Over the past two decades, Aspen Shortsfest has hosted an astonishing roster of now-famous filmmakers. For the 20th Annual Aspen Shortsfest, which began April 10 and ends on the 15th, Indiewire spoke to festival artistic director Laura Thielen and program director George Eldred about the delight of discovering diamonds in the rough.
Looking back to the festival’s early years, who were some of the filmmakers that stood out?
Thielen: This morning I went through some of the old catalogues and saw that in 1992, the festival showed about 20 films in two programs. And one of the filmmakers in that list was Nicole Holofcener with a five-minute short called “Angry.” In 1993, we had “Season of the Lifterbees,” a 29-minute film by Eugene Jarecki. Also that year was the first time we showed a short by Trey Parker. In 1994, we had a short called “Ice Cream” by Louis CK.
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You see these filmmakers in the nascent stages of their career. Can you remember some that you thought from seeing their short they would probably go on to make great features?
Thielen: Chris Wedge, who made the short “Bunny.” Certainly Fernando Meirelles, who did “Palace II (Golden Gate).”
Eldred: Just a remarkably engaging cinematic style.
Thielen: I have to give a shoutout to some of the Australian filmmakers, like Nash Edgerton. We showed a three-minute short of his called “The Pitch” many years ago. Cary Fukunaga, we showed his short “Victoria Para Chino.” Andrea Arnold with “Wasp.” Interesting independent filmmakers like Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden with “Gowanus, Brooklyn.” Another person is Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian filmmaker who went on to do “Young Victoria.”
Eldred: And Sarah Polley, I liked her shorts a lot.
Thielen: And of course Jason Reitman. Another filmmaker that I think is important – and she’s really eclectic, she works in film, television, shorts, and documentary features – is Jessica Yu, who has a new short in this year’s festival. And Kirsten Sheridan, Jim Sheridan’s daughter, we showed her early on. Bahman Ghobadi, we showed his short “Life in Fog” way back.
One of the things I noticed when going through the old catalogues, we made a conscious effort when we came in – the first Shortsfest we did was in 1996 – with our background from the San Francisco International Film Festival, we were very interested in expanding the Shortsfest to be a truly international competition. One of the things that really struck me when going through the catalogues was how international the festival has become, with filmmakers from Thailand, from Iran, from Africa, from all over Europe. In some ways it becomes difficult to say with the international directors what they’re doing now.
Eldred: Sometimes it’s not the filmmakers themselves, but the talent you see in the short. I remember Naomi Watts in a short called “Ellie Parker.” She had already been in features, but not a star yet in America. It’s exciting to see those screen presences before they have been elevated through the star-making machinery.
Thielen: Another one that comes to mind is the short by Griffin Dunne, the Oscar-nominated “The Duke of Groove,” with Tobey Maguire as an adolescent.
Let’s talk about Oscars. Your festival also has a great track record of showing shorts that go on to Academy acclaim. Do any stand out as particularly memorable?
Eldred: I keep coming back to “Wasp.” A very powerful piece.
Thielen: Of course Adam Elliot’s animation. It has been exciting to see his development. This year it was fun to see “Time Freak” and “Raju” nominated, and “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” won our animation prize last year. Two years ago, it was a delight to see Luke Matheny’s “God of Love,” which we had the premiere of. It’s always wonderful to see shorts that have showcased at Shortsfest be honored because a nomination means so much for a filmmaker’s career, but we don’t program for Oscar consideration.
Over the years, you’ve both seen thousands of shorts. Can you each name one or two that completely knocked your socks off?
Eldred: “Wasp.” Taika Waititi’s “Two Cars, One Night,” I think about that a lot.
Thielen: Jason Reitman’s “In God We Trust” – that is a favorite of mine. It was just so energetic and imaginative and beautifully spirited. Or Adam Collis’s “Mad Boy, I’ll Blow Your Blues Away,” I thought that was pretty special.
Two films that I could play over and over again are “Erè Mèla Mèla,” where two male dancers completely morph with furniture, I remember how much I loved the energy of that film, and “City Paradise,” a British film, five minutes, truly quirky. “In God…” and “Mad Boy…,” those were revelations of narrative talent, but for the pure expressiveness of the short film form, I never ever got tired of “Erè Mèla Mèla” and “City Paradise.”
Another is “Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers,” a Swedish film in which six percussionists make music with what they find in each room. Magnolia has recently released the feature version of it [“Sound of Noise”].
And what about this year’s festival – any filmmakers from the past two decades revisiting Shortsfest?
Thielen: We have a new film called “As You Were” by René Frelle Petersen. Last year we showed “Going Nowhere.” He’s a very interesting Danish director. He makes these long, emotionally powerful films about family dynamics. We have a documentary called “Mr. Christmas” by Nick Palmer, a microportrait of a guy in Northern California who puts on an annual Christmas lights display at his house. Nick was with us in 2009 with a film called “Dockweiler,” an AFI project that was a drama. Daniel Junge is coming back with two films, “Saving Face,” which won the Oscar, and a new film that is perfect for a younger audience called “One Day.” Douglas Sloan is coming back with a new photography portrait, “Elliott Erwitt: I Bark At Dogs.”
Looking forward to 2032, where do you see the festival 20 years from now?
Eldred: That’s a dangerous thing, to look so far ahead. But I’m pretty confident that people will still want to come together for a group experience that is not on the internet. So I do think that there will still be festivals. How the filmed entertainment world evolves in 20 years, I can’t see that down far the road, with so many changes that have taken place in the last 10 or 15 years. But I do think people still want to share stories and talk about the experience.