SXSW Short Film “Sweet Steel” Tells Heartfelt Story of Suicide

Austin filmmaker Will Goss on his new film about depression

Welcome to Short and Sweet, the Chronicle’s spotlight on short films at SXSW. One film, one filmmaker, five questions.

“‘Sweet Steel’ was the first time that I found myself telling a story that I felt uniquely primed to tell by virtue of my experiences.” Will Goss on his SXSW short “Sweet Steel,” starring John Merriman (pictured) and screening as part of the Texas Shorts (Photo by Will Goss)

A man. A gun. A bowl of melted chocolate. “Sweet Steel” by Austin film critic-turned-filmmaker Will Goss sounds like a prop comedy set-up, but it’s really a heartfelt story about suicide.

Austin Chronicle: This was obviously a very personal theme and much more serious than your earlier shorts, which have tended to be dark comedies with a twist. What was the genesis of this project?

Will Goss: The ambition of each short film has steadily expanded over these past few years – something that finally required multiple locations! An unbroken six-minute take involving multiple in-camera “takes” and some of our crew playing themselves! – and I was eager to scale up accordingly. That just wasn’t realistic in terms of resources, so when I broke it down to brass tacks, this story started from a fairly grim place of “write what you know” and evolved from there into something that was both manageable and meaningful to me.

AC: You’ve been pretty open about your own history of dealing with depression. Was it tough to put that into the script, or was it more cathartic?

WG: To quote my grandmother regarding any instance of audible flatulence, I felt that it was “better out than in.” It was cathartic to balance this detached logic with a harsher degree of emotion, both of which I could very much relate to. That hasn’t stopped the film from raising concerns with a few friends and family members. For me, it’s less about where our protagonist starts than where he ends up, so it was important for me to approach these feelings in a creative arena and try to persuade myself as much as the viewer that hope can be a necessity as much as it can be its own hurdle to clear. Ideally, the film allows anyone who’s dealt with these things to come away with some comfort of commiseration, and allows anyone who hasn’t to recognize that someone simply asking for the help they might dearly need is often easier said than done.

AC: When did [lead actor and comedian] John Merriman come aboard, and how did you explain the story to him?

WG: John was the first person I reached out to. Once I sent him the script, I simply made it clear that this wasn’t intended to be funny, which many people would have understandably expected coming from me. Some have ultimately found parts of it to be amusing, and that’s fine, but for the shoot, we had to play this somewhat off-kilter premise fairly straight so as to not run the risk of seeming glib or exploitative about the subject matter. I wanted the emotion to carry real weight from start to finish, and John brought that to the table without fail.

AC: This is your fourth short. How do you think you’ve changed as a filmmaker since “Alarm”?

WG: Each of those earlier films came from a primarily intellectual or conceptual place that was likely born out of the decade I spent as a film critic. This one’s about a character who only speaks in dialogue from other movies; that one’s about two extras hitting it off in the background of a film set. There was a more conscious degree of willful imitation at play. “Sweet Steel” was the first time that I found myself telling a story that I felt uniquely primed to tell by virtue of my experiences, and I couldn’t have approached the material without having established that basic foundation of filmmaking on which I could try building to a genuinely emotional impact rather than doling out relatively easy scares or laughs.

AC: The crew is a who’s who of the Austin critique and filmmaking scene. For a film that deals with how important it is to have a support system, how does it feel to know that you have that community at your back?

WG: Maybe this sounds like a canned answer, but I very genuinely couldn’t have done it without them, not just in terms of considerable sweat equity and called-in favors, but also due to their valuable feedback and consistent moral support. I can assure you that nobody making something at this level is in it for the money or glamour, so it’s incredibly heartening to know that we’re aligned toward achieving the same goal, no matter the challenges that have come our way.

Sweet Steel

Texas Shorts Program

Friday, March 8, 8:15pm, Atom Theater at ACC
Sunday, March 10, 11am, AFS Cinema
Saturday, March 16, 11:15am, Alamo South Lamar

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SXSW, SXSW Film 2019, SXSW 2019, Sweet Steel, Will Goss, John Merriman

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