Ten for Grandpa is a slick, fast-paced short film delight that exhumes Cold War conspiracy through the novel lens of personal genealogy. What results is a lushly produced, yet snappy tale that combines the best traits of festival-quality dramas with the direct and sometimes guilty pleasures of internet hits.
Who were you? The question that a grandson cannot get over. David Karr was a husband, father, White House press reporter, film producer, powerful millionaire, defense contractor, corporate CEO… Soviet agent? Why did he need four autopsies? Our narrator tries to decipher if Grandpa was a manipulative antihero or simply a victim of a McCarthy witchhunt.
David Karr is the mysterious subject at the heart of the film’s narrative, but the grandson is our narrator and main character. Played brilliantly by David Alpay, the film uses his performance to reinforce its neatest visual-trick, the seamless transition of scenes through an elaborate stage set—having the narrator break the 4th wall and address us, the audience, directly. As walls slide out and our players take their positions in new tableaus, our narrator joins them, slipping through time to be present at key moments in the life of his grandpa, formulating ten questions he would like to ask him. But even though he omnisciently looks on at these events, his questions are addressed to us. After all, as his brother says in the film, “You can’t guilt-trip a dead man.”
In its attempts to play up the mythology of Grandpa, the film flirts with incredulity. While sprinkled with well-placed quips to lighten the mood, the film is rather sober and serious. So what to make of super-hero grandpa? Did he really need to be a White House reporter and a movie producer? A finance wizard and a Moscow real-estate developer? Well, yes he did. Because actually the story is director Doug Karr’s own, based on his real-life grandpa. They say that you should look close to home to find inspiration and that the most powerful stories are often personal, but then again, most of us don’t have the pleasure (or displeasure, the Karr family disposition to Grandpa is never nailed down) of having such a colorful character upon which to draw. It is ironic that the 31 year old Karr, who has traveled the world looking for stories for his documentary film projects, would create his most accomplished work based on a subject so close to home.
And, if nothing else, this is an accomplished filmmaking effort; with an assured voice, stellar production values, and keen sense of how to give an audience what it wants. Karr is no stranger to success, especially on the internet—his 2006 short film Anniversary Present, currently has 400,000+ views on the revenue-sharing website Atom.com. And while Ten for Grandpa will not approach those numbers, the film, which played Sundance 2009 and won a special recognition honor at Aspen Shortsfest, is step up in both ambition and execution from the enjoyable, but simplistically one-note Anniversary Party. Ten for Grandpa‘s production took place on a soundstage in Toronto in late 2007, and was shot in Super 35mm, a very rare format for short films. As mentioned before however, the real draws of the film are the 9 fabricated sets and the expertly executed transitions between them. In what is the coolest short film extra I’ve seen in a while, Karr shared with our friends at Directors Notes the CG previz of the film that the DP, Guy Godfree, put together before shooting.
Doug Karr as a filmmaker has shown great promise and growth through his short films, displaying great writing chops and the ability to lead professional level productions. Naturally he is now bringing those talents to bear on a new feature film project, Art Machine, which is currently in post-production. I would imagine that it’ll be hitting the festival scene soon, so look out for it!