worse.
But - it is not as straight forward as that. What begins as a relationship drama quickly evolves into something closer to “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
This short film balances between dramatically comedic and unsettling. Its ability to maintain this balancing act is in a large part to the quality acting. The script purposely pushes the boundaries of what is believable, but Wenston Black and Devin Brooks have done the work to make sure we go along for the ride.
Sumaiya’s team (produced by Sumaiya Ananna, co-written by Sumaiya and Jonathan J. Ryan, and directed by Nicole Powell) the final of the four turning to a more classically structured film, played against the dramatic score with Inconvenient Encounter. This team made a comedy exploring short tempers and the insanity that ensues in late night convenient stores (with adjustments made for location availability.)
This film has a number of great compositions (mirrors, split aisles, and internal framing through merchandise,) I am sure with the help of cinematographer, Maddie Becker.
Although there was a number of great comedic moments in Inconvenient Encounter, there is a very memorable scene with a customer looking to buy a diaper, all the more funny as we have all been behind this customer at one point in time.
On the flip side, our other four filmmakers decided on an experimental approach to structure and entry point into their films.
In Dina Fiasconaro’s There There, the movie starts with the quote, “Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and have gone to rest in the forest,” attributed to the Clarinetist, Station Eleven. This quote preps us for - and loads - the first shot, which is a shot, almost void of color, of a man walking through the snow toward a small light in the darkness (man played by Lucas Cullen.) This image plays under Rick’s melancholic music.
A jovial bouncing children’s song, “Peter, Please It’s Pancakes,” fades in over Rick’s original score, skipping with record player fuzz. We are eased into a new sequence with the image of an impaled dead leaf, but this new sequence is clearly contrasting the last, as it registers vibrant colors. The leaf quickly turns to chololate bunnies on a fallen log, and finally an enthralled young girl in a purple dress.
Throughout the movie, Dina fills the voids in the soundtrack with this song, which lives in sharp contrast to Rick’s score, and is the reprieve the man is seemingly heading toward. The movie continues to play with the juxtaposition of the the songs, colors, performances, and images between the weary traveller and a jubilant young girl, played by Sailor Fay Cuddington. The movie does a great job of using these juxtapositions, not only to heighten what is on screen, but the images we are not seeing, and to create anticipation of the resolve yet to come.
What is notably different between Dina’s There There and the other movies mentioned above, is her complete reliance on images to create tension and anticipation versus script.
Unlike Dina’s heightened use of images, Maxwell Towson took his film, I Sit Alone, starring Harold Young, in the opposite direction, choosing to use the wide angle close up, first person account, from the cultural phenomenon of Vlogging - all talking. Maxwell uses this first person account to effectively paint a picture of a man dealing with depression. Here there is the hybrid of script and improv to allow the actor the flexibility to fall into the role he is playing, so he comes across more naturally as the Vloggers we are accustomed to - but with a character arc within the pastiche.
In Tommy Vita’s Beneath the Vibrant Crust, he blends Documentary/Mocumentary, Narrative, and Vlogging, while successfully adhering to the wants of the score. There are times where the camera seems almost invisible, as it spies on the agoraphobic solo character (Doug Stone, played by Tommy Vita.) But there are also techniques, i.e. matching action, controlled pacing, smooth camera moves, axial cuts, borrowed from narrative filmmaking to heighten and draw attention to moments. And finally, there are moments when Doug Stone turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall.
The documentary style, in conjunction with the acting, makes Doug feel like a real character. The narrative style successfully builds tension without ever feeling like Doug is shooting a movie about himself. And the exposition in the Vlogging is never obvious, as it is layered with dark humor as Doug brags about how he disguises his agoraphobia (essentially from himself) by creating a fake trail on social media.
Tommy’s movie is successfully comedic without undermining its dark direction and arc. Doug is very self aware, but that doesn’t stop him from acting out on his anxiety driven compulsions. We are dared to laugh at Doug’s behaviors, initially somewhat innocent, but we struggle to find the line as Tommy continues to push his character over the edge.
