In Horse Dreams, a struggling literary agent Teddy asks his half-brother Stephen to meet him in a parking lot in order to deliver some bad news about his book. This may seem like a simple premise on paper but Director and Co-Lead/Writer Griffin Wenzler imbues that conceit with dynamic cinematography and heightened performances that take it to a level of pure laugh-out-loud wackiness. His two characters, the other of which is played by Co-Writer Anthony Oberbeck – who spoke to us last year about his aptly named but unrelated short film Book – are given such vivid flavour that you know who these men are immediately from the cars they’re driving, the way they hold themselves, even they way they’re dressed. It’s a delightful short and DN is proud to premiere it on our pages in conjunction with a revealing conversation with Wenzler where he talks about the long gestation of the project, the Terminator-inspired look of the film and how his background as a Chicago-based improv comedian helped him flesh out his screenplay.
Horse Dreams is such a brilliantly bonkers short and it all comes from you and your co-lead in how you sell the lives of these guys. How did it come to be a project?
First I want to say that this was a cursed production. Both of the cars in it got destroyed, one in a fire in Anthony’s yard. The company that let us film in their parking lot went bankrupt a few months after production. And, last month I accidentally put the hard drive with everything on it in the washer. Also the horse in the short has no front teeth. She got kicked in the face when she was a foal and now her tongue just kinda lolls out.
Horse Dreams came about in 2021 when Anthony Oberbeck, the co-writer and co-lead, and I were scouting a hiking trail in Los Angeles for a different short. It was sunset and I looked down and saw a Target parking lot with this disgusting glow, but just beyond it the sun was glowing this gorgeous red and the whole picture was really striking. I joked about how much I wanted to look down and see two lunatics fighting each other and chasing each other around a car. Anthony is an incredible improviser and comedian and pretty immediately he jumped into character and started yelling at me to pinch his asshole closed and to push on his butthole. It was a lot of butthole stuff.
We improvised this weird fight and were just making each other laugh and I remarked how much I wanted to see a gorgeous shot of the sunset that slowly pans and zooms in to find these guys like 1,000 ft. below going insane in the parking lot. Anthony wanted to hear their audio the whole time as the camera finds them and I loved that. I started talking about doing it all in one take. I wanted to put a camera with a massive zoom on this hillside and film the scene from up there. I think I was just obsessed with Jim Cummings and Thunder Road and thought I needed to do something nearly impossible for people to notice.
At what point did you decide to embrace the fighting part and ditch the continual extreme zoom?
We both felt like the guys fighting was way more compelling and easier to accomplish than the other short, and I went home and measured the distance from the hill to the parking lot on Google Maps and started looking for a lens that could zoom that far. I think it was a little over 1,300 ft. I found this lens that was developed for wildlife docs that cost about $1,000/day to rent. The Canon Cine-Servo 50-1000m. I was obsessed with that thing before we even had a script. I still am. I kept texting Anthony about it and he just replied “$1,000 a day” and left it at that. That was kinda the end of the telephoto oner idea.
This short was built on LA hikes and Chicago comedy.
We did approach the mall that the Target is in about filming permission but they wanted like $10,000 just to set down a tripod. Los Angeles is an insane and warped place. Anthony and I came up doing comedy in Chicago and you can do almost anything there with almost nothing. We were brand new to LA when we started Horse Dreams so this was kinda a rude awakening to the realities of the city.
With the overall concept locked, could you tell us more about the process of building out the specific beats of the story and what they were arguing about?
We spent maybe six months meeting every week or two to develop the script. For a long time we just knew the type of guys they were and what they said when they were angry, but no idea what they were fighting about. I think Anthony came up with them being brothers and my character yelling, “Mom’s a hog!”. I think we laughed about “Mom’s a hog” for a month. But we had to brute force the meat of the scene. We would just write lists of anything they could be fighting about until I wrote a scene about a writer and his younger manager getting mad at each other. Then one day I heard a news story about China banning a book and I thought it was hilarious to tell someone “The book’s been banned”. The rest of that time was just honing it in, trying to release information in an organic way, and trying to find an ending.
Any time I get to writing an ending I think of this Sam Shepard quote, “The most authentic endings are the ones that are revolving towards another beginning”. I try to do that with everything I write. It’s kind of an improv thing too. In Chicago you’re taught to improvise as though a scene might last forever. It pushes you to commit to the character and that in turn forces you to keep fleshing out the world until it feels like something beyond the current moment or the stage you’re on. My friend Jen Jackson is an incredible TV writer and she gave me the idea of the book ban story being a lie while we were on a hike. This short was built on LA hikes and Chicago comedy.
