On Friday, USA Networks, in partnership with RSA Films and Ridley & Tony Scott, launched a series of eight short films that represent the evolution of their Character Project. Each film is helmed by a different director. Genres range from narrative to animated to documentary.
One of the pieces, Jeff Feuerzeig’s “The Dude,” is a surprisingly moving short documentary about Jeff Dowd, the real-life inspiration behind The Big Lebowski‘s central character. “Tom Dunlop at RSA came to me and he said, ‘We’re going to be doing this Character Project for USA Networks and do you have a character that you’d like to make a film about it?'” Feuerzeig recalls. “I said, ‘I absolutely do!’ I have quite a list of characters because I’m a documentarian and that”s what I do. So I wrote a treatment about the Dude.”
Says Feuerzeig, who first met The Dude in 1987 as a young filmmaker, “He has a fascinating story, a political story with the Seattle Seven. And I wanted to tell people what they don”t know, which is that he helped start the Sundance Institute with Robert Redford and was a huge influence with a lot of independent filmmakers back in the early ’80s. On top of that is the interesting man-meets-myth phenomenon with the real Dude going to Lebowski Fest.”
Framed with the story of Dowd’s appearance at the festival, “The Dude” uses archival footage and interviews with the man himself to carve out the rest of his intriguing story. “I absolutely did not want to make a film just about Jeff Dowd going to the Lebowski Fest,” notes the documentarian, who saw far beyond this one-joke concept. “He’s a serious cat, a political activist and a force for good in the world.”
Bryan Poyser’s journey to becoming one of the selected eight directors was a bit different. He had already written the script for his narrative short film, “The Fickle,” but set it aside because it was a project that was too ambitious to try and do without a more substantial budget than he had at the time.
“The Fickle” tells the humorous story of a woman’s multiple failed relationships. It is set up as one continuous take depicting a montage of “the mornings after.” Says Poyser of the light-hearted comedy, “I just kinda came up with this idea that you spend a lot of mornings with different people over the years and they all kind of blend together sometimes. Maybe ’cause you’re the common denominator among all of them.”
The shoot for “The Fickle,” completed with an ARRI Alexa mounted on a Steadicam, took place over three days with the first being dedicated solely to rehearsal, blocking and camera placement. “The real challenge of doing a movie in one take is that you can’t edit it,” Poyser observes. “So the shot and reaction shot all have to be in the same take. It was a challenge to figure out where everybody was going to end up and how we”d pull it off.
“We did 38 takes of the whole thing,” he elaborates. “We got all the way through 15 times but most of the times we had to stop were because of a technical issue, like there was too much smoke in the kitchen. It wasn’t because of the actors. I don’t think anybody wanted to be the one who blew the take in minute four! So everyone brought their A game.”
Another narrative piece is Caskey’s “Monster Slayer,” the story of a mild-mannered man named Ben whose refusal to take his medication means that a variety of imaginary friends are a part of his world. Most of the “friends” are in the form of stop-motion puppets created with animation house Buddy System Studios.
“I never directed stop motion combined with live action before,” says Caskey, “and Buddy System were great collaborators. We just allowed each other to play.”
Together, the director and animation studio came up with puppets that represented different aspects of Ben’s personalities: everything from an adorable one-eyed monster that represents unconditional love to a tree that represents the need for control to a shape-shifting cube monster that represents the evil within us all. All of the puppets were then built as miniatures and animated on miniature sets.
“They’re magical mystery people,” says Caskey of her collaborators at the animation house Buddy System, who matched the lighting on the miniature sets to the look of the live action photography so that all of the shadows were cast properly. “We were super meticulous in pre-production mode because whenever you’re doing a character that”s not there, you have to be very careful of the eyeline, height, who the characters are, where they’re positioned, where the lighting is going to be.”
All eight USA Character Project short films are available to view on characterproject.usanetwork.com as well as on iTunes, mobile platforms, syndicated widgets and social media. In addition, screenings of the short films will be occurring in “capsules” through a multi-day touring exhibition that began in New York City on Friday, May 13th and will visit Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. The 18-seat customized screening capsules were adapted from shipping containers and made to feel like a mini-theater and contemporary art installation hybrid. For a complete list of the tour’s locations and dates, go here.