Just longer than 9 minutes, this short film takes the viewer back to the evening of October 30th, 1938 where Orson Welles’ voice was vibrating across radio waves, bringing word of an invading alien army from Mars. And although the audio was performed as a Halloween special called “War of the Worlds”, the theatricality and delivery of the performance, along with recent memories of the Hindenburg disaster a year before, sent many listeners into a panic. Nothing but a bad coincidence when Concrete, Washington experiences a blackout after a power transformer blows, sending the city and surrounding areas into darkness.
These circumstances are the backdrop of Embers & Dust; a passion project written and directed by Patrick Biesemans. ”Embers & Dust” is a dream turned reality for Beisemans when in April of 2016, Patrick’s treatment for the project won the Musicbed Annual Film Fund Initiative – giving him the ignition and support he needed to bring this ambitious project to fruition. The reward along with Patrick’s resources, accumulated through previous projects, gave him the opportunity to finally set out and craft this meditative love letter to imagination, creativity, and Orson Welles.
Check out this exclusive Empty Kingdom podcast interview with Patrick as he walks you through his life and how Embers and Dust came about, and a longer in-depth roundtable interview with cinematographer David Kruta and star Henry Gagliardi!
PATRICK: So I went to Expressions in Emeryville and that’s actually where the idea for “Embers” came from. A buddy of mine, classmate, named Ryan McCoy. He’s an amazing visual effects supervisor and he actually worked on “Embers” as well. He and I were in a class, a Media studies class, and we had learned about the the Orson Welles broadcast of War of The Worlds and we thought, “Wow this would be really cool to do a little short film on.” And short films in like 2003, 2004 weren’t quite what they are now. There was really no place to put them. There was no Vimeo. There’s no Short of the Week. There’s just basically no online outlet for them. And YouTube thinking came out right in 2005, which was the year we were graduating. So it wasn’t like there was no real community for it and the cheap digital filmmaking technology wasn’t there yet, either. I mean you had like Panasonic HVXs and things like that. And you could fudge the look of film a little bit, it wasn’t the big show that ended up coming from the birth of the HDSLRs and you know that the Canon 7Ds and the 5Ds and whatnot.
DAVID: Patrick and I met on a commercial job for a well known hair product and we hit it off instantly. Beyond both of our obsessions with cooking (you should see our text history, it’s basically an ongoing cookbook), Patrick is a energetic and collaborative director who values the input of those around him, and can take ideas and make them better. Shooting commercials can get formulaic but he came in every day and tried to make the spot better than it was the day before. To not only have a vision but to also be open to what others bring to the table is a special quality in a director, so when he asked if I would like to join his no-money passion project I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
HENRY: I met Patrick at a callback audition in NYC. My original audition for “Embers & Dust” was actually for a different film but a casting agent for that other film was also the casting director for “Embers…” and she thought I was a great fit for Patrick’s film so she requested that I film an audition for Patrick and she sent it to him. So, I didn’t know Patrick before but now I think of him as a friend and hope we get to work together again. I miss him.
PATRICK: So I actually was able to fortunately get connected with an up-and-coming Casting Director, and she read the project and she really shepherd the whole process of actually casting. We had a lot of options and. And it really helps having somebody else such as a casting director be aware of, the temperament and attitude of the people who are casting and the right face for the job, you know?
I directed a feature film a couple of years ago now and it was released earlier this year through The Orchard and it was a great experience. Working with the people who had written it and they produced it and ultimately they started it. They really used it as a vehicle to ignite their filmmaking careers. And I know that they got some interesting things going on. In fact I thought about working with them again because they had a script that I really enjoyed. But, as much as I enjoyed it and as good as a movie I think it can be, it wasn’t my voice. And I spent like the last couple of years really ignoring my voice, frankly ever since Nirvana, I’d kind of ignored my own artistic voice for the sake of just doing work.
“Embers” was sort of the recalibration from what “Nirvana” left me with. And now I’m really cognizant of that. I’m really making an effort to… I don’t want to say keep the integrity because that almost alludes to the past projects not being worthy of that. But, definitely staying true to my voice.
