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Sundance 2019 Short Film Preview: 10 Must-See Gems, From Vampires to Emily Mortimer

Spooky tales and eye-opening dramas deliver thrills at this year’s festival in bite-sized pieces.

Vampires, poltergeists, and all sorts of beasts of the night can be found haunting the short film programs at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, stunning new work by cinematographer extraordinaire Bradford Young and a remarkable performance by Emily Mortimer will thrill viewers who aren’t expecting such high-caliber talent to be working in the short format. Sundance Senior Programmer Mike Plante summed up the 73 live action, animated, and documentary short film selections as “rowdy, reflective, visionary.”

After previewing 40-plus shorts available for advance press screening, IndieWire reached out to the directors of 10 of the most outstanding to ask about their inspiration and what they’re working on next.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 must-see shorts playing the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Although 8 of them are world premiering at the festival, which runs January 24 – February 3 in Park City, Utah.

“As Told To G/D Thyself”

World Premiere

Directors: Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Marc Thomas, Kamasi Washington, Bradford Young (collectively known as the Ummah Chroma)

“As Told to G-d Theyself”

As one might expect from the talent involved in this 24-minute, highly poetic sensory experience, “As Told To G/D Thyself” will be a visual and aural treat for those lucky enough to catch it on the big screen. Packed full of visual effects finished just in time for Sundance, this stunning experimental film set to Kamasi Washington’s music was shot in Baltimore over three days when the extremely busy schedules of everyone involved coalesced.

Filmmaker Terence Nance’s Inspiration: “Kamasi’s music was the big inspiration and just the energy between us.”

What’s Next: “’Random Acts of Flyness.’ Watch it on HBO.”

“Crude Oil”

World Premiere

Director: Christopher Good

crude oil

“Crude Oil”

Writer-director Christopher Good and his producer-star Andreina Byrne joined together to make a laugh-out-loud film about a toxic friendship further strained when deepest secrets are revealed. The secrets aren’t your run-of-the-mill confessions, and the resulting mayhem is weird, wacky, and wonderful. “It was an ambitious production,” Good said. “The film is 15 minutes long, but there are around 50 scenes in it. And a good number of those scenes are like five seconds long.“

Filmmaker Christopher Good’s Inspiration: “Initially I just wanted to make something about a person dealing with an overbearing friend. I remember telling Andreina that I thought it could be like ‘Age of Innocence,’ that sort of epic burrowing into relationships and the rules governing them. (But, you know, in a short film.) As the script developed, it probably lost some of that influence. When I look at it now, I almost feel like it’s a film with characters out of a mainstream comedy, but with aggressively expressionistic filmmaking applied to them. Not arbitrarily, though – the main character’s almost like a secret weirdo navigating a normal world, forced to play that role under her friend’s thumb, and we’re maybe watching the film filtered through her unconscious.”

What’s Next: “I’m writing a feature. At the moment, the story kind of revolves around deep fakes. Tipper [Newton, who also stars in “Crude Oil”] is fairly obsessed with Brian DePalma, and she’s got me pretty hooked, so I’ve been watching or rewatching a lot of his films lately for general vibe-gathering purposes.”

“Dulce”

Directors: Guille Isa & Angello Faccini

“Dulce”

This 11-minute documentary co-directed by Lima-based Guille Isa and Barcelona-based Angello Faccini beautifully illustrates how a small personal story can resonate on many different levels. “Dulce” focuses a young girl whose mother harvests shellfish in a costal area suffering from the ravages of climate change. The mother is determined to teach her skittish young daughter the most crucial life skill – how to swim. Actor and Conservation International’s Leadership Council member Lee Pace (recently seen on Broadway in “Angels in America”) makes his producing debut as the short’s Executive Producer.

Having already played at the Toronto International Film Festival and won a Best Doc trophy at Palm Springs ShortFest, the film is also spreading its social/environmental message worldwide via the New York Times Opt-Doc online platform.

