Honor Roll

Behind the new stunner of a short from Austin film mainstay Steve Mims

Steve Mims (l) and Reid Nelson at the UT RTF production facility
Steve Mims (l) and Reid Nelson at the UT RTF production facility (Photo by John Anderson)

"I'm so amazed by it. We were able to use all these nice 35-millimeter lenses. It's easy, it's fun, and that's the quiet revolution that's happening in terms of film right now. Everybody's using those things to make their movies."

That's Austin filmmaker and University of Texas Radio-Television-Film mainstay Steve Mims geeking out over the new Canon EOS 7D, a digital still camera that he used to shoot roughly 50% of his short film "Honorarium," which screens as part of the Austin Jewish Film Festival (running April 10-16). The enthusiasm is warranted: "Honorarium" is 12½ minutes of crisp, tight, gorgeously black-and-white filmmaking supported by a flawless, socially relevant story. The fact that Mims shot half of it over the course of just over two days with a relatively low-cost Canon 35mm still camera (the other half was captured using a Sony EX-1) is something of a revelation, and one we'll get back to in a moment, but first, what's the story behind "Honorarium"?

"About a year ago, Reid [Nelson, Mims' friend and "Honorarium" actor/co-writer/producer] and I were talking about making a film," explains the director. "To me, a short film is where you take an idea that you could never make into a feature and you exploit it totally within a few minutes. And so the initial idea for the film started with the experience of being picked up at the airport, or picking someone else up at the airport that you don't know. That's always a mildly uncomfortable experience, and it's one that I've had before. You don't know what to say to them; you can be preoccupied and come off as a jerk; it's just odd. And that was really interesting to us because it's somewhat universal for people, and then we just sort of built the story up from there."

Without giving too much away, "Honorarium" tells the story of the brief but ominously eventful interaction between Philip Holbrook (played by Nelson), a controversial public speaker arriving from out of town, and his possibly sympathetic driver/minder, Anne Bowers (Ringo Deathstarr bassist Alex Gehring). It's an intense 12-plus minutes that ultimately has the slightly off-kilter tone and feel of some of the best of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone episodes, excising the supernatural in favor of subtle social commentary.

"We were trying to be very realistic," continues Mims, "and so the story evolved into the idea of having this figure be an academic speaker. Even from the first shot in the film, you don't know what's wrong with this person, but you can tell that there's something off, there's something not right about this guy. We tried to design it very carefully, like a Hitchcock film, where you get that first image in that first moment and then, piece by piece, you get a little bit more information without being given everything until you need to know it.

"We intentionally wanted people to wonder how severe the outcome is going to be," Mims continues. "There are indications, from the music and the way it's structured, that this could turn into a very dark film, even darker than it is."

"The film is very subtle," adds Nelson. "I think we've played with the short film for a little bit, in that we didn't want to go for the huge reveal or a huge gotcha payoff at the end, and that's kind of the traditional short story/short film way. It's a film that you have to maybe see more than once to have all its subtleties work on you, I think."

It's also remarkable in that it's Reid, Gehring, and actor Alex Sole's first time in front of the camera. All are excellent, evincing a skewed sort of reality that is the film's hallmark, but Sole, who plays a character we do not meet until the end of the film, is particularly astonishing in one key aspect: He's 95 years old.

"He's never acted a day in his life," laughs Mims, "and he's tack-sharp, too. We shot him first, too, when we found out how old he was."

"He bags groceries up at the H-E-B on Far West, if you can believe it," adds a clearly tickled Nelson. "We had started casting for this character through the Jewish Community Center, but it wasn't quite right, and eventually a friend of mine tipped me off to Alex, who agreed to do the part. Steve hadn't seen him at that point, and I was like: 'You're not going to believe what we just lucked into! This guy is perfect.' And he is."

All in all, it's a stunner of a short, and, getting back to the tech side of things, a first for Mims, who can't contain his excitement about having crafted such a gem partly via the "quiet revolution" of a Canon still camera.

"People thought the Red camera was going to be the next big thing, but there have been technical issues with it ever since it came out. People still love it, and I've seen several great films shot on a Red, but the deal is that they've sort of been leapfrogged by the Canon EOS 7D, which with a lens is, like, a $1,700 camera. And now Canon's come out with a digital Rebel 550 that's $700 that does what the EOS 7D did for us back when we shot "Honorarium" back in October. You get the nice 35-millimeter depth of field and all these different lenses to choose from.

"It's more like when I was a little kid making my own films. Part of what I've always enjoyed about it was not having to have this big, unwieldy machine and a lot of people. These chips now in the cameras are so sensitive that you no longer have to have a big grip truck to capture great lighting. You know, it's a very exciting time to be a filmmaker."

"Honorarium" screens at the Arbor Cinema @ Great Hills as part of the Austin Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday, April 13, noon; Wednesday, April 14, 7pm; and Thursday, April 15, noon.

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Steve Mims, Honorarium, Reid Nelson, Austin Jewish Film Festival, AJFF, Alex Gehring, Alex Sole

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