Back in 2007, as students at the Savannah College of Art and Design, William Campbell teamed up with Anh Vu to create The Lemon Tree, an experimental short film that went on to win awards and launch Will and Anh’s careers with a bang. (Anh graduated to work with Psyop as a staff designer, while Will went to work with Superfad in LA.)
Will’s latest short film, The Nature Between Us, is a surreal tale of personal relationships told in a style that is uniquely his own. The film premiered at Sundance 2009 and screened at SXSW 2009, charming audiences with its mysterious narrative and off-beat bubble gum visuals.
Will and producer Jett Steiger graciously took some time to answer our questions about the project…
Q&A with William Campbell and Jett Steiger
Where did the idea for The Nature Between Us come from?
Will: I had just moved to LA and was always going somewhere new, looking for new places or finding new parts of town. As a reaction to this constant search I had a very vivid dream about finding an incredible and tiny culture in the grass in my backyard. They were having the littlest parade ever and I grabbed my video camera. As they marched onto the driveway my roommate at the time ollied over them (on a skateboard) and destroyed them forever.
I was devastated, like when you are a child and you cant imagine living another day. The dream really affected me, their tiny culture really inspired a sense of honesty. The working title for the piece became “Tiny Parade”.
Stylistically, the film has a very specific look. What were some of your sources of inspiration?
Will: I derived much of the character design from old native american drawings. Their use of nature, perspective, and pattern created some really weird little guys once they got filtered through my brain. The goal of their design was to feel undiscovered, pale, abstract yet caring. The live action stylistic choices we carefully made to contrast the genuine and unique culture of these tiny creatures.
The most awful synthetic media I could think of was 80’s kids television. Although I hold these shows close to my heart they are incredibly shallow. Team G and I went through every detail painting every fake brick and crumpling every little piece of trash in the alley. We needed to make this set appear painfully art directed with a cheeky 80’s aesthetic. This feel rattles all the way up through to the performances. We had some great actors and getting them to act like bad actors was one of the most challenging parts of the live action.
I love that other footage interrupts the film, adding another level of complexity to project. It’s ambiguous which event was “recorded” first: the confrontation in the alleyway or the flirtatious romp through the garden. Given the confessions of Gloria, the sequencing could suggest a potential love triangle between her, Tony and the camera operator. Was that the intention?
Will: Yes it was while creating the story with writer Trey Hock we felt the characters needed some extra depth. So while having the film be experienced from the POV of a videographer added a feeling of discovery, the tape inside his camera allowed up to learn about his character. In the film, we are able to jump through time from one moment to the next as this old VHS tape reveals its many secrets.
Apparently, being a “Steve” is a bad thing. Is there a story there? Maybe an evil Steve in your past?
Will: HAHA. No evil Steve. Everyone in the 80’s got to create awesome slang words. We wanted to also. There are a few keepers in there if you listen carefully. Steve definitely caught on with the crew everyone was saying it. Feel free to use it.
The final shot shows everyone united in a circle, watching the creatures take flight. Somehow, the little critters have brought everyone together. Can you expand a little on that?
Will: Well if you strip it all away the circle is a metaphor for every person. At its core is a true and pure experience (the critters) and outside that is a hard shell made of repetition and focused on acceptance. For the most part we are a huge mess day to day and rarely we get a glimpse of ourselves in its entirety. I wanted this last shot to feel like what that fees like. When everything just kinda lines up and makes sense.
How long did it take for The Nature Between Us to be made?
Will: We pitched to Superfad in June we were shooting in July and we worked on post production until the day of the Sundance submission deadline. It was grueling.
Jett: We basically prepped one day, and shot one day. We pre-built the whole set in my backyard and then trucked it over to the stage the night before the shoot. We nearly got evicted for destroying the backyard of our house while building those brick wall flats. We shot for one day on the stage, and then went back and picked up those shots that take place in the backyard.
How was The Nature Between Us different from your last short film, The Lemon Tree (co-directed with Anh Vu)?
Will: I think creatively they were very similar. I had no idea how either of them were going to get done I just start working, ask a lot of questions and ask for a lot of help from every one in my life. I ask my mom how to mix paints to cover a human body, I ask my cinematographer how to make realistic lighting in Maya, and ask my producer/roommate how to find more money.
Everyone I know gets pulled in, I think that is something about our creative collective Team G that has been really amazing. Neither of these projects could have gotten done with out them.
Did you stick pretty close to Trey Hock’s script as your worked, or was there improvisation (either in terms of the dialogue
or the story) as you went along?
Will: Trey and I had a very loose working style while refining the script many revisions back and forth he is great to work with. In fact after our first full cast read though we sat and reworked the entire thing right there. Hearing the real characters start to develop these characters really inspired a lot of great ideas. Once we locked the script down that was it though, not really any improv.
In the credits, the actors are all listed as Lead Actors. Aside from being funny, is there some other reason you credited the cast this way?
Will: In my mind all the characters were equally as important. They as a team played counterpart to the tiny characters.
What was the most technically challenging aspect of the film?
Will: I think it was probably something different for everyone who worked on it. Luckily I had some incredibly talented people including my technical director Yates Holley who made all our messy scenes work and Andy Kim who took my 2D drawings and really brought the characters to life. I would say the part that frustrated me personally the most was the motion tracking. Tracking a wide lens like that on a crane shot is a nightmare.
What was Superfad’s role in the creation of the film?
Will: Superfad partners Kevin Batten and Justin Leibow were both executive producers of the film. The had been looking to the staff to bring them a side project so I started writing. They paid for almost the entire production and provided facilities for the hours and hours of post work. They even gave me a week of work where I would come in and focus solely on the project so I could hit the Sundance deadline. They were great and it was an amazing opportunity.
Jett: Working with Superfad was a fantastic experience, this project would not have been possible without them!
What’s next? Another short in the works?
Will: Have a lot of things in progress. Waiting to see what rises to the top.
Jett: Our collective, TEAM G, has lots of stuff in the works including several features, a tv pilot and lots of music videos. We hope to start production on another short this summer, we are trying to narrow it down between 2-3 different ideas, we will keep you posted. But for now you can check out the links below for news and videos!
A TEAM G PRODUCTION
PRODUCED BY SUPERFAD
Director / Story
Producer, Team G
Assistant Casting Director
Cinematography / Operator
First Assistant Camera
Sound Mixer / Boom Operator
GRIP & ELECTRIC
Lead Art Director
Art Director / Wardrobe / Stylist
Hair & Make-Up
Hair & Make-Up
Animation / Texturing
The Directors Bureau
Josh Lind, The Dandy Dwarves