Meet The Team Behind Just Death, The Next Great Short Film

JustDeathArt by Kelly Otterness

Long time, no see everybody! I apologize for my extended absence from this blog; I’ve had more than enough personal/professional obligations to keep me busy the last couple of months. But if there’s one thing that could motivate me to get Creation From Chaos out of mothballs, it’s supporting the efforts of my fellow artists, and that’s exactly what I’m here to do today.

The project at hand is a new short film called Just Death. Developed by fellow Landmark Sunshine Cinema alums, it looks to be a challenging but absurd piece of satirical filmmaking about the death penalty. To me, it sounds like exactly the sort of art the world needs right now, and I hope you’ll all join me in supporting this great project on Kickstarter. To celebrate the launch of their crowdfunding campaign, I sat down with writer/director Aaron Kelley, cinematographer Lucas Miller and producer Josh Michaels to discuss their influences and goals for Just Death.

Aaron, what in particular motivated this story? Was there a specific inspiration or is it something you’ve been thinking about for a while?

Aaron: The idea had been rattling around in my brain for a while but I hadn’t actually written any story around it. In early January of this year I was down in Virginia Beach for my Grandfather’s 90th birthday and on a quiet day inspiration struck so I just banged out the script in their living room that day.

Both of my short films so far are based around a single, absurdist idea:  for example, Alone in the Wilderness was “a pizza delivery guy looks for an address that doesn’t exist.” I think it comes from seeing Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel sometime around high school or college.

What are the major influences (narrative, visual, tonal) you guys had in putting this film together?

Lucas: We’ll be taking visual cues from Dr. Strangelove, The Trial, Grand Illusion, The Third Man, All the Presidents Men, Point Blank, Natural Born Killers and Down By Law. We want the film be atmospheric, while keeping the use of filters and color effects to a minimum. As we’ll be shooting on a tight schedule of three shooting days, our biggest influence is going to be time and making the most of our main location, which fortunately has its authenticity built in: it’s a functioning prison.

Aaron: It’s hard to understate the Orson Welles influence. The first movie I saw this year was Chimes at Midnight, which I caught at Film Forum with Lucas. Welles’ visual inventiveness is just endlessly inspiring. As for the tone of the story, I hope it can approach at least half the genius of Dr. Strangelove or the Coen brothers. I also love the quick, snippy back-and-forth of workplace shows like Veep, The Office, and Peep Show.

Josh, what were the major hurdles to clear in organizing this production?

Josh: Putting together a quality low budget short is always a challenge in the modern film business. Digital is great, because there are more opportunities now for start-ups to get projects made… but that means there is also a lot more competition and everyone has to get creative when it comes to funding. What a lot of people don’t realize is filmmakers today also have to be hustlers and entrepreneurs.

Finding an affordable location in New York is not easy and it means we have to find talented crew members who are willing to work for low-pay because they believe in us and the project. I think we’ve found a happy medium between a location that will fit in our budget and paying cast and crew. Of course, this is 2016, so that also means putting on a brave face and juggling fund-raising and self-promotion while simultaneously dealing with the actual work of getting a movie made, i.e. hiring crew, auditioning actors and finalizing with vendors.

Lucas, having directed your own shorts previously, how do you change your approach when collaborating with Aaron?

Lucas: I also do the cinematography on my own films, so the visuals and the technical side of lighting and camerawork are things that I’m always concerned with. On this film however, I’m focused on understanding Aaron’s vision and bringing it to life, something he’s made easy by writing such a vivid script and by providing lots of reference materials for us to work from.

It helps that we have similar taste. We both like wide lenses and images with a lot of depth. Depth of field used to be something directors like Jean Renoir and Orson Welles strived for and we want to bring that back.

In the past I’ve had indie filmmakers tell me that NYC is not a great environment for finding collaborators for films like this. Has that been your experience on past projects, and was it true here?

Aaron: New York City has actually been the best environment for finding collaborators as far as my experience. I’ve actually only been here about a year and I’ve already found the city to be packed to the gills with people who care about creative expression. And once you show people you’re serious, they get serious too.

Lucas: This film wouldn’t be getting made if we weren’t in New York. We’re lucky to all be working at the Sunshine Cinema, where the pay isn’t great but where the managers do a very good job of hiring people who are serious about movies. Before working there, I never had any real life friends I could debate the auteur theory with… all I had were books and the internet. It’s hard wherever you are to find people to work with, which is the biggest problem with filmmaking and also what makes it so compelling: it’s a collaborative art by necessity. Unless you want to make vlogs or self-indulgent experimental films, you need to find people to play with.

What’re your major targets on the film festival circuit? And beyond that, where do you see this particular film going?

Josh: Getting this film out in front of people is really important to us. We haven’t decided on specific festivals yet, because we want to see how the project comes out first. That said, we have budgeted in an aggressive film festival budget and we are paying careful attention to any copyrighted props and music in our production that could bar us from entry. To those ends, we’ve also hired a talented Foley artist, sound mixer, and colorist. It is going to be a beautiful and polished film. While we will focus on festivals in the north east which we can physically travel to, some so-called “reach schools” like Sundance and SXSW are of course on our minds.

Luckily, with shorts, most festivals don’t require you to premiere the project at their venue, so we will also be distributing the film on various VOD services, like Amazon Video Direct and Vimeo.

Aaron: I don’t want to get too specific because, as Josh said, we haven’t really jumped into that stage of the process. There’s also superstition: I don’t want to jinx us! But right now we’re looking into the usual suspects and ones across New York. I also want to explore festivals in states with the highest rates of execution, specifically Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. I’d like to think showing Just Death in those states can spur some conversation and I’d love to hear more from residents of those states on their views as well.

Do you feel there’s a longer-form version of this story you’d like to tell, or is this your definitive take on the topic/idea?

Aaron: Short film is kind of a strange storytelling form. Short film ideas come to me differently than feature ideas and I liken them more to fables than just truncated feature-length narratives. And Just Death was definitely written as a short film. I care a lot about the issue of capital punishment so it may show up in future work, but right now I feel like Just Death is complete as it is.

Josh: We believe Just Death is a stand-alone short, but we want to use the momentum of the project to keep hitting the pavement. We all have other ideas of films we would like to make and rolling this project into a larger production company is something we have definitely discussed. We are in the very early stages of development on short film projects with several local comedians in NY. I think bringing together all that talent under one roof, focusing on short comedies about important social issues, is an attractive idea to all of us.

You can find Just Death’s Kickstarter page here, and their Facebook here. Go support them! And good luck to the whole team!

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One Comment on “Meet The Team Behind Just Death, The Next Great Short Film”

  1. Just Death Fan says:

    I can’t wait for this film to come out. I’ve already heard some buzz in the NYC film scene and, after reading this, it seems well-deserved.


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