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Hot Shorts: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Sparks” Fires Up Wholphin Screening

Hot Shorts: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Sparks" Fires Up Wholphin Screening

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s crafty adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s arson investigation story, Spike Jonze’s birthday present to Maurice Sendak, Spencer Susser’s ode to teenage romance amidst zombie infestation, and Justin Nowell’s meditation on fake orgasms were four of the six shorts screened at the Wholphin No. 9 & No. 10 DVD release party held this month at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles.

Wholphin editors Brent Hoff and Emily Doe partnered with Cinefamily to host the Los Angeles screening, in which 35mm film prints and HD masters were projected on the big screen in front of a standing-room-only crowd comprised of indie film fans, Melrose hipsters, and assorted Sundance festival programmers.

Wholphin, a McSweeney’s publication billed as a DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films, is headquartered in San Francisco and publishes quarterly. A preview screening with a slightly different line-up was held in the Bay Area on November 6th.

Cherry-picked to screen from Wholphin No. 9 were Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 24-minute “Sparks,” Spike Jonze and Lance Bang’s 3 1/2-minute “Maurice at the World’s Fair,” and Justin Nowell’s 15-minute “Acting for the Camera.”

Bespectacled Joseph Gordon-Levitt was easily the most popular director attending the DVD release party. The gracious star of “(500) Days of Summer” posed for photos with fans at the reception and thanked everyone for their kind words. His short (his first project as a writer/director) premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and has been a popular staple on the festival circuit this year.

In the Q&A after “Sparks” screened, Wholphin editor Brent Hoff asked Gordon-Levitt how he got the money to fund the production. “Well, I was on a sitcom as a kid,” the former “3rd Rock from the Sun” star deadpanned.

Other questions revealed that Gordon-Levitt’s connection to Elmore Leonard came about after acting in another Leonard adaptation (“Killshot”) and that he pictured actress Carla Gugino from the first paragraph when he read the original 18-page short story. The rest of the cast, including co-star Eric Stoltz, came through Gugino. “Let the lead actor cast the film,” the actor-turned-writer/director advised with a smile. Gordon-Levitt pulled Cat Solen on stage with him, crediting her for the arts, crafts, and animation that gave his film its unexpected homemade aspect. Solen, in turn, lauded Gordon-Levitt for his “hard work and a good script.”

Spike Jonze was not able to join the Wholphin gang at the Silent Movie Theatre. His piece, which was made for Sendak’s 80th birthday, features himself and Catherine Keener doing silent movie-style acting to illustrate Sendak’s memory of attending the World’s Fair. Wholphin No. 9 also includes two other Jonze-helmed “Where the Wild Things Are”-related pieces (not shown at the Silent Movie screening). One is a portrait of Sendak’s self-doubts entitled “The Creature Within,” and the other is an animated director’s statement entitled “Melbourne Years.” Additionally, the DVD liner notes contain an excerpt from a McSweeney’s interview with Jonze and Sendak.

After screening “Acting for the Camera,” director Justin Nowell and writer/brother Thomas Nowell revealed that they only had 6 hours to film their 14 page script, and that they shot using a real acting class as extras. Wholphin editor Brent Hoff praised Nowell, who recently relocated to Los Angeles, for getting such natural performances from his leads.

From the upcoming Wholphin No. 10, which will be released in January 2010, three films were previewed. “Audience of One,” a 37-minute documentary by Michael Jacobs (who was not at the LA screening), follows the journey of a San Francisco-based pastor-turned-director making a sci-fi Christian film shot on 65MM in Italy for an audience of one – God. The pastor’s ambitious vision generated a lot of party chatter at the reception that followed the screening in the theater’s back patio.

The final film of the evening was Spencer Susser’s 15-minute “I Love Sarah Jane.” The titular love interest in this zombie-plagued short is played by Mia Wasikowska, who will be seen on movie screens worldwide next year as Alice in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Director Spencer Susser is also someone to keep an eye on in 2010 as his feature, “Hesher” (starring man-of-the-hour Joseph Gordon-Levitt), world premieres next month at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. dramatic competition category. At the Wholphin screening, Susser was joined by Nash Edgerton, prompting an audience member to yell out “I love Blue-Tongue Films.” Although American, Susser is a member of Edgerton’s Australian filmmaking collective responsible for such beloved shorts as “Spider,” “Crossbow,” “Miracle Fish,” and “Netherland Dwarf.”

The December 8th screening began with a mesmerizing underwater robotics piece directed by Wholphin editor Hoff and memorably named “Ptychogastria, Spatulate: Apprehensions Eight and a Half Empire State Buildings Down (a.k.a. A Deep Metaphor for Something I’d Rather Not Talk About).” That piece, along with Jonathan Demme’s portrait of Katrina survivors (“Joe and Linda Flooded Out of Holy Cross”) and Natalie Portman’s writing/directorial debut (“Eve”), will appear on Wholphin No. 10, to be officially released next month.

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