Leaving you with more questions than answers, it would have felt wrong to let the recently featured short film BAG MAN pass-by without talking a bit more about the filmmaking and storytelling involved. Having tried to leave my article on the film as vague as possible to avoid spoiling the impact of the movie, we took the chance to speak to directorial duo Jonathan & Josh Baker about their head-turner of a short.
BAG MAN feels like it takes a narrative-first approach to filmmaking, serving up its audience an intriguing and well-considered storyline, how did the concept originate and were there any existing works that played a major influence on the story?
This short has certainly gone through some evolution from concept stage to screen. Originally we wrote it about a young village boy in the Congo, and were planning to shoot it in Nigeria. We got to quoting stage with a local production company, and even looked into hiring a hyena for the shoot, but ultimately it was all too expensive and to be honest, dangerous. So we reworked the story to be set in Harlem NY (just a little bit closer to home), a location that also comes with its own set of preconceptions. We wanted the audience to think they knew what this kid was all about, before serving them up something fresh and new.
We also looked at this short as being a great vehicle to show our more dramatic side as directors. Coming from commercials, we wanted the complete opposite aesthetic a quiet, drawn out journey, with time to appreciate the subtleties along the way. A glance from a stranger; the wind through long grass; the creak from a rusty roof. There were some obvious influences from past films, like Stand By Me or George Washington, but we didn’t want to simply walk in those same footsteps. We wanted to bring our own unique voice to the quiet coming-of-age genre, and take it to a completely different place.
Working as a directorial duo, how did you go about sharing directing duties on BAG MAN?
We’ve worked together as commercial directing duo TWIN for about 8 years now (and were solo before that for another 4 years at least), so we’re pretty comfortable at splitting the responsibilities. There isn’t a specific role that each of us takes on, we try to keep things as ‘Even Steven’ as possible. Both of us wrote the script together, each taking on different scenes and then tweaking the results of the other until it was tight. On set we both operated 2nd camera, and both talked the talent through the action in each scene. Sometimes we just get twice as much done because we can split duties and move the shoot forward faster than if there was just one of us. For a small project like this with limited shooting days, moving as fast as possible was essential. And generally, if there’s ever a disagreement, the DP usually becomes the deciding vote and we quickly move on.
You put together an impressive production crew for this film – how important was it getting people like Nicolas Karakatsanis and Tom Poole involved? And what do you think their experience brought to the short?
We primarily work in the advertising world, so we collaborate with these very talented people every day. This are our usual team on the most part, so it makes sense to use them on our passion projects if they’re available. Nicolas is absolutely playing on a solid Hollywood level right now and is on the verge of major success, with The Drop in cinemas and having just wrapped John Hillcoats latest film. Tom has really etched out his own groove, coloring some of the more critically acclaimed films of the last few years. The Mill did all the VFX for this short, and they’re easily one of the best post houses in the world. We’re very lucky to have such talented people want to be a part of the projects we work on.
At the core of your short is a commanding performance from young Judah Bellamy, how did you go about casting the project?
Being New York directors, our first thought when needing to cast this was to incorporate as much Broadway theatre talent as possible. This isn’t LA, and there aren’t as many film actors walking the streets, but there is a large pool of quality Broadway talent if you know how to get them in the room. The first move was approaching Nora Brennan, a well-known Broadway casting director, who luckily was interested in our work and was excited to do something out of the ordinary. She brought in a number of top local theatre actors not huge numbers like the ad game, more select and you knew that each person had what it took to play the role. The character of The Boy was the most important by far, due to him needing to emote without a single word of dialogue. We actually ended up with a pretty large list of contenders for this role, and narrowed it down to Judah Bellamy, who in 2011 played Simba in The Lion King, and just finished a run in Matilda. Judah had maturity and confidence, but also was able to show a level of innocence that was essential.
How have your audiences reacted to the short so far?
Nothing but positive! For a short film, it’s doing everything it should. It invites the audience to go on a journey, and it doesn’t give you all the answers. We wanted to create a world that leaves you wanting more, which is easier said than done these days. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome at just under 15 minutes. Long enough to get you invested and take you somewhere, but still very accessible as on online short. People seem to really connect with the tone of the film, often relaying back to us their appreciation for small details we spent a lot of thought incorporating.
You mentioned talks had already begun about turning this into a longer narrative, how are those developments coming along and what more can we expect from this universe?
From hearing about plenty of examples of shorts being developed into features, we knew that when someone asked us what the feature length version of BAG MAN would look like, we better have an answer for them. And itd wanna be something we’d like to make. So we’ve spent a lot of time taking the style and tone of the short, and obviously the boy and the bag, and fitting them into a much more layered and detailed world. Because at the end of the day, it’s the stylized idea set within a gritty character-driven reality that really excites us… the unexpected, yet seamless genre-mashing. Without spoiling anything, the lingering questions you have after watching the short, will all be answered in the feature.
You can find out more about the work behind the scenes of BAG MAN over on the film’s website – bagmanshortfilm.com