HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (3/8/13)—Story-telling, in all its forms, is a decidedly human trait; it’s one of several centuries-old attributes that separate us from the common housefly.
But what inspires us to keep telling and listening to these fictional anecdotes?
Ultimately, we are always consciously, or even unconsciously, seeking an escape from the tedium and drudgeries of the daily “norm,” and a well-written piece of fiction, a well-told story, or an intriguing film or play can sweep us off into a vivid world of tragedy, comedy, terror, or enchantment that can be just as “real” as any eight-hour day drinking coffee behind a dusty desk. Moreover, we are captivated by characters that face the same sorrows, joys, hurdles, and insecurities that we encounter in our day-to-day lives. That being said, it’s no wonder that the vicarious relationship we develop with a believably well-rounded, but fictitious character, is oftentimes just as romantic, freeing, powerful, and therapeutic as the fictitious setting. We, as readers and audience members, can relate to the characters’ internal and external conflicts from a relatively safe distance, and we inevitably learn about ourselves in the process.
Yet, it’s the creators of these characters and imagined worlds that hold the real power at the end of the day. Be it a writer, director, actor or actress, venerable family story-teller, videographer, or painter, it’s the architects of these make-believe characters and universes that reach into our subconscious and find the undeniably universal human truths—or simply give us entertainment.
For Madisonville native and Western Kentucky University student, Jacob Short, 24, the ability to craft a perceptive, well-told story has been fostered over more than a decade. From his time as a youth re-writing and tweaking the oftentimes fantastic stories found in video games, to his current life as a flourishing literature major and film studies minor at WKU, Jacob’s love for writing pieces that affect his audiences in a deeper, yet off-handedly comic and otherworldly sense has garnered attention from talented, like-minded peers, and has even resulted in some notable accomplishments.
Among these successes, stands one of Jacob’s earlier collegiate-level works, Estriatus. Though originally conceptualized as a novel, Jake’s uniquely-inspired tale of one character’s world-changing bout with heartache gained the attention of director/producer Nate Spicer, and—after being transposed to the medium of a striking short-film—went on to win WKU’s 2011 Film Festival.
Today, that same passion for writing intriguing and original stories has led Jacob, as well as locally-based director Chris Young, a slew of actors, and many other helping hands, to the creation of a new, genre-hopping film, Alone Down There, which is due for release this summer.
As filming for the ADT project wrapped up several weeks ago, I contacted the fervent writer/producer (who I should also note is my cousin) to find out more about the film, his writing process, his inspirations, what he hopes to accomplish with writing and filming in the future, and much more.
Luke Short: What got you interested in writing and filmmaking?
Jacob Short: I've always had an affinity for storytelling and writing. When I was incredibly young, I would play video games like Mega Man on the Nintendo, and would periodically write terrible little stories about him and draw pictures to go along with it. I think that's probably where a good deal of it started. I was drawn into these little worlds as a child and began to make little mental tweaks to them. It just developed over time, and eventually I found myself critiquing certain video games and films, thinking of ways the story could have been better. As for film, it may be cliché, but I watched Fight Club when I was a freshman in high school and remember being blown away by it. The feeling was euphoric and all I could think of was how badly I wished I could create something that would make someone feel the same way.
LS: What was one of your first projects?
JS: I had done tons of these absurd short videos with friends before I ever really tackled anything with gravity. I remember one night, I saw the remake of [Rupert Wainwright and Tom Welling’s] The Fog with some friends and we all agreed it was atrocious. When we got back from the theater, we made a satirical piece about how the scriptwriter, producer, and director all got together and got the project rolling. We then filmed some kind of aftermath in which all three were in some massive state of depression over the poor reception it got. It's hard to remember all the details on that. My first real film project was Estriatus, which I guess I'll talk about later.
LS: When you write out dialogue, what’s your process? Do you try to imagine actual characters talking and interacting?
JS: I like to focus heavily on both character creation and dialogue. When I'm writing a scene, I do my best to envision the entire setting and how those characters would behave and speak relative to that scenario. Once I finish a script or story, I'll go back and re-read everything to make sure that I haven't created anything stale or out of character.
LS: What’s your take on writing a script versus seeing it come together? Is that process ever frustrating?
JS: I've been fortunate enough to not be too frustrated with the conversion of my writing into a film format. Working on smaller sets where I have the opportunity to be there in person and help the process move along generally means that I get to give my input on how certain shots should look or how the scene is pulled together. There are occasions where certain ideas I have can’t be done or have to be cut out simply due to time constraints or slight creative difference, but it’s never been drastic or something that would hurt the overall quality of the production. There are always those moments when you’re on a set and anxiety seeps in, and you start to worry about whether or not the image in your head will sync up with what ends up on screen, but you learn to let it go and trust the director and crew.
