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Cannes
Short Film Corner 2022 
 
Interview

Spencer Zimmerman
Darkside 
spencerzimmerman.com
May 10th, 2022

When an unthinkable tragedy befalls astronaut Sam Bowman, he accepts a life threatening mission to save the lives of others at the expense of his own.

Hello Spencer, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?

I’ve been good, thanks for asking! It’s been a really busy few weeks, we just had our premiere in Seattle at the National Film Festival For Talented Youth (NFFTY) last weekend, we also recently delivered the film to a distributor which was exciting but exhausting, and now getting ready for the Short Film Corner! So you can imagine it’s been hectic.

Have you been able to remain positive and creative at least?

Oh absolutely. It’s hard sometimes when you have a lot going on to be appreciative of it all, it tends to just feel like a lot of work, but I think it’s important to take a step back and smell the flowers while you’re in the middle of it. Festival going can be a very inspiring time! So I’m trying to take it all in where and when I can. I’m pushing another short film through the early prep process right now to which I think has been a helpful reminder to try and stay tuned into what’s important.

What does it mean for you to be in the Cannes Short Film Corner with Darkside and what do you hope to take away from this experience?

It’s a huge honour, first off. It’s a bit hard to wrap my head around, but it feels great. This film was a really special project for me - it’s been an incredibly long journey to get to this point, almost 3 years now, and a lot of people worked very hard to bring it to life, so it’s just rewarding to see all that work and time invested finally pay off and land somewhere as prestigious as Cannes. I’m kind of going into it with no expectations, we were already approached by a distributor last month and closed a deal with them which was honestly already beyond our dreams for this project, so at this point I’m just hoping to meet some great people, see some great movies, and let myself be inspired.

How vital are platforms like Cannes SFC in championing and supporting the short film format?

I think it’s important for organizations like Cannes to showcase short filmmakers. What’s special about the Short Film Corner is that although it may not boast the same competitive selection as the Court Métrage, it’s a valuable place for filmmakers not only to meet other filmmakers but to find an audience for their work and have a place where they can exhibit their talents. But what sets it apart from other showcases though is the immersion of the Cannes Film Festival - the access you have to the market, distributors, panels, and all the attending producers, agents, buyers and whatnot. There are a lot of showcases for films, and some maybe with more meaningful audiences, but none with the perks that come with a Cannes accreditation.

Your previous short film Der Jude (2019) was nominated for Best Student Production at the Leo Awards, what did getting this type of recognition mean to yours you where starting out on your filmmaking journey?

The Leo’s were incredible, and it was a big honour to have been nominated. Der Jude was a 1st year school project, and really the first film I had done. It was fantastic to be able to meet the B.C. film industry in that setting, where you’re sort of validated as an artist and not just a student there looking starry-eyed at all these veteran filmmakers - people tend to take you a lot more seriously when you’ve been nominated for an award. But I think more than anything it was just really encouraging to me as someone starting out like ‘Hey, maybe I’m not half bad at this whole filmmaking thing, maybe I should keep going?’. I gained a lot of confidence in my own voice as a filmmaker.

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Can you tell me how Darkside came about, what was the inspiration being your screenplay?

When I think about it, it was sort of an intersection of a few things in my life at the time.

The first thing is that this was made while I was still a student at Capilano University. I was entering my 3rd year of film school with a group of incredibly talented friends, all incredibly creative people who were very skilled, passionate, and ambitious - more than I think any year before us had been - like we had captured lightning in a bottle. Everyone had so much potential, and our school had this incredible amount of resources in terms of sound stages, equipment, post facilities, and I never really felt like anyone had taken full advantage of it all. So I guess I felt like we had this window of opportunity to make something spectacular and I wanted to make something of it all before it was gone.

And at the same time, I had just lost several close family members all within about a year of each other. One of them was my grandmother Marjorie who had been married to my grandfather for over 50 years. It was a difficult experience for everyone of course, but no one's grief compared to my grandfathers. After a lifetime of religious devotion he was completely questioning his faith as he was hollowed out by this grief. That left a huge impact on me and I wanted to make something that touched on that kind loss, grief, our connection to the cosmos, to each other, and the cycle of life.

When working on a short film such as Darkside how close do you like yourself/actors to stick to your screenplay, do you allow yourself much flexibility?

Personally, I like to try and stay as close to the written material as possible, but the movie usually has other plans, ha! This film especially demanded a lot of patience and constant reworking of the material. A film like Darkside has a lot of moving parts - on this film we had over 50+ crew members, spread across 11 departments working in 2 separate units. When you’ve got so much going on, the instinct is to plan like crazy.

In a perfect world, I’d like to know exactly what the film is going to look like from start to finish, shot by shot, frame by frame. So I storyboard, I do overhead diagrams, I try and do as many camera tests as possible. I rehearse with the actors. But the reality is that the film is constantly evolving, and to resist that change I think would be foolish. Things inevitably won’t work out the way you imagine, and I think your talent as a director is just as much about your ability to adapt and improvise as it is to design and plan.

What would you say have been the biggest challenge you faced bringing this film to life?

Oh lord... everything. Every last frame of this movie was a challenge to bring to the screen. Obviously the scale of the film is massive, and was its own challenge just to wrangle it all together. But despite all the visual effects, the costumes, the sets etc. I think the biggest challenges we were presented with ultimately had to do with story. From the very beginning, I remember telling myself that it was mission critical to keep the story on top of everything, and not let it be eclipsed by the spectacle of the production.

