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’re launching 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.
If the first six minutes of Up were directed by David Cronenberg, the result might look something like Ian Samuels’ 13 minute short, Caterwaul. The film, which I caught at last year’s FantasticFest, and has played a bunch of festivals recently including Telluride, Slamdance and Toronto After Dark, tells the story of an aging fisherman who finds himself drawn to a lobster that begins to resemble his recently deceased wife.
While the premise may sound strange or even grotesque, there’s no denying the film’s quiet emotional power. Samuels’ execution is that of masterful minimalism; with almost no dialogue, the story is communicated largely through the expression’s of grizzled character actor George Murdock (in his final role) and the eerily soulful eyes of the strange, amorphous creature that he takes into his home. The puppetry used to bring “Hattie” to life is excellent, while the grey skies of Cape Cod, Massachusetts lend the film a muted beauty that reflects perfectly the pain of loss and loneliness.
Check out the film’s trailer, and my conversation with writer-director Ian Samuels, below.
Movie Mezzanine: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Ian Samuels: I always liked telling stories. Before I could write, I dictated stories about witches to my parents and then illustrated them. This evolved into me performing one-man shows with a pre-recorded supporting cast (me) on a tape recorder… often about witches still. In middle school I started a marionette company with a friend of mine. We built shows and toured Western Massachusetts. I started getting into filmmaking around the same time. I would make little stop motion films with objects around the house. I decided sometime in high school that I wanted to go to college with a film program. That was my first commitment to filmmaking.
Did you study film, and if so, where?
I studied film and literature at Bard College, which was very experimental. I was doing mostly stop motion work there. Then I spent a couple of years working in New York at Sesame Street before going to grad school at CalArts for live action narrative directing.
What other films/projects have you been involved with?
I’ve made a few shorts now. My last film, The Eyes and the Ice, screened around last year. I worked a bit with Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Company. I also came out with an illustrated storybook last year. Right now I’m focusing on commercial and new original short form work.
Where did the idea for Caterwaul originate?
There were a few sources of inspiration that came together to create the initial idea for Caterwaul. Visually, I always wanted to shoot a film on Cape Cod. I grew up in Massachusetts, going to Cape Cod for summer camp and vacations. I’m fascinated by all the creatures on the Cape… the lobsters, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs… strange, strange monsters crawling around these macabre grassy beaches. It just seemed inevitable that a lobsterman should have a romance with one of them.
As for the characters themselves… my grandfather passed away about ten years ago and he’s still on my grandmother’s answering machine greeting. His clothes are still in her house. Objects, like his chess set, are still in their places. It’s like he’s still living there. Like he could walk into the room at any time. I was interested in the idea that there can be a presence of someone in a house through the things they leave behind.
At the same time, I was going through a difficult break up. I was dealing with a lot of mixed emotions about letting go. Wanting one more night with someone. One more chance. Looking for some closure. But experiencing only dissonance and dissatisfaction. There is no closure really. So I wanted to make a film about these feelings, feelings of holding on and feelings of mourning.
Were there any filmmakers that were of particularly strong influence on you and on the film?
I always thought it would be interesting to see a Michael Haneke and Jim Henson collaboration.
I was watching Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt… filmmakers that capture a sensorial experience on the screen. Feeling, smells, the emotional experience of being in a place. I knew that Caterwaul was going to have an enigmatic plot and rely heavily on tone and sensory awareness. How could I capture that within the landscapes? The objects? The composition and duration of shots? So I was watching filmmakers that used images and sounds to capture a genuine experience of a time and place. Less traditional in terms of shooting strategy and, (although very deliberate), more intuitive.
How long have you spent with the film, from conception to shooting to release?
It took me about a year and a half from conception to the end. Preproduction and production went fairly quickly but then I spent a long time editing. The longer I spent with the story, the more I realized how simple it needed to be in order to pull it off. The film is more about a feeling, so I didn’t want to get bogged down in too much plot. I ended up stripping a lot away.
And so how long was the shoot?
We shot for five days. Two days on a fishing boat and three days in and around the house. Puppets take longer to shoot. They don’t always hit their marks. I also cut a lot out of the final film. We shot more scenes that didn’t seem relevant in the end. There was a great red-light, green-light game sequence with the creature that I’ll resurrect in some film in the future.
What camera did you use?
We shot on a 16mm Aaton film camera. I knew I wanted to shoot this on film, to give the whole thing a timeless look in order to better integrate the retro puppetry effects and nostalgic tone. The texture of film feels timeless to me. It’s dirty. It could have been shot in 1982 or 2012. I think it helps sell the puppetry. Because of the grain, and low contrast image, you are immediately open to reading the film as something from another era. Which helps suspend disbelief for the puppet. It also avoids any harsh HD clarity, and subsequently can better blend the puppet into the environments. The Aaton in particular is a smaller 16mm camera so it was easier to take on the boat.
What was involved in bring the lobster creature to life?
I knew the design of the creature had to embody an emotion over a particular lobster form. The creature was coming from a lobster but it had to manifest the feeling of mourning. I also wanted to realize the experience of staring into the eyes of someone you are in love with. Soulful. I did some sketches and then worked with artist Ashley Stoddard to get the form just right. She did some great dimensional turn-arounds that were the blueprint for the builder.
