Little Minx’s Exquisite Corpse / Phillip Van interview

Little Minx

Short films are the vast, undiscovered country of filmmaking. Most viewers relegate themselves to feature films alone, inadvertently walling themselves off from the audacious power of the short film. It would be a supreme fallacy to assume that just because a short film takes a quarter of the time to tell, it must be a quarter as effective. Numerous short films compress in mere minutes the sort of mesmeric storytelling and muscular emotions that many feature films never come close to achieving.

Little Minx, a division of RSA films and an offshoot of director Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Productions recently selected five directors to tackle a series of short films based on the French parlor game Exquisite Corpse. The talented lineup of directors, who work in film, TV and commercial production, were charged with only two golden rules: They must respond to the last line of text from the previous director’s script, and they must incorporate their interpretation of a “little minx”.

The result was inspired, funny, tragic, mind-bending and unquestionably beautiful.

Laurent Briet’s “With the Eyes of Every Man Riveted Upon Her”, is a deceptively simple film. Appearing, at first, like a film desperately in need of a cinematographer and a few lights, “Riveted” captures a cold, urban palette as it follows a young black girl entering a boxing club. The girl is aware of the camera’s presence, shattering the fourth wall to play to the tracking camera. Beautiful and slight, she stands out like a sore thumb in the male dominated room, drawing the attention of each and every occupant as she confidently challenges one of the muscle-bound men to some kind of duel. As she removes her coat to divulge a pubescent, sexually budding body, the young girl does not reach for boxing gloves, but rather a jump rope. As if they alone possess gravity, the two figures begin a series of ever-escalating moves and tricks with their ropes, dragging every spectator in the club around them. The well-built man, obviously the favorite of the club, matches the girl move for move. But unbeknownst to him, he has met his match in this little minx. Only one of these two competitors will walk out of the ring wearing a triumphant smile.

Briet’s film pulses with energy, borrowing heavily on established conventions only to skew them in an entirely unpredictable but immensely satisfying direction. “Riveted” knows a little minx when it sees one – a child/woman whose emerging sexuality is something to be feared and respected; a frail wisp of a thing whose greatest power is that men will always underestimate her and ultimately find their undoing in her innocent smile.

Chris Nelson’s “She Turns Her Back and Faces Forward at Peace” agilely picks up where “Riveted” left off. Our first clue that everything is not as it should be occurs in the first frame – a solitary chair sits within the garish splash of a spotlight, in front of a vertically striped wall, just off center enough to disrupt the perfect balance of the composition. We are witnessing an audition for a TV show, and a young girl sits silently in the chair while a gaggle of producers argue her fate around a massive, horseshoe-shaped table. Apparently out of her element, the conventionally dressed girl with wiry hair and oversized braces, appears immensely uncomfortable. It is decided that she will go on to the next round – a reading with the show’s dashing young, male star. Downstairs, once again waiting her turn, the girl is surrounded by agents and acting coaches who circle each other like sharks tasting blood in the water. Her chain-smoking agent and nervous mother hover over her like famished vultures. Another girl, the cosmetically perfect competition and an L.A. starlet from the word go, flits from one adult to another, building her career with each flirtatious bobble of her head. At any moment it appears as if our disheveled heroine might come undone under the weight of the pressure. Indeed, when her audition recommences, it appears as if everyone but her has been let in on a twisted joke. But then again, outward appearances can be deceiving and a little minx can hide within the most inconspicuous shells.

“Peace” understands that sometimes liberation looks like lunacy. A comedy with barbs, it manages to be both a commentary on the vanity and narcissism of Hollywood and the uphill struggle of feminism in the entertainment industry. Nelson’s film is nimble and steeped in irony, with a heroine who discovers herself for the very first time and manifests this newfound power in the most bizarre and refreshing of ways. Whether it is a step forward or backward for female empowerment is left to the viewer to decide.

