What An Exquisite Corpse: Little Minx Directors Craft a Series of Short Films

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Short films are the vast, undiscovered country of filmmaking. Most viewers relegate themselves to feature films alone, inadvertently walling themselves off from the audacious power of the short film. It would be a supreme fallacy to assume that just because a short film takes a quarter of the time to tell, it must be a quarter as effective. Numerous short films compress, in mere minutes, the sort of mesmeric storytelling and muscular emotions that many feature films never come close to achieving. Little Minx, a division of RSA films and an offshoot of director Ridley and Tony Scotts’ “Scott Free Productions� company recently selected five directors to tackle a series of short films based on the French parlor game “Exquisite Corpse.� The talented lineup of directors, who work in film, television and commercial production, were charged with only two golden rules: they must respond to the last line of text from the previous director’s script, and they must incorporate their interpretation of a “little minx.� The result was inspired, funny, tragic, mind-bending and unquestionably beautiful.

One of these films,

Phillip Van’s She Stares Longingly at What She Has Lost

, is arguably the strongest of all the Exquisite Corpse pieces. All of Van’s films have a sense of the indecipherable, something extraordinarily mysterious and dark, teetering almost, but not quite, to the point of morbidity. They seem to balance gloom with enchanting fantasy. It’s ironic that Van now works, albeit tangentially, for Ridley Scott, because the two directors’ films share a certain unreal, hyper-reality. It is an aesthetic that really seems to have found its fullest expression in his latest short film. In She Stares Longingly, a young girl frolics through a wooded glade, a small dog at her side. Soon, she is beckoned from a grove of trees by man whose body seems more vapor than solid flesh. As he takes her hand, leading her away from the now restrained dog, the little girl’s glasses fall to the ground, catch the radiant sunlight, and set fire to the verdant forest. Suddenly, we leap forward in time. The little girl is now a grown woman, set within the domesticated space of a bedroom. The man from before now sleeps beside her. As vine-like tendrils consume the room, the woman peers through the solid wall behind her and views a vast, apocalyptic wasteland. And there, before her, nestled amongst a cairn of animal skulls, is the young girl she used to be. She Stares Longingly at What She Has Lost defies easy explanation. It appears as a meditation on loss and compromise, of dreams burned beyond recognition and futures dashed by the past. It at once captures the idyllic, romanticized nature of memory while revealing the horror of the unknown and the inevitability of a reality that cannot possibly fit the boundless imagination and incessant appetite of youth.

I recently sat down with Phillip Van to try and unpack his intent behind the film, chat about his experience making it within the context of Little Minx’ Exquisite Corpse, and discover what he has planned for the future:

Brandon Fibbs

: Thanks for sharing some of your time with us today, Phillip.

Phillip Van

: You bet. My pleasure.

BF

: Before we get into your latest project, give us a little background on how you got into filmmaking and where you learned your craft?

PV

: I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker for as long as I can remember. I used to have a Sharp camcorder, the big kind that took full-sized VHS tapes, and I would use it to shoot little movies around the house and do in camera editing and tricks. I probably had it since I was nine or ten and I went nuts with it. The funny thing is, I’ve never abandoned that camera. When I got home from college, around age 20, two of my goofy friends and I would shoot little skits with it, one of which was the inspiration for my short film, Dunny. That camera has always been a source of inspiration to me. Oddly enough though, I didn’t acknowledge to myself that a filmmaker is what I wanted to be. I just did it because I really enjoyed it.

BF

: When did you realize it was what you wanted to do?

PV

: I was in college at Cornell, pre-med, and just really dissatisfied. I didn’t feel I’d made the decision for myself. So I dropped it and started doing a ton of student film work. The program was quite small but it was perfect because the instant I jumped into it, everything was familiar to me because it was an extension of what I had already been doing for a long time. I started taking production classes and before I knew it I had enough credits for a double major. So I applied to grad school and got into my top four choices — UCLA, NYU, Columbia and USC. I decided on NYU after an arduous comparison process and it really was great. It fulfilled on everything I had anticipated. Through NYU, I made a few shorts, one of which was High Maintenance, which I shot in Germany and for which I won a Student Academy Award and a number of other festival awards in Europe and the U.S. The festivals really got the word out and allowed a lot of people to see my stuff than otherwise would not have been able to. Out of that I got an agent and a commercial manager and began working for RSA.

BF

: Can you tell us what RSA is?

