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The Filmmakers of Tomorrow: Meet the Rising Stars of NFFTY 2016

Spark Public

The Filmmakers of Tomorrow: Meet the Rising Stars of NFFTY 2016

May 2, 2016

An emerging generation of the most talented young directors from all around the world descended on Seattle last week for the 10th annual National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY). Big, beautiful and brimming with hundreds of incredible films, this year’s festival was nothing short of spectacular, convening a new wave of future auteurs for a four-day-long gauntlet of screenings, networking events, panel discussions, contests and par-tays!

If you missed out on the festivities, don't despair! We offer as consolation our “ones to watch” handicapper’s guide to some of the most unique and brilliant filmmakers whose works were part of this year’s stunning NFFTY showcase.

In this collection of red carpet conversations — about loving movies, about making movies, and about … feeding Danny Elfman — you’ll meet gifted youth ranging in age from 9 to 25, filmmakers whose films will be flooding theater screens in the years to come. .

Featured image credit: NFFTY / flickr


Laura Holliday on the red carpet.

Age: 23
Origins: Laura is from West Virginia. She has been living in Los Angeles, Calif., since 2012.
Film: Persephone Goes Home
Category: This short screened as an opening night film at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Five-year Festival Veteran

Trailer for Persephone Goes Home

A Conversation About Film, Inspiration and Cats

So, what is your film about?
This film is a dry, satirical comedy about a young girl named Persephone, who goes away to college. She’s from a small town where most people don’t go away to college. She thinks that she can come back, and, now that she has this degree, all of her problems will be solved. Eventually, Persephone realizes that college didn’t magically make her an adult; it didn’t magically fix everything in her life.

What are some of your inspirations?
I love Christopher Guest; he directed Best in Show. He does super, super dry comedy so well. What else? I make a lot of sketch comedy, too. I just did some sketches for Funny or Die. Mockumentaries are the bomb. I also love Little Miss Sunshine. I like real, situational comedy that’s grounded in reality.

What advice do you have for other young filmmakers?
I feel like this seems like it’s too obvious, but it’s actually not: Just keep making things. You have to constantly be making things. I feel like you have to just always be putting out your ideas when you have them, and always be putting them online, because even if you think something is terrible, you really don’t know; people might like it. It’s always worth taking a chance on it. Just value your own ideas; don’t be afraid to make them. Don’t be afraid to just pick up your camera and do it, or just write it. Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait for anybody to give you permission to make things.

If your film was an animal, what animal would it be?
I think it would be a really, really old housecat. Like the housecat you grew up with, but then you come home to it, and you’re like “You’re still alive, Tiger?!?!”, and he’s like, “meeeyyyghggguughow”.


Joe Staehly on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 22
Origins: Joe is from North Carolina. He currently resides in Philadelphia, Penn.
Film: Looking Down
Category: This short screened as an opening night film at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: First-year Rookie

Joe Staehly's 2015 film reel

A Conversation About Film, Shooting on Location and Bowling

Tell us a little bit about your film.
It’s about a young girl named Riley, who has to make a decision; based on what she decides, her life will go in two different directions, and you see both of those ways pan out.

In one scene of Looking Down, the main character appears to be exploring an Arctic-type environment. How, and where, did you film that scene?
Joe: That was shot in Minnesota. We spent about seven days there to get 20 seconds of footage.
Paris: Efficient.
Joe: Yeah… yeah, it was awful. We researched all these different places; the location that we chose was an ice cave called Minnehaha. We just kind of went all over the place for seven days. And then we just cut it together real fast.
Paris: Where else did you shoot this film?
Joe: We also shot in L.A. We researched a lot of events to fake more worldly experiences; like, we recreated Mexico, by shooting a kind of Cinco de Mayo parade in L.A.

Do you have any advice for other young filmmakers?
My biggest piece of advice is just to keep making things. Whether you think it’s good or not, just keep doing it. With every project, you will get better. That’s the only way I learn. I always try to make sure that my next project is better than the one before it, because I always want to be improving.

