Film: The Little Gorilla
Ice Cream is Serious Business:
Interview with Filmmaker Harry Kellerman
By Madelyn Ritrosky and Jared WInslow
Harry Kellerman has some very definite ideas.
Consider this: “When a child eats an ice cream cone, Hollywood wants you to think the child eats that ice cream cone with a big smile… But that’s a gross misrepresentation for me because childhood is actually a shot of a boy eating an ice cream cone with a look of cold steel on his face.”
Cold steel. Cool, glinting, unyielding. Do a gestalt shift in how you usually see such a scene, and think about it. Yes…. It’s coming into view… “That ice cream cone represents energy… It’s fuel for a child.” And that is serious business through the prism of childhood. As adults, we forget.
For Harry Kellerman, an up-and-coming writer and director, too many family films today are completely uninspired, “sterile and reheated.” Like the ice cream cone with a smile, Harry sees a sickly sweet quality that exudes “corporate-interest fear of alienating any demographic.”
He hates it. And he plans to do something about it. Actually, he already is.
I met Harry Kellerman and saw his short film, The Little Gorilla (2007), at the Heartland Film Festival. Since I was accompanied by my collaborator and eight-year-old son, Jared Winslow, Harry met him as well. When we were sitting at a table together at a lunch buffet for filmmakers and journalists, I could tell by Harry’s interactions with Jared that he truly was a kid-friendly adult.
Then when we watched The Little Gorilla, we knew. Harry is a kids’ filmmaker. Jared and I reviewed the film, which has a little boy as protagonist, in Heartland Festival Films: "Of Kids and Courage."
In the meantime, we got to see his first short film and initial entrée to the festival circuit, Spidermen (2004). It’s another visual storytelling feat that had me and Jared laughing and enjoying that little boy’s viewpoint as constructed by Harry Kellerman.
Recently, Harry and I sat down for an extended interview.
This turns out to be apt timing, for The Little Gorilla’s festival travels have just come to a close with two festivals in Italy in March. Harry explained, “I stopped submitting the film to festivals six months ago. It was taking too much out of me.” The film screened at 70 festivals and won 20 awards, and he eventually found himself wanting to talk about his other scripts. “I need to buckle down and focus on the new stuff, on the writing.” It’s time to move ahead.
Harry got into filmmaking by way of theater and acting at Brown University and then back in his hometown of New York City.
“I entered the acting biz, but I was constantly drawn to the filmmaking element,” he said. You can see him in bit parts in Tadpole (2002) and I’m with Lucy (2002).
“I found myself sitting next to the director, but instead of asking about my character’s motivations I was asking to see the storyboards. I was asking if a short film was adapted from a play and looking at how a writer-director was translating the language of a play into cinematic language.”
He realized his path and started Columbia’s graduate film program in fall 2002. “They teach filmmaking as a visual language,” Harry explained. “We started by writing five-page scripts with no dialogue. It was boot camp.” He came to the conclusion that “when you’re a spectator of human nonverbal behavior, your experience is that much deeper. Because you’re a witness to it. You’re seeing people’s characters through what they do rather than what they say.”
You can easily see the influence of this approach in both of Harry Kellerman’s films. Dialogue is minimal, with story, emotions, and the protagonist’s relational environment conveyed primarily through shot composition and juxtaposition. The music, composed by Harry in the case of The Little Gorilla, and the dialogue punctuate what we see within the frame. He strives for what he calls “subtextual dialogue” rather than “surface dialogue.”
Surface dialogue is, according to Harry, “what television runs on.” There are few exceptions. He named two: The Sopranos and The Office. The Office has some of the best dialogue subtext I’ve ever heard.” This brought up the name of one of The Office’s director-producers, Ken Kwapis, who also directed The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants a family film par excellence according to Harry.
“That is a highly underrated movie. It actually tackles four characters in extremely contemporary and character-related ways that you don’t see other family films try to tackle. And it’s an important movie because girls are the protagonists. It’s for a demographic that’s a little bit older, but it really delves into contemporary emotional issues for girls of that age. It exemplifies why I want to go into family films.”
He also mentioned Little Manhattan as a “really sweet, really original movie.” Unfortunately for its box office business, he explained, “it has a boy protagonist and it’s a love story. A love story is not going to bring boys into the theater.” It’s clear that Harry is weighing all of the dynamics in entering the family film market. He’s an idealist with realist sensibilities.
