Vail Film Festival’s “Crossing the Bar” features successful directorial debut
If you go ...
What: “Crossing the Bar,” short film screening, followed by Q-and-A with director Vinessa Shaw and producer-actor Vassiliki Ellwood, part of the Vail Film Festival.
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9.
Where: Vail Cascade, 1300 Westhaven Drive, Vail.
Cost: Festival passes start at $59.
More information: For a complete festival schedule and more details, visit www.vailfilmfestival.com.
The opening shot of the short film “Crossing the Bar” tells you all you need to know. The viewers are presented with a bird’s eye view of a section of an asphalt parking lot. The two main characters, Kat and Eva, enter from the right, walking side by side, yet on either side of a long crack in the pavement.
Making its world premiere at the Vail Film Festival this week, “Crossing the Bar” is the brainchild of actor, writer and producer Vassiliki Ellwood and explores the pain-tinged world of personal sorrow through the eyes of two best friends.
Originally from Aegina, a small island in Greece, Ellwood mostly grew up on the east coast of the United States. After attending college and theater training in London, she returned to the States and spent a year in New York City, working on the stage. At the end of that year, on a whim, she picked up her entire life to move to Los Angeles and take on the world of Hollywood.
As she navigated the ins and outs of the television and film industries, Ellwood began to think about creating her own personal project.
“I was so tired of waiting for someone to tell me when I can start my career or when I can do something, and I just decided — I’m going to do this myself,” she said.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Ellwood chose grief as the main focus of her first film, following the physical and emotional journey of two characters — a sister and a lover — as they go to spread the ashes of the one they’ve lost.
“It’s a relationship piece (on) how we cope and how we heal and move forward and let go,” Ellwood said.
Ellwood co-wrote the piece with friend and fellow actor Monica Sly before gathering a team together to take the story from paper to film.
“My goal for the film was to have a really strong team of women behind me,” she said. “I was able to band together this incredible team that worked so in sync with each other.”
Since she was already producing, writing and planning to act in the film, Ellwood needed another person for the crucial role of director. So she reached out to veteran actor Vinessa Shaw, who is known for roles in many films, including “Eyes Wide Shut,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “40 Days and 40 Nights,” as well as the Disney film “Hocus Pocus,” a consistent favorite of those who grew up in the ’90s.
“I was kind of stunned,” Shaw said with a laugh, when Ellwood asked her to direct. “I said to her, ‘I’ve never directed anything, how do you think I would be good for this?’ And she said, ‘I just do, I have a feeling,’ and this is Vassiliki’s nature, she has a very can-do spirit, so I said, ‘Well I’d like to try, I would, and I will!’”
A ROUNDED EXPERIENCE
While Shaw took the director’s reins for the first time, Ellwood sunk herself into her acting role.
“I had to have my actor hat on, and it was so great because Vinessa and my other producer Sarah (Delpizzo), they really made sure that I was the actor for when we were shooting. … They really made sure that I had my actor hat on and I didn’t have to stress about being the producer or being this or that,” Ellwood said.
Despite admitting to being nervous to begin her new role, Shaw said that the project ended up being a positive experience overall.
“I’ve been an actress since I was very young, and I have a huge reverence for directors. I think that position is sort of the master position, it’s kind of untouchable, and you know, I have the utmost respect for that position,” she said. “The day of, I actually was not nervous, the day of shooting, and I didn’t know why. It felt very natural and I think because there was already not as much pressure because you’re relying on the machine of the crew to work together. You’re the conductor of that machine, really.”
Shaw’s background in acting certainly didn’t hurt, either.
“Vinessa totally transformed the script,” Ellwood said. “I think the reason why it was so successful was because she understood the process as an actor; she knew how to communicate what she wanted to communicate to us very clearly.”
While this was true, Shaw did relate an amusing anecdote on getting used to being a director.
“One funny thing is that, I remember the first AD (first assistant director) yelled ‘rolling’ and then the DP (director of photography) said ‘set’ and at one point I was just sitting there watching and going ‘this is great’ and then they looked at me and I was like, ‘oh whoops, action!’” she recalled with a laugh.
No matter how cohesive the team, there will always be a certain number of challenges on the set of a movie. For both Ellwood and Shaw, the answer of the biggest challenge was the same — shooting in the car.
“It was a brutal summer day in Topanga Canyon, and Topanga is hotter than most areas in California,” Shaw said.
“It was hot, it was so hot,” said Ellwood with a laugh.
The temperature was only a small part of the challenge of the shoot, however, which involved Ellwood’s character not only driving, but singing along to the radio and smoking a cigarette.
“As an actor that was the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do, was that scene,” said Ellwood, “… because I had to be an actor and be my character, but also try to not kill everybody.”
Meanwhile, Shaw was entirely focused on capturing just the right angles on her actors, while the car was in motion. Though she said she likes the complexity that car scenes can afford an actor — the layered meanings between looking another character directly in the eyes, looking away, crafting different facial expressions — it was more difficult than she’d anticipated.
“But it was great because we all worked through it and we all did it and we all accomplished it. It looks great, it sounds great,” she said. “I love the effect that comes out of it. It’s a challenge that’s worth it because there is energy and movement, obviously, … but it doesn’t make it any easier to shoot.”
A HINT OF JOHN WAYNE
While directing, Shaw drew inspiration from the directors she’d worked with in the past.
“I’m kind of like an amalgamation of the directors I’ve worked with,” she said.
Throughout its 10-minute runtime, “Crossing the Bar” features a number of shots of the two characters against the sunny, scrubby backdrop of Topanga Canyon. The late-afternoon light illuminates the characters and the landscape, while the soundtrack offers birdsong and natural silence.
Shaw said she was aiming for the aesthetic of an old Western, transported into a modern setting.
“It is kind of a face-off between these two girls and they’re having to come to terms with their past, but it’s not out of revenge, it’s about coming together; it’s becoming closer as they reveal their vulnerabilities,” Shaw said. “l like the actual broad, sweeping, panoramic kind of view that Westerns bring, as well as the intensity of that, too, so that’s what I tried to bring, just in terms of style, for the actual story.”
COMING TO VAIL
This will be the first time attending the Vail Film Festival for both Ellwood and Shaw.
“I feel like a little kid in a candy store — everything is new and shiny, and I hope I never lose that wonder or excitement for something like this,” Ellwood said. “It’s been a huge accomplishment for me, so I just feel very proud of the piece of work and I’m very proud of my team, and I’m excited. I’m excited to see what unfolds.”
The two will be available for a question-and-answer session after the film screens at 1:30 p.m. today.
“I’m just excited that Vail has accepted us at their festival, and it’s the first festival I’ll be going to as a director. It’s going to be a whole other experience,” Shaw said.
“And, you know, I don’t have to do too much hair and makeup maybe, as a director,” she said, joking. “I can be more relaxed, who knows.”