From Koeln to "South By" with Lucas Mireles and Ryan Slattery
Posted on March 16th 2012 in Accolade
Writer–director Lucas Mireles, a student at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT), and producer Ryan Slattery, who graduated from TFT last year, haven't had much time to sit down recently. This month, they'll be on the move again.
The filmmakers will travel to Austin, Texas, the latest festival stop for their light-footed and humane short film "Playtime" (Spielzeit), which was made over the summer of 2010 in Koeln, Germany, as part of an innovative collaboration between students from TFT and Koeln's Internationale Filmschule. "Playtime" will screen three times between March 11 and 17 at Austin's mammoth South By Southwest Conferences and Festivals (SXSW), a sprawling media showcase that engulfs the entire city. The experience is guaranteed to be a memorable one, especially because, for native Texan Mireles, the event marks a significant homecoming.
So far, Slattery and Mireles have traveled from TFT to Europe and back again. In January, they were in Park City, Utah, where "Playtime" had its first public showings, in competition, at the Sundance Film Festival, the world famous Mecca for independent cinema, where it played in the Shorts Competition. It received standing ovations at all three of its screenings.
"It's been a pretty amazing year," Mireles said. In addition to the success of "Playtime," his short film "Hijo de mi Madre" (A Mother's Son) screened at Park City's other festival, Slamdance, while his short "Love Analysis" went to last year's SXSW. "And after that, the German film" — as Mireles refers to "Playtime" — "got into Sundance."
"For our category alone," said producer Slattery, "Sundance had over 7,600 submissions this year, of which only 64 films were selected. Ours was one of the 64."
The film, which follows the lives of several German youths on a Sunday afternoon, was made under highly unusual circumstances that could serve as a model for the new emphasis placed by TFT dean Teri Schwartz on interdisciplinary collaboration and global diversity. Mireles and Slattery were among five students selected to represent the school as part of a groundbreaking cooperative venture worked out between Barbara Boyle, chair of the school's department of film, television and digital media, and the Internationale Filmschule Koeln (IFS).
As part of this program, the TFT filmmakers collaborated with each other on various projects and with five IFS filmmakers, as well as four directors, four cinematographers and two producers. "Playtime" was one of four films that resulted from the collaboration.
Mireles and Slattery were naturally thrilled when "Playtime" was officially selected for Sundance. And the festival, Mireles said, was a revelation.
"Whatever you think it is, it's like 200 percent more than that," he said. "Everybody there is either skiing or a celebrity or a very important person in the industry or just really into movies. You can strike up a conversation with just about anybody. To go there and be a part of Sundance, it's like nothing else. It was crazy-pants."
Finally seeing "Playtime" projected in a crowded theater for a sell-out crowd of passionate film lovers was a peak experience for both men.
"It was so vindicating to finally see it with an audience," Mireles said. "The film played four times in Park City, and for me, sitting there, hearing people laugh, it was like, 'Everybody likes it!' You shed a tear or two when you see your film at Park City. Every moment feels really good."
The Sundance visit included a reunion of sorts with their German collaborators Christopher Becker, one of the film's producers, and photographer Paul Pieck, who flew in for the occasion. And to cap it all off, at Sundance's exclusive annual Director's Lunch, Mireles had a brief but close encounter with screen icon and festival founder Robert Redford.
"I used my moments with him to talk about an amazing environmental documentary I had seen in Austin that he executive produced, 'The Unforeseen.' It's about the unexpected impacts of a development on a beautiful natural feature in the area, Barton Springs Pool, a swimming hole that's fed by a spring. And he said, 'Did you know, I learned to swim there when I was 6?' It was great to have that kind of a personal encounter with a man of his stature," Mireles said. "He'll never remember it, but I always will."
When Mireles, Slattery and their fellow TFT students — production/directing candidate Iliana Sosa and cinematography students Jeanne Tyson and Leigh Underwood — left the U.S. for Koeln's IFS in the summer of 2010, they had little idea of how things would turn out.
"It was a leap into the unknown," Slattery said.
They'd been told only that they would be making films inspired by the classic 1930 German silent feature "People on Sunday" (Menschen am Sonntag). But they couldn't find a copy of the film in the States to study before leaving for Europe.
Their initial anxiety was soon replaced by exhilaration.
"The first time they screened 'People on Sunday' for us in Germany," Mireles recalled, "it was intoxicating. The people who made it are now major names in film history — Billy Wilder, who was one of the writers, Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinneman, gifted people who later emigrated to the U.S. when the Nazis took over. But at the time they made this film, they were a bunch of twentysomethings, just like us, and the film was made in an experimental, loose way, with a crew of eight and no professional actors, so a lot of it feels like a documentary. The people from IFS told us, 'This is what we want to do and this is what we have the budget for.'"
Mireles wrote the "Playtime" script in English and had it translated for the German cast and crew, a group of 20, including three well-established working actors and an award-winning director of photography named Jens Nolte. With their help, Mireles and Slattery managed to shoot the 13-minute "Playtime" in only four days at the end of July 2010.
"Jens did a great job of shooting it," Mireles said. "It looks beautiful, and everybody did a great job." Indicating Slattery, he added, "Actually, I caught this guy holding a boom mic a few times."
"I was the untrained sound man, the illegal driver, the inefficient translator and the irresponsible child-actor wrangler," Slattery joked.
On a more serious note, Slattery said the producing training he received at TFT was invaluable to his work with Mireles on "Playtime."
"UCLA teaches creative producing," he said, "more than probably any other film school, And it was really great to work with a director who is also a friend and who was open to creative collaboration."
Of their film's loose, companionable style, Mireles said: "We wanted to do something in Koeln similar to what 'People on Sunday' did in Berlin. They showed everything that was happening around the action. They would show people making out in a forest, and then the camera would pan to the left to show that the lovers were near a dumpsite. In our first shot, it's a man sitting on some stone stairs in a park, and it all looks green and beautiful, but change angles and you can see that in the background behind him, there's a nuclear plant."
"For me," Slattery said, "the movie is about all of the seemingly unimportant things in life that are absolutely wonderful. The simple moments. For me that's 'Playtime.'"
"Ryan coined the expression 'point of view relay' to describe the structure of it, " Mireles said, "which I think is perfect. We start off with one character, and he meets two others, and that situation gets awkward and one of them leaves, and a group of kids comes into it at the end. It's life unfolding. If I was going to describe 'Playtime,' I would say it's like recess, which was on of my favorite things growing up. That's what I feel like when I'm watching it."