Jumping from Tommy’s film to the next flick, also centered on an anxiety ridden character, we have Ryan McGlades film, On Showbiz. Here we have a character, played by Jeremy Levick, who wants to be a comedian, but suffers from some form of a social anxiety disorder. He spends his time isolated in a neighborhood of abandoned buildings and lake sized puddles. His friend, played by Murray Hill - an established NYC comedian and performer, feels obligated to socialize him like one might a stray dog.
In Ryan’s movie, the arc lies not in a heavy plot but in the delicate thread of the characters’ psychological processes, and Murray’s failed attempts to understand Jeremy’s unique and resistant character. Murray’s attempts to pull him out of his world drive him into deeper states of anxiety.
Ryan McGlade listened to Rick’s score and constructed an emotional arc for the characters, further built around locations that he wanted to shoot. From this, Ryan created scenarios for the characters to improv, and found the necessary emotional moments needed for the scene. Through this improvisational precision, Ryan was able to successfully thread the arc . Also impressive to create characters who are dissimilar to most of us, yet make them believable and sympathetic.
As the behind the scenes spectator, it was fascinating seeing the production stills come in, and later short clips, getting the small glimpses of the interpretations leading up to the full movies. I was very impressed and grateful when the movies came in. Two months is not a lot of time to write a script, never mind casting, storyboards/shot lists, location scouts, costumes, rehearsals, and the rest of preproduction, shooting, and the editing and the rest of post production.
Understanding the challenge, I knew there would be a few filmmakers who would not be able to complete the task at hand. It was tricky finalizing a filmmaker number - careful not to have too many filmmakers in case everyone succeeded, but not picking the ideal number, knowing that it was probable that some would not meet the deadline.
If Michael Brush and Zach Michel (co-directors of the Charm City Fringe Festival) are up for it next year, we may try it with a few extra months of lead in time. As impressed as I was with this year’s lineup, I would love to see what the filmmakers could do with a little more time.
Stay tuned for next year’s short film program.
A recent Saul Zaentz fellow for her project Days in the Wake, and finalist for the 2018 Baker Artist Award, Dina Fiasconaro is a Baltimore screenwriter and film director. Her feature documentary, Moms and Meds: Navigating Pregnancy and Psychiatric Medication, is available on Amazon, and her short film, Commercial for the Queen of Meatloaf, was also funded by the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University and has screened at over 20 film festivals.
Dina recently completed a feature adaptation of Terence Hannum’s novella Beneath the Remains, and an original feature narrative script, Days in the Wake, as a resident at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in California and Stowe Story Labs fellow in Vermont.
Her short films have screened at a variety of venues and film festivals, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, and she is a recipient of the ‘Generation Next’ screenwriting grant for her feature script, Beyond the Pale.
Dina has an MFA in film directing from Columbia University, and a BS in TV, Radio and Film from Syracuse University. She is an Associate Professor of Film and Moving Image at Stevenson University, and is a member of Film Fatales, a national organization working towards gender parity in the film industry.
Watch the trailer for Dina’s previous short, Commercial for the Queen of Meatloaf.
Ryan is a Brooklyn based filmmaker, graduate of NYU, and the 2017 recipient of NYU's Arkush Family Production Award. One of Ryan’s recent films, the disturbingly pleasurable Human Resources, has played a number of notable festivals and was one of the shorts featured on Film Shortage. Check it out if you haven't! It was after coming across Human Resources on Film Shortage that I decided to pitch the Fringe Festival idea to Ryan.
On Bennifer, Ryan’s short film that is on the circuit now, Ryan was able to recruit Keith Poulson (from Zach Clark’s Little Sister,) Kristin Griffith (from Woody Allen’s Interiors,) and Keith McDermott (who played across from Richard Burton on Broadway in Equus.) Ryan has a short trailer for Bennifer for all those interested in taking a look.
Eric R Cotten, founder of the Baltimore Filmmakers Collective, became associated with the HBO show – THE WIRE (2002-2008) through his real estate business. The time spent with the HBO production team reignited his long dormant creative side. He began volunteering with local film productions and with the Maryland Film Festival. Since 2005 to the present his role at the Maryland Film festival has evolved from general volunteer to Development Assistant to key member of the screening committee.
