Short of the Week

Suburbia

An ordinary day in suburbia is shattered by the unexpected. Based on true events.

Antonio Orena-Barlin’s Suburbia opens on a close-up of flowers, but don’t let those pristine petals fool you — they’re false signifiers, images of thriving life that will soon be juxtaposed by the horror of neighborhood violence. Unfortunately, we live in a time where extreme acts of violence populate our news media — here in the U.S., the past week alone sadly brought (another) school shooter and crazed cop-killers. It happens so often that we’ve become desensitized; we live with the shock, but don’t often feel it. In Suburbia – a film that boasts a remarkably impressive 12-minute continuous take — Orena-Barlin turns personal trauma into a visceral and haunting viewing experience.

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

There’s simply no good way to discuss the whys and hows behind the film’s success without going into spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned.

Joel (Don Hany) arrives at a flower shop to pick up his girlfriend Tara (Jodi Gordon) from her first day of work. As he watches her from the doorway, a car screeches by offscreen, headed somewhere in a hurry (a seed well-planted early by Orena-Barlin). He leads Tara along the sidewalk towards their car, thinking nothing of the speeding vehicle. But then, off in the distance, a sound. A gunshot? “Did you hear that?” he asks. She didn’t. Telling her that he’ll be right back, Joel sets out in the direction of the sound, and so begins the slow-burn descent into unrelenting dread.

“There was a random shooting in the street that I lived on,” Orena-Barlin said. “I found myself in the middle of it in the same way that [Joel] does in the film…Being exposed to such random violence on your own street, getting so close to being shot myself, and witnessing someone die in front of me was something that left an indelible impression for decades.” For years, Orena-Barlin attempted to tell the story of that horrific day in the form of a documentary, but when the original intention got lost in the process, he abandoned it, only to decide years later that it was best suited in a fictional environment. But believe it or not, the real event was even more horrifying:

“[In real life], eight people were shot and the shooter was a Satan worshiper who had carved the numbers ’666′ into the back of his hands with a razor blade just before the shooting.” Orena-Barlin smartly decided to ignore those sensationalist aspects of the story, focusing instead on the victims and the mystery of the unknown. As Hitchcock famously said, “There is no suspense in the gunshot — only in the anticipation.” We never see the killer/s, and there’s not a single act of violence depicted onscreen, which further proves — much like the infamous “ear scene” from Reservoir Dogs – that sometimes the most terrifying image possible is what one’s mind can conjure.

So what about that twelve-minute take? Well, it’s a show-stopper, but in a much more subtle and nuanced way than other “oners” (like the one we featured earlier this week), made even more impressive when you learn that the crew did not have full control over the street where they were filming (the first two takes were ruined by unwanted “extras” wandering into the frame). After literally months of preparation — utilizing Google Maps to plot out a “course” for both the actors and the crew — the day of shooting arrived…and Don Hany’s flight was delayed, keeping him from set until 10:30 AM on the one-and-only shoot day. “The pressure on all the crew was enormous; one small slip from Don would mean that the we would have to reset the entire take…we also couldn’t ride the exposure, as DP Lachlan Milne needed to set an exposure that would work for the entire 12-minute shot across varying lighting conditions.”

With daylight waning and two attempts at the shot lost, Orena-Barlin had to make a decision. “Several people tried to talk me into breaking the shot up into sections so that we could at least get it in the can, but we all persevered with the original vision…it was pretty stressful thinking about telling my wife that the tens of thousands of dollars we’d spent on that single day of shooting would result in nothing but several unusable takes.” On the third and final take, with the sun setting on the horizon, the cast and crew nailed it, and that third take is what you see in the finished film.

The single take works so well because (like the climactic battle scene in Children of Men), we’re experiencing the event right alongside the protagonist — at times swapping out the medium shot for Joel’s POV, putting the audience directly into his head, letting our “eyes” wander over the surroundings in search of clues. With each rapport of gunfire, we become that much more uneasy and unsure, wondering (just like Joel) what could be hiding behind the next apartment building or parked car. It’s a tour-de-force of realism not often seen in shorts (helped immensely by a stunning Steadicam Op/DP team and a terrific, believable lead actor); just look at the confidence in tone and pacing when the camera slowly pulls back and holds on a wide shot as the ambulance arrives for the dying florist — only to once again push back in for a close-up of Joel’s anguished face.

Orena-Barlin and his company Rotor Studios are currently at work on an “edgy feature product” that will expand on the ideas brought forth in Suburbia — a combination of Children of Men and I, Robot, he says. After Suburbia, he certainly has our attention. Make sure to keep up with all of Orena-Barlin’s projects on his website or Facebook page.

~
Ben is a San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker originally from the Southeast. Editor/Colorist [benwatts.net] | Writer/Director [Odd Soul Pictures]
  • bob the moo

    I think the most impressive thing about the film is that I was so gripped by it that I didn’t even notice it was one continuous take….just like you don’t notice you’re breathing till you think about it.
    That put the viewer right in the middle of that scenes – excellently done stuff.

  • Glenn

    Still as good as when I saw it a few years ago. Finally glad it’s up online!!

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Hey bob (the moo), It’s Antonio here (director) really glad that you got that sense of immersion we were aiming for – thanks for taking the time to comment. Cheers, Antonio

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Cheers Glenn!

  • kung_fuelvis

    Fascinating to hear the journey of this film – from real life experience – to documentary – to fiction, glad the story got told in the end. Great review Ben.

