Aspen Shortsfest: Oscar winner Benjamin Cleary’s latest
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Wave’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
When: Aspen Saturday, April 7, 5:15 p.m.; Carbondale Sunday, April 8, 5:15 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: ‘Wave’ is one of seven films in a 92-minute program Saturday evening; the day at the festival also includes the panel discussion ‘Outside the Frame: Getting Your Film Seen’ (noon), a seven-film 2:30 p.m. program, a 4 p.m. happy hour at Jimmy’s Bodega, a seven-film 8 p.m. program and a closing night party at Silver City (10 p.m.); www.aspenfilm.org
Depending on the day, the internet can seem like the best or the worst thing ever to happen to society.
In the dazzling short comedy “Wave,” by Oscar-winning filmmaker Benjamin Clearly, both the crushing toxicity of online bullying and the potential for soul-saving connection in social media are brought to bear.
The 14-minute film centers on Gasper — played by Cleary’s co-director T.J. O’Grady Peyton — who wakes up from a coma speaking an unintelligible language that only he can understand. Gasper sends a “message in a bottle out to the world,” by way of a YouTube video that brings out the best and worst in the millions who see it.
Cleary, 34, is among the so-called “old millenials” who came of age both with and without the internet, which has given him a unique perspective on web culture.
“I grew up without any real internet and certainly no social media until I was like 19,” he said recently from Dublin via Skype. “So I got to be a teenager without any of that. I think it gave me an interesting perspective and a good viewpoint from which to look at that online stuff.”
But specifically, the film came out of a news item Cleary read several years ago about an Englishman who had a stroke and woke up speaking fluent Welsh but unable to understand English.
“So I started looking at phenomena like this when the brain, for whatever reason, changes how people communicate,” he said.
He and Peyton invented a legitimate-sounding language for the film. They would banter back and forth in it to get its rhythms down, mastering it to the point where Peyton could improvise and convey meaning and emotion with their nonsense words.
“I wrote this language for various scenes, so that T.J. had things he could fall back on,” Cleary said. “But the idea was that he would do a lot of improv.”
Eager to work together, these old friends first planned to make “Wave” quickly and cheaply.
“It started super small, with very little ambition and grew from there,” Cleary recalled. “‘Wave’ started with us saying, ‘Let’s just get a camera, shoot something in my flat, I’ll write it, T.J. will act in it, we’ll do it in a weekend and throw it online.’”
But rather than make it a 5-minute D.I.Y. movie, the pair ended up getting the Irish production company Assembly on board to make it something more substantial. They shot it over a period of two years in Dublin whenever Peyton, Cleary and their crew were in town. The final product is a polished, fast-paced, funny and moving parable with some well-placed music (including David Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide”).
“Wave” will play tonight at Aspen Shortsfest. It’s been on the festival circuit for nearly a year since premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and has proved a worthy follow-up to Cleary’s “Stutterer,” which won the Irish filmmaker the Academy Award for Live Action Short in 2016.
That film, like “Wave,” is about communication and the ramifications of its breakdowns.
“Winning the Oscar was an amazing experience,” Cleary said. “It’s been great for opening doors.”
He’s currently developing his debut feature film with Anonymous Content and completing an animated virtual reality story, “Glimpse.” Cleary also recently finished a short film adaptation of the Jeffrey McDaniel poem “The Quiet World” for a freedom of speech campaign with Amnesty International.
“I still have quite a bit to say about communication,” he said. “A lack of communication denotes isolation, and I quite like writing characters who feel like underdogs, who feel like they’re up against it and all alone. I’ll probably be doing a few more of those.”
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