He has screened for a variety of other festivals – Baltimore Woman in Film, Annapolis Film Festival (2014) and the Tampa Bay Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (2015/16). Additionally he coordinated the second year of the Baltimore International Black Film Festival (2015).
In his brief film career he has written, directed, produced an/or executive produced twelve shorts with one Sundance credit (AFRONAUT- 2014). His latest short The Love Within (2016) has been accepted into several festivals across the country. He is currently developing a web series and several shorts, and recently shot BASTA, screening tomorrow, November 9th. Check out the details above.
Tommy is an Actor turned filmmaker from New Orleans, Louisiana. Now living in Los Angeles, Tommy works as a Producer/Director of Photography on multiple documentary series.
He and his wife, Jennifer Ducker, run their own productions company and are always developing new ideas. They are currently producing a documentary titled, "After Orange." The documentary follows Jeffery Padilla, a convicted murderer and former Gang Leader/Drug lord from Albuquerque, NM, who has recently been released from prison.
Prior to moving behind the camera, Tommy was the lead in a number of independent feature films, always pushing the limits as an actor. Let’s hope he gets the bug to move back in front of the lens.
Sumaiya is a filmmaker who has finished her undergraduate studies at Towson University in Towson Maryland.
She has worked on a number of film sets, including House of Cards, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Voice.
Her first short film, Changement,which she wrote, directed, and produced, has screened at multiple festivals.
Sumaiya has interned at the Maryland Film Festival and Sesame Workshop, and is currently working with the Producers Guild of America in New York.
She is also currently finishing her Master’s in Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Nicole Powell is a filmmaker, photographer and educator currently working for Baltimore County Public Schools.
Her most recent work, "The American" opened the Born in Baltimore Film Festival in 2018.
She has worked as a cinematographer on programs for TBN, and is currently completing her Masters in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University.
Nicole co-created Inconvenient Encounter for this festival with Sumaiya Ananna and Jonathan J. Ryan. Nicole acted as director.
Jonathan J. Ryan
Jonathan J. Ryan is a filmmaker and performer currently working for National Geographic in Washington D.C. He's worked on a wide range of shows for different channels including Discovery and Animal Planet.
He's performed in local DC theatrical productions and performs improv shows regularly at various haunts in the city.
Currently, Jonathan is completing his Masters in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University. He co-created Inconvenient Encounter for this festival with Sumaiya Ananna and Nikki Nicole Powell.
Maxwell Towson, a Maryland Filmmaker, received his undergraduate degree at University of Maryland College Park and his MFA in screenwriting at AFI, then toured the festival circuit with his feature film Lowlife (2017.)
He won first place in the 2018 Baltimore Screenwriters Competition with his script The Good Die Over Mostly Bullshit.
I got to see his short film "The Prologue" in the “Made in Baltimore Film Festival,” which I loved, and it was actually because of that movie that I reached out to him in hopes that he would participate in the Charm City Fringe Festival short film program.
Watch an interview with Maxwell, to learn more about his path to filmmaking.
Andrew Nguyen is a writer and independent producer who is willing to experiment in all different styles and genres. Andrew is inspired by family, food, and martial arts.
Daniel Supanick is from Calvert County, MD, and currently resides in Baltimore.
He has been shooting and editing his own short films for almost 15 years, and his films have appeared in film festivals and showcases in Virginia, Washington D.C., and Baltimore.
Rick Szybowski is a film composer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Philadelphia, PA. He holds a degree in Music Theory and Piano from Temple University and a Music Education degree from West Chester University.
From the time Rick picked up the guitar at the age of 11, he began writing and recording original songs. He continued writing and playing guitar in bands throughout high school. During this time, he also studied clarinet, saxophone, percussion and was immersed in the world of music theory, orchestration, composition, sampling, sequencing and music synthesis. At Temple University, where he studied music theory, and classical piano, Rick started composing music for student films. It was then that his journey as a film composer began.
Rick's eclectic background and wide ranging influences enable him to compose in a variety of genres and styles. With an expansive sonic palette, and a deep passion for films, he endeavors to enhance the vision of the filmmaker and together tell the most powerful and memorable stories.