Once you had the script in place, how was it sourcing the other elements of the film like the crew and the location?
When it came time for production I spent a long time agonizing over a location and trying to convince my friend Nick Kraus, our DP, to film it guerrilla style in the Target parking lot. But Nick is a legitimate, professional cinematographer with self-respect and goals. He comes from a doc background and wanted to do something more intentional than what he usually gets to film. He really pushed for this to be a more professional shoot with things like permission to film and lighting. That forced me to rethink the approach to filming it. I still wanted to capture something of that original idea of the camera gliding down from the sunset to this disgusting parking lot. That’s where the drone shot came in. I liked the idea of hard cutting from a super wide floating shot to that extreme close on Anthony’s eyes. I was just trying to pack in as much visually arresting stuff as possible into a scene that takes place in one location.
Eventually we got permission to film for one night in the parking lot of a friend’s company and we shot a loose rehearsal at the Rose Bowl parking lot. If you ever need a free parking lot in southern California, that’s your place. We should have just done it there for free.
You’ve mentioned how lowkey and guerrilla the film felt in making it but the look is super accomplished. What kit did you use to achieve that and how did you obtain your main props?
The main scene was shot on a Canon C500 MK II and Zeiss Contax lenses. They’re vintage lenses that have this weird ninja star bokeh, and this strange aberration around fine lines that makes things look almost CGI. You can see it around Anthony’s cheek in a lot of his shots. The van was Anthony and his wife Meg’s actual van, until it caught on fire and melted, and my car belonged to my friends Danny and Kate until someone stole all the wheels off of it and the city threatened to ticket them until they removed it. Anthony picked out our own wardrobes. His character is meant to be a sort of desert rat man and mine is a typical LA loser trying to look cool.
Where and how did you shoot the final scene?
The ending shot was filmed by my friend Tim Duggan, another doc DP, on a C70 and a gimbal outside of Nashville, TN, where Tim, Nick, and I are from. I pitched Tim the idea and said that the movie is called Horse Dreams so we should probably see a horse dream. He got really excited about working with horses and for a moment we thought about sneaking into a pasture where we know some horses and shooting with available light at dusk. Then we sobered up and I remembered my uncle Bill has a horse. My friend Erica Scoggins, who directed The Boogeywoman, knows how hard it is to get anything made, so she was willing to drive up from Chattanooga to Nashville to be our Jane for a night.
I was just trying to pack in as much visually arresting stuff as possible into a scene that takes place in one location.
Did you have to pull any tricks in post to get that slick yet grimy look to the cinematography?
I spent the better part of a year editing it and obsessing over color correction. In saying this I’m starting to notice a pattern of obsession. I chugged Darren Mostyn and Cullen Kelly videos every day for a few months. For the look, Nick and I had gone through ShotDeck looking for visual references and we pulled a lot from Good Time by the Safdies and Terminator by the guy who did Terminator. If I had my way the whole film would look like Terminator. Maybe it does? There are shots of me with one red eye that Nick and I got way too excited about.
And how was the rest of post-production?
So I graded it and tinkered with every little frame of it until I made myself sick. Then my friend Brent Toler, the singer and guitarist in Diarrhea Planet, wrote all the original music on his synths. I told him Tangerine Dream and Blade Runner were the references and he did such a beautiful job of it. He worked so hard to crank out way more music than I could use, but he made the whole thing come together and feel cohesive and emotional. Then the last track is actually two songs by a Chicago musician named Zach Moore. That took a long time to find. We were married to this sad dance song, but couldn’t get permission, and I happened across Zach’s music while working on a web series called Kate’s Amazing Animals Around Chicago. I listened to his album on my phone and for whatever reason there was a massive lag between the songs. That’s where that black screen with Stephen screaming came from.
I don’t know why it took me so long to finish Horse Dreams but it must have needed it. I am so proud of it and so happy to share it with people.
What’s on the horizon for you film-wise at the moment?
I am currently in production for a short about two old friends who used to dig holes together but have grown apart. I am also trying to get the money and the location locked down for a very surreal short about two sad motorcycle guys who meet while crying on a mountain. I really need to get away from ‘two guys have a weird time’, but I guess that’s what I’m into.