What films or filmmakers have had the biggest influence on your filmmaking style?
I love Shutter Island; that’s one of my favorite movies. I love twists, and I think that kind of aligns with my style.

If you could go bowling with any celebrity, who would it be?
Joe: Hmm… I feel like Will Smith would be a fun guy to bowl with.
Paris: Would you bowl with the bumpers on?
Joe: No… but Will might use bumpers, because he wouldn’t want to embarrass himself in front of me.


Tim Hendrix on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 24
Origins: Tim is from Texas. He currently resides in Los Angeles, Calif.
Film: Skylar Spence – Can’t You See
Category: : This music video was part of the Afternoon Eclectic screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Veteran

Skylar Spence – Can’t You See

A Conversation About Film, Music and Hugs

Tell us about your music video.
This video is about a socially awkward man who has the hots for a socially awkward woman. He pictures this dream version of himself that goes after her and always wins her … and then the fantasies end and he’s back to being awkward. One day, in an extremely Freudian twist, his alter-ego becomes real and chases after her. So he must fight down his ideal self to win his dream girl back.

What was the most challenging part of making this video?
Everything … Well, I work as a visual-effects artist, and I did all of my own visual effects on this, but I’m an extremely poor person that works on music videos … so I was actually working on a six-year-old ancient laptop. That was probably the single biggest challenge, but there were many, because the budget was very low and I wanted to do all of the things.

What are some of your favorite films?
The Social Network. Also Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World; that’s probably the movie that people most associate with my work, because there’s a lot of fourth-wall-breaking action and bright colors … and text … and things.

If you could spend an afternoon with Michael Cera, what would you guys do together?
I would just hug him and tell him that everything is going to be alright. I don’t know if he always feels that way. I just hope he knows he’s doing alright for himself.


Diego Lozano on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 21
Origins: Diego is from Monterrey, Mexico. He currently lives in Austin, Tex.
Film: RNAtheMESSENGER – American Dreams
Category: : This music video was part of the Musical Masterpiece screening at NFFTY 2016.

RNAtheMESSENGER – American Dreams

A Conversation About Film, Cinematography and Bears

What is your music video about?
The song is about addiction. This is a narrative music video.; almost completely like a short film. It has a certain rhythm to it, but it also contains a narrative about people with addictions and how we can overcome it. This is a video about love and addiction, and how they intersect.

How old were you when you first started making films?
I got into filmmaking when I was about 12. I started making stop-motion and animations that didn’t make any sense. Then, right after high school I decided I was tired of being a kid, and that I wanted to grow up, and that I wanted to make movies.

Which filmmakers have had the biggest impact on you as a director?
Because I direct music videos, I’m more of a visual director. I would definitely cite Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a huge influence for me, because of his dramatic style and his handheld work. Darren Aronofsky, I’m a huge fan of. I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, for his use of elements; things like rain and fire translate very well into a music video, which is a visual medium. I’m also a huge fan of a cinematographer called Vittorio Storaro, who has done amazing films, such as The Last Emperor, which is one of my favorite movies. His use of color and his use of tone and texture is amazing, and it just invigorates me more.

If you had an opportunity to sit down and have a chat with the bear from The Revenant, what would you say to it?
I would first thank the director for being bold, for being Mexican, for having a visceral perspective on mankind, and for bringing nature and such a raw emotional battle to the audience. I appreciate the director’s ability to take us back to basics, bringing us to another era, and showing us how we relate to nature, and how we’re ultimately affected by it; I think that’s beautiful. I would tell the bear, “Thank you for taking me back to my roots, and letting me explore my animal side”.


Diego Lozano on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 19
Origins: Kayla is from Southern California.
Film: Smoke That Travels
Category: This documentary was part of the Around the World in 10 Films screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Two-year Veteran

Trailer for Smoke That Travels

A Conversation About Film, Culture and Nightmares

What is your film about?
It is a short, personal documentary that I made about Native American culture, and some of the fears that I had growing up about the tradition and the language being lost. I just wanted to capture their color and the music and some of the songs and the dances that I grew up around when I was little.