LS: You’re short film, Estriatus, was the winner of Western Kentucky University’s 2011 Film Festival. Tell me a little bit about that film and how you got involved with the festival.
JS: So, Estriatus is an interesting one. Just about everything involved in its creation has a bit of humor to it. It came to me one day while I was in class. Basically, I had a philosophy and psychology class back-to-back, which is a terrible thing to do when you have problems paying attention. I had been thinking about how most disaster-type films are always world-shattering as opposed to psychological; that's where it started. The name “estriatus” comes from Latin, meaning “lively green.” The story involves a setting in which the color green has vanished, substituted by a dull gray.
When I came up with the story, I had intentions of writing it as a novel. I had a friend [Nate Spicer] who was incredibly skilled when it came to film and I had been pestering him about working on one of my scripts for quite a while. Eventually, I bumped into him at a party and was pitching him this little suspense horror script I'd written, and offhandedly mentioned Estriatus. He instantly latched on to the idea. I figured it could have been enthusiasm enforced by the alcohol, but the next day he called me up asking me to run it by him and get it in a script format. It went through a lot of revisions, some fairly heavy, but the finished product was something I was pleased with. Outside of winning the WKU film fest, he also used it for his Capstone project in the broadcasting department and landed a “distinguished” on it. The Capstone system is used for certain majors; it’s basically a project you pitch and put together to show you can apply what you've learned in your field. A “distinguished” is the highest possible grade and it’s only permitted to five percent of the graduating projects. WKU even used it to advertise themselves.
LS: Today, you’ve entered into the post-production phase of a new film, Alone Down There. What’s the storyline of the film?
JS: Alone Down There is my latest creation. We wrapped on filming a few weeks ago. It's a bit of a difficult piece to explain, as it’s a bit of a genre mash-up. The first half is a bit of a pulpy action piece, whereas the second descends into a thriller, if not outright horror. Basically, the setting is one in which magic exists, but it’s not something the common person would know of. The protagonist takes the form of an unnamed thief who attempts to break into “Limbo” in order to save his significant other. As he makes his attempt, the audience is subject to his obsessive nature, as well as an interesting cast that exists in the eccentric setting.
LS: You wrote the script for Alone Down There. What was your inspiration for the story?
JS: There were a number of inspirations for the story. The first half is heavily inspired by Guy Ritchie-style actions sequences, but with the attitude of Doctor Who or a Joss Whedon piece. The second half is a modernized twist on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The title comes from a Modest Mouse song; I felt the lyrics matched perfectly with the Thief's mindset and overall plot.
LS: How did you manage to collect the funding you needed to make this one possible?
JS: We filmed a teaser trailer, popped a website up, and got a kickstarter campaign going. A large amount of the donations were achieved through there—we reached our goal at the time, which was $10,000—came from fans of the teaser, friends, and family. A good number of our producers put their own money on the line as well. It was a very moving thing to experience. It was very surreal to see something I wrote receiving such support and dedication. In the beginning, it started off as something I would have easily called my own, but after seeing everyone else’s enthusiasm and emotional attachments to it I think it kind of turned into our collective vision.
LS: Who are some of the actors/characters in the film?
JS: Johnathan Stone was our lead, playing Thief. I had met him through some mutual friends well before the script was ever written, and wasn't even aware he was an actor at the time. When we initially started looking for a cast, his name came up and I instantly thought he had a perfect look for the role.
Chris Baker was an actor I had worked with before in Estriatus, and he was fantastic, but he ended up with a small role in that film. I had hopes of working with him again and had run some ideas by him afterwards, but nothing ended up sticking. We wound up filling every role except for King, who is this eccentric David Bowie-inspired, drug-peddling gang leader/warlock. I had never seen Chris play anything close to this type of character, but I had an idea that he would somehow fit it like a glove. One day, I was walking through the mall in Bowling Green a few months before the film was set to shoot and saw him. It caught me completely off guard, because I was still under the assumption he had moved. I sent him the script that night and we had an audition a few weeks later. He just nailed everything we were looking for in the character.
Lastly, I have to mention Alex Altus, who plays the Belial, our antagonist. I can't say too much about his role, but he had read a character description we’d posted up online and messaged us right away. He lives in Lexington, KY, so instead of conducting the audition in person, we had it online. We basically had him read his line as me and four other producers just stared at him over the screen. When he finished, we thanked him for the read, said we'd be in touch, and, as soon as he logged off, all of us started gushing about it. Seeing his performance was like seeing Belial in existence.
