At our second annual Nitehawk Shorts Festival, we played over 30 shorts from around the world. The first runner-up for the 2014 Festival was Joe Petrilla for his short “reConception,” about a group of boys who find an abandoned trailer in the woods and bash at it to find out what’s inside.
What starts as a kids-at-play short develops into something more nuanced, touching on our attitudes about life and death and the possibility of rebirth. We spoke with Petrilla about his short, working with kids and the real life events that inspired the short.
1. How did your film come about?
“reConception” came from a tangled mass of thoughts, feelings and beliefs I had that I wanted to express as a film. This is my second short narrative and I think of it as somewhat of a companion piece to the first, which is called “The Line.” Together I think they tell two sides of the same story—”reConception” being, by far, the lighter side. I also wanted to demonstrate some improvement as a filmmaker and to practice some of the lessons I learned making the first film.
2. What was your inspiration for “reConception?”
So that tangled mass I mentioned has a lot to do with how we transition through the various primary phases and stages of our lives. I’ve long been interested in the process of aging and how we interpret and manage life’s progress with the different languages and tools at our disposal; science, culture, art, spirituality, etc. I was making a list of certain transitional moments from my youth and I thought of something that happened to me when I was about eleven years old.
First I should say, in case you missed the screening at Nitehawk, that the film is about a group of young boys who stumble upon an abandoned cargo trailer in the woods and subsequently break into it. This is exactly what a group of friends and I did. On one of many days spent marauding through the forest behind my friend’s house in Tennessee, we found such an abandoned cargo trailer and yours truly somehow managed to hammer a hole in the roof with a sharp rock. Inside was just a bunch of junk that some redneck had left to rot and forget about and we eventually lost interest and left—but as I remembered that story, I simultaneously thought about what might’ve happened if the owner of the trailer had returned while we were there as well as what the scene might represent. That was the starting point for the film.
3. Had you worked with kids in shooting before? How did you manage to wrangle them while keeping their energy up?
I worked with a child actor in “The Line” who I actually hired again to play one of the kids in “reConception,” so I had some experience. In general I think you can be (and often need to be) a little more direct with kids than with adult performers, but it varies depending on the individual. A kid may just be confused by a description of their character’s motivation or intention and are much more responsive to direct notes about what to do in a way that might be constrictive and counter-productive for an older actor.
Their energy was something I certainly wanted to cultivate and capture (as you see in the film, there’s a lot of running and yelling) but at the same time we had a very demanding shoot with some adverse conditions and at times it was difficult to curtail the frenzy off-camera. To their credit though, when the going got really tough at the end of our first day of shooting and I asked them all very clearly to keep the chatter down between takes, they each behaved like the young pros they are and we were able to get what we needed to get.
4. What’s the best story from your shoot?
As I’ve alluded to, we faced some pretty challenging conditions from the outset of our brief, two day shoot on Staten Island. Most of the locations are exterior so we were closely watching the weather reports leading up to our two days. It seemed like we were in the clear until about halfway into the first day of shooting at our forest location when the skies began to dump record-setting levels of rainfall for about three hours. This paved the way for a series of related mishaps and setbacks: a 15-passenger van stuck in the resulting mud-pit, light bulbs breaking from the moisture, an already super-tight shooting schedule made incomprehensibly-super-tight because of the lost time, etc.
The cherry on top occurred after we wrapped production on the second day. I was driving back to Brooklyn in the picture-car, towing the trailer we had used for the film—when suddenly I noticed giant streams of sparks shooting upwards in the rearview mirror and the truck became difficult to steer. I managed to stop in the middle of the road and got out to find that the trailer had disconnected from the truck and was hanging on by the safety chains while the tip of the hitch had been drilling into the blacktop as we were moving, rendering the spark plumes… And I thought we were done.
5. What’s next for you? Do you have anything you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?
I’m writing a feature but I don’t want to say too much about it just yet. It will be a bit darker; an indie/thriller/mystery kind of thing. I don’t like to talk about something until its done, I guess, but I know that it will come from the same place that “reConception” came from and I’d like to make it just as soon as I can. In the meantime I’ve been enjoying playing the short at some great festivals this Summer and Fall and intend to keep showing it through the Spring of next year.