"Skunk," a 16-minute dramatic narrative written and produced entirely by The University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-Television-Film students, won first place in the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation program.
The Cinéfondation Selection consisted of 16 student films, chosen out of 1,631 entries coming from 457 film schools around the world.
The film also screened at the Department's fourth annual Wofford Denius Longhorn Showcase on April 27.
Written/directed by Annie Silverstein (Radio-Television-Film MFA, '13) and produced by Monique Walton (Radio-Television-Film MFA, '13), "Skunk" tells the story of 14-year-old Leila, whose pit bull kills a skunk. She then meets the neighborhood boy Marco, forming an unlikely bond until things begin to spin out of control. Leila is then forced to protect what she loves most at the cost of her own innocence.
The film was crewed entirely by UT Austin students and graduates, including co-producers Evan Roberts (a Radio-Television-Film graduate student) and Sarah Brennan Kolb (Radio-Television-Film BS '13), director of photography Nathan Duncan (a Radio-Television-Film graduate student) and executive producer Laurent Tran (Engineering BS '98).
"We feel incredibly honored that our film was selected by the Cinéfondation," Silverstein said. "It's a wonderful program, with a long history of supporting emerging filmmakers from around the world. And we feel so grateful to the Moody College of Communication's Department of Radio-Television-Film for their help, support, and generosity at every stage of the production."
Silverstein began writing the film in 2012, and worked to refine the script with classmates in Assistant Professor P.J. Raval's thesis workshop course. The team began pre-production and casting in the fall of 2012, shot the film during a Texas heat wave in the summer of 2013 and edited the film in the fall of 2013.
"The ambitious nature of trying to work with non-actor kids and rescued dogs, in 103-degree heat, posed many challenges!" Silverstein said. "It's a true testament to the strength of our crew and cast that we got through it. We were lucky to have such a committed and talented team."
In addition to awarding "Skunk" first place in the Cinéfondation program, Cannes accepted the following Radio-Television-Film student-produced shorts for its Short Film Corner: "The Visit," co-directed by graduate students Jing Yang and Mariam Aziz; "Inherit the Truth," by senior Christopher Casanova and junior Mike Quinn. The Short Film Corner offered a place for short film producers and directors to present their films and network.
Q.: What inspired you to create this film?
Silverstein: Before coming to graduate school in film I was a youth worker for 10 years in rural Washington. My students were Native American, lived on secluded reservations, and many perceived themselves as outsiders. While we mainly made documentaries together, sometimes we would fictionalize experiences from their lives that were too personal to discuss openly.
Fictionalizing these stories made it possible for us to tell them. This stuck with me and I became interested in writing and making films based on real people and real communities, drawing on my documentary experience to inform the storytelling approach. Also, I just enjoy working with young people and the creative energy that comes from these collaborations.
I've always been attracted to telling what I think of as "outer circle stories." I'm interested in people and places that aren't often reflected in mainstream media and I'm drawn to the more subtle dramas in life. These are the stories that compelled me to make films: themes about being an outsider, intersections around race and class, coming of age, humor in hurt and hope amidst struggle.
Q.: You took an interesting approach to finding actors. What inspired you to work with youth who had little or no experience?
Silverstein: I was looking for naturalistic performances, and for this particular project I wanted to work with youth who could bring their own life experiences to the film. I also noticed during my time as a youth worker that kids who are regarded as troublemakers, and those who have a hard time in traditional school settings, are often very artistic, and have a natural ability to perform. So we did a lot of outreach in youth groups and schools in order to connect with young people from all kinds of backgrounds, even if they didn't see themselves as actors.
Q.: What do you hope people take away from the film?
Silverstein: Teenage years are messy. Especially for girls. They put themselves in risky situations with boys and men, because there is such a strong desire to be desirable. I think this tendency has a ripple effect and can put others at risk too. My hope is to create something that feels truthful. I would love for people to feel like they just watched an honest, engaging story.
Q.: How are you preparing for the Cannes Film Festival?
Silverstein: I'm working on developing several feature ideas to pitch while we are at Cannes. One of them is a feature version of "Skunk." In addition, we are reaching out to faculty and filmmakers from the Austin community for advice on how to make the most of this opportunity. And of course, buying some new clothes – we can't be showing up in our film school uniform consisting of ripped jeans and old hoodies.
Q.: Which Radio-Television-Film professors/classes influenced you the most and why?
Silverstein: I took Associate Professor Stuart Kelban's screenwriting class my first semester of graduate school and it made a huge impact on me. My background was in documentary and youth work and I was intimidated by fiction. Associate Professor Kelban changed the way I understood storytelling, and inspired me to write by drawing on my past life experiences versus trying to write in a voice that isn’t mine.
Associate Professor Kelban was my faculty advisor on "Skunk" and helped me immensely during the screenwriting stage, reading drafts, meeting up to discuss revisions and figuring out places to raise the stakes and trim the fat.
Associate Professor Andrew Shea gave me the tools to direct! His classes were eye opening and he's been a huge influence in my directing approach: never forget the heart of the story during production, dig for raw emotion, believable performances and do whatever it takes (while keeping the safety and well-being of your crew and cast in the forefront of your mind.) Associate Professor Shea was incredibly helpful throughout my thesis production, discussing the script, thinking ahead to production challenges, watching cuts and giving directing advice.
Assistant Professor PJ Raval offered a great deal of support in conceptualizing the look of my films at UT Austin, and has offered endless advice and incredibly useful production know-how. Professors Paul Stekler, Andrew Garrison and Charles Ramírez-Berg served on my advisory board and were an incredible support, reading drafts of the script and offering their perspective and on-going encouragement.
Walton: Professor Nancy Schiesari was an invaluable mentor throughout this process for me. I produced four student films in 2013 including "Skunk" and my own thesis ("We Will Always Be Here") and Professor Schiesari always provided insight as to how to maintain a balance personally and professionally. Professor Paul Stekler was also a great resource – not only did he help out on "Skunk" by coming to set and PA-ing for us, he also offered tons of feedback on my own thesis when I needed it the most – during the editing!