August 29, 2016
This month’s online short is the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 36 selection What Cheer?, which screened in the Jews in Shorts program and received the 2016 Film Movement Award. The award, presented in partnership with film distributor Film Movement, honors achievement in short filmmaking that expresses the Jewish experience in a unique, original, and meaningful way, or provides a fresh perspective on diversity within the Jewish community.
Dir. Michael Slavens, United States, 2014, 17 min, English. After the sudden passing of his wife, a composer (Richard Kind) tries to ignore his overwhelming grief only to be faced with a 20-piece marching band that floods his world with a boisterous, interminable song.
Q&A with director Michael Slavens
What inspired you to make this film?
A while back a friend of mine was in from Providence staying on my couch and asked if I wanted to see his band — I didn’t. But I went anyway and was blown away by The What Cheer? Brigade. I always wanted to do something with them but didn’t know how best to utilize their unique onstage presence. Then, some 5 years later, I went through a bad breakup and found myself lost in a haze, constantly rehashing the details of the relationship trying to figure out what had gone wrong and why. One day I sort of came-to in a cab, not remembering exactly how I had gotten there or where I was going. I realized that I had had this blinding, all-encompassing noise in my head that was providing a constant distraction from the events of the day. It suddenly clicked that The WC?B would be a great personification of that din, and I went about writing What Cheer?.
What was your greatest challenge during the filmmaking process?
Coordinating the movements of a loud, 20-piece brass band and Richard Kind
through crowded Manhattan streets during the midst of an August heatwave. I don’t think we considered just how much time it would take to orchestrate each scene. Halfway through our production days, despite already cutting things on the fly, my assistant director pulled me aside and told me we had to cut 50% of what was left. So we took a few hours to rewrite, condense, and edit before continuing with the rest of the shoot. I wish we could’ve done that rewriting before production started, but I’m proud of what we pulled off.
Any thoughts you’d like to share about screening this film in a Jewish context?
It’s funny, I don’t really think there’s much of a Jewish context other than the fact that I happen to be Jewish. The only way you would know that the protagonist is Jewish (other than seeing Richard Kind in the role) is that the funeral scene at the beginning the cemetery scene at the end contain some Jewish traditions. I could only write what I know. Plus, I really liked the idea of using the mourner’s kaddish to transition Stan into the world of the What Cheer? Brigade — it’s sort of musical in a way.
What film/media has inspired you lately?
There are so many great shorts online these days. I love the format because you can get away with a lot of grand visual metaphor. One of my favorites is “The Karman Line” by Oscar Sharp, in which a family must deal with the fact that day-by-day mom keeps floating higher and higher into the stratosphere. It’s a beautiful film about coming to terms with a loved one’s terminal illness.
What do you do when you’re not filmmaking?
Walk the streets of New York — with my wife and our pup — and people-watch.
Lastly, gefilte fish: delicious, or disgusting?
From a jar = disgusting. Homemade slathered in beet horseradish = delicious