The core of the short film ‘Shale’? It’s the pit

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Contributed photoThe short film "Shale," by Jed Cowley, shows Thursday at Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN –Having lived in New York City for five years, including several years in the graduate film program at Columbia University, Jed Cowley itched to tell a story rooted in his past, an Oregon story. Oregon’s got prominent forests, a picturesque coast and the quirk-filled city of Portland to choose from, but Cowley had no trouble settling on a precise location for his thesis film: the shale pit. Not a shale pit, but the shale pit, the one a couple of hundred yards from his childhood home, where he got in trouble for messing around with the equipment, where he watched his brother almost fall over a cliff.

“I knew the owner, knew I had access to the location,” Cowley said. “And it was a beautiful place, a striking place. So many memories.”

The entirety of Cowley’s “Shale,” which shows in Thursday’s 5:30 p.m. program at Aspen Shortsfest, is set in the pit, and the location – closed in and rugged; Cowley likens it to a boxing ring – sets the film’s parameters. But Cowley didn’t want to tell a story rooted in his childhood experiences. Married, and a recent father, the 33-year-old has had relationships on his mind. Cowley says his marriage is solid – his wife worked with him to develop the script for “Shale” – but the one depicted in the film is not.

“The core of it for me is, in all relationships there’s one person who makes the rules. There’s one person way up here and the other way down there,” he said. “Even in my relationship, it’s hard for me to stand up for what I want, even know what I want. Going to a movie – one wants to go to this movie, one wants to go to another, and who compromises?”

In the 12-minute “Shale,” the issues are deeper than choosing a movie. John and Sheila are an older couple, the animosity has built over decades, and in the shale pit, it has gotten to the point of lawyers, dead-end conversations and, ultimately, destruction.

“I wanted to tell a story about someone who has felt unable to communicate, who finally understands how to communicate, understands how to interpret her own feelings,” Cowley said.

Much of what makes the film stand out is the integration of the setting and the story. Cowley might have picked the pit because he knew it and knew he would be permitted to shoot there, but he uses the pit to frame and heighten the emotions.

“It’s a place of danger. And intrigue. And adventure,” Cowley said at the Shortsfest Filmmakers Lounge in the Mountain Chalet. “And for Sheila, it’s maybe a place that’s never been inhabited. It’s this barrier – it’s almost wrong for her to be there.

“The pit focuses the story. It’s almost like a boxing ring – you’re not getting out till the match is over. Like they’ve come to a point in their relationship where they’re not going forward till they figure something out. You get to that point in a relationship, those stagnant places, you learn a lot about yourself and the other person.”

Cowley, who has written a feature-length version of “Shale,” claims not to like metaphors. But he goes on to point out a few in his film. The pit is full of old machinery, which he says reflects the “corrosive relationship.” And John’s been digging this pit for years.

“Just the way he’s dug a hole for both of them,” he said.