Part coming-of-age story, part Lovecraftian horror, on paper Black Sugar sounds like a film that shouldn’t work. But throw some weird drugs purchased from a Russian website into the narrative, add a trippy-take on the A Nightmare on Elm Street scenario and mix with some FX work inspired by 80’s horror and you’ve got one of the standout shorts of 2014 so far.
“How terrifying would it be if the drugs you ordered were actually creatures that latched onto your brain and sucked your conscious into some sort of hell? You’d probably want a refund, right?”
Inspired to write the Black Sugar narrative after they heard about the Silk Road website (an anonymous marketplace for illegal drugs), director Hank Friedmann and co-writer Scott Yacyshyn expanded on their initial horror twist to purchasing online narcotics, by basing elements of the plot on their own youthful attempts to fit in. “My friends and I would ride our bikes around Long Beach and get into trouble” the director admits whilst discussing the Black Sugar narrative, “more specifically, my friends would smash mailboxes and steal golf carts so I stopped hanging out with them. Instead, I’d con people into being my friends by shooting dumb videos. We all did stupid stuff to fit in, so the concept of stealing dad’s credit card to buy drugs off some Russian website seemed perfect. My buddy Scott Yacyshyn had an equally desperate time trying to fit in growing up in Chicago, so we mushed our experiences together and wrote this teen-horror short.”
Building intrigue and sucking its audience into its on-screen universe in its measured opening, Black Sugar soon kicks through the gears around the 3-minute mark, when its protagonists ingest the titular narcotic. Hopping between reality, where our chemically-induced cast find themselves trapped in a period of out-of-body stasis, and the nightmarish world of their hallucinations, our experimenting group of teens are soon to learn that drugs aren’t always fun.
The success of Friedmann’s film was always going to lie in his teams ability to create the dark universe his characters enter after taking their drug of choice and, from talking to the director, it is obvious he paid a lot of interest to the visual style of both locations. “I wanted there to be a huge contrast between the real world and the “dark world,” but also keep things emotionally consistent”, Friedmann says, “so the Director of Photography Sing Howe Yam employed a loose camera style throughout, to spread a natural feel through both parts. The producers pulled a lot of strings to make it. For the real world sequences I wanted the natural, warm look of films like Where The Wild Things Are and Children Of Men. For the dark world, Production Designer Ethan Feldbau suggested the misty top lighting look of Alien, which would cover the seams of the sets, creatures, and CG. But I OK’d it, so it’s really my idea.”
We wanted the dark world to feel like a working ecosystem; something based in science-fiction more than fantasy.
Friedmann and his team really nail the aesthetic for the “dark world”, employing physical FX instead of CGI. It is the “retro” feel of these sections that charm. Admitting the nostalgic visuals were not only intentional, but inspired by “a steady diet of eighties horror”, the director states that his love for genre films from this decade made him “appreciate the visceral horror of practical effects. We used as many real props, sets, men-in-suits and puppets as our budget could afford us”, he adds, “Ethan and the Monster Effects workshop people took our meagre dollars and cents and stretched it out into something amazing and scary and tangible, with a great retro feel. But we did end up using CG wings because the practical ones looked like kites made out of garbage bags.”
Having played at a handful of festivals, where it was well received, Black Sugar’s dark-fantasy narrative and impressive FX work is bound to make it an internet hit. Currently spending his time “drinking coffee and super full time editing and doing VFX on Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC”, Friedmann still plans on using his “spare” time to make short films and music videos. Using his “spare, spare” time to write, the director ends our chat by jokingly asking “should we write a feature of this? or should I get another cup of coffee?” – Here’s hoping he gets that coffee and then gets writing – as we’d certainly love to see more from the Black Sugar universe.