Interview: Austin and Meredith Bragg Discuss Their Short Film, ‘A Piece of Cake’

Interview by Anna Harrison

Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first get the idea, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?

We can’t remember when we first heard about California’s unique situation when it comes to shiny cake confections, but it’s been banging around our heads for some time. We immediately knew it could do well as an exaggerated family-friendly drug war analogy, but that wasn’t enough for a film. It took us a while longer to come up with the actual story and ending we liked.

Eventually we brought it to an MPI short film writers workshop, where we continued to hone it. It was during that workshop that they approached us about backing the production. Naturally we jumped at that chance. 

Were there any major script changes from conception to end?

Definitely. Here are two that spring to mind…

Initially we had the dad drive to a sketchy cake shack in the middle of the desert, just across the California/Nevada state line. The parking lot was going to be filled with California license plates. But the realities of production made it cost prohibitive, so we created an urban cake den. 

The scene where Rich sits on the curb after learning dragees are illegal originally included a pigeon. It was a fun, somewhat surreal scene. We loved it. Unfortunately there was a bird quarantine in California at that time (foreshadowing!) and it was illegal to transport a pigeon onto set. We briefly discussed using an animatronic pigeon or swapping in a seagull—seagulls were outside the quarantine rules—but in the end it just made sense to rewrite the scene. That’s how we got to the birthday card. 

I really enjoyed the editing (specifically, I’m thinking about the scenes with the Cake Den boss and the dramatic travel to “the city”); what was that process like? Meredith, how much of a say did you get into how Austin edited the film?

Meredith: A good deal. Austin put together the final timeline and really cut the final film, but we both worked through the edit. There are even some of the trickier scenes where we both edited alts to see what worked best. Both of our fingerprints are all over the thing, but Austin was the master of the timeline and really did the hard work. 

Austin: I would simply add that it’s easy to get tunnel vision when editing on your own. Having Meredith in there as well opened up a lot of possibilities I wasn’t seeing.  

How do your directing styles differ?

Meredith: I will say that Austin, who has an acting background, is probably better with actors than I am.

Austin: And Meredith has more visual sense.

Meredith: But by the time we’re on set we’re both on the same page about what we need and what we want. It’s actually quite helpful when an issue that needs our attention comes up. We can be in two places at once. 

How do your directing styles complement each other?

The best part of having two of us is that it gives us twice as many ideas and they have to survive twice as much scrutiny.  We certainly have individual strengths and weaknesses—and we each know when to lean on the other.  

What was your career trajectory like? How did you branch out from more political-focused content to narrative shorts like A Piece of Cake—or were you always interested in narrative content as well?

From our days at Channel 101 to our 48-hour films and our Warner Bros. pilot, we’ve always been writing and directing comedy. Even at Reason a lot of our work is narrative and comedic. I think the biggest difference with A Piece of Cake is the scale. After years of shooting everything on our own with little to no budget, we’re pushing ourselves and our production values. 

How do you balance your schedule for filming personal projects like A Piece of Cake while also producing content for Reason TV and elsewhere?

Like most everyone else making shorts, it’s about carving out weekends and evenings and, when it’s time for production, using up vacation days. 

It helps to have forgiving families and access to caffeine. 

You’ve also made documentaries like Welcome to the Grave—what are some of the biggest differences working on a documentary vs. a narrative film? How did what you learn from the former affect your work on the latter?

I think it’s the difference between sculpting out of clay vs. marble. With documentaries you are limited by what occurred and the footage and assets you’ve gathered. Then you start to chip away and arrange the pieces into an arc. With narrative we get to build everything from the ground up and we can push and pull the story to fit our needs. 

We spend a lot more time on writing and pre-production on narratives, while in documentaries we spend more time in the edit. And that work on story structure is invaluable for assembling documentaries. 

What’s your favorite type of cake?

Meredith: I’m going to cheat and say key lime pie. 

Austin: German chocolate. Obviously. 

A Piece of Cake Trailer

You can read Anna’s review of A Piece of Cake or follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Sundance 2021 Interview: Cici Andersen Makeup Department Head of ‘Together Together’

Interview by Anna Harrison

SYNOPSIS: When young loner Anna is hired as the gestational surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s who wants a child, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Cici Andersen’s Website: https://ciciandersen.com/​

Together Together played during the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can read Maria’s review of Together Together and you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website.

Slamdance 2021 Review: No Trace (Nulle Trace)

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

As I started No Trace, watching the black-and-white train tracks move by in a blur and hearing the discordant music, I braced myself for a jarring and unsettling experience like Persona, or some other esoteric, unreadable film. I still got an esoteric and unreadable film, but one that was soft and slow, that unfurled at its own leisurely pace. Director Simon Lavoie clearly draws from auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and others, and so in some ways No Trace feels familiar, but only in the sense that it resembles other films who make it a point to feel unfamiliar; compared with most mainstream or even semi-mainstream films, it feels alien.