DAVID: This year I put an emphasis on pushing myself creatively and working with people that I like, and I was lucky enough to do 4 very rewarding projects, Embers being one of them. My focus in this film was to achieve a big budget, almost tentpole look and feel with very few resources. By that I mean wide, complex shots, coverage that felt like we had unlimited time to work on, camera movement that was dynamic and steady, and to avoid any sort of modern items, which is difficult on a period passion project. To me, the night exteriors were the most rewarding, mostly because we could not afford to light and shoot them like the blockbusters do.
I really don’t have anything but praise for Patrick. He pulled off with flying colors something that many people can’t do at all. I got to see part of the development process, embodied in his office at his house in Cold Spring: a room covered in notes, storyboards, visual references, you name it. He believed in the film and that motivated me to also go above and beyond to try and make it happen for him. When someone pours their heart and soul into something, anything – that’s to be admired and encouraged. I think that’s what life is all about – following your passion and diving in head first.
MITCHELL: Henry, what was your approach to acting in the film?
HENRY: My Dad and I talked a lot about the life of farm families in the 1930s because my Great Great Grandmother was from a farming family during those times and lived until 2009 when she was 104 so we knew a lot from her stories and experiences. I also listened to the entire “War of the Worlds” broadcast and thought a lot about what it might have been like for people to experience that thinking it was really happening. Additionally, Patrick asked me to watch “Spirited Away” and “The Iron Giant” to get a feeling of what mood he was looking for and that helped me a lot. Plus, I trusted Patrick and his directions to me while filming were great in helping me understand the character.
MITCHELL: What was the character and what did he mean to you?
HENRY: My character, Gene, was a young farm boy in the 1930s who grew up in a happy but hard life, a situation where he could not properly explore his imagination but as he got older, his imagination could no longer be restricted and especially because his teacher, Miss Leslie, inspired him to let his mind be more creative. Gene meant a lot to me because he reminded me of myself a little bit since he explores his imaginative side a lot and because he is a little afraid of where his imagination is leading him, into the woods and an unknown future. In real life, I am afraid of growing older and not being a kid any more but we both push through our fear to let what is going to happen happen anyway.
PATRICK: You know, I just happened to be able to pull together a great team that, they really.. They were people I’d worked with before in the commercial world and they just happened to end up being good friends and absolutely willing to take on the challenge with me. So you know I was already going in with a good foundation. And I think because I had them around I felt more comfortable about taking my vision from paper directly to screen. And that’s the first time I’ve ever really been able to do that. “Embers” started off as almost just a sentiment or emotion. And I didn’t even know what the story was, really. And I had worked with a couple different writers at various stages through these 10 years that I had wanted to do it just to explore it and nobody can really nail the script down just because it had become too narrative or it would explain things too much or it would be too clever. And, you know, a short film, it has the opportunity to be a poem.
And frankly, there was part of me that was kind of worried about that, with “Embers” like, “Oh are people going to tune out because it’s not gimmicky enough or doesn’t have an immediate hook?” Because I think a lot of what’s online definitely has those things and it’s great. I mean we do kind of live in a commercial culture so people are kind of used to getting something right up front and understanding what they’re going to be settled in for for the next several minutes.
MITCHELL: Regarding the film, it is very poetic and you mentioned the emotion that you had. What was that emotion? What were you hoping to convey to your audience?
PATRICK: That’s a good question because I don’t think I’ve answered it the same way twice. Mainly because there’s so many mixed emotions going into it already. There’s the fear side of things. I’m not sure how much of that actually comes through but it was definitely one of the primary themes to begin with was fear. You know fear of the unknown, fear of approval, or disapproval of fear of… you know, this, that, and the other. And I think that’s what we were, or what I was trying to get out of the era. 1938 was a very fearful time and not to get too political, but the fear in the air wasn’t unlike what the fear in the air is now. At the time, a year before that broadcast had happened, the Hindenburg Disaster happened nearly a year, exactly, previous. So people knew what a horrific situation sounded like over the airwaves because they broadcast it and it’s actually a terrifying piece of audio of you’ve never been able to listen to it. Not War of the Worlds, but the Hindenburg Disaster. And you know also Hitler’s voice was being broadcast across the airwaves. Radio was still relatively new. So people used it as a way of scaring people and World War I, wasn’t that long ago and World War II was just on the horizon. And Dust Bowl years were in the same area, you know, the Depression. So fear was palpable and just depression in general.
