Watch: How an Unfortunately True Story Became a Sundance and SXSW Short
Joe Talbot's 'American Paradise,' which played at both Sundance and SXSW, is an absurdist parable with a strong dose of social commentary.
Some filmmakers come right out of the gate with a distinctive style and vision for their directorial debut. Joe Talbot is one such director. Although Talbot's short, American Paradise, was his first time working with a budget and legitimate production team, it went on to screen at Sundance 2017 and SXSW 2017, garnering wide acclaim for its grasp of absurdist comedy and incisive social commentary.
Now, American Paradise has been selected as Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere and is finally available to stream online (Watch it below). It's the story of a forgotten man in Trump's America who tries to shift his fate with the perfect crime—until, of course, all goes horribly wrong. Its tagline, "based on an unfortunately true story," perfectly encapsulates the film's sense of humor and underlying somber message. Rendered with a pastel color palette and compositions that would make Wes Anderson weep, American Paradise announces an exciting new talent in Talbot.
No Film School caught up with Talbot to discuss how he made the short as a calling card for his upcoming feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, how he secured a wide variety of evocative locations to build the film's atmosphere, and more.
No Film School: This is such a rich story with so many layers of absurdity and social commentary. Where did the idea come from?
NFS: Your compositions are amazing. Can you talk about the cinematography and influences?
Talbot: I love the process of scouting locations. We worked with a great local manager, Heather MacLean, and often found ourselves out roaming these haunted, abandoned military bases scattered throughout the Bay Area. We fell in love with the architecture there and the strange colors that we liked to imagine were due to salty air and toxic waste (see the wall at 2:30). We also thought those colors would speak to our DP, Lorenzo Hagerman, whose films Entertainment and Heli had a similar palette. So it became fun to dream about how he’d photograph these bizarre, Chernobyl-esque locales.
NFS: Much of the mood is built around your locations, many of which are desolate and visually-stunning. How did you secure them?
Talbot: Hugs and kisses. And when that failed, we’d pay people. The hardest part about locations was trying to secure enough in one small radius that we could build a shooting day around them. And since we had a very specific look in mind at a relatively low budget, this meant doing a lot of digging.
"This was the first film I had a real budget for, having come from a more rag-tag background."
We were walking around Vallejo’s historic district and stumbled upon this beautiful deco bank. The lights were out, but we opened the doors anyway and went inside. It was completely empty and in pristine condition. We started acting out the robbery scene (purely for professional purposes) when a voice called out to us from the balcony. It turned out to be the owner, who’d once been a film VFX guy and had bought the bank years ago to restore it and host Bar Mitzvah parties. After talking for a few hours, we left with that fun, excited feeling that Vallejo (which, it turned out, also boasted an abandoned military base we ended up shooting on) was going to be our main hub.
NFS: What were some specific production challenges?
Talbot: This was the first film I had a real budget for, having come from a more rag-tag background. So I was leading a large team for the first time, but also had more resources than I’d ever had. In prior projects shooting alone, I’d gotten used to the feeling of dreaming up an idea for a shoot and then being a little bummed by the results (like ugly cars that ruined a shot, and no money for real production design).
Talbot: On American Paradise, we were moving very quickly—four company moves a day—but our crew worked tirelessly to give us the ability to control the look and get the shot as we’d originally dreamed it. It resulted in collective victories like the Costume Shop scene (see 5:21). Our production designer threw Chinese newspaper over a distractingly ugly storefront, our G&E guys re-lit the whole street, and our locations manager held traffic on the four-lane thoroughfare to give the block an eerie, vacant feeling instead. It was pretty gratifying.
NFS: How did you raise money for the short?
Talbot: Primarily through our brave EP, Tamir Muhammad. You can imagine how in script form, this film could be hard to finance, considering the nature of the subject matter—particularly in the hands of a young, unproven director. So I really do feel a deep appreciation that he trusted us enough to back us.
NFS: Can you talk about the casting process?
Talbot: I wrote it hoping Sky Elobar would be interested. I’d seen him in Jim Hosking’s shorts and loved him and his Pittsburgh accent. He ended up bringing more subtlety and seriousness to the role than I’d anticipated, which I was grateful for. When my girlfriend and I broke up, he told me, “You just gotta shift your angle, dude.”
Casting the cop was a long process because we wanted someone that felt like a real cop. We wound up with Jim Anderson, who split his time in real life between the line of duty and singing as an Elvis impersonator. This was his first speaking role, and many of the lines we used came from things he said he’d overheard in his time as a cop. Scary stuff.
NFS: Anything else you want to add?
Talbot: I’m a big fan of the site, having never gone to film school myself!
Filmmakers interested in having their work considered for a Staff Pick Premiere can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. To watch the rest of Vimeo's July slate of Staff Pick Premieres, see below.
Yes, God, Yes
Director: Karen Maine
Release Date: July 5
Synopsis: 15-year-old Alice (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things) has always been a good Catholic, but when an innocent AOL chat turns unexpectedly racy, she finds herself suddenly obsessed with masturbating.
About the Filmmaker: Karen Maine co-wrote Obvious Child (2014), which premiered at Sundance, screened at SXSW, Rotterdam, and several other festivals, and was theatrically released in the US (A24), UK (Koch Media), and other markets throughout the world. She also co-wrote and co-created the short film on which the feature is based. She’s written for the Young Vic Theatre in London and is the creator of the Twitter hashtag #SchwimmerFacts. Born in Iowa, she currently lives in London. She was raised Catholic.
A Single Life
Directors: Job, Joris, & Marieke
Release Date: July 12
Synopsis: When playing a mysterious vinyl single, Pia is suddenly able to travel through her life. “A Single Life” was nominated for the 87th Academy Awards® in 2015 for best animated short film. Since then “A Single Life” has been screened at more than 200 festivals and it has been awarded 40 prizes.
About the Filmmakers: Job, Joris & Marieke have a weird history considering they’re an animation studio -- the three of them didn’t study animation but they graduated as product designers at the Design Academy Eindhoven. During their study they discovered they had a passion for telling stories. But designing products + telling stories= very difficult. And so animation turned out to be the best medium for them, as it’s the perfect combination of storytelling and designing.
Director: Amalgamated Picture Co.
Release Date: July 26
Synopsis: An unknown rock band struggles with a radioactive energy in their music that blows up amps, liquefies tape decks, and starts electrical fires. On the eve of their first (and possibly last) show, they must decide whether to risk life, limb, and legacy for a 1AM slot on a Tuesday. It could change everything… or nothing at all.
About the Filmmakers: Amalgamated Picture Co. is an award-winning production house based in Brooklyn, NY. APC’s short film Epilogue premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and was featured on Vimeo Staff Picks, Fast Company, The Atlantic, io9, United Airlines, and NoBudge, where it was the most watched film of 2014. Dylan Allen, founder of APC, is a card-carrying member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.