When he made his first film, Spidermen, Harry assessed his experience: “My enjoyment was way higher than people normally report when working with kids. In the industry, you hear ‘Don’t work with kids or animals’. But the unbelievable contradiction in that sentiment is children and animals go through the world learning and experiencing things visually and nonverbally. And I think film is strongest when stories are conveyed through behavior and not dialogue. Children and animals are probably the subjects more fit for cinematic expression. But working with them as performers requires a great deal of patience and time.”
Interestingly, the animal-child connection is manifest in both films: titles, visuals, and protagonist identification. In each case, the little boy ‘adopts’ a heroic persona King Kong and Spiderman that links up with an animal. And there’s a cat in Spidermen.
So how did it go on set? “The kids were great but they were young, so I could only work two to three hours a day and never back-to-back days. Even so, the amount of shooting I did compared to the amount that actually wound up in the films was ridiculously disproportional. It required a lot of patience.”
Sometimes filmmakers just keep the camera rolling on young performers even after yelling ‘Cut!’ Harry uses this strategy. “I would tell a story to the kids while the tape was running, while the kids were on their mark. The story always involved them as protagonist, locking them into something personal for them. I would structure the story to follow the emotional, facial expression I was shooting for in that particular shot. If I was going for befuddlement, I would gear my story toward mystery. I was able to get shots where you saw active thought process in the face of a child. So you see inner life in their performance.”
Too often, because of lower industry expectations, “performances are dead. And kids in commercials are essentially circus acts. Yet childhood is when the inner life is racing at top-speed, trying to figure out identity, make sense of the world, understand relationships,” he said. “The stakes are through the roof because there’s no reference point. Everything is a life or death emotional situation.”
With a psychoanalyst father, he grew up with a “deep appreciation for character analysis. And since I have a crystal-clear memory of my childhood, I’ve always been interested in the child’s point of view from a psychological standpoint.” In fact, he had so much fun making Spidermen that he conducted a test on himself. He tried writing other kinds of short-film scripts, but sure enough, it was stories based on his childhood that he really loved creating.
So he took a long, hard look at the state of the family film today, and he was “extremely disappointed.” For Harry, the films are vacuous compared to the early ‘80s films with which he grew up, like The Dark Crystal, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and E.T. “Young directors like Spielberg and Zemeckis were taking chances. It turned out they made extremely profitable movies and the genre took off. But today, when studios do employ a young, visionary filmmaker, they don’t allow that filmmaker to take risks.”
That sameness has crept into what were once imaginative innovations. “Essentially every Pixar is now the same,” he said. “They tackle different biospheres and assign archetypical characters to different species.” He also notes the fantasy/sci-fi/action movies where a couple of kids discover “another dimension, the fate of that dimension dependent on their ability to overcome their own limitations on their imagination. There must be ten movies that follow that arc in the last five years.”
This is not just the artist’s reaction to a perceived sense of lackluster creativity. Harry feels this play-it-safe mindset is affecting children’s social environment and their attitudes. “The real danger is kids are becoming cynical about what they’re being fed. What’s disturbing to me is the lack of magic in their eyes when they talk about movies. When I was a kid, if you said E.T. back in 1983, a child’s eyes lit up. There’s an element of magic which is a result of the love of doing it, of giving a gift back to your audience.”
Adults tend to forget the problems and stakes of childhood. And that’s where film can be such a creative, powerful tool of communication. “You can assign high stakes and real emotional investment in anything you want if you set it up the right way, if you show that characters really care. Yet Hollywood has not often assigned that kind of real emotional significance to childhood. Children live in a grown-up world, where few adults speak kid language. So when a child comes into contact with something that is actually ‘bi-lingual,’ kids are very much taken by this.”
Although Harry is an on-set talent assistant for The Naked Brothers Band on Nickelodeon and for director Amy Schatz at HBO Family, his real goal is, of course, to make his own feature films. To that end, he has been writing feature scripts, and did the festival circuit with The Little Gorilla. “It has gotten me a pretty good amount of industry interest. It’s an exciting time,” he said. “But I’m a bit leery of being funneled into the industry to work on shows I may not believe in or directing scripts that make you want to put a bullet in your head.”
No bullets, please. How about the determination of cold steel, fueled by ice cream cones, to get one of those features off the page and in front of a camera? Harry has that combination of resolve and sweetness to do it. Eight-year-old Jared can sense it, in Harry Kellerman, person, and Harry Kellerman, filmmaker. As a budding young actor, Jared senses something even more specific Harry Kellerman, kids’ director. With my translator sitting next to me, I can tell you that Harry is indeed speaking kid language. What was that? You need a second scoop of ice cream? Go for it.
Photos: (top) Harry Kellerman (other photos) Daniel Parks and Nicky Parks in The Little Gorilla.