MITCHELL: Henry, what did the story mean to you?
HENRY: I liked that I felt like Gene’s accepting of his imagination is like my accepting of getting older. The story was a lesson for me that sometimes even though you may not be sure if you want certain things to happen in your life, it is sometimes best just to accept that you can’t stop time or progress and it’s best to just go with it openly rather than fight it.
MITCHELL: What was it like working with Patrick?
HENRY: It was a great adventure. He was so good at giving me time to have fun with the crew and having fun with me himself (he definitely is still a kid inside) but he also knew when it was time to focus and get the work done and I never wanted to disappoint him because of how much he was counting on me so I was always ready to get serious when he needed it, even super-late at night when I was exhausted.
PATRICK: ..working with Henry, the kid who played Jean that kid had us basically on our toes, the whole time. Even at 1:00 in the morning. You know, he’d be joking with us and kind of just throwing some jabs out there just to keep people going and he was like ultimately entertaining and really focused when I asked him to be, you know, he’s a kid and the last thing you’d want to do is stifle a kid from being a kid when he’s supposed to be playing a kid you know? So it’s a very delicate balance. And he was right there with us, between takes like I said he’d be playing with people. And then when it was time to do business it was, “Hey Henry, let’s focus on this.” And he would, he’d turn on a dime and basically do anything that he could to make the take better and it was incredible working with him.
DAVID: We try and keep it light. I find that a joke now and then makes people comfortable and happy, and that makes them feel like they’re a part of a team. Crew feels like they’re on the same side as us, and want to help achieve the goal. Problem solving becomes less frustrating, and even fun. So at the end of a long, hard day, with rain and lightning and bears, we can go have a drink with the crew and everyone feels like they’re a part of something special. Most of my closest friends I know from working long hours on set, and getting to know them as people. Patrick is no different; when we’re not actively working on a project, we talk about cooking and travel and his dogs. At some point it doesn’t even feel like work anymore, just a couple of people having a great time.
MITCHELL: Patrick, did you have any rules or paradigms that directed the types of shots you had, or the types of camera movements, or the way that you moved in the space?
PATRICK: Everything was storyboarded out every single frame. I never wanted the camera to feel nervous. I didn’t necessarily ever want a living camera. As I was mentioning earlier about the kind of the short films that are out there and the things that are available to watch right now, they have a shared vocabulary and that shared vocabulary, it’s great, but having a shaky cam or a living camera during a tense situation I feel like its a go to.
MITCHELL: David, What was your approach to lighting the film?
DAVID: The lighting for Embers was a balancing act. Since we had very little money for equipment, I had to pick lights that could be used in a variety of scenarios. For example, I couldn’t have a daylight HMI package, a tungsten package for night, and another package for our creature effect, so we went heavy on LEDs – ARRI SkyPanels and BBS Area 48 panels, for the most part. We supplemented with a handful of small HMI and tungsten units, always riding the edge of what our generator would allow. Creatively, we wanted Embers to feel natural, but with a bit of fantasy, so riding that line between real and “artistic” was a fun challenge the whole way through.
The biggest challenge were the night exteriors when Gene is heading towards the creature. Patrick had already locked the location before I was involved, so on our scout he has us climbing down a steep ravine and traversing a creek. After falling in and coming out the other side soaking wet, he turns to me and says “This is it!”. Needless to say, the bigger units stayed at the top of the ravine, which actually gave the effect of using condors and balloon lights, but in reality it was just a few panels on stands. Our grip department rigged rope around trees to create a safer path down and we brought the bare minimum required to shoot in the ravine. It was definitely a physically grueling shoot, but was worth every sore muscle and scraped knee.
PATRICK: Filmmaking is often forgotten as being an art form. You know there is a person being an artist behind it. Because it blends into commerce so easily. And then you find yourself just kind of doing it because that’s the skill you have, but you’re not doing it to express yourself anymore. And I think, now that “Embers,” another passion project daydream come to life is out and about and I’m done with it. I know that the next big thing, the next feature film, has to be in that same vein it has to be and it has to be that same caring quality.
MITCHELL: Thanks guys! And for everyone else, check out the podcast interview with Patrick to go in depth about his process and what it was like winning the Music Bed Film Initiative, and definitely watch the film itself, which is online.