With a decade of experience as a title designer and vfx artist, Toby’s short films have received recognition at dozens of festivals including multiple acceptances to Sundance. Recent projects include the award winning “Staring at the Sun” and a series of shorts “Tales from the Grudge” commissioned by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.
How did you encounter Ben Acker’s script for Kidney Thieves?
Ben and I were introduced by a producer friend of mine who thought our styles would work well together. Turns out he was right, but it took us a year to figure it out. Ben and I met once, he gave me a bunch of short scripts, Kidney Thieves among them. I really enjoyed a number of the short pieces he had written for his sketch comedy show “AmeriCo the Beautiful” and I wanted to bring them to the screen. I had just had some success with a short thriller called Staring at the Sun and was eager to follow up with something different, but it wasn’t until a year later that I was able to find the time and money to make another film happen. Luckily, I never throw anything out, or clean my office, so when the time came to choose a script, Kidney Thieves was still on my shelf, and it felt as fresh to me then as it did the first time I read it.
Do you know anything about Ben’s research into the symptoms of renal failure?
I do not. And when pressed for an answer to this question Ben would only give humorous, typically Ben Acker type answers like “It is a true statement that my uncle’s renus failed.” So you see, Ben’s methods are mysterious and he guards them closely.
Did he find any evidence that kidney thieves actually exist?
Perhaps it’s best if I let Ben’s words speak for him on this one too. When grilled, Ben says he is not a detective. He saw a magazine article and heard about a story on NPR. Or he actually heard a story on NPR. The point is that Ben Acker listens to NPR. And drinks coffee. Sometimes he does the crossword. He’s one of those. He does not like sudoku. Numbers? Grow up, he says. Ben Acker is a very funny man and he writes funny scripts and things, he’s just not very good at interviews.
That’s a pretty high-end cast you’ve got there. Do you have advice to your fellow filmmakers for attracting “name” actors to a short film?
I don’t think there’s a trick to attracting actors to a no budget project, or any project probably, either they like the script or they don’t. More experienced actors are better at judging if a script is right for them, and if it’s not something they are interested in then they are also in a better place to turn it down. If they do respond to the script, the next hurdle is that they respond to you, or at least your body of work. Actors entering into a short film project, or again any project, are really putting themselves on the line, they are letting themselves be exposed in a way that’s very hard for those of us behind the camera to understand. So if you can demonstrate that you’re not going to make something that will embarrass them, that they are in good hands, then you’re well on your way to getting great actors and great performances from them.
Tell us about the picture’s production design.
Production designer Jennifer Spence and her crew were an amazing asset on this project. I had worked with her once before, on the short film “Rings” and she really impressed me. Not only with how hard she worked, but how much she was able to do with so little. On a short film budget, a production designer who can stretch every dollar and deliver a top quality result is a dream come true. “Kidney Thieves” takes place in Mexico, and I felt it was essential that the setting feel real, that the audience know where they are from the first frame, or at least believe that the story takes place in the real world. Without a believable reality, the absurdist humor would now work, it would become parody. I spent a lot of time researching photographs of Mexican hotels and interiors, and I relied heavily on Jennifer’s knowledge to guide my choice of props and set dressing. I scouted a few hotels in Los Angeles, but dismissed them all as either too clean, to bland, or just too small to shoot in. In the end, Jennifer constructed a perfect set, based on my specific requirements for the film, and she did so flawlessly. The room was created life size, and while this created some logistical problems for shooting, I think it played a large part in making the space feel as reel as it does in the film. Most people are surprised to learn that we shot on a set rather than on location.
There are a few almost touching moments between Paget Brewster and Ethan Embry. What’s the role of genuine sentiment in comedy?
Ben and I felt that it was important for these characters to be grounded in a situation that matters to them. Raising the stakes for the characters heightens the comedy. While the absurd humor in the film may be one kind of funny, it is a whole other sort of funny, a whole different sort of absurdity, that comes from adding the potential for love to the scene, or heartbreak. It was the range of styles and emotions in the piece that was so attractive to me as a filmmaker, and I think to the actors as well. The idea that for a third of the film, the audience isn’t sure if it’s a thriller, or a drama, or a comedy was an interesting experiment for all of us. What really excited me was the opportunity to shoot a comedy with grainy hand-held 16mm in the style of a noir thriller, and have the comedy work not as a parody of the genre, but on a far more genuine level because of the choice.
Kidney Thieves plays Friday, October 20th at 7:40 p.m. in the Stephen F. Austin Theater as part of the Shorts 2 Program and again on Sunday, October 22nd at the Hideout.