Malik Hassan Sayeed’s “She Walked Calmly Disappearing Into the Darkness” is arguably the weakest link in the series – easily the most confusing and least rewarding film. An abstract and impressionistic examination of a single incident of gang warfare, “Darkness” is a puzzle that gets more difficult to take in as each new piece is introduced. We see the gunshot victim unconscious in a hospital room, surrounded by visitors, but come to realize that the well-wishers may not be who we think they are, and, in turn, the short is not as simple as we might have led ourselves to believe. Saturated with ambiguity and misdirection and composed of attractive close-ups and blurred imagery, “Darkness” is nonetheless an anti-narrative that feels more like a student film than the work of an up-and-coming director.

Josh Miller’s “Without Missing a Beat, She asks, ‘Waffles for Breakfast?’ “ begins with a body being thrown from a moving vehicle onto the side of a desert road before flashing back to a late night poker table around which Tarantino-esque, nonsensical dialogue is being bantered back and forth by a collection of oddballs. A man we sense must be a newcomer to the group wins the night, capturing – along with the cash – the keys to an ancient Winnebago. Little does the man know, as he rides home in his battered prize, that a surprise lies in wait for him inside. That which happened before will surely happen again and sometimes losing is better than winning. Miller’s multi-generational scam-artist tale is perhaps a bit too on the nose but is enjoyable all the same.

Phillip Van’s “She Stares Longingly at What She Has Lost” is the strongest of all the Exquisite Corpse pieces. All of Van’s films have a sense of the indecipherable, something extraordinarily mysterious and dark, teetering almost, but not quite, to the point of morbidity. They seem to balance gloom with enchanting fantasy. It’s ironic that Van now works, albeit tangentially, for Ridley Scott, because the two directors’ films share a certain unreal, hyper-reality. It is an aesthetic that really seems to have found its fullest expression in his latest short film.

In “She Stares Longingly”, a young girl frolics through a wooded glade, a small dog at her side. Soon, she is beckoned from a grove of trees by man whose body seems more vapor than solid flesh. As he takes her hand, leading her away from the now restrained dog, the little girl’s glasses fall to the ground, catch the radiant sunlight, and set fire to the verdant forest. Suddenly, we leap forward in time. The little girl is now a grown woman, set within the domesticated space of a bedroom. The man from before now sleeps beside her. As vine-like tendrils consume the room, the woman peers through the solid wall behind her and views a vast, apocalyptic wasteland. And there, before her, nestled amongst a cairn of animal skulls, is the young girl she used to be.

“She Stares Longingly at What She Has Lost” defies easy explanation. It appears as a meditation on loss and compromise, of dreams burned beyond recognition and futures dashed by the past. It at once captures the idyllic, romanticized nature of memory while revealing the horror of the unknown and the inevitability of a reality that cannot possibly fit the boundless imagination and incessant appetite of youth.

I recently sat down with Phillip Van to try and unpack his intent behind the film, chat about his experience making it within the context of Little Minx’s Exquisite Corpse, and discover what he has planned for the future:

Q: Before we get into your latest project, give us a little background on how you got into filmmaking and where you learned your craft?

Phillip Van: I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker for as long as I can remember. I used to have a Sharp camcorder, the big kind that took full-sized VHS tapes, and I would use it to shoot little movies around the house and do in camera editing and tricks. I probably had it since I was nine or 10 and I went nuts with it. The funny thing is, I’ve never abandoned that camera. When I got home from college, around age 20, two of my goofy friends and I would shoot little skits with it, one of which was the inspiration for my short film, Dunny. That camera has always been a source of inspiration for me. Oddly enough though, I didn’t acknowledge to myself that a filmmaker is what I wanted to be. I just did it because I really enjoyed it.

Q: When did you realize it was what you wanted to do?

A: I was in college at Cornell, pre-med, and just really dissatisfied. I didn’t feel I’d made the decision for myself. So I dropped it and started doing a ton of student film work. The program was quite small but it was perfect because the instant I jumped into it, everything was familiar to me; it was an extension of what I had already been doing for a long time. I started taking production classes and before I knew it I had enough credits for a double major. So I applied to grad school and got into my top four choices – UCLA, NYU, Columbia and USC. I decided on NYU after an arduous comparison process and it really was great. It fulfilled on everything I had anticipated. Through NYU, I made a few shorts, one of which was High Maintenance, which I shot in Germany and for which I won an Student Academy Award and a number of other festival awards in Europe and the United States. The festivals really got the word out and allowed a lot of people to see my stuff who otherwise would not have been able to. Out of that I got an agent and a commercial manager and began working for RSA.