Initially, I started building myself, but quickly realized I wanted to collaborate with someone better than me. I got in touch with David Monzingo, an incredibly talented artist, who was willing to take this on. He built the two final puppets. I gave little direction other than the concept artwork but I remember saying, “Make sure you can fall in love with her. Channel the soul of someone you love.” I remember David said that he’s used to making everything symmetrical for his Hollywood projects and I kept telling him to make it more unbalanced, make the eyes all askew. I didn’t want something that looked like a movie monster, too anthropomorphic. I wanted something that looked like a thing. The final puppets blew me away. So beautiful. It was a shame to sink one in the ocean.
They were both hand and rod puppets and were controlled by at least two performers. I think we had up to four performers at one point. There is very little digital work. I had to erase performers and rods from two shots; otherwise, everything you see is in camera.
Puppetry is tricky to shoot. I worked with my DP on a shoot with puppets before, so we had a good idea about what is effective in selling them. Lenses are incredibly important, as is lighting and just the right subtle gestures and eyeline matches. It’s tricky, but rewarding when it all comes to life.
Working on Sesame Street, I was always amazed at how people open up to puppets in a way that they don’t with other humans. There is something so inviting about communicating with a puppet. They appear to have souls, but they’re not intimidating. George, our actor, became so intimate with the puppet. I remember him yelling at our wonderful puppet performer, Yelena Zhelezov, to get out of the way in the bedroom scene. She was a third wheel coming between him and the puppet. He was serious.
You’ve got this great veteran character actor, George Murdock, in the lead role. How did you cast him, and what was it like working with him?
I auditioned actors with my casting director, Anne Teutschel, in Los Angeles, New York City and non-actor fisherman on Cape Cod and Maine for a few months. Ultimately, I cast a beautiful actor named John Tobias as my title role. He’s working out of New York City, and was very close to the material. We met up a few times to talk about the script, had a camera test with my DP, but then a week before the shoot he came down with pneumonia. I was devastated, and nervous for the production because I had the crew and equipment travelling all the way over to the Cape and no actor. So my casting director sent me George Murdock’s résumé and reel. He was brilliant. I knew that he could do it without having met him. We contacted his agent and offered him the role and he came out to Cape Cod.
I learned a lot working with George. He was very independent. It was his job to act and he wanted me to set up parameters and then get out of his way. He brought decades of experience with him and I was humbled to be part of his process on set. Unfortunately, he passed away before the film was finished. This was his last role. Looking back on the footage, I can see that his genuine, vulnerable performance is coming at least in part from his immediate sense of mortality. I didn’t know he was ill when we shot the film, but he would talk to me about regrets he had in life, and about the end being near. He gives a beautiful performance that makes more sense to me in retrospect. I wish he was able to see it.
For my part, I found the film extraordinarily moving. But was there ever a worry that audience might be put off by the strange nature of the film’s core relationship?
It never crossed my mind that the audience would be put off by the nature of the relationship. I was excited about pulling off a genuine connection between this iconic pair of characters and that’s all that mattered… how great it would be to see a lobsterman and a lobster as a romantic couple. To be honest, I don’t think I was thinking about an audience other than myself.
Conceptually, I was interested in portraying love beyond form, that two unlikely characters could share the same emotional depth as you or me. Although this has nothing to do with the film, it baffles me that people can’t understand the legitimacy of gay marriage. That was somewhere in the back of my mind. Ultimately, audiences seem to buy the inter-species relationship with little difficulty. Maybe the absurdity of it all makes it more palatable. Or maybe because the fisherman is actually looking into the eyes of his wife. He is looking into the soul of someone he loves.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing emerging filmmakers at the moment?
The biggest challenge for emerging filmmakers is also an asset; it’s the accessibility of filmmaking today. The accessibility of equipment and for modes of distribution. There is so much content out there that it becomes difficult to leave any impression. The best advice that was given to me was that, despite the amount of content, there really is no competition. As an artist, you have a unique point of view, and therefore you are only in competition with yourself.
As a short filmmaker, how does the internet affect the way you market and distribute your movie?
The internet is extremely helpful. For starters, I raised a significant amount of money on Kickstarter to fund the film. With Facebook, and other online forums, it’s easy to build awareness. Ultimately, sharing work online, even password protected, is quick and easy. It also allows other people to share my work with their networks. I’ve never been protective over my work. For me, the more people who see it, the better, whether at a festival or online…and here you are, interviewing me for a website.
What other projects have you got coming up in the future? Would you like to make the transition into features at some point?
I have a short puppet comedy about a monster in Burbank that I’m so excited about and I’m trying to find funding to make it. To be completely modest, it’s an amazing film and needs to get made. I’ve been doing some commercial work. I’m also writing a feature. It’s a new story, but manages to take the concept of Caterwaul a bit further.
Where has the Caterwaul been screened, and where can people see it in the next few months?
It’s screened at Telluride, Slamdance, Fantastic Fest, Toronto After Dark, San Diego Film Fest and Provincetown festival to name a few. It was also featured on public Television in southern California as part of KCET’s Fine Cut series. I’m not sure where it will screen next but anyone interested can always contact me to see it.
Where can people find you online?
Are you a short filmmaker interested in being featured in ‘Short Stuff?’ If so, please shoot an email to tomdclift[@]gmail[.]com