  • Nick

    I wanted him to go around the corner and see exactly what was happening, but at the same time I wanted him to get outta dodge. Pretty cool stuff. And of course, the one take is stunning.

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    That’s great Nick, glad you felt that way. I still want him to go around the corner too, it’s still a little frustrating ;) We did look at him going around the corner and up into an apartment where some of the off screen ‘action’ was happening but the film was getting too stretched for time and so was the budget! Thanks for commenting.

  • http://sofusrose.com Darkfire9825

    This was 12 minutes of pure, captivating tension. Few short films are capable of that kind of immersion or tension, and this one nailed it. Personally, the sound design and composition are what stand out to me the most as making this film what it is… Great job!

    It is great to hear that a story like this was finally told – I can only imagine what letting such an experience lie untold would have been like.

  • LEMOTIF

    This short is amazing! #mindblown

  • George

    I found this via an excellent review in the German weekly paper Die Zeit and am very glad this movie gets the attention it deserves! Congratulations! Literally breathtaking!

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Thanks so much for your comment, we were lucky to have an amazing team of collaborators across all departments – we certainly spent a ridiculous amount of time designing the shot and fine tuning the sound design/composition, so it;’s gratifying that you notice all of those touches.

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Cheers LEMOTIF, psyched that you liked it so much.

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Thanks George, shortoftheweek.com and Die Zeit! We’ve had heaps of views and likes from Germany as a result. Very glad to see the film getting a wider international audience. Appreciate the feedback.

  • David Loomis

    Visceral, heart-wrenching; thanks so much to Rotor for making this and sharing it with us. It dawned on me as it was ending that it was a long take!

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Hey David, it was an absolute pleasure (and a marathon!) to make it – so glad that you got something out of it. Even better that the long take crept up on you, we didn’t want the technical difficulty of the single take to overtake the drama. Thanks for your generous comment and for taking the time to do it.

  • Daniel

    I can’t think of many times I’ve been more involved in a film than this. From the position of not really knowing what it’s about, the sense of ‘what the heck is going on here?’ that the protagonist must have felt got pushed onto me really strongly.

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Wow, thanks very much, Daniel! You’ve articulated really clearly what we were aiming for and I’m so glad it landed for you that way. Thanks for taking the time to comment : )

  • Videogrouper

    Great angles and tension! Inspirational work, thanks!

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Cheers, Grouper of the video, I’m feeling the love, thank you very much!

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Cheers, Grouper of the video, I’m feeling the love, thank you very much!

  • Matt Natoli

    I think this is an amazing film, the cinematography was brilliant, loved the continuous shot and definitely felt I was there and felt for the characters. I think this would be a great way of showing the American’s what gun laws have prevented in Australia and show them that they need to address the problem. Great Film! (also do you mind me asking what this was shot on?)

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Hey there Matt, thanks for the feedback, we shot the film on the RED ONE and Cooke lenses.

  • Nicole Jeon

    I loved this so much especially the long take! Can’t imagine how much work and effort everyone must have put into it. It really paid off though :) . Hope to see more of your work in the future!

  • sarita

    I think the news media could learn a lesson from this film—if mass people saw the horror of gun violence from this lens—instead of all the attention and sensationalism pointed at those who killed–perhaps we would be making decisions that would really save future lives. I’m sorry for the experience that led to this film and am glad you found a way so thoughtfully represent it. Abrazos—

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Hey there Nicole, thanks so much, yes it sure was a slog in pre pro and we almost didn’t have a film as the sun was going down but we got there! Comments like yours certainly help, too. All the best. A

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Sarita, thank you, apart from making a good film, that’s really the message I wanted to get out there – it’s gratifying to hear that perspective from you. Thank you very much it is appreciated. A

  • Tricia

    It was very creepy, but I found it to be pretty anti-climactic. I guess that’s real life for you.

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Yep ; )

  • Greg

    Agree wholeheartedly – been waiting a long time for this to be through the festivals and finally available online. Congratulations Antonio on the well deserved success you’ve had with Suburbia. I’ve often thought about this film which made such an impression on me when I first saw it during the selection process for the Canberra Short Film Festival a few years ago. We had a good chat back then when you dropped a screening copy off to me in Kingston and I really enjoyed hearing about the production challenges you faced particularly on location and the tight rope you were all walking that day.
    While the continuous take is impressive and adds to the unease and realism, it is Don’s performance that was etched into my memory from the first viewing and is still heart wrenchingly believable. His interaction with the dying florist and phone call are just so achingly real and make for a powerful conclusion to the eerie and and disturbing journey through the street. Linda’s performance as the dying florist is also so convincing (as was the make-up!)
    The fact that your last take was the one I think really adds to the atmosphere of the finished piece with the fading light.
    A fabulous example of talented collaborative film making, well done to you and your crew and I look forward to your future projects.
    Cheers Greg

  • Miesha Burston

    I also didn’t notice it was a one shot until I read some of the comments and had to rewatch it!
    Was wondering if anyone could answer this question, who would be the intended audience of this film? I’m writing an essay on it because I liked it so much and have to explain how techniques reach a certain audience but I can’t think of any specific audience

  • Antonio Oreña-Barlin

    Hi Greg, I just saw your reply – albeit 3 months after it was written! I remember our conversation way back when and really appreciate your extremely kind comments. One of the things about filmmaking is that when you’re in the middle of it, you and the whole team put in so much time and effort for something that only lasts a few minutes, but all of that energy and care is reflected back in the audience responses to the work many months and years later. It’s very gratifying to read comments such as yours and I appreciate your generosity and the time you took to articulate them. Take it easy, Greg. Antonio