Q: Can you tell us what RSA is?

Phillip Van: RSA was started by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott in the mid-60s as a film and TV advertising production company to showcase their work and the work of other directors. They’ve done thousands of commercials, including special projects like the BMW films. I got signed by Rhea Scott (Ridley Scott’s daughter-in-law), who is the head of Little Minx, a division of RSA films. I’m one of 10 directors under her wing. She formerly worked at Propaganda, the famed commercial company that turned out directors such as David Fincher and Spike Jonze. My first project was to create a completely original short based on my own script and idea, while also incorporating a few prearranged elements.

Q: Explain to us the idea behind Little Minx’s Exquisite Corpse project, if you would.

A: The Exquisite Corpse concept is based on the French parlor game in which you write a sentence and the next person is only allowed to see your last couple of words. From those words they have to write a new sentence. It’s kind of like the game telephone we played in America as kids. When you read the finished product, it is usually completely random … but also poetic, by accident. Some of the connections between the films are almost invisible and others are quite obvious. So in my case, I got the last sentence of the script before mine – “and she stares longingly at what she has lost” – and from that I had to create something original of my own, be it completely tangential or literal. The second stipulation was that we had to define what the concept of a “little minx” meant to us, which is why all the shorts in the series integrate a throughline about a girl or a young woman usually involved in some sort of compromising circumstance. Other than that, it was free reign.

Q: And who was the little girl in your film?

A: That is Cuba Scott, my producer and manager Rhea Scott’s daughter and Ridley Scott’s granddaughter. She was always hanging around the office and when we started looking at little girls during casting, I had someone like her in mind probably because I saw her so often. A lot of the storyboards began inadvertently looking like her, and finally we brought her into the casting room and said, “Let’s try this out,” and she was a natural – much better than any of the girls we were auditioning.

Q: Did you collaborate with any of the other directors?

A: No, we were completely independent. Rhea made sure of that. We weren’t allowed to read the scripts that preceded ours. She wanted us to work in the dark just like the parlor game. The films are all self enclosed and really work well on their own as well as part of a linked group.

Q: Where did the idea for your piece come from?

A: Well, it was based on a number of different factors and influences. It sounds abstract and remote, but I wanted to define a kind of feeling that is common to my experience. It doesn’t really have a descriptor in English and is perhaps best defined by the Portuguese word, “Saudade,” which very roughly translates to: nostalgia. But it’s the idea of something a little more fatal and meaningful than simple nostalgia. For whatever reasons, there is nothing as expressive in English. In reductive terms, it’s the idea of looking back on where you came from and longing for home. That’s where it started.

Q: I once had an esteemed film professor who said, “Never ask a director what his film is about. He has no more idea than you do.” So, that said, what is your film about?

A: Haha. Yeah … that’s a tough one. I intentionally designed it to be open to multiple interpretations. I loaded every image with semiotic meaning and there is a specific interpretation that I prefer. But, while I find it easy to talk about character, narrative and story, I like to leave an audience to draw their own conclusions with regard to the film’s meaning.

Q: If you want to leave it as something completely subjective, I think no one can arguing with the validity of that. I know it’s kind of a loaded question.

A: Let me think about it for a bit. Maybe I can come back to it.

* * *

A few hours after our interview, I got an e-mail from Van stating: “While I do prefer leaving the film open to interpretation, I would say that the way I personally read it is in line with these facts: The man in the film isn’t real until he’s in the bedroom. The garden and the little girl aren’t imagined by the older women, and are in fact a memory, both true to experience and distorted somewhat by time.”

