It was a night filled with excitement and anticipation at The Mill’s New York studio, as we hosted a private screening of the film ‘BAG MAN.' Star of the film Judah Bellamy joined us, along with directors Jonathan & Josh Baker of TWIN. Close friends, family and collaborators were in attendance. Topping off the night was a live performance by Brooklyn-based band Bird Courage, the trio that wrote the original music for the film.
BAG MAN is a short film about the unexpected journey a 12-year old African American boy embarks on. From the hustle of Harlem into the secluded countryside of upstate New York, he travels with a mysterious duffle bag in hand. On the road, we slowly discover his real intentions, and the significance of what is hidden inside the young boy’s bag.
The Mill team led by Westley Sarokin created all visual effects, visible and invisible; the weapon blasts, the detonations and the technique to vaporize a human body.
The directing duo gave us a bit of behind the scenes info about the filmmaking, storytelling and the role The Mill played in it all.
Where did the idea for the film came from? Why this story?
Josh: This is actually the 2nd iteration of the story, after a failed attempt to set and shoot it in rural Africa. It ended up being way too expensive (and dangerous), and so we rewrote the story into a local one so we could shoot here in New York. We also swapped the hyena for an owl.
Jonathan: Like rural Africa, Harlem also comes with its own set of cultural preconceptions, and we liked that. Ultimately we wanted the audience to think they knew what this kid was all about, before serving them up something completely fresh and new. We designed the short to reflect a whole range of topics and genres we’re into, from urban New York grit, to quiet introspective road trip films, to realistic sci-fi. It’s not every day you get to create a film at this sort of level, and so selfishly we wanted to pack as much of ourselves into it as possible, while still sculpting a story that didn’t feel too disjointed or transparent.
In what ways is the film true to the original vision and in what ways did it evolve/change?
Josh: It's actually VERY close to the original vision. Looking back at the storyboards and the script we had on set, there were only small additions. A few things were dropped in the edit, and others were spontaneously found on set, but it was essentially what we both had in mind. I originally wanted the boy to be about two years younger, but it was a real struggle in casting to find an innocent 10 year old that had the focus and concentration, and could bring a 'street-wise' confidence to the part. Let alone be able to hold the heavy rifle. Once we found Judah, it was pretty obvious that we had the best of both worlds.
Jonathan: Going back to the script the other day and reading the scene with the street hustler character speaking to Judah’s character on the corner, I was impressed that two white-boy Australian directors managed to write his dialogue word-for word as it appeared in the final cut. Too much time watching episodes of The Wire… I guess.
What are your plans for the short film?
Josh: We haven't actually got huge festival plans for it, though it has been submitted to two major upcoming festivals that we hope it gets into. We mostly made this because we need to have some form of personal project on the go at all times. It's what keeps us inspired and excited and thinking about cool things. We also made it to broaden our commercial directing reel, and hopefully open a door or two. We don’t have much sci-fi or drama – genres we're pretty passionate about at the end of the day.
Jonathan: The longer feature version idea really only became a reality once we were editing. It's something that was hard not to think about since we posed so many questions in the short film. We also know that the path to feature films by first creating a short, is very tried and tested, and so we’d better know what we’d want to do with it if somebody asked us.
Do you already have a feature written?
Jonathan: We have a feature length story planned out, and basically know the movie version we'd want to make. We’ve spent a bit of time taking the style and tone of the short, and fitting them into a much more layered and detailed world. It’s exciting to play around with different ideas and attempt to answer a lot of the questions we asked in the short film. ‘Where did he find the alien weapon?’ being the obvious one.
Josh: Hopefully a feature version is something that can churn away in the background until it's no longer just in the background.
What's different about longer-form narrative than working on a typical commercial format?
Jonathan: The craft is pretty similar at the end of the day, since nothing changes about the quality or the day-to-day directing responsibilities, but it’s that one step towards feature-style character exploration. You get to pour more into your characters and flesh them out. You get to hold on shots for longer, and create a different tone to what we normally play with in advertising.
Josh: The last thing we wanted to hear after we finished the short, were people saying “Yeah, you can tell you guys are commercial directors”, or “You really cut this like an ad!” Directing a piece that took its time and allowed us to explore like a child explores was really important to us. We wanted to create that duality between atmospheric and visually impactful… almost two chapters that have very different emotional cores.
What part did The Mill play in the process?
Jonathan: The Mill have been long time collaborators of ours, and so they were a very obvious choice to approach about creating the VFX for Bag Man. I think they agreed to work with us on this project after about 30 seconds of sci-fi discussion…
Josh: The Mill team spent a lot of time developing the look of the weapon blast and how it vaporizes a human body. We knew from the start that we wanted it based around fiery embers that almost had a grace and a beauty to the way they dance on the wind. Those elements were shot at night in a backyard in Brooklyn. The Mill's compositing team did a wonderful job combining them all together into the mayhem you see in the film.
Jonathan: With a decent amount of invisible comp and paintwork, The Mill team also came up with a cool animating scope in conjunction with the weapon designers from Supervixen. It's really the big reveal of the rifle that slaps everyone to attention, and that's followed very quickly with introducing the holographic scope. It's all meant to overwhelm the viewer with a lot of unexpected visuals right at the moment they were falling asleep from the incessant walking.
Josh: It was a really enjoyable experience, because you rarely get to finesse a commercial job as much as we did with this short film. There was no official deadline for it, so we just kept pottering away in the background when we all had time to work on it. The encouraging thing is everyone remained really passionate about the project right up until we finished… it became more fun than it was an obligation, which is understandable for a room packed full of sci-fi nerds. Big thanks to The Mill for making this film real for us!