Charlie Cole's Experimental Short 'Waterfall' Reminds Us of The Importance of Form

Charlie Cole's "Waterfall"
We watch, study and think a lot about movies, but when does it all become too much? When do we just forget everything we've learned in favor of an emotional curiosity?

I met Charlie Cole walking back to the No Film School house in Park City last January, probably a little drunk. We talked briefly about Slamdance, short films and how damn cold it was. Little did I know how much I would like his film.

NFS: How did this start and how did it find its form?

Charlie: The project started when I was trying to figure out my senior thesis film. So many student filmmakers, myself included, were trying to make something that felt powerful without it having an honest and emotional impact to begin with. So I think I really tried to dig deep down and think about something that really did traumatize me or something that still haunts me.

I saw two little brothers wrestling in a pool once and one started to drown the other one. Eventually I went over to the parents, but as a bystander I just got afraid of what was happening in front of me. It was that feeling of paralyzing fear and how that built up over the years. What was I doing? Why didn't I move, why didn't I do anything? I didn't understand it so I kind of stepped away. Guilt and paralysis were the two big themes for me.

Originally I wrote it as a much more literal story, trying to combine something personal with something more conventionally structured. And it was terrible, it came out so bad. I wanted to make a film that felt paralyzed and static, and it did, but it was boring as hell. I was working with non-actors and the performances fell apart.

After I finished that 26-minute short I realized that I flopped away from what I originally wanted to do which was something honest. So I thought, "Okay, if I'm gonna be honest I have to film it honestly and the way that I emotionally feel." So I took the same kids and re-filmed the whole thing, just me and them by the lake, in the water, just trying to feel it as much as possible.

I had everything so hyper planned out at first and I think it took away from my experience because I was approaching it more theoretically. Since I'm still a beginning filmmaker I think getting behind the logistics of stuff made me lose the passion of feeling the images. That was a huge lesson for me. Sometimes over planning is a bad thing.

Sometimes over planning is a bad thing.

NFS: I like how it's billed as "A memory by..." This film really reminds me of that intense feeling I got when I first started looking at the world through a camera. It's very obviously made by fresh eyes, and that's refreshing.

Charlie: Once I found what the new flow was it became analytical again. I wanted people to be so immersed by the visuals and the sound that they forget or don't care about exactly what is happening, but they're going to feel it. And then by the end of the film I express what the story meant emotionally to me, but only after they've had their own experience with it.

NFS: How do you find the balance between form and story?

Charlie: I think what gave me a base for Waterfall is that I had an idea of what the literal story was going to be and then it allowed me to explore form within that story. So I hope to do more work like that, where I start off with something solidified, but then cut the reigns when it's ready to be cut. And I think it's important that they do get cut at some point, otherwise you're not going to be finding anything new through the filmmaking process -- you're just going to be executing something you've already come up with. So hopefully just a good combination of using my heart and my mind at the same time. My heart for the passion and the form and my mind for the story.

NFS: I could watch something in this form for 2 hours. Do you aspire to making feature length films and for you what is the merit of a short film vs. a feature film in terms of what it allows you to experiment with?

Charlie: There's an aesthetic value behind form-style filmmaking, where it's much more experiential, much more sensual in a way. I do love story and it's something that I want to dive deeper into. I'd love to make some shorts that fall more into the mind of a character. The ambiguity of Waterfall was right for that project, but I'd love to do something that combines both. Lynne Ramsay is by far my favorite director, and there's something about creating a character where you're with them but you don't have any idea who they are, and I love that. It lends itself to both styles.

I was saying "I want to shoot all golden hour with two unpaid non-actor children in Connecticut during winter break during the coldest part of the year and one of these kids are going to drown in this lake." Everyone said you can't do that, it's not going to work.

I love the idea of short films right now because it's the only thing I've done so far, so it feels comfortable to me. But the idea of a feature film is very tempting because I love being theoretical about film. With features you can tell a much broader story and have a grander impact even on smaller characters. I just shiver thinking about it. 

I would love to make an adaptation of the Wasp Factory, probably with the Gorillaz first album as the soundtrack. It's my dream film to make, I don't know when I will make it, if it will be my first feature or not, but I want to make it before I become too old.

NFS: One of my mentors says "Don't trust anyone over 30."

Charlie: There are so many naysayers! For Waterfall everyone was telling me that I wasn't able to do it. I was saying, "I want to shoot all golden hour with two unpaid non-actor children in Connecticut during winter break during the coldest part of the year and one of these kids are going to drown in this lake." Everyone said, "You can't do that. it's not going to work." I said, "Don't tell me I can't do it, tell me how I can do it. Help me out!" That became a battle, the idea of proving those people wrong was a good push for me.

Since I did have this structure I could approach it emotionally and I could just drown in the editing to find what made me feel afraid of helpless or paralyzed.

NFS: The editing is a huge part of why this film works. How do you approach it?

Charlie: It was really just what felt right. I saw the whole piece as a visual poem of this moment. This is a memory, it's a series of images and sounds that you remember. I had filmed everything though, there used to be a whole backstory for the dad who was writing children's books and this whole thing. Because I had that backing it was easy to put my head above water, no pun intended, because every time I got lost in what I was feeling I remembered that I had a basis for everything. Since I did have this structure I could approach it emotionally and I could just drown in the editing to find what made me feel afraid of helpless or paralyzed.

NFS: I notice the heavy use of obscuring details, faces and repeat imagery. Can you speak to why you chose these techniques?

Charlie: There were two elements that made the story as a memory the most prevalent. If it's going to be presented as a memory it has to hit specific graphic images that you are not going to forget. I had a lot of fun blurring the images, to express it more. If I said, "Look sad," and she wasn't an actor, it wasn't really working. So I had to use other things -- you feel every second is a lifetime. It's important that the viewer is never 100% aware of the story. It was more about expressing the feeling and people will take it their own way. 

Thanks, Charlie!     

Your Comment


Incredible work. Like being trapped in a terrible dream that you can't wake up from.

May 20, 2015 at 4:35PM

Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom

This was immense.

May 21, 2015 at 10:21AM


I think he meant "cut the reins."

May 21, 2015 at 2:47PM, Edited May 21, 2:47PM

Bob Byars

Really nice piece of work. A few things I didn't like (the use of stills and bad slow motion made some shots look amateurish - with such good photography elsewhere these bits made it seem like a film school project where the rest looked top notch... also that wind effect sounded fake where the rest of the sound design was really solid). But nicely constructed, intriguing and disturbing. Perhaps more of that voiceover could have been dotted throughout? Well done.

May 22, 2015 at 1:30AM

Matt Jamie
Film Maker / Photographer