Join the Dance: Dances with Films 20 at the TCL Chinese

DWF Team at Opening


What are you doing tomorrow through Sunday? Joining us, we hope, for the second half of Dances with Films 20, the terrific independent film festival that serves up one interesting film after another. The fest’s trailer proclaims “My life is a movie…” and you’ll surely feel that it is if you spend a few days at the TCL Chinese.

We have never seen a film in three years of coverage that has not intrigued us. Sure, some have blown us away, some have not. But they are all, yes, every one, worth watching. Such a full slate of films and such a carefully curated selection is rare on the festival circuit. The festival, whose tag line this year is “Unstoppable” has 75 world premieres, 36 west coast premieres, and opening and closing night films by DWF alumni filmmakers.

American Folk
American Folk

The festival opened a week ago, Thursday with an opening night double bill of American Folk and Missing in Europe.

American Folk was a pitch perfect film which director David Heinz called an “honor” to have open the festival. Starring Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth as two strangers and folk musicians stranded in California in the aftermath of 9/11 and cancelled flights, this road trip across America was moving in a way that many films about the tragedy of that day are not. The film took things to an intimate level, making the intimacy universal in part through the power of music.

American Folk
American Folk

“I think the experiences many of us had, even if not in New York City at the time, were equally profound,” Heinz related. “I felt this story had not been told on the screen before.”

American Folk
American Folk

The film’s depicted journey and the filmmakers’ actual trek took 3500 miles. “It was a movie largely about the kindness of strangers, and we experienced that too. ” Rubarth had never acted before when the 13-person crew began their trek which initially ran for 20 days with additional shorter pick-up trips totally 13 additional days.

A profound and beautiful film,  the poetry both visually and in the script made a perfect way to open the fest.

Missing in Europe
Missing in Europe

Next up was Missing in Europe, an entirely different film altogether. Written, directed, and primarily starring women, this was a  distaff spin on Liam Neeson’s father figure in Taken. Writer Jenny Paul and director Tamar Halpern put together a nail-biting thriller about a missing daughter, a fierce cybersecurity expert/mom, corrupt cops, and sex traffickers.

Missing in Europe
Missing in Europe

Director Halpern, a five-times-DWF alum, shot in just 12 days in Serbia. “We’ve seen many films about human traffic, but in ours, a man doesn’t save the girls, a woman does, a smart woman with brains and passion.”

The page-turner script was alot of fun for Halpern. “This is a big departure for me, it was a true collaboration. I didn’t write it but really enjoyed the project, and our Serbian crew.”

Cassidy Red
Cassidy Red

On Friday, Cassidy Red, from director Matt Knudsen, was a fresh take on a classic western,  depicting vengeance sought in a town at the edge of the Arizona Territory. Beautifully shot and packed with visceral heat, this is a great take on a genre that is too often left in the dust.

Cassidy Red
Cassidy Red

The supernatural thriller, Inheritance, was also strong; the setting in small town Cayucos, Calif. was fresh, and the script intense.


Saturday and Sunday brought us shorts and more shorts – and every one of them stellar. Seriously –  tough to find a single flaw in any of the fine films in Shorts Block 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. Regret: not being able to take in Shorts Block 3. DWF co-founder Leslee Scallon programs shorts along with her team,  and has done an exciting job of mixing comedy, pathos, drama, and thrillers alike.


Competition Shorts Group 1
Competition Shorts Group 1

Starting at the top of our weekend shorts marathon, in Shorts Block 1, Still Here was a personal take about relationships – why we are in them, and why we return to those perhaps best left behind. Orange Dreams is a nostalgic look back at the burgeoning emotions of a middle schooler in the 80s. Faceless Man, based on the filmmaker’s father’s short story, literally depicted a man who wakes up to find his face has been replaced with a mirror. The make-up alone was a three-hour process on a four-day shoot – often in 115 degree heat.  All the Marbles was made to celebrate the director’s own family and a recently passed brother and grandfather; the charming, rhyming fable about a boy who defeats a greedy thug at his own game – marbles – was delightful. Warm Springs was, by contrast, devastating. Inspired by the director’s childhood, shot in a small town in Northern California,  the story of what happens when an unwonted little brother tags along with an older crowd, was riveting, and was one of my favorites of the festival. Boy in the Dark also centered on childhood, a fictionalized account of the director’s own, including bullying, depression, art, and all.

In Shorts Block 2, The Knackerman was a black and white standout, writer/director Tom Shrapnel’s portrait of an aging knacker, who faces his own mortality while seeing to the disposal of dying horses.  Jouska, a beautifully surreal take on an old man’s guilt for horrific misdeeds,  was fierce and nightmarish. Flower was a tense, delicate portrayal of a young sex worker and three very different clients.