Filmmaker Guille Isa’s Inspiration: “We knew from the beginning we were looking for a story related to climate change. That was the mission. So when I met Dulce, and her fear of the ocean and struggle with swimming, I was convinced it was the perfect character. Because in her story there was not only a climate change story, but a story about survival and about becoming a woman. Learning how to swim, a simple act, becomes a life and death issue.”

Filmmaker Angello Faccini’s Inspiration: “[Eight-year-old Ducle] inspired me in so many ways; her honesty to face the different events of her life was so sincere that we just needed to know where to put the camera and wait for everything happen in front of us.”

What’s Next (Isa): “Working on a documentary series on ancient cultures and their spiritual practices around the world.”

What’s Next (Faccini): “I’m working on fiction/documentary story about two brothers who meet each other after a long separation, to bury their mother in the top of Macurve mountains. It’s a story about a journey to discover yourself through the eyes of your brother.”

“Lavender”

World Premiere

Director: Matthew Puccini

“Lavender”

Cinematic depictions of a ménage à trois relationship are nothing new. But writer-director Matthew Puccini wins over the viewer from the very first frame of “Lavender” and continues to weave a powerful spell for the next 11 minutes as he tells the story of a younger man involved with an older couple. Puccini, a 2018 Sundance Ignite fellow, credits a lot of the film’s power to its casting. “It was clear to our casting director, producers and me from the very beginning that the film would sink or swim based on having the right three actors at the center,” said Puccini. “It still feels like a coup that we ended up with the talent that we have; Michael Hsu Rosen, Michael Urie and Ken Barnett all do such gorgeous, nuanced work in this piece. It was an even crazier coincidence that they all already knew each other. It made developing their rapport and shared history that much easier.”

Filmmaker Matthew Puccini’s Inspiration: “The film is inspired by personal experience. I had spent some significant time with another gay couple in 2017 and was struck by the maturity of their relationship and their lifestyle. It took me a while to realize that the reason I was so drawn to them was because those were things I wanted for myself. I’d also seen several shows about threesomes and wanted to put something on screen that felt truer to my own experience, focusing on the potential for beauty and intimacy rather than on the potential for jealousy or pettiness.”

What’s Next: “I’m in post production on a new short film called ‘Dirty,’ about a pair of high school boyfriends who cut class to lose their virginities to each other. I’m also starting the process of developing my first feature film. It’s not a direct extension of ‘Lavender,’ but it has a similar tone and sensibility.”

“Old Haunt”

World Premiere

Director: Andre Hyland

“Old Haunt”

Andre Hyland wrote, directed, produced, edited, and stars in this extremely enjoyable 11-minute tour de force about a writer plagued by disturbing incidents while living in a too-good-to-be-true Airbnb rental.  Hyland, who is also starring in a feature playing at Sundance (“The Death Of Dick Long”), shot his short in three days with DP Shane Bruce Johnston.

Filmmaker Andre Hyland’s Inspiration: “Last winter I directed the TV series ‘Jon Glaser Loves Gear.’ We made a ‘horror’ themed episode parodying ‘The Omen’ and ‘The Shinning,’ which forced me to think and shoot in a more horror aesthetic for the first time. After we wrapped, I kept thinking in that vein with more ideas I became excited about. Once I had time in my schedule to put a shoot together I jumped at it. Even though I wouldn’t call ‘Old Haunt’ a horror, it definitely has a creepier more surreal tone shift from the work I’ve been making the past few years. ‘Old Haunt’ is sort of my version of a ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Black Mirror’ episode.”

What’s Next: “‘Jon Glaser Loves Gear’ is now airing on TRU TV, I directed the entire second season, so look for that! Also another interesting cool movie I’m in, ‘Relaxer,’ comes out March 22nd. I was also cast in the American adaptation of the British comedy series ‘People Just Do Nothing,’ we just shot the Amazon pilot and it was super funny. As for me, I’m aiming to shoot my next feature film I wrote later this year, and my last feature film ‘THE 4TH’ is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and a bunch of other places. Go watch it!”