No Trace follows two women, N (Monique Gosselin) and Awa (Nathalie Doummar), as N attempts to smuggle Awa and her child across an unnamed border in a dystopic future, but we are left only to guess at how this grim world came to be. N succeeds in getting Awa and the child to Awa’s husband, but on her way back, some thieves steal her handcar and force N to walk on foot. During N’s journey back, she once again encounters Awa, unconscious and injured and without husband or child. N helps nurse Awa back to health, and the two tentatively develop a strange, strenuous relationship that tests the both of them.

Gosselin and Doummar are perfectly cast; Gosselin as the hardened, no-nonsense atheist, and Doummar as the delicate-looking, wide-eyed Muslim. There is hardly a shot without Gosselin in the entire film, and director Simon Lavoie relies on her to carry long stretches without any dialogue. In fact, most of the film remains void of any speaking, relying instead on precise and careful sound design to craft a sense of the world around the women. When the characters do speak, they do so brusquely, with the exception of N and Awa’s brief discussion on religion.  

“You’re not a believer?” Awa asks. “I’m not that desperate yet,” N replies. In the end, both of their beliefs will be tested, and the audience can arrive at their own conclusions.

The cinematography is the most striking thing in No Trace: while filmed largely on train tracks or by a nondescript shed in a nondescript forest, Lavoie employs beautiful and clever shots, making even the most boring frame a work of art. (He also includes perhaps the most horrifying image I have ever seen on screen, which was not pleasant, but he does so without overreliance on gore or a huge shock factor.)

No Trace will no doubt leave many viewers frustrated. It changes aspect ratios seemingly on a whim, leaves many things ambiguous, and the slow pace can be a turn off in spots. The film has no clear narrative thrust, only vague brushstrokes, and so has no strong plot to propel itself forward. While Lavoie clearly intends this to happen, I still found my mind wandering in several places—though never too far. No Trace requires no small amount of patience and willingness to accept ambiguity, making your own meaning out of the images on screen, but once you find the patience to sit and soak in the beautiful shots and admire the near-silent performances, it proves to be a rewarding experience.

No Trace Trailer

You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.

Sundance 2021 Interview: Frank Barrera Cinematographer of ‘Together Together’

Interview by Anna Harrison

SYNOPSIS: When young loner Anna is hired as the gestational surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s who wants a child, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries and the particulars of love.

Frank Barrera’s Website: https://www.frankbarrera.com/

Together Together played during the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can read Maria’s review of Together Together and you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website.

Interview: Beppe Tufarulo Talks About His Short Film ‘Baradar’

Interview by Anna Harrison

When did you first read Alí Ehsani’s book, Stanotte Guardiamo le Stelle (Let’s Look At the Stars Tonight)? Did you know right away you wanted to adapt it, or did someone else have the idea?

It was my longtime friend Francesco Casolo, author of the book with Alí, that told me about Alí’s story that he was putting into a book and got me hooked on it after a few seconds of him talking. Soon after I was meeting Alí and hearing about his exceptional journey that brought him here in Italy, after five years of trying, made me think right from the start that it was something worth being transposed into images as well. 

How involved was Alí Ehsani himself in the film?

Alí’s contribution to the film was paramount: not only getting the chance to discuss with him directly the many aspects of the events that lead him to Italy, to get an intimate look at what his emotions were all the while, but also having him near me on set to help overcome the linguistic and cultural differences with the two brothers that we cast for the film, who were coming from his same area in Afghanistan and had shared with him a similar story and journey. 

Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first start filming, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?

I started working around the idea of getting the film made around 2017 and then it was in the spring of 2018 that I got the two production companies on board, Tapelessfilm and Art of Panic. We knew right away that we didn’t just want to make the film, but we wanted people to be able to see it. Which meant production and distribution. So, in order to achieve that, together with the two co-producers of the film, Tapelessfilm and Art of Panic, we got to work on the whole process of getting the financials in place to cover the production costs (through public funding, like the MIBACT tax credit and the Puglia film commission regional incentive; private funding like Blue Sands Foundation, very active on humanitarian issues and refugees relocation; and producers equity) and drafting the first production timelines. 

Once we knew that the film could would have been feasible, from an economic point of view, we started working on getting the crew together (starting from some professionals that I knew from the start I wanted to be with me, like Francesco di Pierro, our amazing DoP, or Daniele Carmosino, responsible for the very emotional original soundtrack) and in the meantime we did the first location recce and scouting in Puglia. All the while, I was still looking for the cast, remember that I had been looking for them for a year already. When we realised that we had all we needed, we went into pre-production in June and filming started at the end of September 2018. Shooting lasted for a week in Puglia. I got very quickly into the editing room because our idea was that of starting the festival circuit straight away: and for that we sought the involvement of Prem1ere Films, an Italian distribution company specialised in distributing short films and with a strong expertise (and success history) in International festivals. Thanks to their widespread activity, Baradar was acquired in Italy by Rai (our broadcaster), ended up being selected at over 50 festivals around the world, winning 21 awards and pocketing a nomination at the David di Donatello 2020 (the Italian Oscars).  

Were there any major script changes from conception to end? How much of a say did you have in any changes?