Competition Shorts Group 4
Competition Shorts Group 4

Shorts Block 4 gleamed with film gems, including a poignant take on mental illness in Miriam is Going to Mars; Burying Amber, an elegaic piece inspired by the director’s conversation with a friend who was burying a pet; and Soul Candy,  set in a book store and inspired by a conversation with the director’s two daughters about searching for a job and which was epically shot in only 12 hours. Also screening: Subtext, a meet-not-so-cute comedy hilariously centering on an errant text message created by the skilled team at Community Productions; and Three Skeleton Key, based on a classic short story, a harrowing tales of rats attacking a lighthouse.  Director Andrew Hamer noted it was a story about contained paranoia that he always wanted to see on a big screen. He used 20 to 30 live rats in filming  – “They live on Fruit Loops and peanut butter,” he related.

Exposure – director and d.p.

Shorts Block 5 was another terrific two hour set of films. Here, Exposure, produced through Florida State University, was one terrific edge-of-the-seat experience from  director/writer, Mary Jeanes, about climber friends trapped on a ledge. “I’m a climber. I had to cling to the side of the cliff to get the shots I wanted,” Jeanes noted.  Awol was originally a class project whose only rule was no dialog. The story of a soldier in wartime struggling to survive was tough and involving. Crossing Fences, which depicted an historic attempt to escape what was then East Germany, presented a challenge for director/writer Annika Pampel, who was essentially shooting her own grandparents story. “Period shooting caused a lot of difficulties, not to mention filming actors in an actual sinking boat,” she attested.

Competition Shorts Group 5
Competition Shorts Group 5

Confection was the outgrowth of a script competition seeking a story about misfits; the lighthearted story was filmed in a small town with colorful streets, the perfect setting for the whimsical coming of age story set in part at a candy factory. This is That Night, shot in a sumptuous black and white was the movie that writer/star Jonathan Marballi wanted to make when he was sixteen, he says. “I pulled in all of my date stories.” Shot in a single day by director Matt Braunsdorf, Marbelli and co-lead Kris Wiener had a natural comic rapport honed from working together at Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater.

Competition Shorts Group 6
Competition Shorts Group 6

Shorts Block 6 included the crowd pleasing supernatural comedy/drama of Alfred J Hemlock, where protagonists had best not “wish they were dead” when having a bad day with Alfred around. Fiendishly clever. With Rohewa, an acronym that skinheads use for racial war, extremism is at the heart of this story inspired by a true tale of a former teen skinhead who changed when he went to arts college. La Sirena was equally haunting – the tale of the monster inside, of women in a fishing village and a cruel fisherman, the raw seaside setting an intrinsic part of the film’s delicate balance between horror and feminism. Daniel Gomez’ First Night was based on a true story. This comic tale of a woman on the run – in the film from a hit man, in reality from a cab driver she couldn’t pay – was deft and smart. Limbus, a dream-like exploration of the thoughts of a man in a coma, was a visual tour de force.

Competition Shorts Group 6
Competition Shorts Group 6 – Alfred J. Hemlock himself in hat, center

Next up: a take on feature films viewed after our binge watching of brilliant shorts.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke


How We Met – Anatomy of an Indie Comedy


How We Met is an hilarious dark comedy written by Brian Flaccus and Chadwick Hopson and co-written and directed by Oscar Rene Lozoya II. A blind date that takes a turn for the definite worst, involving corrupt cops, drug dealing, and a dead body, the film has been a festival circuit darling, and DiversionsLA had the pleasure of viewing this audience-favorite at Dances with Films in Hollywood earlier this summer.

Brian and Chad had been working together for several years doing short skits, giving them some chemistry; as Brian explains, “We hadn’t taken on anything this big before but we had a pretty good sense of each others’ working styles.” Christina was newer to the group but instantly clicked with the guys, saying, “It wasn’t hard at all to get that chemistry and rhythm going.”

The film had only a thousand-dollar budget and was shot in eight days. Being flexible and working under pressure: no problem for this cast and crew. As Brian describes, “Shooting and writing for those constraints forced us to be more creative in terms of telling a good story within a small box.” It also caused them to look for any inexpensive filming opportunities that presented themselves, often relying on the kindness of others, shooting in and around Flagstaff, Ariz. According to Christina, “I loved how the whole town supported our project. Everyone wanted to be involved in some capacity, whether it was offering locations for free, cooking us meals or becoming extras when we were short of people. It felt like a village was behind us and when you’re working on a very limited budget that means the world.”


There were also some complications – the major one being sleep deprivation. Christina relates that “while trying to shoot an intimate scene at midnight, we had dudes wakeboarding while blasting loud music and we thought that would never stop.”

