The premise of Michael Rees’ latest comedy short Middle Sized Things is so delightfully off-kilter that it needs to be seen to be fully grasped. It follows a guest speaker at college who’s presenting his core thesis, the notion that the properties of scale have no direct correlation with something’s moral status. It’s a conceptual idea that makes no sense whatsoever but Rees uses the confidence and determination of his cocksure academic to expose the fragile ego underneath which, combined with an ensemble cast who sell the ridiculousness of the situation wonderfully, makes the short a must-see. With Middle Sized Things having arrived online, DN joined Rees for a conversation about his creative process as a comedy writer/director, his aversion to sitting on ideas for too long, and the benefits his experience as an editor brings to his filmmaking.
Where did the concept for Middle Sized Things come from?
The first seed of the idea stemmed from a joke my friends and I were riffing on during a bachelor party in Puerto Rico. The bit was essentially a guy who at some point in his life was told size had a huge bearing on whether or not something was good or bad and was telling everyone around him that this wasn’t the case. Just some stupid misguided categorical error. We goofed around with this character for a few days and then the idea morphed into it being an academic figure when I thought of Al Warren [I Don’t Need to Know] preaching it to students.
I’m a fan of not sitting on ideas for too long and I like sort of just pulling the trigger and hoping for the best as I think it forces you to make it work.
I had been wanting to get Al and Eric Rahill in something together for a couple years now and then I realized Eric should be the student who pushes back on it, but with something just as misguided and silly. To me, something about them trying to one up each other with dumb ideas was funny. The scene at the end came later when I thought it would be nice to see what possibly was causing this man’s existential dilemma. What happens when a pseudo-intellectual goes about figuring out meaning in a harmless but pointless manner? That’s kinda where my head was at.
What is your screenwriting process like? How long did it take you to put together screenplay and did you find it challenging to establish the specific comedic tone of the film?
I think the script came out to like thirteen pages and I mostly wrote it during a couple weeks in January. I knew getting the tone was more about casting Al and Eric to really sell how neutral the humor is. I’m honestly not sure the idea works without them. I knew it would be a fine line to walk though.
I read that production came together pretty rapidly, how so?
I knew for sure I wanted Al, Eric, Veronika Slowikowska, and Jordan Raf as the main four, and getting all four of their schedules to line up only gave me one weekend in March so that was dialled in and then we had to shoot in like two weeks. I’m a fan of not sitting on ideas for too long and I like sort of just pulling the trigger and hoping for the best as I think it forces you to make it work. I was lucky enough to have Cinematographer Bart Cortright come onboard just like a week out and it made so much of the shooting process simplified in my mind so I could focus on their dialogue. Lately, I’m in the frame of mind that if the production doesn’t feel levelled up then I will just shoot it like a skit to keep the wheels turning, but luckily with this one it felt really good to me all around.
What was it like collaborating with Al Warren on his character?
Al Warren is a great actor, writer, and director so I really felt safe to let him play around with the character. We had several back and forths about who this guy was and what he was trying to prove. Did he have a southern twang that made everything feel like a reach or did he bring an Ivy League pompousness to the room? I think it landed somewhere in the middle but we just wanted him to raise questions.
I usually try to get it to be one way and give myself a backdoor out if that doesn’t work.
There’s a great loose energy to the conversation between the speaker and the students. Was there much room for your actors to improvise or is everything exactly as written?
I’m happy to say that this one was almost the entire script but there are some great moments that weren’t, namely their rambling during the last shot. I left that open and just said something along the lines of, “The guys ramble over her body and we fade out.” or something like that. Eric’s line about getting punched in the brain was all him and it’s one of my favourites.
You’ve worked extensively as an editor alongside your directorial work, does that inform how you direct at all?
It makes working extremely fast in my opinion. I generally know what I want and don’t need to get coverage on stuff. I usually try to get it to be one way and give myself a backdoor out if that doesn’t work but that’s about it. I feel like I can speak forever about this.
I read that you’re working on your first feature, what can you tell us about that?
What would happen if Veronika crashed a rowdy bachelor party in Puerto Rico?
Ha! What else are you focusing on as of late?
I’m going to keep shooting shorts and music videos but my focus is getting this feature done as soon as possible then screening it around the country the way we have been doing with these short showcases that have really created a buzz. Might release some really dumb sketches soon as well but the feature is the priority.