Are there any films or filmmakers that have had a major influence on your filmmaking style?
I have to say that Adam McArthur is one of my biggest inspirations. He’s really shaped a lot of my philosophies on life, and philosophies on rap and music. He’s really skilled, and I’m incredibly humbled to be his friend.

[NOTE: Adam McArthur is a fellow NFFTY filmmaker. Kayla and Adam became friends when they met at NFFTY in a previous year. Adam also just so happened to be standing right next to Kayla during her entire interview.]

Tell me something that most people don’t know about you.
Kayla: Hmm … Let’s see … Most of my dreams are nightmares. Brutal nightmares.
Paris: Okay! That’s why I love that question. You never know what you’re going to get. What about you, Adam?
Adam: Uhh … I don’t know … I really like sushi.
Paris: Yeah, it’s hard to follow her answer.
Adam: Yeah.


Adam McArthur on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 20
Origins: Adam was born and raised in Seattle, Wash.
Film:Ivan B – Walk With Me
Category: This music video was part of the Musical Masterpiece screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Six-year Veteran

Ivan B – Walk with Me

A Conversation About Film, Rap and Smurfs

What can you tell us about your music video?
The song featured in the video is by an artist from Southern California named Ivan B. He’s a 19-year-old rapper who is pretty popular for his age. I liked his music, so I just reached out to him and we made a no-budget music video, just for fun. We did a lot of experimental stuff with it, and just had a lot of fun.

Which filmmaker inspires you the most?
Adam: This is awkward, because Kayla cited me as her inspiration … but I was going to say that she was mine.
Paris: So now you’re going to go with Adam Sandler.
Adam: Yeah, or maybe The Smurfs 2. Yeah, I’m really inspired by The Smurfs 2.
Paris: Good choice. Sorry, Kayla.


Jordan Rosenbloom on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 21
Origins: Jordan is from Ottawa, Canada. He currently attends NYU.
Film: Grey Space
Category: This film was part of the Art in Motion screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: First-year Rookie

A Conversation About Film, Passion and Lack of Sleep

What is your film about?
Grey Space follows an insomniac who enters an abstract world where he reconnects with his deceased wife; it uses changing color schemes and a very non-linear structure to showcase his mindset in his sleep-deprived state. We shot it on both film and digital for different sequences, and it was just such a great experience working on it. It was mainly a study on a character who is lonely and who doesn’t put himself out there to the world; when he is lured into this abstract space, he’s forced to deal with memories that maybe he’s repressed for too long.

Do you have any advice for other young filmmakers?
I think what separates those who will make it and those who won’t is passion, drive and ambition; all of those things are so important, but I think passion is the biggest thing. You have to love staying up until 3:00 a.m. editing; you have to love the crappiness of pre-production. I think it’s also the difference between loving to make movies and just loving movies. Everyone loves movies, but you have to want to make them. You just have to love the process, or else you’re not going to make it.

What drew you to NFFTY?
I know people who have gone to the festival, so after I heard about NFFTY through friends I submitted my film. It was so exciting, because this was the first major festival that my film was accepted into. It’s a great chance to meet other filmmakers and like-minded people. It’s just such an incredible opportunity, and an opportunity to visit Seattle.


Kira Bursky on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 20
Origins: Kira is based out of Asheville, North Carolina
Film: Really Looking, Treehugger, Fix You
Category: Really Looking was part of the Art in Motion screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Three-year Veteran

Trailer for Really Looking

A Conversation About Film, Danny Elfman and Feeding Danny Elfman

Tell us a little bit about… well, ALL of the films that you have at this year’s festival.
Oh, wow. Okay, let’s see … Really Looking is about this installation artist who is struggling to find the missing piece to her newest installation room. She’s trying to capture the essence of love; she is creating the room within a world in her mind. So the story is trying to figure out what is missing: “Why is this installation not working?”

