Playing With Audience Expectation in Comedy Short 'THIS IS HOW YOU DIE.'
What if there existed a machine which with a single drop of blood could predict how you were going to die? No dates or wider explanations, just a statement which was demonstrably always correct. Would you succumb to temptation and let it tell your fate? In his short THIS IS HOW YOU DIE., Michael Mohan sets out the swan songs for his soon to be departed characters, whilst playing fast and loose with the interpretations to great comedic effect. Find out what death has in store after the jump.
Inspired by the anthology book This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable MACHINE OF DEATH, Mohan mentions in his Behind the Scenes guest post on Machine of Death that he decided against attempting a direct translation of the book to film, but rather chose to have fun with the concept of a fate machine and from there build up a multi-layered joke which played on both character and audience expectations. That structure led him to work with a clear, unfussy shooting style:
When figuring out the visual plan for This Is How You Die, I knew that each of these pieces had to function almost like a joke, where the reveal of the death worked in the same way a punchline does (or in the case of “Bear,” an anti-punchline). The setup to each joke had to be simple and clean.
So rather than doing any complex camera work, or making my directorial presence known, I knew the punchline would play best if I didn’t do anything to distract from the comedy. You know, if you think about the best comedy films, they’re always shot as simply as possible.
In a Vimeo comment, Mohan further explains how the final “Bear” segment went through some pruning to remain in spiritual alignment with his source material:
We actually considered having two scenes in the last one, one where we see the main character packing up his car for the camping trip, and being scared by a hairy neighbor in leather pants who is out just watering his garden. “Hey neighbor!” “Hey… Frank.” And then a second scene after he’s returned home from camping a changed man, he goes to apologize to his “bear” neighbor for always acting so weird around him.
Ultimately, we felt like it would go just a bit too far outside the box of the book this is based on. Not that this is a direct adaptation whatsoever, but tonally – it’s a great idea, but just didn’t quite fit.
Shooting on the Red Scarlett across several LA locations, the production mixed blue screen, suspended props and actors and a practical hydraulic blood cannon to realise the short’s various effects shots. The grain laced aesthetic of the final image was achieved in post not with digital plugins, but by overlaying a 4K scan of old film print.
Watching THIS IS HOW YOU DIE., once the first death played out to its splattery end and I realised all bets were off as to the interpretations of the predictions my mind felt compelled to ‘lean forward’ deeper into the film, trying to out-guess the possible scenarios.
How did the film work for you? Were your expectations pleasantly challenged?