Josiah delivers a tight scene layered with the tension of generational differences, micro-aggressions, and gender and racial insensitivity.
If you're an actor, director, writer, or producer, one of your consistent goals is to get your foot in the door and work your way into the proverbial room. "The room" is where casting agencies have auditions, or where network heads hear pitches, or where an agent decides to take you on.
But what happens when you experience stressors in the room? And how might you, as a filmmaker, explore issues of racism and sexism within that setting?
The timely short film Josiah delivers one potential take. Brandon (Luke Forbes) auditions for a part in a television series set after the Civil War. He's performing in front of the writer/director (Kevin Dunn), casting director (Mather Zickel), and an assistant (Melanie Chandra). Everyone has brought egos and preconceptions into the room, leading to some tense exchanges and potential trauma for characters. For instance, the use of the n-word in the script becomes a point of contention, raising the question of whose right it is to tell certain stories or demand actors use certain dialogue.
Josiah recently screened at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, where it was nominated for Best U.S. Short.
Writer/director/producer Kyle Laursen and Forbes both spoke to No Film School about the short film via Zoom.
Tackling the issues
Laursen currently produces TV for Big Beach and previously worked for Plan B Entertainment. He said that, at times, creators can be so focused on a project that they forget the humans involved.
"There had been a handful of situations that I had seen there, and even back in film school (even though this is for No Film School), and on other shorts set outside of film school," he said. "I don't know if I recognized it right away. It just ended up being something that I would think of through conversations, of seeing how this art form that I believe in, of storytelling, this medium of TV and film, came face-to-face with a human being. And obliterated that experience. Or mowed down a potential perspective or an individual."
How do you tackle complex issues like race, class, gender, and the power struggles that happen in a casting session?
"I spent, just in terms of my own process, probably six months going over certain things in my head before I even started writing the script," Laursen said. "Part of that was combining a handful of things I had witnessed or seen. Just to be completely candid, [there have] been times where I've been inside of rooms where I remained silent myself."
Laursen said he also spoke with numerous casting directors and workshopped the script with many people. He acknowledged that 20 minutes is not long enough to explore all the problems that permeate the industry, but he is pleased with the conversations that come from viewers' reactions to the piece.
Forbes had his own unique challenges as a performer.
"I just tried to make sure that I wasn't going to be compelled or forced to do something that was some pat or trite thing," Forbes said. "The script is pretty nebulous on the page. There's a lot of open space. I think you could easily read it and be like, 'What?' What was great about Kyle and his style, he's a real collaborator. He had some ideas going into it, and I think I shifted him a bit, and vice versa. When we went into it, it was just like, okay, how do we play this thing while obviously acknowledging the innuendo behind it or associated with the concerns or issues at hand within the film?"
Forbes said, as an actor, he tried to let that atmosphere in the room develop by chance.
"I didn't really try to do too much," Forbes said. "I kind of wanted it to happen on the day, to be blindsided as much as I possibly could. And I think that's what ultimately drew me to it."
Shooting a oner
The film keeps the audience along for the ride of Brandon's audition by utilizing impressively long takes. The first part of the short is an extended single shot (or oner) before it cuts to footage of Brandon's audition tape, then returns to ongoing action. This is effective at providing a realistic look at what goes on in a room but also forces the audience to live in the real tension that the characters experience.
In addition, by cutting away to the audition tape, the short is able to demonstrate another facet of the industry. Many involved in the short's fictitious TV show will only see Brandon's tape, without knowing the context and tension of what went on in the room before and after.
"The context is so much more interesting and so much more fucked-up in terms of its systemic issues that it's excavating," Laursen said. "But at the same time, that's what happens when art comes face-to-face with that individual. The actual performance is what's really going to be remembered, and sometimes that's a shame, and sometimes that's beautiful."
Shooting these long takes was also a technical challenge, not only for the performers but for the short's DP Jennifer Gittings, who had to make the oner dynamic while also considering the lighting in a room with a large window. The shoot took place over just one day.
Forbes likened it to a "dance" and said he learned a lot from watching Gittings work.
"Kyle is on my hip most of the time, as was Jenn," Forbes said. "And then there was that interplay of, 'Okay, I'm constantly giving the other actors whatever they need,' and vice versa, but also, 'Okay, camera guy's going to be here, really be on right now.' It was actually an incredibly technical day of shooting. But I really am so thankful for my colleagues on this. Everyone came to play."
What they hope audiences take away
With the civil rights protests happening worldwide and issues of representation and racism being discussed even more openly in Hollywood, both Forbes and Laursen hope for brighter futures and more communication in the industry.
"I think that the overall thing for me was how good intentions, or whatever intentions you might have, are misconstrued once you're not the only person in a room, or dealing with a particular thing, or project," Forbes said. "I hope that, at the very least, it allows people, or is another kind of reminder to people, to have difficult conversations. I think we're so beat down with this plague of assumptions right now in our society. There's no way to get over some of these humps and these obstacles and these hurdles without communication."
Forbes points out that in Josiah, no character is being actively malicious, and characters face the same types of hurdles.
"It's super tense, it's really uncomfortable, it's all this stuff," he said. "More than anything, what is being foisted on each other in the room is a history that you are forced to own, whether you like it or not. And the only way we're going to get out of this room is if we do the damn thing."
Laursen echoed many of Forbes' wishes.
"Does this short demand to be seen and change any sort of paradigm shift inside of the industry? I don't know if I would go so far as to say that," said Laursen. "Anyone who sees this short, if those conversations lead to more—there were moments, like I said, in my career where conversations didn't take place. So if there's anything that I would be proud for this short is to just ignite conversations, even if I'm a part of them."