Treehugger is about a freshman in high school, and she has a crush on a senior boy. She thinks that she needs romance for her life to be more magical, and she ends up getting involved with him, but he ends up taking advantage of her. All throughout the story she has a fantasy world in her mind, and as her reality darkens, her inner world starts to darken as well.

Fix You is a film that I co-directed. It is an experimental film that is playing in the “Works in Progress” screening, so it is currently unfinished. It is about media’s effect on girls’ perceptions of themselves, in terms of who they should be with, and how they should look and act; so it’s exploring that.

Which filmmakers have inspired you the most?
I love Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillermo Del Toro. If a filmmaker can create a world, and it’s quirky and whimsical and fantastical, then I love it. I just love anything that brings you somewhere you can’t be in reality; that has magic.

If you could spend an afternoon with any celebrity, who would it be?
That’s really hard! There are so many people! I’m just going to say one: Danny Elfman. He’s a composer who has worked with Tim Burton on most of his films. The Nightmare Before Christmas is wonderful; he did all of the music for that film and he did the singing voice of Jack Skellington. I draw so much inspiration from all of his musical creations. I would just love to talk to him.

If you were to have lunch with Danny Elfman, and you got to order his food, what would you order for him?
Oh, my gosh! I would probably order him some really, really high-quality chocolate. Hopefully to soften him up, you know. “Here’s some chocolate. Be my friend”. It would be some really special chocolate. We’re talking hazelnut and raspberry and salt; I don’t know … the works.


Christine Stronegger on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 25
Origins: Christine is from Norway. She currently lives and works in New York.
Film: Wanderlust
Category: This film was part of the Femme Friday screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Two-year Veteran

Trailer for Wanderlust

A Conversation About Film, Travel and Sandwiches

What’s your film about?
Wanderlust is a road trip short about two strangers meeting in the middle of nowhere. This guy, Jack, is travelling around the world, and he’s trying to get to Norway. On his way, he starts to hitchhike, and he gets a ride with this girl who is running away. So it’s about this meeting between two strangers and their connection; a moment in time.

What advice might you have for other young filmmakers?
Just make as many films as you can. Get a lot of on-set experience; that was my biggest tool, to learn how other filmmakers work. Learn by doing.

What films do you draw on for inspiration?
For this particular film, I was heavily influenced by Lost in Translation and Into the Wild. A lot of female directors are big influences on me as a filmmaker, such as Susanne Bier; she won an Academy Award for In a Better World. Sofia Coppola, of course, is another major influence for me.

What’s next for you?
Actually, I’m currently working on a feature-length screenplay that will be set in Norway.

If your film was a food, what food would it be?
If my film was a food… it would be a sandwich. It would be a turkey sandwich. Mostly because there is a scene with a turkey sandwich in my movie. I also feel like a sandwich is a perfect road trip snack.


Joe Carter on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 20
Origins: Joe is from the San Francisco Bay area. He attends Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Film: Goofinger
Category: This film was part of the Happy Hour Shorts screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Two-year Veteran

A Conversation About Film, Suspense and Trees

Tell us about your film.
Goofinger is an eight-minute suspense-comedy; we’re coining that term. In the first 30 seconds, we are put into a very, very intense feeling that gets carried throughout the entire film, from beginning to end. Along the way – while you’re biting your fingernails – you also, hopefully, give a chuckle or two. It’s giving you this kind of tension and relief at the same time, that we hope will please our audiences.

