AFF Short and Sweet: "The Recordist"
Award-winning short plays with ASMR psychohorror
By Richard Whittaker,
4:50PM, Wed. Oct. 28, 2020
Welcome to Short and Sweet, our look at short films playing at Austin Film Festival. This time it's "The Recordist," Indianna Bell and Josiah Allen's unnerving tale of a film set sound engineer (Brendan Rock) who uses his position as an invisible presence on the set to malevolent ends.
The unnerving psychodrama is the follow-up by Bell and Allen (aka Stakeout Films) to their AFF 2019 award-winner "Call Connected," and this weekend it took the AFF 2020 for Narrative Short
AC How does it feel to win the narrative short jury award two years in a row, if under very different circumstances?
Stakeout Films: It feels incredibly surreal to not only be screening at Austin for a second time but to win the Jury Award again! If we are honest, we had convinced ourselves that winning last year was a fluke, but being awarded Best Narrative Short for a second time has given us a huge boost of confidence in our work.
We are devastated that we could not be back in Austin for the in person experience this year but we are so thankful that they were able to re-invent themselves into an online festival and still go ahead in 2020. Whether there physically or not, winning this award is a massive honor and will be hugely beneficial to us as young filmmakers.
AC: Both "Call Connect" and "The Recordist" are built around sound and sound equipment. Was that a deliberate decision, and why do you think you've been drawn to that theme?
SF: This certainly wasn’t a deliberate decision, I think that this parallel was simply born from the fact that we absolutely love sound. We’re firm believers that sound will make or break a film and is often severely undervalued in the filmmaking process. When making films on a shoestring budget, post sound is something that you can utilize to build your world and make everything feel more immersive and believable.
For example, on our one-take short "Call Connect" we built our own office set made from wall dividers and a single desk. We had no budget and one day to shoot. From any other angle, the set looked absolutely ridiculous! However in post, with plenty of layering and mixing, we were able to create the atmosphere of a busy call center without paying an extra cent. We really took this idea and ran with it on "The Recordist." The story itself, following a sound recordist (with an obsession for ASMR on the side), obviously lent itself to a rich and immersive soundscape that we had plenty of fun creating.
AC: Any favorite films about eavesdroppers and audio snoopers?
SF: Not necessarily about eavesdroppers, but Nightcrawler served as a huge inspiration for this film in terms of its themes of voyeurism and the media. We love how the film establishes Louis as an anti-hero. Rather than being punished or ‘learning a lesson,’ he is rewarded at the end of the film after all of his abhorrent actions. Keeping this anti-hero trope in the back of our minds gave us permission as filmmakers to tell the story from Andrew’s perspective, no matter how dark it gets. He is the hero of his own story.
We don’t believe a film needs to tell the audience how to feel and instead we can trust the audience to make their own moral judgments. What resulted is a film that fits into this niche genre about filmmaking itself - a voyeur who listens in to conversations on set and uses this information as blackmail.
SF: Sound recordists get a bad wrap in "The Recordist," which is extremely unfair given that every experience we have ever had with soundies has been lovely! They are often considered the undervalued and forgotten members of a film set, when their role is as (if not more) important as the DOP. Actors put trust in everyone on a set; in the camera operator to capture them beautifully, in the director to guide their performance, even in the makeup artist to make them look good on screen. The entire process is a trust exercise from start to finish and that’s what makes it exciting. If you know your crew well, especially on intimate indie sets, we believe that introducing unnecessary rules and restrictions around how it is run might risk ruining the magic a little.
In saying that, this short has made us more aware of checking in with our actors to ensure they feel supported and happy on set.
AC: A lot of the drama comes from Andrew listening in, and cutting out the sounds he doesn't want. What was your approach to the sound editing and design?
SF: As this is a film about a sound recordist, we knew from the start that a huge aspect of the story would be communicated through the sound design. We wanted there to be two ‘worlds’ of sound; the real world and Andy’s own private world. Over the course of the film, the two worlds intermingle to create a very surreal and immersive soundscape. We had a lot of fun playing with Andrew’s headphones and allowing the audience to hear what he hears.
For example, in one scene Andrew sits on set tuning in and out of different crew conversations. As we the audience hear the conversations that he is listening to - we begin to get an idea for what Andrew is actually looking for: content that could ruin careers. As our protagonist Andrew has a strange affinity for sound, we also decided to incorporate ASMR elements into the track that give us a bit of insight into his psyche. We wanted the music to feel very much a part of the soundscape, rather than something entirely different. Our composer Jack Davis used electronic elements that suited the idea of media and technology, merging them nicely with the existing sounds in the film.
The RecordistScreening as part of Shorts Program 5: Over My Dead Shorts
Screening links available until Oct. 29 at www.austinfilmfestivalconference2020.eventive.org.