When I lightheartedly charged Van with further muddling the waters, he wrote back, saying: “For me, the film is about searching for an ideal that may only exist in our minds. Chasing our own projections. It’s about what happens to us when we eventually find that ideal, which upon discovery may cease to be one, and take into account the things we’ve lost along the way. The film tempts a lot of other dark themes and interpretations, which are intentional, and which I used to define the tone of this search.”

It seems my professor’s advice is truer than ever.

* * *

Q: Well then, let’s discuss something you can talk about: the film’s execution. Give us a glimpse into the production process.

A: Well, I feel out everything in storyboard ahead of time and when I get to the set we usually follow that plan because we already know the boards so well. It sounds restrictive, but because we have the boards down to a science, it actually gives us the freedom to then experiment and let inspiration hit us on the day of shooting. I think you can only be open to that if you come in extremely prepared. We were actually going to go black and white with this for a while, but decided to modernize it and do it in color because it gave me more of a range of expression. I wanted the sort of artificiality you find in Night of the Hunter … almost fetishized in a way. It becomes a fascinating commentary on the natural world with dark, foreboding, noirish qualities. The whole shoot was done in only two days. We had half built sets with lots of practical elements and filled in the rest with bluescreen. And then, in post, we filled that with various 2-D and 3-D elements. Method was my post-production house and they were wonderful. I brought in dozens of images I’d found, like old-growth forest trees – the stuff found on the coast of Oregon that I grew up with – and they incorporated them. I actually brought in fallen leaves from the home in which I grew up and they scanned them in and used that to populate the trees. It was that personal and handcrafted. It looks really expensive, but it’s not. Believe it or not, the entire budget was akin to my student films, even with all those effects. It was a passion project for the post house. I’m pleased to say that I’ve never made anything for a huge budget.

Q: That bodes well for your future. Did you shoot film or digital? What post-production technology did you use?

A: It was all Super 35mm 5218 Kodak tungsten stock in an Arri Studio camera. For post, it was a two-team deal. We used several programs: Flame for 2-D compositing and sequencing, and Maya for the 3-D work, among others

Q: Is there anything you would change about the final product or are you satisfied?

A: No, I’m really satisfied.

Q: So what are you currently working on?

A: I’m working on a few different commercial proposals, and I’m developing a feature version of one of my shorts, in addition to a feature I’ve written called Darkland, which just got into the Tribeca Film Institute’s All-Access Program. I’ll be working with it there in April.

Q: OK, time for another loaded question. What kinds of films, philosophical or otherwise, do you want to make in the future?

A: I love genre films, especially playing with the established conventions of a genre. I think they tend to get stale over time because they are so familiar. There are these really powerful archetypes at the root of all these conventions that are meaningful and have power because they are part of a collective understanding or unconsciousness. I like doing what I can to reinvent or breath life into those archetypes and spin them a different way. In terms of theme, the things that I’m attracted to usually deal with alienation. I come back to it again and again. The individual vs. the bureaucracy. As technology increases and society grows and populations boom, we are always fighting against the confines of the collective and yearn to promote individual voices. I like outsiders who are trying not to lose their way.

Q: Who are your inspirations in the business and what are some films that you find yourself returning to again and again for inspiration?

A: I love a lot of Cronenberg, especially his early stuff like Videodrone. He deals a lot with body horror and the post-human, which I am really fascinated by. How much can we manipulate our own form and still be human? Obviously Tim Burton plays a lot with the themes of alienation, walking the line between the absurd and the whimsical. The Coens have also been a huge inspiration. I saw No Country for Old Men at Cannes before the hype and was just blown away. I also have my share of art-house inspirations including Bergman and Tarkovsky. Hitchcock is a massive inspiration.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I’d like to be onto my second or third feature. That would be the ideal.

Q: As someone on the cusp of greatness, shall we say, do you have any advice for those trying to break into the business?

A: Wow, thank you for that. Being “on the cusp,” I’m not sure if it is my place to give advice yet. But, I would say, stay true to the stuff that you love. The process to get anything made and to turn your ideas into a reality can convolute things, so you really have to do what you love. So long as you hold true to yourself, are sincere, and remain steady in your path you’ll get there.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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