“Not a typical film fest movie” is how Oscar describes the film, which is possibly funnier, more subversive, and more accessible than many an art house film type selection. “We didn’t know what would happen with it, but we wanted something that would put a smile on people’s faces at the end of the day,” he says.

Safe to say, the movie accomplished just that.

Taking Another Waltz: Dances with Films 19


Dances with Films 19 finished a week ago, and the festival continued to amaze even as it drew to a close. Missed the fest this year? Then put it on your calendars for next year, and do watch for the stellar films shown at the festival. While these reviews bring those screened at the event to a close, there are several we missed seeing in the theater that we’ll be catching up on shortly.


Above, cast, crew, and advisors on The Track; with microphone, star Mariah Kirstie

The Track started as a short film by director Brett Caroline Levner, and was expanded into a feature by Levner and writer Matthew McCue. “I looked out my window one day,” Levner relates, “and I saw a 15 year old girl going in and out of cars, working as a prostitute.” Drawn to tell the story of underage, exploited children, Levner, who teaches film at University of Nevada Las Vegas, tackled the tough and moving story of Barbie.


Played brilliantly by Mariah Kirstie, the girl comes into contact with a suburban woman who has just lost her daughter, played by Missy Yager.  “I come from a theater background,” Kirstie reports, “but for this character I didn’t do anything formal. I was so connected to her, I just wanted to stay in the moment with my performance.” Yager says “This is a woman’s issue, these little girls get arrested. My character had a calling to help.”


The performances make the film, a true vehicle for social justice, into a compelling drama.



Above, star Joe Burke in Dependents Day

Dependents Day, a very different film, also began as a short. Director David Lynch (below) found star Joe Burke and a ribald romantic comedy was born. “I love nuance,” Lynch says,  “I thought he was a firecracker and all I had to do was set him off.” The versatile Lynch was also director of a dramatic documentary screening at the festival, Victor Walk, which won the audience award in the docs category; but Dependents is pure levity.


The story of a struggling actor claimed as ‘dependent” by his more successful girlfriend,  the film tackles love, LA lifestyle, and sexual mores with a witty vengence.



Star Burke says “We put so much into this, I’m so emotional to have so many people I love in one room. I feel so blessed.” Shot in just 17 days, the comedy is zany, the performances from Burke and co-star Benita Robledo pitch perfect.


Above with microphone, Kristin Wallace, co-writer/producer/star of Moments of Clarity

Moments of Clarity is a film that defies categorization. Sweet comedy, female buddy picture, road movie, witty take on independence, feminism, mental health issues – yes, all of those. A film that keeps you guessing, we loved it’s wild moments of comedy, touching sweetness, and screwball plot. Writer/producer Kristin Wallace plays lead Claire. Co-written by Wallace and Christian Lloyd, the film was directed by Stev Elam.


Claire is the daughter of a repressed agoraphobic, who teams up with a pastor’s daughter to escape their home town, fix a broken camera, and come into their own. “I wanted to create more roles for women,” says Candian-born Wallace. “I’d just moved from Toronto to LA and felt very out of place, so I kind of connected with my inner child to create this character. I just wanted to follow this character who was unabashedly herself.” Shot in 15 days, the film has the look of a much larger-budgeted feature, with bright colors, hilarious set pieces, and the edge of dark-comedy ever sharpened.


Wallace and Lloyd wrote only via email and didn’t meat Wallace and the rest of the production team until he came to the set for the last four days of shooting. “I Just sat there smiling like an idiot. It didn’t make sense that so many people came together to make such a wonderful film and have such a strong connection.”


Director Elam says “I loved that the script had so much positivity and no violence. When I read the script I thought this is like a foreign film, but they have American names. Then they said they were Canadian,” he laughs.


Whatever the origin, this is a don’t-miss. It releases in the fall of 2016, watch for it.


Rounding up the fest’s final day at the TCL Chinese was Those Left Behind, a drama that grew from the director’s involvement in a documentary about suicide.


The drama recounts a family’s struggle to come to terms with the grief over their son’s suicide 25 years earlier.

“You can live a joyous life and still struggle with depression,” says Grant Jordan, who plays the pivotal character of Jamie.


“I think a lot about loss in my own life, and how unresolved grief comes back to people, so I wanted to use that. I had an amazing cast, I asked people to be very quiet, to let the performances and the story build slowly. It was like unpeeling an onion,” director Maria Finitzo says.


Also viewed: Killing the Apologetic Girl, the fest’s audience award winner in the TV pilot category.  Writers Stephanie Little, Kimberly Aboltin – the latter also directed – have created a sweet and funny  story about the overly-apologetic Steph and her returned-from-Morocco decidedly unapologietic friend, Kim. Fresh and delightfully sarcastic, there’s a lot to like and much to want to see more of with these characters. Well-paced and exceptionally well-cast.