PV

: RSA was started by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott in the mid-60s as a film and television advertising production company to showcase their work and the work of other directors. They’ve done thousands of commercials, including special projects like the BMW Films. I got signed by Rhea Scott (Ridley Scott’s daughter-in-law), who is the head of Little Minx, a division of RSA films. I’m one of 10 directors under her wing and the first project was to create a completely original short based on my own script and idea, while also incorporating a few prearranged elements.

BF

: Explain to us the idea behind Little Minx’s Exquisite Corpse project, if you would.

PV

: The Exquisite Corpse concept is based on the French parlor game in which you write a sentence and the next person is only allowed to see your last couple of words. From those words they have to write a new sentence. It’s kind of like the game telephone we played in America as kids. When you read the finished product, it is usually completely random…but also poetic, by accident. Some of the connections between the films are almost invisible and others are quite obvious. So in my case, I got the last sentence of the script before mine — “and she stares longingly at what she has lost� — and from that I had to create something original of my own, be it completely tangential or literal. And the second stipulation was that we had to define what the concept of a “little minx� meant to us, which is why all the shorts in the series integrate a through line about a girl or a young woman usually involved in some sort of compromising circumstance. Other than that, it was free reign.

BF

: And who was the little girl in your film?

PV

: That is Cuba Scott, my producer and manager Rhea Scott’s daughter and Ridley Scott’s granddaughter. She was always hanging around the office and when we started looking at little girls during casting, I had someone like her in mind probably because I saw her so often. A lot of the storyboards began inadvertently looking like her, and finally we brought her into the casting room and said, “Let’s try this out,� and she was a natural — much better than any of the girls we were auditioning.

BF

: Did you collaborate with any of the other directors?

PV

: No, we were completely independent. Rhea made sure of that. We weren’t allowed to read the scripts that preceded ours. She wanted us to work in the dark just like the parlor game. The films are all self enclosed and really work well on their own as well as part of a linked group.

BF

: Where did the idea for your piece come from?

PV

: Well, it was based on a number of different factors and influences. It sounds abstract and remote, but I wanted to define a kind of feeling that is common to my experience. It doesn’t really have a descriptor in English but is perhaps best described by the Portuguese word, “Saudade,� which very roughly translates to: nostalgia. But it’s the idea of something a little more fatal and meaningful than simple nostalgia. For whatever reasons, there is nothing as expressive in English. In reductive terms, it’s the idea of looking back on where you came from and longing for home. That’s where it started.

BF

: Well then, let’s discuss the film’s execution. Give us a glimpse into the production process.

PV

: Well, I feel out everything in storyboard ahead of time and when I get to the set we usually follow that plan because we already know the boards so well. It sounds restrictive, but because we have the boards down to a science, it actually gives us the freedom to then experiment and let inspiration hit us on the day of shooting. I think you can only be open to that if you come in extremely prepared. We were actually going to go black and white with this for a while, but decided to modernize it and do it in color because it gave me more of a palette and a range of expression. I wanted the sort of artificiality you find in Night of the Hunter…almost fetishized in a way. It becomes a fascinating commentary on the natural world with dark, foreboding, noirish qualities. The whole shoot was done in only two days. We had half built sets with lots of practical elements and filled in the rest with bluescreen. And then, in post, we filled that with various 2-D and 3-D elements. Method was my post-production house and they were wonderful. I brought in dozens of images I’d found, like old-growth forest trees — the stuff found on the coast of Oregon that I grew up with — and they incorporated them. I actually brought in fallen leaves from the home in which I grew up and they scanned them in and used that to populate the trees. It was that personal and handcrafted. It looks really expensive, but it’s not. Believe it or not, the entire budget was akin to my student films, even with all those effects. It was a passion project for the post house. I’m pleased to say that I’ve never made anything for a huge budget.

BF

: Did you shoot film or digital? What post production technology did you use?

PV

: It was all Super 35mm 5218 Kodak tungsten stock in an Arri Studio camera. For post, it was a two-team deal. We used several programs: Flame for 2-D compositing and sequencing, and Maya for the 3-D work, among others

BF

: Is there anything you would change about the final product or are you satisfied?

PV

: No, I’m really satisfied. For more on

Little Minx

and the

Exquisite Corpse

series, please visit

Littleminx.tv

To find out more about

Phillip Van

’s award-winning work, click

here

. For complete coverage of this interview, visit

Brandonfibbs.com

and

Cinemattraction

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