“One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure”

Director A.M. Lukas

“One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure”

Emily Mortimer gives a delightful performance as a Czech refugee living in Fargo, North Dakota in this sure-handed14-minute comedy by writer-director A.M. Lukas. Lukas, whose credits include the Thanksgiving-themed feature “Hollidaysburg,” shot this very amusing story in a house 30 feet from her actual childhood home.

Filmmaker A.M. Lukas’s Inspiration: “’One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure’ came from the very banal place of needing a script so that I could apply to a directing program that’s run by AFI called the DWW. It was 2009 or 2010 and I sat down at my desk and did an experiment where I wrote whatever I could (with a beginning, middle, and end) in something like an hour. I timed myself. It was an effort to circumvent the usual 10 days to five months of procrastination that usually happens before I write anything. So I gave myself a time limit and then as I often do, I started with the question of ‘What do I know inside and out? What am I an authority on?’ And that day, the answer was my early childhood, and going to grocery stores with Cambodian refugee families, watching my mom help them grocery shop in America for the first time. I was an authority on the weirdness of growing up the child of European immigrants in a place like Fargo, North Dakota, so I wrote about that. And I felt pretty good about it. And then I did not get into that directing program and I became very bitter for many years. That’s a joke! Also, much of the script was taking pleasure in making fun of the way my mother speaks English even though I know she’s sensitive about that, because apparently, she raised us to be mean.” (The short is viewable online here.)

What’s Next: “I’ve found that I don’t love to talk about things that aren’t fully formed, mostly because I’m terrible at it. But I will say that I’m working on an expansion of the world of ‘One Cambodian…’, one that touches upon the darker elements of life in Fargo in the 1980’s for this immigrant family, in addition to the humorous and redemptive qualities that the short film depicts. All the juicy dark sex stuff in the original script got cut for time, so now I need somewhere to put it.”

“The Rat”

World Premiere

Director: Carlen May-Mann

“The Rat”

Too many short filmmakers stumble while trying to find a satisfying conclusion for their brief films, but writer-director Carlen May-Mann’s decision how to end her 12-minute film is masterful. In fact, May-Mann makes top-notch directorial choices throughout “The Rat” as she tells the story of a young couple’s experience in a haunted house and the aftermath. The short was shot over three days in Staten Island’s Kreischer, which is famous for reports of real-life hauntings.

Filmmaker Carlen May-Mann’s Inspiration: “In creating ‘The Rat,’ I was inspired by horror cinema itself – I wanted to find the best way to use the unique conventions of the genre and twist them to tell a story about what fear can look like in real life. Horror has a long history as a subversive tool. Through metaphor and suggestion, filmmakers are able to tell socially conscious stories that circumvent legal and cultural censorship. However, there is also an ugly tradition within the genre of exploitation of women’s bodies and minds. Working from within this paradox, I wanted to tell a story that used the evocative iconography of horror to tell a story about the terror of gendered abuse and the ways that fear is used to oppress.”

What’s Next: “For the past few years, producer Beck Kitsis and I have been working on a horror feature script entitled ‘Strawberry Summer,’ and we’re finally ready to dive into pre-production soon, with the intention of shooting this summer. ‘Strawberry Summer’ is a story about a young girl’s coming of age as she becomes increasingly terrorized by the unwanted attention of older men. In addition, I am in the early stages of developing another feature script, a sci-fi drama tentatively entitled ‘The Penthouse’ that explores the intricacies of romantic and platonic relationships between queer women. In the coming year, I hope to continue to direct new music videos and other short projects, and to grow my film and media collective NITE SHIFT.”

“sometimes, i think about dying”

World Premiere

Director: Stefanie Abel Horowitz

“sometimes i think about dying”

There are some shorts that feel like features, even if they are only 13-minutes long. “sometimes, i think about dying” is one of those films. It’s the story of a woman (Katy Wright-Mead) whose dark thoughts are interrupted by the unexpected attention paid to her by a co-worker (Jim Sarbh). Filmmaker Stefanie Abel Horowitz comes from a theater background and is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, so her storytelling skills are well-honed. Her filmmaking chops are on full display when she makes the perfect choice of when to cut to black.

