Film: California: Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Film Festival: 2010

Silent Fun: Smoke Rings and Filmmaker Rex Carter

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Bob Ladewig, Cora Benesh, and Eric Stevens smoke it up.Photo credit: John Nolan(Photo right: from left to right- Bob Ladewig, Cora Benesh, and Eric Stevens smoke it up.Photo credit: John Nolan)

Sometimes a short film is so long on style and fun that you wish it was long on running time as well. 

Alas, the short film Smoke Rings, which premiered at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, is less than five minutes long.  But it is a thoroughly enjoyable tribute to the comedians of the silent screen. 
The entire film is head-on shots of 3 characters sitting at a bar in a speakeasy, with a bartender serving their drinks.  It’s clearly the Jazz Age, the roaring ‘20s.  And the film looks like an authentic 1920s silent film.  It’s an era that is fascinating for many reasons, and I was intrigued. 
The little tale is about the young man at screen left trying to impress the woman in the middle with his abilities to create more than just smoke rings as he exhales his cigarette smoke. 
She, however, only pays attention to the handsome man at screen right.  A beautiful smoke-ring heart goes for naught, and the would-be wooer can only fall off his stool in disappointment. 
I had the chance to interview writer-director-producer Rex Carter, so let’s learn some more about his little gem, Smoke Rings. 

How did you come to make Smoke Rings?  

The original germ of the story was not set in any particular era.  In fact, I first envisioned a contemporary piece with only two characters.  And although it was always my intention to use no dialogue, I did not initially think of the story as a pastiche of silent films.

Filmmaker Rex Carter   (Photo credit: Jon Funfar)(Photo left: Filmmaker Rex Carter. Photo credit Jon Funfar)

Is there something about the 1920s, the films, filmmakers, and/or the actors and comedians that attracted and inspired you and led to this film?

At some point in my brainstorming and writing, my lead character evolved into a Harold Lloyd-style lovable loser.  I had been familiar with Harold Lloyd ever since a freshman class in film history.  That was the first time I saw “Safety Last,” and for reasons I’m not sure I can adequately explain, he soon became my favorite of the silent-era comics.  I suppose he reminded me a little of my grandfather – they both favored a style of hat called a “boater.”

Once I realized that my lead character was becoming an archetype of a 1920s down-on-his-luck chap, I decided to embrace the construct entirely.  I crafted the other characters to be a bit stereotypical of a type that was common in those silent films (i.e. the wolfish lothario and the party-girl flapper), and I made the decision to adopt the visual language that was in use at that time.  This language included the in-camera iris transitions, clumsy jump cuts, and inconsistent exposure of the film.

As for other direct influences from the 1920s, I must confess there are not many beyond Harold Lloyd, although I've seen most of the "classic" films from the era.  I enjoy watching films (and making them) that tell a story visually with little or no need for dialogue.  Therefore, I tend to favor the comedies from the silent era more than the dramas.  In my opinion, the comedies are able to succeed narratively with much less reliance on title cards for explanation.  My short-film also manages to tell its story without any dialogue cards.

How about for others who worked on this film?

As I was researching this project, I rented a lot of collected shorts from Charlie Chaplin and particularly Harold Lloyd.  As I was watching one of them, I found myself greatly appreciating the new score that had been composed for the DVD edition.  I checked the credits and discovered the name of Donald Sosin and his website.  I wrote down the information, and over a year later, when my film was nearing completion, I contacted him out of the blue.  Mr. Sosin is an aficionado of silent film music, and I am so glad that he agreed to compose an original score for my short film.  His music accomplishes everything that I hoped it would.  It truly made the film complete.

How did you achieve the look of old film stock?

I briefly considered shooting with old camera equipment and film, but that notion was quickly eliminated because of the visual effects involved.  My background is primarily in post-production digital compositing, so I knew it would be easier to start with a pristine image.  I also knew I would be doing a lot of takes, because the choreography of the actors was critical and most of the film plays without a lot of cuts.  So those two factors led me to shoot digitally with a RED camera.

After completing the smoke ring effects, I then applied the “old film stock” look at the very end of the pipeline.  Again, I analyzed the DVDs of old Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin films and determined what it meant for the photography to look like it was made in the 1920s.  I focused primarily on the following things:  inconsistent shutter speed, gate weave, high-contrast with blooming luminance, film negative dust and scratches, and a vignette-style frame.
 Leif Peterson (bartender), John Nolan (director of photography), and Rex Carter(Photo right: from left to right- Leif Peterson (bartender), John Nolan the director of photography, and Rex Carter)

Do you have a longer film in mind that uses these same characters, time period, or recreated look of old films?  When the film ended, I thought ‘Where’s the rest of the story’?  I can’t help but wonder how these characters might play things out...

It’s very interesting that you were looking for “the rest of the story,” because a few people have now mentioned that notion to me.  But the simple fact is that I never contemplated any continuance of the story or the characters while I was making the film.  It was always, to me, a simple little narrative that had a definite beginning and end.

Only after completing the project and appreciating the talents of the cast (and being proud of how it turned out) have I begun to ponder another script utilizing the same character(s).  I am reluctant, however, to follow through with any “sequel” at this time, because I would like to push myself in a different direction with my next project.

What were your filmmaking and audience goals with this film? 

I felt that I was in a unique position to make this short film.  I have a lot of experience with modern, digital image tools, but my creative spirit is usually rooted somewhere further back in time.  So my filmmaking goal was to create a story that belonged to a world of technological infancy, but ironically, I would use a lot of computers to create it.  In fact, I have not, as yet, even met my composer face-to-face.  We emailed back and forth across the continent.

As for my audience goals, I simply wanted to entertain a crowd with a light-hearted comedy.  Whenever I attend festivals, a lot of the shorts I see are dramatic and serious, and I always appreciate the funny films that lighten the mood of the theater.

So, ultimately, I hope to get into a few good festivals, which will prompt me to travel to new cities that I haven’t visited.  Santa Barbara was my first festival, and I had a fantastic experience.

What are your upcoming projects? 

I’m still juggling a few ideas and waiting to see which one lands.  Whatever I choose next, the common thread it will share with Smoke Rings is a minimum (or complete lack) of dialogue.  I enjoy telling stories primarily with the image and the music, and my next film will probably follow that framework.
Thank you, Rex.  I look forward to your future films.

2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival INDEX

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