Don’t worry: Josephine Doe, Pop-Up, and fest top narrative award winner Virtual Revolution reviews are still coming up.

  • Genie Davis; All photos: Jack Burke


We’re Still Dancing #DWF19



Above, creators and stars – what indie filmmaking is all about – How We Met.


Above, cast and crew of Misfortune.

Dances with Film ended tonight, but we’ve still got more films on our dance card to review.

Misfortune screened Friday evening, a crime caper shot in Tucson, directed and co-written by Desmond Devenish, Xander Bailey co-writer. Devnish and Bailey also co-star in a film involving a diamond heist, betrayal, and a multi-generational crime legacy. Stellar turns by Kevin Gage as the chief bad guy and a small, well-tuned part by Steve Earle added to the pleasure of this desert noir.


“We were looking for something gritty we could do on our own,” Bailey says.


Devenish previously had a script in pre-production when the financing fell through. “This project was somewhat based on that experience. We wanted to do something that dealt with greed and money,” he laughs. His first feature as a director, Devenish credits his success wearing three hats, as lead, writer, and director to “having such an incredible group to work with.” DP Seth Johnson explored the desert locales with Devenish. “We spent six days shot listing before we shot a key sequence at Picture Rock.” A 27-day shoot, the film was two years in the writing and a year on editing, with sound effects being the biggest challenge.


Best Q & A question of the night – why was the getaway car a Suburu? “It was my car,” Devenish reports.


Beacon Point is a sometimes campy horror film with many twists and turns set on the Appalachian trail.


“The woods are a great spot for a creepy movie,” director and co-writer Eric Blue says of his Georgia-wood main location. Shot in 23 days, 8 using drone footage, the production veers from horror into sci-fi, but it wasn’t aliens that attacked strong female lead Rae Olivier.


“I was attacked by chiggers,” she says, describing what became a keep-off ritual as “bug spray morning and night. It was muggy and buggy in the woods.” As to her role: “I liked Zoe’s arc, she had so much to overcome and huge purpose. I saw her as a relatable girl thrown a lot of curve balls that made her a survivor in the end.”


The film was partially funded by Kickstarter, and director Blue stressed the importance of marketing not just one’s film, but a Kickstarter as well. “You have to know how to get the word out there.”


How We Met is one fantastic dark comedy. Both brilliantly subversive, clever, and sweetly romantic, it’s hard to overstate how hilarious, fresh, and simply original this film is.


Writers Chadwick Hopson, Brian Flaccus, Oscar Rene Lozoya II – with Lozoya helming as director, take their pitch perfect ensemble cast including Christina Moses, Chadwick Hopson, Ice-T, Brian Flaccus, Jonathan Kehoe, Cale Epps, David Weiss, Alex Raines, Alex Davidson through the paces of a blind date that goes terribly awry with the murder of a corrupt cop, a very promiscuous ex-girlfriend, drug dealing/dj ex-boyfriend, and a family business that’s most unexpected.


Unbelievably, the script was written in a “week. The three of us have been writing sketches together for years,” says Hopson. Even more surprising – “the budget was $1000,” says Lozoya. The miniscule budget was assisted by shooting in Flaccus and Hopson’s hometown of Flagstaff and a tight 8-day shoot. The project was shot using Black Magic and Pocket Cinema cameras.


“Somehow, every obstacle turned out to have an even better solution to the problem,” Hopson says.

The three co-writers describe themselves as “true rom-com fans.”


Moses was among 300 actresses called in to audition. “I loved it because it was funny, quirky, weird, but has so much heart. Everyone can relate to the dating story, and it was told with so much humor.”

How We Met just must be seen – because it’s hilariously wonderful and because you won’t believe how great it looks for such a small initial cost. Someone should snatch this one up.


The Drama Club was not in competition at the festival, but was a premiere of DWF alums.


A funky, sexy, fun Big Chill-type reunion among, no surprise members of a high school drama club and their significant others, a tight script based around a location director Joe McClean and friends visited annually resulted in a deeply involving ensemble comedy-drama.


“I wrote the script and then invited these people, most of which I’ve known a long time, to do a table read in 2014. We all really bonded.”


Liza de Weerd ‘s Elle is a particularly strong character. “I found it important and interesting that you can write a sexually liberated character that gets judged so easily, whereas a man would not,” the actress notes.


Director McClean adds “One of the biggest themes in the movie is the big difference in treatment between men and women. And in the end, the movie is about growing up and the fact that we’ve all got our baggage, we all understand life, and the idea of friendship, and how things don’t matter in the same way – when you are with old friends, they understand and they don’t care.”

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