Shortsfest inspires Academy Award winner |

Shortsfest inspires Academy Award winner

Stewart Oksenhorn
"The Lost Cause," a 13-minute short film written and directed by Jim Taylor, shows in Aspen's Shortsfest's Program 7 today.

Screenwriter Jim Taylor is basking in Oscar glory; he and his regular writing partner Alexander Payne shared an Academy Award for their adapted screenplay from the dark comedy “Sideways.” Taylor is also lining up future projects, including a screenplay of the Steinbeck novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” and a film that he calls “the true story of Tupperware,” which he hopes to direct as well as write.But Taylor finds serving as a juror for the Aspen Shortsfest International Competition a fine use of his time. Both Taylor and Payne are jurors for the competition, which opened Wednesday and runs through tonight’s screening programs. On the flight from North Carolina – where he attended the Cucalorus Film Festival – to Aspen, Taylor watched the in-flight film, the lightweight adventure “National Treasure.” The experience, which prompts a groan from Taylor, reminded the filmmaker of the value of a festival like Aspen Shortsfest.”It’s very inspiring,” said the 42-year-old Seattle native, whose partnership with Payne has also produced the scripts for “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt.” “Laura [Thielen, Aspen Filmfest’s executive director] does such a great job of programming. Some festivals, you go and it’s eight hours of … something. Here, it’s one program a night, the projection is great and the films are amazing.”At last year’s Shortsfest, which he attended as a panelist, Taylor saw “Krumped,” a short documentary about gangs of hip-hop clowns in Los Angeles. The directorial debut of renowned photographer David LaChapelle gave Taylor reason to find hope amidst the great amount of cinematic junk.”That’ll keep you high for a while and keep you inspired,” he said of “Krumped.”

Taylor is also in attendance at Shortsfest as a filmmaker. “The Lost Cause,” which he wrote and directed, shows out of competition in tonight’s Program Number Seven (5:30 p.m., Wheeler Opera House). The 13-minute film, about a Civil War re-enactor and his troubled relationship with his son, is emotionally compelling. But it is also a bit of an accidental short. The principal raison d’être behind “The Lost Cause” is that a fellow resident in Taylor’s building on New York’s Lower East Side was looking for a narrative project on which he could test a new camera. Coincidentally, Taylor was looking for a project to burnish and demonstrate his directing talent. So Taylor took his feature-length screenplay for “The Lost Cause,” as yet unmade, and turned it into a short.Taylor is hesitant to push “The Lost Cause” too hard at this point. For one, he still hopes to make his feature-film directorial debut with the full-length version of the film. For another, he doesn’t believe the story was particularly well-adapted to be squeezed into the shorts format. Like “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” “The Lost Cause” has a blend of humor and pathos that takes time to coalesce.”All of our films walk this line between comedy and drama. And that’s a line that has to be carefully managed. It takes time to do that,” said Taylor, who has placed the short in just a small handful of festivals. “[The short] feels kind of awkward. You’re not ever really sure what you’re watching – and then it’s over. There’s something out of kilter. It doesn’t feel like short.”Taylor added that, in the planned longer version, “there will be more time to develop a sympathy for this guy, so the relationship with his son will be more understandable.” Still, Taylor is grateful for the insights he will gain from the short film if it becomes a feature-length project. And he is learning even bigger lessons from the experience. “Even if you don’t think something’s a home run, you have to live with it and learn from your discomfort,” he said.

“Sideways,” a critical grand slam, has taught Taylor a different set of lessons, virtually all of them positive. Taylor expected the story of two very imperfect guys drinking and bickering their way through a tour of the California wine country to be popular with audiences. But he didn’t expect critics to swoon, or five Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best director.”What surprised me was how seriously people took it,” said Taylor, who began writing with Payne when the two were apartment mates in Los Angeles in 1989. “I was afraid it might be lightweight material. But [actor] Paul Giamatti, Alexander and Rolfe Kent, the composer, really elevated the material. And the love story that emerged from it raised it, too. I worried that it would be just two vulgar guys, one depressed, and no one would like them.”While Taylor anticipates being inspired by the Shortsfest fare – he came away from the opening night program marveling at the quality – he is likewise hopeful that other filmmakers will be inspired by “Sideways.” What he thinks set the film apart is that it dealt with recognizable characters, in situations heightened only slightly from real life. And if filmmakers aim to re-create that model, the cinema will be better for it.”It’s nice to think it might influence other people to make movies and point to ‘Sideways’ and say, ‘It’ll be like that,'” Taylor said. “Not exactly like it, but different in the same way, not middle of the road.”They’re the kind of characters we like – struggling with day-to-day things – rather than people who are heroic on a grand level. They’re just trying to get through their lives. Which is what I think most people are up to.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is”The Lost Cause,” written and directed by Jim Taylor, shows tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House as part of the Aspen Shortsfest Program Seven.Also today at Shortsfest: Masterwork: The Director’s Chair, moderated by screenwriter Frank Pierson [1 p.m., Wheeler]; and Program Eight [9 p.m., Wheeler].Shortsfest will also have screening programs today at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale [5:30 and 8 p.m.], and the ScreenPlay! Family Program, recommended for audiences age 10 and older, at the Springs Theatre in Glenwood Springs [4:30 and 7 p.m.].Shortsfest runs through tomorrow. For a complete schedule, go to

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