You are joined today by the star of your film, Andre Szarmach. How does it feel to be on the red carpet together right now?
Joe: Pretty great! You know, this is Andre’s first time travelling out of the Bay area.
Paris: Wow! Welcome!
Joe: Funny enough, when I came to NFFTY two years ago, that was my first time travelling too. So I’m kind of his guide, his mentor through this new experience.
Paris: His Sherpa.
Joe: Exactly.
Paris: Andre, what do you like most about Seattle so far?
Andre: Honestly, the trees.
Joe: He loves the architecture.
Paris: I think Joe just corrected you, Andre. You said a thing, it’s the wrong thing; you actually like buildings.
Joe: [laughs] I only say that because he’s been talking nonstop about the architecture. He hasn’t said one thing about trees all day. I think he gave a half-assed answer.
Andre: I said one thing about trees.
Joe: There it is. One thing about trees. But, go ahead.
Andre: Yeah, the architecture and the trees. It’s just a completely different aesthetic than what I’m used to; it’s just wonderful!

Are there any trees in this movie?
Andre: Nope. It all takes place in a dinky little trailer.
Paris: How did that make you feel, not having any trees in the film?
Andre: It didn’t feel good, man … It was like 113 degrees in that thing.
Joe: He was burning up! Our co-star in the film was wearing a Batman onesie, and he was heated up!
Paris: So you tried to kill all of your actors.
Joe: Yes! In fact, if you watch the film, just watch as they sweat; you see it! They are just dripping throughout the whole piece. Godspeed. They did it. Two months of rehearsal and dedication. Thanks to good acting, I got to make the best film I possibly could. This man is a professional. I really appreciate him.

If you could hang out with one celebrity, who would it be, and what would you do?
Joe: Steven Spielberg. I’d take him out to coffee.
Paris: If you could order anything for Steven at a coffee shop, what would you get him?
Joe: At that point, I’d get him a car. I’d put down all of my money and buy Steven Spielberg a car, because I love him so much. I’d treat him right.
Paris: What about you, Andre?
Andre: I’d hang out with Chris Pratt.
Paris: Good choice! He’s from Washington!
Andre: Of all the famous people, he has my favorite origin story. He went from being homeless in Hawaii one day to being a movie star in an instant. He went from zero to hero, just from being himself; from being a nice, funny guy. He’s an inspiration.
Paris: What activity would you do with Chris Pratt?
Andre: I would just walk around the city and be obnoxious with him. It would be a great time.


Celia Jensen (left) and Annabelle Pugh (right) on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 9
Origins: Celia is from the Seattle area.
Film: The Secret Life of a Gum Wall
Category: This film was part of the Northwest Is Best screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Two-year Veteran

A Conversation About Film, Friends and Gum

Can you please tell us a little about your film?
The gum wall was going to go down, and I didn’t know what to do about it… so I turned it into a movie.

You're joined tonight by your friend Annabelle. How does it feel to have your friend here with you?
Celia: … Good.
Paris: Annabelle, how does it feel to be on the red carpet supporting your friend’s film?
Annabelle: It’s a new experience. It’s interesting; I like it!

You were here two years ago with your first film. How does it feel to be back at NFFTY again?
It feels the same … but different.

If your movie was an animal, what animal would it be?
I think it would be something exotic, because the fruity flavors in the gum can be exotic; maybe a cheetah.

What advice would you have for other young filmmakers?
Just do what you can, and don’t try to overdo it.


Hadley Hillel on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 20
Origins: Hadley is from Seattle. He currently attends Chapman University.
Film: Ernie, Reincarnation, Inc.
Category: Ernie was part of the Cinematic Journey screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Veteran

Trailer for Ernie

A Conversation About Film, Cardboard, and Cookies

You have two films at the festival this year. What are your films about?
Ernie is about an old man whose suicide attempt goes awry; it ends up ripping a hole in the ceiling of his apartment. As a result, he befriends a young boy who lives in the apartment above his.

Reincarnation, Inc. is about a man who gets hit by an ice cream truck and then he finds himself in the office that all living things are sent to after they die, and he’s told that he’s going to be a cockroach in his next life. He’s then told that he has three minutes to appeal his case to his rebirth broker.

