We featured the short film This Is Normal by filmmakers Justin Giddings (on the left in the picture above) and Ryan Welsh on Weekend Watching a couple of weeks ago. At the time I wrote: Every so often a film comes along that redefines what is achievable with the art form, reminds me that ‘everything’ hasn’t been done to death already, and that the power of performance and story working in harmony can be a magical thing. This is Normal is one such film. Drop everything, put on your best headphones, and watch it now.
Watch the film below–most of what is said regarding This Is Normal will really only make sense if you’ve watched the film–and then scroll on to read the interview with Justin Giddings.
In the writing/creating process the big challenge is always to find an internal conflict for the central character that feels unique yet relatable. Gwen’s situation is so immediately unique and yet so relatable…how did you come up with this particular narrative?
We had seen a lot of YouTube videos floating around about d/Deaf individuals hearing for the first time through cochlear implants and we were intrigued by the idea of waking up to a whole new sense. Like, one day I can’t taste food and the next day I can – what would that be like? How would that change your world? As we researched though, we discovered that the whole notion of cochlear implants are very controversial because for many d/Deaf people they represent an attempt to “fix” a group of people who have their own culture and even language. There are intense debates and as filmmakers, we were drawn to the conflict of somebody desiring to change themselves but possibly unprepared for the fallout. THAT is something we can all relate to – a desire to be some sort of “normal” and then discovering that normal is a difficult word to define. We think this is why the film has had such a resonating effect.
How did you develop the sound design and look of the subtitles and how long did it?
We sort of knew what we wanted from the beginning. At first, it was very experimental – the entire first half of the film was going to be completely silent, followed by full sound. But in telling the story, we realized that that was a gimmick and that the true nature of the hearing spectrum that d/Deaf people hear is much more interesting. In terms of sound design, it took us many, many late-night sessions with our mixers to develop. Every sound is designed to mimic the experiences of the various individuals who gave us input during our research.
How long did this film take from idea to final cut?
Since we work in a largely digital world now, do you believe that a film is ever done? I find myself wanting to go back in and rewrite/reshoot certain sections to change a film. Have you ever had that feeling with one of your projects?
Sort of. There are things we could do to make This Is Normal more commercial. It could be shorter, we would’ve like an extra day of shooting, some lighting things we weren’t able to dial in. But in the end, we stand by our cut and are proud of its effect on people. We told the exact story we wanted to tell – and despite not being “commercial” by some standards, it’s done really, really well.
Where was This Is Normal made? And how much time did you spend in pre-production, actual filming, and post-production respectively?
All around Los Angeles, CA from North Hollywood to Santa Monica beaches. Our pre-production was about 9 months because it included a crowdfunding campaign, then 4 days of filming, then another 6 months of post because everyone was working for very little money and so we had to be flexible with our schedule.
You went the festival route with the film. What was that like, watching that sound design especially playing in a big room to a collective of people. Did you receive feedback after the screenings? If yes, was there anything memorable that stuck with you?
It was surreal. We never knew if people were going to care, so when they did, we were humbled. During the quiet parts, you became very aware of every sound in the theater – a cough, a seat adjustment, popcorn being eaten. With heightened awareness, the film had even more meaning. Professionally, one thing that stuck with us was a USC professor who requested a screener to teach his sound design students. He called it, “A perfect example of sound design supporting the story and character.” Personally, the best feedback was hearing people cry in the theater. There were always lots of wets eyes and sniffles.
How did you guys meet? And when did you make the decision to collaborate?
We met as actors on a web series. We starred in a zombie comedy from Machinima and Lionsgate called Bite Me that blew up with over 60 million views. In season one, we directed the final fight sequence since the choreography had not been put in place and we were running out of daylight. So we used bits of broccoli and saved the day! Then, in season 2, I approached Ryan about writing together on a comedy series, which we did, then decided to crowdfund a movie.
What is it like to co-direct? How do you divide up the duties?
A dream. We both have strengths and skills to bring to the table and it is very collaborative. We design the shot design together, but Ryan is a brilliant artist and will draw everything out. I tend to do a lot of the producer stuff, then handle the crew and DP on set while Ryan focuses on the actors. The thing is, we’ve usually spent so much time creating the vision together that by the time we shoot, either one of us could articulate the vision perfectly and so it’s like having two sets of hands, or brains.
What can you tell us about your new short film Outpost?
It’s going to be awesome. Seriously, it’s an epic space romance with action and even some light horror elements. It’s beautifully shot by our DP Idan Menin on some gorgeous 70s-era anamorphic lenses. We have over $200k worth of production budgeted since a large rental house gave us full access to their two 100,000 square foot warehouses. There’s already interest from SyFy and we’re developing the feature film now. Ryann Turner returns as an android who has begun to become self-aware and Ryan Welsh steps in front of the camera as Gordon, an intergalactic scientist bent on understanding a mysterious phenomenon known as The Beyond.
When can we expect to see it?
Fall of 2015.
Would you ever consider releasing a film directly online without first doing a festival run? What would be your reasons for either doing it, or not doing it that way?
Actually, we’re considering it for Outpost. The main reason is that the festival cycle lasts for a year and while there’s huge value in getting accepted into major festivals and winning awards, we really want the feature to get made and nothing gets a studio more excited than an audience and a following. This Is Normal has been viewed nearly 90,000 times in the last two weeks as a Vimeo Staff Pick. We had an amazing festival run, but people are paying much more attention now that we’ve blown up a bit. We’ll probably end up doing a hybrid – premiere at a festival, release it online, go to the festivals that don’t mind that it’s online.
Are there plans to make a feature film at some point?
Yep! We’re writing it now and it will be done a few months before the short is released so we can go right into production (hopefully)!