He was flown to a foreign country in which he had never set foot. With no prior preparation and only a native film crew and a single trusted colleague at his side, he was asked to conceive and direct a short film.
In about two weeks.
In spite of the time crunch, fourth-year directing graduate student Lucas Mireles accomplished just that in tandem with recent producer’s program graduate Ryan Slattery. Even more impressive is that, despite a tragic family death midway through production, the resulting short film “Playtime (Spielzeit)” is an official selection for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, competing in the International Shorts program.
The accomplishment is not lost on them.
“It’s … awesome, and we are very blessed to be in the festival,” Mireles said.
Held annually in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival has famously launched the careers of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith.
“It’s the granddaddy of them all. To premiere there is every filmmaker’s dream come true,” Slattery said. Out of 7,600 short film submissions, only 63 were selected. “Playtime” was one of them.
Amanda Yee, a fourth-year directing and production graduate student, notes how special it is that Mireles and Slattery made Sundance as students.
“We can sell ourselves short as student film directors. Ryan and Lucas had a lot of belief in the potential of their film,” Yee said.
Directed by Mireles and produced by Slattery, “Playtime” was created as part of a collaboration between the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and the International Film School in Cologne, Germany. It is a window into the lives of German youth, seamlessly moving from one set of characters to the next as a typical day in Cologne passes by.
In the summer of 2010, Mireles and Slattery arrived in Cologne alongside three other filmmakers from UCLA. They collaborated with five European students and filmmakers and were tasked with making four short films over two months, one of which ended up being “Playtime.” Participants from both camps fulfilled different jobs on each film.
All of that would have been nice to know ahead of time, according to Mireles.
“I applied, got word I was going, but they still wouldn’t tell us what it was about,” he said.
Finally, in the months prior to the trip, the IFS informed them they were to create films inspired by “People on Sunday,” a pre-Nazi German silent film. This still provided little help.
“We got something about this film, but nobody could find it, nobody could watch it. So we boarded a plane,” Mireles said.
As a producer, Slattery said he was aware of large amounts of prep work going undone.
“When you have a big location like that, usually the pre-production has been happening for a year and a half. We had no idea what we were doing when we got there,” Slattery said.
This led to an adventurous, trying and occasionally amusing production process that tested the pair’s ability to shoot from the hip. Significant hurdles included realizing one location was a cancer hazard, young cast members who spoke no English, and an attempt to convince a large group of nude male sunbathers to appear in the film free of charge. But what happened next was something no amount of preparation could prepare for.
Midway through production, Slattery’s brother passed away in the United States. He made the decision to return home to grieve with his family. After attending to his family’s affairs, he felt returning to finish the films could be cathartic ““ in particular, his film with Mireles.
“I talked with Lucas about coming back. I wasn’t sure if I could, emotionally, but the process inspired me. My collaborators inspired me, especially Lucas,” Slattery said.
He wasn’t sure if he could financially either. The program had a set budget, and Slattery had used his final allocated flight to return to the United States.
“My credit cards have all melted,” Slattery said in regards to his personal financial situation.
Slattery’s department came through in the clutch when Barbara Boyle, chair of the film, television and digital media department, vowed to come up with the money to send him back to Germany.
“I talked with Barbara Boyle, the chair here. She told me, “˜We will find the money somewhere.’ And she found the money somewhere,” Slattery said.
He returned to Cologne. The end result: a short film in the largest independent film festival in the United States and an “In Memoriam” to Slattery’s brother in the credits, courtesy of Mireles.
“That’s when filmmaking is at its height. It’s not just about the process. It’s about what you learn from each other, getting to know each other,” Slattery said. “It’s about this collaborative experience that is, for all intents and purposes, a brotherhood.”