LS: Who else is on board?
JS: Chris Young was the director for the film, and it was thanks to him that the project really got off the ground. I had heard through a friend and fellow writer that a production group was looking to work on a film in the Bowling Green area, and that they were having a competition of sorts to determine what they worked on. I submitted a very rough cut of Alone Down There and it was selected over a few other scripts. From that point, Chris and I would have meetings and go over options and details for the story. Without his enthusiasm and love for both filmmaking and the story, this project would have never started.
Nate Spicer, who directed Estriatus also ended up helping with the project as a crew member. When I had heard he was going to be involved on set, it was a massive relief. He's immensely talented and having him on set was a great asset to the production process.
Andrew Swanson was our executive producer and played an integral part in getting the gears turning both in pre-production and on the set. When we were filming, if I wasn't focused on what was going on in front of the camera and running ideas by Chris, I was usually running errands for Andrew and making sure that we had everything lined up for the next shoot day.
One very important person I have to mention is Ashton Duncan, Chris's girlfriend, who handled our catering. She worked nonstop to make sure that the cast and crew were all happy and fed, which means a great deal when you consider the length of our shoot days.
LS: When we first talked about the project, you was mentioned that you’d already gotten a lot of notable attention regarding ADT. Can you say anything specific to the public about that?
JS: Not much I can say regarding this one, currently. We do have a number of film festivals I know we'll be sending the film off to.
LS: When do you hope to release ADT?
JS: If everything gets done on time, we are hoping for a late May to early June release. We definitely want it out in time for summer.
LS: What are your ultimate goals with filmmaking?
JS: My goal as a writer has always been very intrinsic to who I am. I like making people smile and laugh. I leap at opportunities to provoke thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Nothing has ever matched the feeling I get from talking about an idea with someone or showing them one of my films or stories and having them come back to me saying they were entranced or horrified. Film—and a number of other collective media—serve to provide an escape from reality, and I can’t help but feel that it’s unbelievably cool to think that I could provide that escape, that reality. I wouldn't care what form of media it took. There's also a certain romanticized feeling of immortality involved in it. It may be overly ambitious or egotistical, but the thought of creating something that leaves its mark in culture and art fascinates me. Who doesn't know the name Shakespeare or Hitchcock?
LS: Where can people find out more info on your films, including ADT?
JS: We have a Facebook page and a website for Alone Down There. The official website hasn't been updated too much, as the guy in charge of it is currently swamped with post-production work. As far as getting a hold of some of my other work, I don't have a website up, but if anyone wants to track down my Facebook page, I'd be more than happy to respond to any questions, messages, or requests to see any previous films or current writings.
LS: Any shout-outs, added info, or just plain old strange stories are welcome here.
JS: If there is one shout out that is essential here, it’s one that goes out to the Bowling Green community and WKU. Local businesses have helped out a great deal in the production, and a great fan base has really kept us going and strong through all of this.
Another one—comically less mandatory—goes out to my parents who have both supported me in my pursuits and ensured I watched a number of awesome movies growing up. Trying to do this for a profession isn't what you would call a financially secure decision. It's intense and frightening at times when I consider the odds. Having family and friends who support and encourage me is something that's irreplaceable. I honestly can’t say for certain what or who I would be without that.
I'll also go ahead and mention some of the interesting and funny moments that happened on set.
The second day of filming we were shooting some scenes in one of the school buildings. The specific area we were using didn't have any classes, but there were still some students for the winter term that had classes elsewhere, and a number of professors were there. It got pretty difficult to shoot a few scenes, because we would periodically have kids and teachers walking through shots not realizing they were scrapping takes, so Andrew Swanson grabbed me and decided we would block off certain parts of the building to limit it. Before a series of important takes, we had agreed on shouting down this hallway, requesting that nobody leave the rooms for a moment. Andrew’s particular, choice phrasing was, "Nobody come out of your rooms, we are about to start shooting!” He was so adjusted to being on film sets he hadn't considered the poor choice of words, given the location.
We also had a large number of massive beards on the set courtesy of the crew. For a few days, a friend of mine who is a film major helped out on set, but he hadn’t really gotten to know or meet most of the crew. One day, we were shooting outside of a bar and when we pulled up to park, he saw our editor, Nate Davis, sitting down hunched over in army fatigues. Nate has this massive beard and my friend’s first comment was, "Oh no, that homeless guy is going to be in the shot, that's awkward.”
If you would like to view Jacob Short/Nate Spicer’s short-film, Estriatus, in its entirety via Vimeo, please click here.
To watch a trailer for Alone Down There, click the video player attached below this article.
Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos/Images courtesy of Jake Short/Alone Done There