In a world of features, short films rarely get much attention. Yet the best five-minute shorts usually contain more originality and creativity than your average Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why we launched Short Stuff, a weekly profile on a promising short-form filmmaker and their newest piece of work. Think of it as an investment in the talent of tomorrow.
One of the very best short films I saw last year, Steven Irwin’s Moxie is a twisted triumph of form and content alike. Animated in grainy black and white with plenty of experimental flourishes, the film chronicles five days in the life of a psychology disturbed young bear as he struggles to cope with the recent death of his mother. The resulting film is violent and profane, yet still manages to be weirdly touching, sickeningly funny and even occasionally profound.
Shut in his house, a little black bear named Moxie is angry and alone. As the days pass, his experimentation with self-abuse grows more and more depraved, while the animated world that he inhabits seems to gradually tear apart. The unstable aesthetic, reflective of the bear’s fragile mental health, is present also in Irwin’s pitch black sense of humor, which is dominated by descriptions, apparently random but invariably graphic, of social and sexual transgression.
In spite of this, Moxie is not all bitterness; nor is it just juvenile grotesquery. The extremeness of the content serves to shock and amuse, but also to highlight the film’s thematic throughline about mental illness, and the pain, uncertainty and anger that follows the loss of a loved one. Irwin’s film is at once sick, funny, intelligent and emotional; achieving such balance in less than six minutes is a rare and impressive achievement.
Watch Moxie in it’s entirety, and check out my conversation with director Stephen Irwin, below.
How would you describe your film in one sentence?
A pyromaniac bear misses his mother.
When did you know you wanted to be filmmakers?
I can’t remember any particular moment. I’ve been obsessed with film for as long as I can remember. I guess it was when I was doing my undergraduate degree and I started making shorts that I realised it was something I could actually do.
Did you study film and/or animation, and if so, where?
No. I did a media degree at Bradford University. It included a whole range of things but not animation. Like most students I had a lot of time on my hands and as part of the course I had access to a bunch of camera equipment, computers and animation software. So I started making short films in my own time. By the 2nd year I was spending more time on my own stuff than attending lectures.
Tell me briefly about some of your earlier films, and other projects you’ve been involved with?
My first short film commission was from Film London and the UK Film Council for a film called Bows & Arrows. I was still learning how to animate and how to tell a story at the time, so it’s not something I’m particularly happy with. But it was an amazing opportunity. I got a commission from BBC New Talent a year later for a music video for Lightspeed Champion which was screened as part of the BBC Electric Proms, and I got to work with Warp Films who produced the films that year. Then after that I got an Animate Projects commission for The Black Dog’s Progress. I was very lucky to get these when I did because none of them exist anymore. It’s much harder to get funding for short film and animation in the UK now.
Where did the idea for Moxie originate
It was two things. One was a rough idea for a comic strip. It was a series of three panel stories and the very first one I did was the dead bear and the two detectives [standing] over him. I didn’t know what had happened to the bear so I wrote the film around this basic premise. The other thing was a very loose idea for a short about a character taking a series of dumb drug concoctions (that’s where the “lemon enema” bit is from).
Were there any films or filmmakers that were of particularly strong influence on you and your films?
Too many to mention in full! I get most of my inspiration from live action filmmakers but there are certain animators like Don Hertzfeldt and Phil Mulloy who have influenced my style of animation and approach to storytelling.
Your films often have a dark, morbid, sometimes melancholy humour to them. What is about this kind of storytelling that appeals to you?
I like happy stuff too! But for some reason the work I make comes out this way. It’s not intentional.
In Moxie in particular, feelings of rage and abandonment are prevalent. What made you want to tell a story about these emotions? And why a bear?
The bear just came out in that first late night, drunken comic strip sketch. The short story Disillusionment by Thomas Mann is something I discovered while I was making the film and it became one of the main sources of inspiration. Also the documentary Grey Gardens. I like the tone of both these things and the ideas they explore, so aspects of them ended up in the film. I don’t ever write a complete script and then film it. The script is just the starting point and the film grows as I go along. I don’t always know how it’ll end or how certain scenes will play out until I’m in the middle of making the film. So the feelings you mention come about from me responding to the film itself as it evolves.
How much time have you spent with the in total, from conception to production to having it screened?
I think I started writing and storyboarding around Christmas 2010 and it was completed in August 2011. It had its premiere at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in September 2011.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing emerging filmmakers at the moment?
There’s little or no money in the UK now for shorts. You can still get things made but it’ll be in between paid jobs so it takes longer. It’s not just the financial support that film commissions provide though, it’s also the ongoing feedback, having a deadline, and helping getting the finished film out there and talked about. I didn’t get much money from Animate Projects when I made The Black Dog’s Progress but the support they gave the film after it was made (putting on screenings and Q&A’s, etc) was really important. That’s something you don’t get when you’re making films in your spare time on your own.
Where are some of the places Moxie has been screened so far, and where can people catch it now?
Moxie played at over 80 festivals worldwide in 2011/12. It’s pretty much finished its festival run now. There’s still the odd screening here and there, and I still put festival details up on my website [www.smalltimeinc.com]. I put the film up on Vimeo [https://vimeo.com/27838400] a few months back and it got a good response.
Where can people find more of you and the film online?
My website/blog has all my work on it as well as screening details and other news: www.smalltimeinc.com.
I also have a site where I post inspirational work and miscellaneous titbits: www.libraryofsmalltimeinc.blogspot.co.uk.