‘The Recorder,’ an offbeat adventure, gets world premiere at virtual Aspen Shortsfest
New short directed by Colorado native and ‘Succession’ castmember Justine Lupe
What: ‘The Recorder’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org
When: Program Eight; Streaming through April 11
How Much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass
More info: A livestream Q&A with filmmakers from Program Eight will run Friday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Clocking in at a brisk 10 minutes, “The Recorder” is the kind of bizarre, love-it-or-hate-it fare that you can only find in a short film without commercial imperatives.
“It’s definitely weird,” director Justine Lupe said of the film, which has its world premiere this week at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest. “Every time I watch it, I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what a weird, kooky little thing we did.’ But I like it.”
Co-written by actor John Early (“Search Party”) and the playwright Max Posner, who grew up with Lupe in Denver, the film follows a couple played by Early and Gordon Landenberger as they seek to buy a new recorder. The quest brings Landenberger’s character into the strange realm of a recorder owner, Sandy, played by the delightfully offbeat O-Lan Jones.
Mind-tricks, Ibogaine and, yes, recorder music follow.
It’s the second short film directed by Lupe, whose debut “South of Bix,” starring her and M. Emmet Walsh, played Shortsfest last year. Lupe is best known for her work in front of the camera on the shows “The Marvelous Mrs. Masel” and “Succession,” the third season of which she recently began filming after a long pandemic delay in production.
Lupe had been looking for something to direct that she hadn’t written, and reached out to Early and Posner about whether they might have something for her.
They came back with the absurd 11-page script for “The Recorder.”
“I said, ‘Oh, this is so fun and delightful and crazy,’” Lupe recalled.
She shot it in three days in Los Angeles on a shoestring in fall 2019. Most of the action takes place in Sandy’s quirky gem of a house, which Lupe found and rented for the production (the owners’ lazy St. Bernard, Charlie, even stuck around for an on-screen role).
Bringing the singular and oddball spirit of Early and Posner’s script to the screen was a formidable assignment.
“It was challenging in terms of getting the exact tone,” Lupe recalled. “A lot of the process was trying to get into their brains and understand tonally what they were thinking and how they wanted it to look and feel and who they wanted this woman to be.”
O-Lan Jones, the inimitable character actress from “Edward Scissorhands” and countless small but indelible performances through recent decades, brought her feral energy to the role of the riddle-speaking recorder seller.
“She is relentlessly unselfconscious,” Lupe recalled. “She is willing to do anything, and she makes these far-out choices that were really fun and unexpected.”
Like much of the 80-film lineup at Aspen Shortsfest — virtual for the second year in a row due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — “The Recorder” was shot before the virus hit the U.S. and edited during the stay-at-home period.
It is Lupe’s third behind-the-camera project to reach audiences since the pandemic hit, evidencing a productive period of creative growth.
Along with directing “South of Bix,” Lupe is co-creator, director and star of the series “The Non-Essentials,” a quarantine project that turned into a 10-episode series for Adult Swim, filling out her diverse trio of directorial work.
“As much as I learned from ‘South of Bix,’ I think I learned even more through this one,” she said of “The Recorder,” “because it was comedy and it was quirky and it was a different kind of editing. … It was a good exercise for me because it’s not my voice, it’s not something I would or could write — so that’s kind of why I like it. It’s such a stretch for me.”
With most film productions shut down over the past year, Lupe also made a few extended trips home to Colorado, doing the now-familiar routine of quarantines and COVID tests before visits with her parents in Denver. She was grateful for that time, and the perspective the pandemic has afforded her on life and career, though she said she also is eager to get back to work in front of the camera. “Succession” resumed filming in the fall, with Lupe — playing Connor Roy’s call-girl companion — promoted to a regular castmember.
“It’s slow-moving, because there’s so much COVID protocol and it takes so much to make the machines run right now as they’re being incredibly safe,” she said of season three production, reportedly slated to run on HBO in late 2021.
With vaccines rolling out, film production ramping up and theatrical releases on the horizon, Lupe is hopeful for the days to come in film, and maybe — the third time around — for an actual in-person screening at an Aspen festival.
“I think we’re right around the corner from it being a really exciting time,” she said. “A lot of people are like horses at the gate, ready to get going. I’m excited for everything that people will be able to create during this time. I hope it’s a renaissance.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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