It’s always exciting when a film appears in DN’s submissions that feels unlike anything else around at the moment. Bellingham’s Belief is an example of this, a short that pays homage to The Twilight Zone and the atypical 50s serial. Told through a series of heavily stylised images and purposeful narration, Director Tom Salvaggio’s short shows that you don’t need major resources to create work that stands out. For the narrative of his film Salvaggio drew from a real-life event that occurred in Bellingham, Washington where local citizens began to freak out when cracks on car windshields began to appear in considerable frequency. It’s a strange story which lends itself to a brilliantly uncanny film. DN is proud to premiere Bellingham’s Belief today in conjunction with a conversation with Salvaggio where he talks about how the rise of conspiratorial thinking motivated him to make his mysterious thriller.
Bellingham’s Belief is such a singular short, where did it all begin for you?
For a good portion of my life and specifically the last decade, I’ve been consciously and subconsciously trying to reconcile with the recent influx of conspiratorial thinking. Its psychology has always fascinated and disturbed me in equal measure. Confronting the gulf between what’s real and what’s less real seems like it’s been a relatable, yet reluctant daily ritual for many others. This short originated in lockdown when the pandemic further exacerbated the spread of misinformation and mass conspiracism. Anxiety over this was the only thing I had readily available at the time, so the main creative impulse was to make something as a way of understanding my anxiety and coping with uncertainty.
How did you discover the real-life story of the damaged car windshields in Bellingham?
Subjects and resources were limited at that time, so I took into account my surroundings and was drawn to a crack in my car windshield. A cracked surface felt appropriate with the general mood of the times. This led me to discover a little-known incident which occurred in Bellingham, Washington in 1954 when citizens discovered mysterious cracks in their car windshields. The ensuing investigation and widespread panic over the cause of the damage was later categorized as an example of mass psychogenic illness (aka mass hysteria).
The main creative impulse was to make something as a way of understanding my anxiety and coping with uncertainty.
After tracing this phenomenon back to the Middle Ages, it became apparent that there’s always been a struggle to separate our beliefs from our reality. This struggle can create these unique incidents where, if the beliefs are powerful enough, they have the ability to warp our sense of reality. These ideas of belief eclipsing reality, paranoia resulting from misinformation, and searching for answers in a fragmented world filled with things beyond your control deeply resonated with my anxieties and will hopefully resonate with others as well.
It feels like a trite thing to say but the film is told through images. Specifically, heavy stylised ones and closeups of objects. What drew you to that approach?
Most of the stylistic choices were initially based on intuition, my visceral response to something, or what felt right at any given moment, then they were modulated as the process continued. Stories of mob mentality and Cold War paranoia have always intrigued me since discovering The Twilight Zone as an impressionable kid. That probably unconsciously informed some of the aesthetics and story structure.
I thought it’d be interesting if the storytelling was also in a gray zone between narrative and documentary.
Were The Twilight Zone and other 50s serials your main inspiration aesthetically?
The visual format is an updated riff on 1950s news serials with an omnipresent narrator as our guide. I liked the idea of combining the look of old serials with modern visuals and editing. This combination is intended to show a 1950s story through the lens of today. And this 1950s story happens to be a mystery. We’re searching for a definitive cause of the windshield damage and that means being in an uncertain gray zone. Because of this, I thought it’d be interesting if the storytelling was also in a gray zone between narrative and documentary, a kind of hybrid experimental style that blended techniques from both genres.
The way you use those visuals I think sparks imagination in the viewer. You’re asking us to ponder what lives outside of the frame.
An important theme of the story concerns perception, specifically, what’s shown and not shown. I wanted the visuals to conceal rather than reveal so that the audience would be like the citizens of Bellingham, both unclear about what was happening. The stylized re-enactment shots focus on minute details such as a hand gesture or a barbed wire fence because if these overlooked details were noticed, this incident would’ve never happened at all.
I wanted the visuals to conceal rather than reveal so that the audience would be like the citizens of Bellingham, both unclear about what was happening.
How was it editing the short and finding the right pace in revealing the information?
Pace was important. Stories of mass psychogenic illness tend to follow a similar rhythm: it starts quietly when a small but mysterious detail is noticed, and when its cause can’t be determined, fear fuels misinformation until it reaches a paranoid fever pitch. When, or if the cause is determined, the panic dissipates. The pace and soundscape follow that same rhythm. If we start with a single crack, we compliment that with a single music cue. Any event that hopes to reveal the cause of damage is met with an exciting rush of music, but when no cause is found, the music drops to silence. This lack of resolve is frustrating and unsettling. As the damage increases and spreads, the sound design becomes more layered and the music becomes more sweeping. When we explore potential conspiracy theories, we shift to a more hopeless tone in order to mirror the frustrating, futile attempts of people searching for seemingly unknowable answers. Here is where we realize how powerful belief can become; no theory is too implausible for those who are desperate for an answer.
Am I correct in thinking you were the sole creator of the film? What was it like being that close to the material at every stage and how long did that creative process take to complete?
As far as production and post-production, this was a passion project made during lockdown so I was mostly a one-man band. This made the process unorthodox and intimate. It also allowed me the luxury of shooting and editing simultaneously. This may sound scattershot or backwards in theory, but in practice it was very liberating because I could exhaust any creative impulse without the constraints of budget, time, or resources. Because the majority of imagery wasn’t initially scripted, the editing informed the shooting and essentially became the writing of the imagery in some instances. Working in this piecemeal fashion lasted almost nine non-consecutive months.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a Thanksgiving-set short film inspired by a NextDoor post along with writing a feature-length narrative script of Bellingham’s Belief.