We worked hard to stay as faithful as possible to the story and Alí’s experience, and this was possible thanks also to the constant presence of Alí on the set. However, I was interested in isolating a specific moment of the children’s story that could represent the human meaning of the whole, a cross-section of everyday life between the two brothers that could enter the audience’s chords and convey something powerful. This idea of the script was maintained from beginning to end and Francesco and I were very much on the same wavelength throughout. If truth be told, I have to say that we worked on the script very organically and it evolved pretty much to stay in tune with the two brothers that we cast for the main roles, because, in order to get the maximum authenticity, intimacy and expressiveness that I wanted to return to the audience, we had to adapt to them. 

How did you find Nawid and Danosh Sharifi? I thought they both gave great performances—how did you approach directing with non-actors/first time actors?

From the very start, I had an almost impossible desire: finding two protagonists with a background close to that of Alí and his brother Mohammed. For this reason, I turned to associations that deal with refugees. After a long search, I received from an NGO (Binario 15) the photos of two brothers, Nawid and Danosh Sharifi, who, from a scenic point of view, could have been the same age of the protagonists. They had just arrived in Italy to be reunited with their older brother. Basically, something that was well beyond my hope! In terms of my approach to directing them, I was looking for truthfulness and expressiveness. I didn’t want anything to be trivialized or clichéd. And the two actors were so authentic that … they didn’t even utter a word in Italian! 

I noticed that several translators are listed in the credits. Were there any language barriers, and if so, how did you adapt to those?

The main difficulty was of course due to the fact that Nawid and Danosh had just arrived in Italy and didn’t speak any Italian. So we didn’t just need translators but cultural mediators that would help me convey the meaning of a scene or simply what was happening and how they should behave on set. Alí’s presence on set was, of course, a plus. 

What takeaways do you want the audience to walk away with after watching your film? What lessons can we learn?

I would like the audience to go back home and be more open about the refugee crisis and emigration issue, because, beyond the political positions, it is a profoundly current, urgent issue that affects us all. Because being born on another side of the world shouldn’t be a discriminating factor in taking away or giving the right to have a passport and freedom of movement.

You have several projects in the works for Amazon Prime which seem to be much larger scale than Baradar. How does directing on a bigger budget change things, or do you take the same principles with you from short films to features and television shows?

New streaming platforms lead to the research and development of new contents, some of which are of great quality. The opportunity to work with Amazon Prime allowed me to carry out more ambitious projects aimed at an international audience. They are universal projects, worldwide and for a director this means being able to experiment and grow. If I had a choice I would always like to bring my directorial vision to these projects that have bigger budgets, maintaining a more intimate and delicate approach to following the stories. Having a clear vision and the freedom to follow it makes a project more solid. On the other hand, when there are too many compromises, the final result is also affected, despite the fact that we are talking about projects with more important budgets.

What’s a memoir that everyone should read?

Speaking of this short film, I would like to name both books published by Alì Ehsani (Let’s Look At the Stars Tonight and Boys Have Big Dreams). Because this is not just a story of immigration, but the story of two brothers, a small one who seems too fragile to face such a long journey but who over time will demonstrate incredible strength, and one of seventeen, who becomes a man ready to do anything to be able to give himself and his brother a new life. Because Ali, who arrived alone in Italy at the age of 13 and was able to graduate in law, is the proof that making dreams come true is always possible, no matter what the starting point is.

Baradar Trailer

You can read Anna’s review of Baradar or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website.

Baradar

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Baradar opens with two brothers engaging in typical brotherly antics as they carry a raft through the streets of Istanbul. The bright colors and playful music cultivate a warm image, one that immediately evaporates as we realize this flimsy raft is meant to carry the elder Mohammed (Danosh Sharifi) across the sea and into Greece. He won’t risk bringing his younger brother, Alí (Nawid Sharifi, Danosh’s younger brother), along, and instead will attempt this crossing alone, even though he cannot swim, hoping to find that mystical better life and come back to provide for his brother. 

Director Beppe Tufarulo based this harrowing tale off Alí Ehsani’s autobiography Stanotte Guardiamo le Stelle (Let’s Look At the Stars Tonight), and in Danosh and Nawid Sharifi, found two non-actors whose story mirrored Alí’s, as Danosh and Nawid travelled from Afghanistan to Italy to reunite with their older brother after the death of their parents. Despite their lack of acting experience, Danosh and Nawid turn in fine performances, selling their brotherly bond with ease (helped in no small part, I’m sure, by their actual relation). The scenes where Mohammed tries to teach Alí such simple things as making scrambled eggs before he departs are heart-wrenching as we realize how tall of an order it is for ten-year-old Alí just to survive on his own.

The short does get a little heavy-handed towards the end with a rather melodramatic voiceover, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t crying like a little baby at it anyway. Immigrants are so often treated callously as one monolithic group by politicians and citizens alike, viewed only as a population problem and almost never as individuals, except when we want to show how great a country is because this one single immigrant managed to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or some other socially acceptable/admirable thing. Baradar forces us to reckon with the individual consequences as we watch the individual courage and bravery of these two boys, and heavy-handed or not, it lingers long after the screen fades.

Baradar Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with director Beppe Tufarulo or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website.