Sometimes, you can make statements of great importance by not saying all that much. A case in point is Andrew Lawton’s new short film “Wake.” On the surface, it is a deceptively simple story of a boy who observes the day of mourning for his dead older brother by using his sibling’s camera to document the gathering of family and friends at a wake. But the short also raises provocative questions regarding the preservation of memory, the appropriate protocol in commemorating the recently deceased, the interplay between adults and children, and the question of how we see ourselves and how others see us.
The Australian-born Lawton, a familiar presence as an actor on the long-running soap opera “One Life to Live,” has previously directed the 2000 feature “Rain” (which has not been theatrically released outside of Australia) and the 2003 short “Some Guy Called Toby.” With “Wake,” Lawton is poised to make his mark as a writer/director of uncommon emotional sensitivity and artistic talent. Film Threat caught up with Lawton at his New York office to discuss the creation of his remarkable short.
What was the inspiration for “Wake”?
I wanted to say something about how sacred photographs are to people. Our photos remind us that everything we’ve lived through was important and mattered and I really can’t think of anything else that captures our story like that. Video is great, sure… but it’s not the same. We all have these photo albums lying around, thousands of photos, and the sensation of flipping through them and studying the faces is totally unique and sacred every time. These days it’s gone online with Facebook, but the sensation is still the same. Graduations and parties and weddings and birthdays… they still matter because we have the photos to prove it.
A thousand films have explored this already though, so I knew I had to take the idea and run in a different direction. So I started thinking about times when we come together but photos are not okay. At a wake it just doesn’t happen… at least not at the funerals and wakes I’ve been to. If someone took photos it would create a unique kind of tension in the room and I was really drawn to exploring that in “Wake.” What happens if the ten-year-old brother of the deceased decides to step into a crowded living room with a camera in his hands? How does this challenge the very formal and “adult” ways we usually grieve together after a funeral?
The film’s young star, Christopher Kutil, makes his acting debut in “Wake.” How did you discover him and how did you inspire him to create such a fine performance?
It’s crazy, but I actually met Chris when I was hired as his babysitter four years ago. At the time I was just out of school and was struggling financially, as you do. I took on every job I could find to make ends meet and suddenly I was hanging with this really special kid. When it came time to cast “Wake,” we knew that Chris had the perfect look but we were cautious because he had absolutely no acting training. So we put him in an audition room with a group of professional New York City actor kids just to see what would happen. He ended up surviving through the three-hour callback and by then our minds were made up. He was connecting emotionally to the material but just refused to force anything for the camera. It was amazing to watch.
Once Chris was cast, I knew the most important thing was to prepare him for the intensity of the shoot. We rehearsed for four weeks and I had a camera on him as often as I could. I really needed to make sure that he could relax with a huge Super 16mm camera inches from his face. He loved analyzing a scene and talking about what his character was experiencing. He understood instinctively what drove each beat, so that was never a concern. The challenge was to make sure that the scale and intensity of the production didn’t overwhelm him when we got to set.
The actual shoot was incredibly short – only six days. And it was August in New Jersey and boiling hot every day. So my biggest challenge was making sure that this kid, in a stifling hot suit and tie, was comfortable and that he was totally focused on the demands of each scene. His performance was going to make or break the movie, so he had to be my top priority each day on set. It was a real struggle for both of us at times, but the bond we’d formed before “Wake” made all the difference. I wasn’t going to let him down and my gut told me he felt the same way.
According to the film’s press notes, you considered 50 cinematographers before choosing Skip Roessel. Why did you go through so many cinematographer, and what made you decide on Roessel?
The shooting schedule was was so tight that we knew we had to search until we found a DP who could not only compose a great image, but compose it bloody quickly! We met with some talented shooters, but Skip’s reel was exceptional and he was so damn warm and personable! He just came off as the kind of guy you want to be in the trenches with. He loved the script and right from the start gave us everything he could to help us make the best film possible. Co-producer Shane Tilston and I are all about building a team for the long term, and “Wake” gave us a great chance to do that. Finding the right person can feel like it’s taking an eternity but it pays off when you get to set. Chemistry is everything when you’re shooting. If your crew has it, you’ll somehow make it through. If they don’t, you’re screwed and you’ll leave the set with half a film if you’re lucky.
What is the story about how you were able to get around paying for the expensive permit for shooting the beachfront scenes?
We couldn’t afford the permits we needed for the beach football scene, so we decided to go undercover and shoot without looking in any way like a film production! We wrapped Skip’s camera in a garbage bag, ditched the boom pole, packed away the slate and I basically whispered “action.” When beach security drove by in their four-wheel-drives, we all casually dispersed and tossed around the football like we were just friends hanging out on the beach. A minute later, we’d drift back together and roll again. It was intense because we were shooting at magic hour so the window to film the scene was really small. But we choreographed the whole sequence during the afternoon and nailed it pretty quickly when we actually hit the beach. That whole day was a lot of fun.
What is the distribution strategy for “Wake”?
We’re jumping up and down and waving at the festivals for some love, but it’s proving difficult given that we’re new kids on the block. But we’ve sold out private screenings in New York and in Melbourne, Australia, and the feedback was incredibly positive both times. People are connecting to the story on a pretty personal level liked I’d hoped. We’re just really excited for that first festival to see the film’s potential and offer us a shot. Then it’ll be our job to get out there, hit the ground running and fill another theatre for the film’s premiere.
What are your next projects as a director?
I’m writing a feature that’s set in New York. It’s a story about an actor who’s trying to balance auditions in Manhattan with a bizarre (and slightly dangerous) acting gig he secretly accepts up in neighboring Westchester County. I’m also working around the clock to build a production company called Kinetic Media so that we have the home base every creative team needs. It’s a massive challenge in this kind of economy but we’re finding ways to build anyway. It’s been really rewarding to watch it evolve and grow during this first year. The next few years are going to be exciting.