Shorts, learning from your audience and the fundamental plausibility of being hustled in the desert
Mike Clattenburg, creator of Trailer Park Boys and Afghan Luke, was kind enough to talk to us from Nova Scotia, where he was hard at work in preproduction, about Crackin' Down Hard, his short that screens Monday and Tuesday as part of TIFF's Short Cuts Canada Programme. We picked his brain about realism versus surrealism in comedy, the virtue of shorts, and the virtue of turning negative skinny jeans into positive creative energy.
thesubstream: Thanks for taking the time to talk about your short at TIFF, Crackin' Down Hard. I really enjoyed it-laughed my ass off. You've talked in the past, referring to your film Moving Day, that it was inspired by a location. Is that case with Crackin' Down Hard?
Mike Clattenburg: Absolutely. It was the location that inspired the film. My buddy Nick (Nicholas Wright), who stars in the film, said "Lets go out to Joshua Tree and hang out - go do some hiking."
So we went out there and we had a great time but I was wearing skinny jeans, and we were hiking and I had to stop and go "I'm sorry but I can't hike or climb these rocks because my pants are too tight."
So we just sat around and looked at the beautiful scenery and I started thinking "What can I shoot with these two dudes here?" We started jamming some ideas and one of the things was the immense distance there. We thought it was funny, the idea of two guys talking, really far apart. And the idea of echoes and having to yell and stuff like that. So we played around and shot some stuff on an iPhone, and then wrote a script and then we said "let's go back, let's do it".
tss: There's surreal element to individual story elements in your work in Trailer Park Boys, but I think that that's a show that kind of… depends on realism for a lot of its effect. What's it like to work on a short that was able to just be if not completely surreal then… more nonsensical than something like Trailer Park Boys?
Mike Clattenburg: I like to work with characters that are believable. I like broad comedy and ridiculous characters and all that stuff. But as far as working with characters that you would believe are real, or that their obstacles and complications are real things, not contrivances, that environment is simply surreal and it is plausible that a guy would go out looking to meditate and it is also plausible that there could be some illicit activity happening there. Kind of absurd, but it does possibly make sense. So working with something that seemed very normal and calm and the idea of a hike, and being approached and being somewhat hustled all seemed very real but in that environment it becomes quite surreal.
tss: You've worked in every medium there is to work in, music videos, shorts, features and TV... Is that going to be your plan going forward to keep doing all kinds of different stuff?
Mike Clattenburg: I think so, because they are all irresistible. I mean a music video is irresistible if the song really inspires you. I did one with Three Loco recently. I really like those guys, I think they are really funny, I love their music. I want to do it because I enjoy it so much.
Short films, you know, you get a noodle of an idea and you think "we can do that"… you don't have to finance it. You can pull a group of people to do that on a weekend or whenever and make it happen. Get some ideas an execute them and have a great time doing it. I of course love longer stories and feature films, and I love TV. It's all kind of the same animal to me.
tss: Shorts have played a significant role in your career though...
Mike Clattenburg: Shorts brought me to the dance. I started out with Trailer Park Boys as a short. With the Atlantic Film Festival, I would submit my shorts and watch them with an audience and learn a lot. But I love them because they are not so daunting of a project to pull off. You don't have to coordinate 50 trucks. And with a vey small crew there is a certain palpable energy I think that comes through in short films, you know because everyone's having a great time. It's not a long shoot - the great energy is up.
tss: What's your film festival experience been like over the years?
Mike Clattenburg: It's been great. What I learned early on was feeling that collective consciousness of the audience when you sit and watch a film at a film festival… you learn so much more. People laugh when you don't expect it or don't laugh when you expect them to, and it's just a way to learn about your story telling. It's a great experience. Later for me, I've done the Atlantic Film Festival and TIFF, and now I find I can't watch them with an audience anymore. It's just like a musician finishing a record and inviting 50 people over and saying "what did you think?". It just feels weird. But with a short film I think I can bear it for 10 minutes. (laughs)
tss: Are there things that you can do with shorts that you can't do with features?
Mike Clattenburg: I forget who said it, it may have been Stanley Kubrick, that the best way to learn about making films is to make any film. Go out and make it. I think it's all about story telling, and a 10 minute story or a 95-minute story still are the same thing. A good story is a good story.
I think shorts are a great thing for filmmakers to use to hone their craft before they make a feature. To make some mistakes before they get our there and have a feature film to pull off. I certainly would recommend making as many shorts as possible, even if they are just with your friends, on a handicam without a lot of gear. And once you've done the whole process and shown it to your friends, you learn from that.