Filmmaker Stefanie Abel Horowitz’s Inspiration: “The short is based on a play I directed in 2013. The play, ‘killers,’ was dark, funny and intimate and I loved telling that story for the stage. So, when Katy Wright-Mead (the star of the film) suggested bringing it back as a short, it was a no brainer!”

What’s Next:  “We’re writing the feature version of the short! And I’m pretty excited about it!”

“Suicide By Sunlight”

World Premiere

Director: Nikyatu Jusu

“Suicide By Sunlight”

The one-liner for “Suicide By Sunlight” could be “Grey’s Anatomy” with vampires.  But the actual short by NYU grad and George Mason University Assistant Professor Nikyatu Jusu is about so much more. This 17-minute film centers on a hard-working medical professional – who also happens to be a day-walking vampire – fighting her ex-husband for the right to see her children. With star Natalie Paul’s outstanding performance and funding made possible by Tribeca’s 2017 Through Her Lens grant, “Suicide by Sunlight” rises far, far above genre limitations.

Filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu’s Inspiration: “I’ve always been a fan of the vampire genre consuming classics like ‘Vampire in Brooklyn,’ ‘Interview With the Vampire,’ ‘Blade,’ ‘True Blood,’ ‘Let the Right One In,’ ‘Trouble Every Day,’ etc. But as I matured I struggled to immerse myself in worlds where black characters were peripheral props or excluded altogether. Once I discovered sci fi novelist Octavia Butler and started digging into vampire mythology as it exists in West Africa and the Caribbean, from the Ghanaian asanbosam to the Haitian loogaroo, I knew I could remix this folklore in a way that felt uniquely authentic, grounded in heritage. Inspired by the aforementioned, I created a world in which black vampires protected by their melanin can day-walk. Because of their biological advantage of being protected from the sun, they are able to seamlessly blend into humanity. From this premise, so many narrative themes and questions surfaced, giving me more than enough fodder to engineer the blood, sweat, and tears that is ‘Suicide By Sunlight.’ I originally conceived of this concept as a series because this world is much too rich to cram into any other medium…”

What’s Next: “’Suicide By Sunlight,’ the short film, is an introduction to a larger original episodic series by the same name that we plan to introduce to the world via streaming and TV. We’re excited to expand on this world through compelling characters navigating a world where black vampires exist just in the margins…stay tuned.”

“Under Covers”

World Premiere

Director: Michaela Olsen

“Under Covers”

Screening as part of the Midnight Shorts program, this entertaining eight minute stop-motion animation literally pulls back the (bed)covers on all sorts of unexpected, sometimes spooky, and always funny nocturnal activities. As the film’s official logline puts it: “From a pigtailed psychopath to naughty nuns, this stop-motion animated film conjures a comforting thought: that weird is relative.” Olsen, who has direct projects for clients like Netflix, HBO, Nick Jr., NBC and The New York Times via the Mighty Oak animation studio, started this project about 10 years ago as an interactive book called ‘Sleepcrets.’

Filmmaker Michaela Olsen’s Inspiration: “I’m fascinated by the lives people lead when they think nobody’s looking. The way we present ourselves to the world often contradicts who we are on the inside. So we meet the sleepy characters in ‘Under Covers’ at their most vulnerable, giving us access to all their secrets — whether those secrets are harmless and adorable or 100% deranged. These puppets are down to show you their true selves, inviting you to dance naked under the moon with them.”

What’s Next: “Mighty Oak is always busy creating various forms of content for brands. We just wrapped a fun little puppet promo for ‘Queer Eye.’ And we’ve been working our way into television. We recently worked on the first episode of ‘Random Acts of Flyness’ with Terence Nance and HBO. My next dream project would be a series or feature film combining stop motion and live action. Maybe a comedy about queerness, body image, and love, set in a surreal landscape. Or a game show! I love game shows.”

Kim Adelman has covered must-see Sundance shorts for IndieWire since 2007.

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