But despite that, it still took us a very long time (and countless cuts) to figure out how to articulate the story in a way that was clear and followed through emotionally and logically. By the end of shooting we had something like 12 hours of raw footage that we needed to whittle down to a 12 minute cut. There were probably 5 or 6 times where my editor Braiden Van Grootel and I worked on a cut of the film for weeks, only to find in screenings that it made no sense to anyone, and we had to walk it back to an assembly and start again from scratch. Through all of that failure though, was a tremendous amount of learning - we owe a great debt to our mentors for that.

How different was your approach to making Darkside compared to you previous short films?

My other two short films were both shot on incredibly tight timelines, both less than 4 hours, and edited in only a few weeks. They were both these very contained dramas with not a lot of moving parts.

Darkside was pretty much the complete opposite of that. It took, from start to finish, over 720 days to complete. The scale of the movie was massive compared to the other two films. It was extremely liberating from a creative standpoint to have so much prep time and so many folks to collaborate with. Initially we had a very hard shooting and delivery schedule... that was all before the pandemic. After that, everything changed.

We were in the middle of our shoot when we received public health orders to shut down and stay home. The rest of our shooting was postponed until months later when we could safely finish - which initially was a huge bummer but I think was a blessing in the end. We got to take a break part way through filming and play around with the material we had in the editing room. We gained a lot of perspective about what was working and what needed to be altered, so by the time we went back to finish shooting we knew exactly the pieces we needed to make the film work. I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to make a movie quite that same way ever again, but I’m so glad I got to experience it with this.

"Everyone had so much potential, and our school had this incredible amount of resources in terms of sound stages, equipment, post facilities, and I never really felt like anyone had taken full advantage of it all."

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Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

Short answer? Yes! I’ve been watching movies since before I knew how to speak. My dad is a big movie buff so my brothers and I all grew up on them. We actually have this sort of ‘language’ where we only speak in movie quotes between the four of us. It drives my mom nuts that she can’t understand it, but it’s just how we communicate! When I was around 10 or so I got a hold of my dad’s video camera and started playing around with it and taught myself how to use it, and we recently got one of the first Macbook Pros so I figured out how to use iMovie and I was off to the races. In elementary school and high school I never was very strong at doing written assignments, but since I had this talent for making little films I would always barter with teachers to do a video project instead - which to them was way more impressive and to me it was another excuse to make a movie for something. Naturally I figured that was my only path forward in life.

What would you say have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself and your filmmaking style so far?

I find it incredibly attractive when filmmakers can do a lot with a little. I know that seems ironic coming from me and this film which appears to be incredibly opulent, but it’s even more true with something like this. When you have everything at your disposal, restraint is critical. Anyone can get a bunch of cool shots and make a snazzy edit, but it takes real craft to make something simple that’s still effective. That’s not to say I think movies should be boring or something - quite the opposite really. I think movies should be precise. So I’m trying to, in the best way I know how, make effective scenes with as few shots, cuts, lines, whatever, as possible. Sean Baker, Jim Cummings, Céline Sciamma are all phenomenal at this. They’re never including more than what they need in a scene to make it work and I hope to emulate that in my own work.

Is there any advice or tips you can now offer anyone thinking about making their first short film?

Be patient. I think I tend to get frustrated when a concept isn’t working right away or appears to be shitty, but as I’ve grown I’ve learned that that’s just the first step in a process, and if it’s not working there’s a way to fix it, you just need to have the perseverance to sort it out. I think it can be really easy to become discouraged or panic when stuff doesn’t work out right away, and it can feel like you’re stuck with that result and it will never improve. But it doesn't get better, you just need to keep your head up and keep working. Some of that comes with experience of course, but a lot of it I think is patience and giving yourself the time to do things properly.

What themes are you looking forward to exploring with future films?

I try to not think about themes too much. At least not upfront - you can get yourself in a lot of trouble that way. Instead I’m trying to focus on characters and the kinds of people I’m interested in exploring. I’m really attracted to characters who are guarded and/or adverse to vulnerability, people who are sort of hiding from or are oblivious to their true selves. I certainly know quite a few people like that in my own life, and I think it speaks to everyone in some way.

I love sci-fi and would love to do another sci-fi film - something about space movies just tickles me, there is so much to explore. It evokes both the future and the past in such an interesting way, there aren’t enough good space movies! Plus they are just so god damn fun to make. But that being said, I’m not too tied to any particular genre. I’m in the midst of writing a period-set coming of age drama that takes place in small town Canada, quite a departure from space! But I also love thrillers and straight ahead dramas. As long as there's filmmaking involved I’m game.

And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from Darkside?

That’s a great question. I mean if people take away some enjoyment from the 10 minutes they’ve plugged into it, that’s fantastic. But really, I think what the main intention behind the film was, and is kind of the lesson I learned even through the journey of making it, is don’t take the people in your life for granted. Life has a way of getting so busy, and we can get so wrapped up in our work, in our art, in the minutiae of all the everyday happenings that find a way to dominate our time and our attention, that we forget what really matters in the end. But the truth is we only get a handful of people in our lives who really matter. So find the people in your life that matter to you, hold them tight, and never let go.