Inspired by high school stories of peer pressured freshman rites of passage, Alex Familian’s Kid Gambled sees a stoned, anxiety-stricken teenager’s attempts to work up the nerve for his mandated act of petty larceny hampered by self doubt and wild hallucinations. Below, Alex explains how his visual effects background and a fresh perspective in the edit were invaluable to the creation of this psychedelic, reality bending short.

In 2015, a few years after graduating college, I’d become a bit restless. At the time I’d been mostly directing branded content and live music videos. It was fun, but not emotionally fulfilling. In October of that year I’d decided to take a creative leap – I would adapt a small sequence from a feature film that I’d written about a group of hooligan teenagers in the suburbs of Las Vegas.

The inspiration was mostly from personal experience… or lack thereof. Back in 2004 when I was in 8th grade I moved from Nevada to California. I kept in touch with my old friends and they’d tell me these crazy stories about people stealing stuff from gas stations in Vegas. They’d run in and run out – real simple. Later, when we were a bit older in high school, I started hearing stories about how they were making freshman do it too, as some sort of rite of passage. I never partook in these events because I was in California, but I would always let my imagination run wild with how it would feel to do that. The adrenaline, the nerves, the virility and raging hormones amongst everyone. How exciting!

It helps to collaborate with someone in the edit room, especially when you’re so close to the material.

Originally the script was very much straight forward in its style. It wasn’t until I read Ubik by Philip K. Dick that I realized how subjective and simple I could get with the storytelling. The characters of Ubik are constantly questioning their own reality and perceptions. People and objects are transported into strange environments and between dimensions. It’s really a great novel, packed with tons of crazy ideas about how we experience the world. Since I was reading the novel while working on the script, it inevitably made a big impact on my writing at the time. I wanted the ‘slot machine void’ scene to feel like something out of the book.

My producer and I held casting calls in both LA and Vegas, which proved to be moderately successful. I was able to get Fred Melamed through my actress friend Marissa Meizel, who knew him from the voice-over world. A Serious Man is one of my favorite films and Sy Ableman will forever be one of cinema’s best villains, so to get him on Kid Gambled felt like pure kismet. For the main character, Jay, my Producer, Simona, had worked with Jacob Melton on another short film. From the moment he walked in the door to audition I knew he was perfect.

As production neared I wanted to find a way to get the whole crew together beforehand. I remember reading somewhere that Robert Altman used to have everyone come into a theatre after each shooting day to watch dailies. I got inspired by that and decided to have weekly movie screenings at my apartment with the crew leading up to the actual shoot. We watched Enter the Void, Brazil, Pi, Fallen Angles, Punch Drunk-Love, and more. Not only did it help everyone get on the same page about the tone of the film, but it also provided a great opportunity for all of us to meet up every week, talk filmmaking and hang out. Almost 2 years since our first screening, many of us are actually still meeting up almost every week to watch movies together.

My DP, Powell Robinson, ended up having to go into surgery a few weeks prior to our shoot and we really underestimated his recovery. Luckily, despite having to hobble around on a cane, he ended up being okay to come to the shoot. Sebastion Baron, our Camera Operator, held our Alexa Mini, while Carter Ross, our 1st AC, pulled focus on a set of some real cool Kowa Anamorphics. Funny enough, Powell’s surgery ended up being a bit of a blessing is disguise. Since he was a little zonked out on pain meds, I think it might’ve carried over into some of the more psychedelic lighting and camera choices.

I co-edited the film with Anna Zlokovic. She’s an incredibly talented director and editor, and also happens to be my girlfriend. Did I mention that she also plays the part of the cashier in the film and served as an associate producer? A real renaissance woman! But really, it helps to collaborate with someone in the edit room, especially when you’re so close to the material. She was fantastic at creating and milking moments that we didn’t notice while shooting.

The film had well over 30 visual effects shots and I ended up doing all of them myself. In 2015 I founded my own production company called Neon Pig – most of our work consists of visual effects work. So for me, I was well prepared to jumped into it. It was nice because I had the confidence on set to plan out shots that I knew I could achieve using compositing.

The film had well over 30 visual effects shots and I ended up doing all of them myself.

For instance, there is a moment in the film where we see a POV of Jay looking at himself in a mirror. It was a shot that we came up with on the day of. I liked it because it really puts you, the audience, in Jay’s headspace. We ended up shooting it in 2 shots: 1) Our camera operator points the camera straight into the mirror, so that he’s looking at himself. This was our main plate. 2) The second shot was another plate that would be used to replace the mirror in the first shot. So, we turned the camera around 180 degrees, stuck it on a tripod, and filmed Jay. He looked straight into the camera as if it was the mirror. In post, after some motion tracking and a little fairy dust, the shot came together nicely.

For the score I wanted to create an EDM song that would exaggerate Jay’s anxiety and stoned-paranoia. Two incredibly talented LA musicians, Cary Singer and Nick Chuba, knocked it out of the park.

I’m part of a filmmaking collective called Aporkalypse with a few other crew members from Kid Gambled. We’ll be at Slamdance this month with a music video that Anna Zlokovic directed that had a very similar crew to Kid Gambled. Additionally, a feature film that Anna is directing and I’m producing was recently selected to be apart of the Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program. I’m also currently writing a feature film that is again set in the suburbs of Las Vegas. If the cards fall right, 2018 could be a very exciting year!

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