Ernie features a unique visual aesthetic. The set design is comprised almost entirely of cardboard-made items and furniture. Why did you choose this aesthetic?
The film actually originally started out as a Claymation, because I wanted it all to be very surreal. I realized very quickly that I’m not talented at doing clay artwork with my hands so I started thinking about ways in which I could take advantage of my strengths while still putting a surreal twist on the story. So I thought, “Maybe I can use real actors, whom I can direct, and then have the background feel more surreal by using cardboard.” Cardboard was also the cheapest material available so that was a factor, too.

The end credits of your film feature a long list of “Cardboard Artists.” How did you recruit all of these artists, and were they skilled cardboard craftsmen before working on your set?
[laughs] They had to learn on the job. The crew was a mix of people: friends, family and anyone who I could beg to come and help out for the day. It was also a matter of people just bringing things to me and checking to see that their pieces fit the same vision. They were all just so helpful; I never could have made this film without all of the cardboard artists who showed up. We had to build so much stuff. I don’t know what the final count is, but we probably made over 50 or 60 cardboard props from scratch.

What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced while filming?
I think, in terms of logistical challenges, it was definitely just building the set for Ernie. It was a two-week period where we just had time at the end of each day to build the set, and we actually didn’t finish, and so we were building at night; every time we stopped filming, people would go in to start building overnight. People were even building between takes … it was ridiculous. As far as a more conceptual challenge, I think it was just trying to figure out the tone of Ernie; trying to establish how to make it funny and dark, but not too dark for being in a cardboard world, and how to make that all come together, because it so easily could have gone really wrong.

What advice do you have for other young filmmakers?
Everyone says this, but I think it’s true: Just make movies early; just pick up a camera and do it. For me, it was just about getting those 25 bad movies out of the way, and I just happened to be lucky enough to get those out of the way before people saw them [laughs, as actual ambulance sirens begin to blare].

Here’s the big question: If ‘Ernie’ was a dessert, what dessert would it be?
Oh my God … I need to take a second here to think about that one. Let’s see, the texture is important. Probably some kind of cookie; maybe something a little stale … like a stale s’more. Yeah, like a nice, stale s’more that someone forgot about by the campfire; so it is singed a little bit, but it’s still good.


Kit Zauhar on the NFFTY red carpet.

Age: 20
Origins: Kit is from Philadelphia, Penn. She currently attends NYU.
Film: Helicopter
Category: This film was part of the Guide to Growing Up screening at NFFTY 2016.
NFFTY Experience: Rookie

A Conversation About Film, Loneliness and Parking Tickets

What is Helicopter about?
A lonely young girl strikes up a conversation with a boy in the college library; the two find solace in one another.

Your film really touches on the human condition in a very personal way. What were some of your influences for this film?
I’ve always been interested in this idea of being lonely when surrounded by a bunch of people; it has definitely been exacerbated by the internet, and everyone always having their phones out. My two main literary inspirations were Taipei, by Tao Lin, and Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld; those are just my inspirations for all things.

What were some of your biggest challenges when making your film?
I don’t know if this is the answer you’re looking for, but this truly was a big challenge for us: Within the first day, we amassed five parking tickets, which ate up about a quarter of the film’s total budget. We ended up having to use my dining plan meal swipes to buy day-old sushi for the cast and crew. So, I guess my main piece of advice for young filmmakers is: Drive safe.

Are there any films or filmmakers that have had a significant impact on you?
Ruben Östlund, director of Force Majeure. He does a great job of taking these finite moments that really define people, and then he expands these moments to great levels of drama; also, Richard Linklater, early Sofia Coppola and Darren Aronofsky.

If your movie was a food, what food would it be?
You know how at gourmet restaurants they have a fridge of pre-packaged foods? It would be one of those, because it costs less mone y… and it may take you a second to warm it up, but the quality is just as good. Once you eat it, it’s comforting, with unusual flavors; like “Oh, there’s a little bit of papaya in this. I wasn’t expecting that.” Yum. Yeah, like a frozen Pad Thai dish.