It’s natural when in a long term relationship to question the different ways you act around your partner at various points in your life. Filmmaker Peter Collins Campbell’s short Variations on a Theme takes those questions of self-awareness to a whole new level, however, by making them literal in the form of a science fiction style concept about a couple who start to investigate the ability they have to physically split their bodies into many different versions of themselves. It’s an engrossing, philosophical and technically-impressive short film that despite its relatively small budget looks completely seamless in its visual effects work. DN last spoke to Campbell a few years ago for his absurdist comedy Summer Vacation, and invited him back to our pages today for a chat about the journey he went on making Variations on a Theme, learning how it started from a desire to impulsively shoot a film in an afternoon and grew into a fully-fledged short that required meticulous planning for its split-screen effects.

What’s the origin story of Variations on a Theme?

I had been tinkering with this concept of a couple splitting into different versions of themselves as a feature for a while but wasn’t making a ton of progress with it, and on a trip out to LA I was hanging out with my friend Sophia Dunn-Walker, who is an actor and writer/director herself, and she threw out that we should make something while I was in town. I wrote the short really quickly while at this house I was dogsitting at, we were gonna shoot it right away just with us, but it grew and grew and it ended up being shot back in Chicago where I’m from originally, with a full crew.

As precise as the boards were, the way we did some of the split-screen effects was pretty devil may care.

How much planning went into shot composition and getting the film to work smoothly on a visual level?

I storyboard everything I do, so that was a given, and we tried to do as much scouting as we could with the limited time frame. It was a real mix of careful planning and also just hoping to god stuff worked on the day. As precise as the boards were, the way we did some of the split-screen effects was pretty devil-may-care.

Did that planning make for a pain-free shoot?

I wouldn’t say pain free, it was a tight crunch to get it all done in two days, in a friend’s house that actually was not vacant, and with like 80% natural light. But without the planning, it would have been pure chaos. I think if I was thinking about moving away from doing storyboards beforehand, I’m now locked in on that forever.

If you don’t mind sharing, how did you fund Variations on a Theme and get it off the ground as a project?

It was 100% my friend Mylissa Fitzsimmons, who is a director too, who originally was going to just lend us her camera, and ended up wanting to produce the film and sourced us $5K, then I kicked in probably about $2K by the time shooting was done. It really just came together out of nowhere, and I feel very lucky everyone was so excited about it.

How did you find the balance of being a director/writer/actor? Is that a way of working you prefer?

I’ve never done it before! I always write/direct, but the acting thing purely grew out of the plan originally being for Sophia and I to just make it on our own with no crew, and it felt like it would introduce a whole set of variables I didn’t want to deal with to start finding another actor instead of me. But it was really fun, it definitely would not have worked if I didn’t trust Brandon Hoeg, our DP, to get the most interesting composition and be a perfectionist about it. I would love to act again but I think that I don’t feel like I’ve earned the confidence to put myself in larger projects I do besides as a last resort. Maybe in time with some more training.

I’m much more aware of where ideas sit in relation to genre now, which makes it safer to color outside the lines. 

Variations on a Theme is a film with a strong concept that I’m sure has provoked some interesting audience responses, what have people been saying after seeing it?

It does seem to get strong reactions, the idea of a long term relationship doing weird things to your identity and for that conflict to be so strong that it manifests physically is surprisingly pretty easy to relate to for a lot of people. My favorite unexpected take on it is that it is about the experience of cohabitating with a partner during COVID quarantining.

How do you feel your years of directing other shorts and music videos prepared you for this film specifically?

I think through music videos and my first feature, it’s always a process of learning what level of buy-in people are able to deal with. My first short that was on Directors Notes was Summer Vacation back in 2018 and the vibe of that was like… art film meets Saturday morning cartoon, tonally and effects-wise, and through the feature and music videos after that, it’s like, how much abstraction can I get away with versus how grounded does the cinematic language have to be to get people on board with the story? I also think I’m much more aware of where ideas sit in relation to genre now, which makes it safer to color outside the lines.

What are you working on now?

Sophia and I co-wrote a feature version of Variations on a Theme, so that’s down the line, but the next project is my second feature GRIND, which is shooting later this year. It’s about a shithead delivery biker in New York trying to make all his rent in one night and nearly dying in the process. I also might do a short about dentists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *