When programming short films for online, there are a couple of things we look for in our selections. Firstly, they need to grab an audience’s attention from the get-go, and secondly, they need to leave a lasting impression. The Flute from Nick Roney (last seen on DN here) fits both of these criteria perfectly. Opening with an eye-catching sequence where an erotic photoshoot seamlessly transforms into a framed picture in the cardboard box of a heartbroken man’s possession, this is then followed with a perfectly choreographed long take of the aforementioned jilted lover moving into his new house with his friends. It’s the expert craft that first draws you in, but it’s the bat-sh*t crazy concept that you’ll be discussing with all your friends after watching. Ever since I first saw The Flute, as part of this year’s SXSW line-up, I’ve been overflowing with questions for its director and I finally got the chance to fire them his way as he joined us on DN to discuss comic-strip inspiration, prosthetics and the serendipity of filmmaking.
The Flute is a tale of heartbreak, which quickly turns into a nightmare for its protagonist, I’m kind of scared to ask, but where did the original idea for the short come from and how did it develop from this initial premise to the story we see today.
The Flute originated from a time when I was subletting from buddies in NYC shortly after a breakup. One roommate was blasting ethereal music in his room and the other commented on it saying, “He plays this every time he jerks off.” I thought he was making a skin flute joke, “Like on his penis?” The misunderstanding made us laugh and we spent the rest of the month in that juvenile poopoopeepee state of mind. Meanwhile, I was having serious regrets about the break-up and my immature hangouts only magnified all the reasons why it was my fault. This experience of being trapped in a perpetual dick joke while being really sad on the inside was the inspiration for the film.
There are so many moments in The Flute that I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with that opening sequence as we move from a sexy photoshoot with Dan’s ex to the framed photo in his meagre box of possessions as he moves into his new home. Alongside being visually impressive it also feels like the perfect exposition as we get a lot of backstory from the accompanying audio. The opening to a short film is always key, especially online, and you nailed it here, how much thought and planning went into this beginning sequence?
The idea for the opening shot required some basic planning since each piece was filmed on a different day. Day 1 was the photoshoot, Day 2 was the front yard and Day 3 was the interior of the box. Mainly we needed to decide on camera speed, shot length and lenses beforehand so the elements would stitch in post. We ended up building a box set that was two times longer than the box he was holding, so the movement of the camera is more noticeable.
Sometimes it feels like ideas are already finished somewhere else and we’re just pulling them into this reality.
Initially, I thought the title would be animated over the intro shot but someone suggested we add snippets of them arguing. It worked so well, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the original intent. I don’t even know who suggested it! I just received a screencap of a text from a friend with the idea. Moviemaking can be strange that way. Sometimes it feels like ideas are already finished somewhere else and we’re just pulling them into this reality. You often hear people say, “This could be done a million different ways.” I’m not sure that’s true, it seems like every project has an ideal form. Serendipity will usually help you find it.
In the next sequence, we join Dan and his new housemates inside the home, as the camera sweeps out from behind a bookcase. As the old friends reunite the camera circles them, taking in the setting and the characters. This sequence feels like a stellar introduction to the inventive camerawork throughout the short, how did you work with Chris Ripley to plan out the cinematography of the film and are there any shots you’re particularly pleased with?
Chris and I started our prep with a text conversation where we exchanged references. I wanted to do something inspired by Daniel Clowes and he liked the idea of shooting it in the style of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. We tried to stay true to that by making the production design and costumes look like they’re from a comic strip and by giving the cinematography a Darijus Khondji quality. After initial discussions, I started taking pictures of the actors during rehearsal and sketching over them in Photoshop to create DIY storyboards. I shared these with Chris who would find the gaps in the story and fill them with new ideas.
The shot I’m happiest with is the close-up of the feet in the hallway that leads to the bead curtain. It’s not the nicest shot in the short, but it was the only one that we came up with on the day, so it felt like a surprise.
In this sequence, there’s also a lovely moment where Dan shows off his ‘party trick’ and throws a key across the room straight onto a hook, if it’s not too much like asking a magician to reveal his secrets can you tell us a bit about how you achieved that moment?
The Production Designer Tye Whipple, rigged a pair of keys to a fishing line and dropped them just after the actor threw an identical pair. The two sets were stitched together by the VFX Artist Wes Cronk, who also added the camera tilt to capture the trajectory of the throw. Since the motion of keys is relatively blurry it’s hard to tell that a digital handoff is happening.
With the reveal of the titular instrument, we’re introduced to the prosthetic work of Chelsea Delfino, was it always the plan to show David’s ‘flute’ in such detail and what can you tell us about the development of the organ?
I thought it was important to show the flute up close to make the concept crystal clear to the viewer. The main question was how much and when to show it. We tried several edits to find the correct timing for the reveal. We ended up showing the flute in quick flashes similar to Mrs. Robinson’s nude scene in The Graduate. It’s the classic monster movie approach of making something scarier by showing as little as possible. That was the idea anyway, but there are probably a couple extra seconds of full frontal just for fun.
The trickiest part though was finding the right balance between flute and penis.
To create the flute, Chelsea started with some sketches that she then sculpted into clay. We ended up exchanging penis photos that were notated with things like “Let’s add a vein like this…” and “What if the head looked like that?” I’m always surprised by how casual makeup artists are about nudity. They’ve seen it all I guess. The trickiest part though was finding the right balance between flute and penis. It was easy to lean too far in one direction or the other, but Chelsea created the perfect synthesis.
When I talked to you for Short of the Week, you discussed the need to create something personal, where your creativity and humour wasn’t restricted by client needs. Were there any moments in the creation of The Flute where you had to reign things in? Any scenes/sequences that weren’t quite possible?
Ironically, I ended up being the one who was most worried about going too far whereas the crew was relatively unaffected. I actually shot a ‘clean’ version where it’s implied that David climaxes by cutting to Ed filling his hand with shaving cream. Once I shot the slow-mo climax scene though, I immediately knew that would be the final version and the clean version was canned. Otherwise, a couple of graphic shots involving fluids didn’t make it into the final cut but that was for editing reasons. I tried to stay true to my objective of making something unrestrained.
You also discussed the desire to work on something with your friends and The Flute stars your buddies Dan Carr, David Finch and Ed Leer, who also do impressive work. How was it working with your friends? It’s not often your mates will go to the extremes David went to for the sake of a short film.
Working with those guys was the most fun I’ve had on a project. I feel like I can be myself around them and vice versa, so the atmosphere is light and creative. We did ten rehearsals which mostly consisted of us joking around, but it managed to be my favorite part of the process. I knew they were the perfect actors for the part because they are so open-minded and were down for the cause. David not only put on the prosthetic without flinching, he was proud to wear it. On set he would crack jokes when people peeked, “HEY! My eyes are up here.”
I tried to stay true to my objective of making something unrestrained.
The Flute played at the Midnight Screening at SXSW, where it was awarded the Grand Jury prize. Did you get to attend? If so, how was the reaction? I can imagine it being wild watching The Flute in a live theatre with others.
Unfortunately, I was in Prague for a job so I missed SXSW. I heard it went over well though and people understood the humor. The only people I have seen it with are my stepdad and his buddies and I’m not sure they got it. It is screening at Silverlake Shorts in June though! Hopefully, I’ll get a better idea of how it works with an audience there. Please come!
Ok, final question – what’s next for you? We’re familiar with your work from music videos and commercials, but would love to see you return to short film, any plans for new narrative work?
I’m writing a movie with Ed Leer who co-wrote The Flute. I plan on making that next. It’s so crazy I’m not sure who will finance it but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my ear to the ground.