Portable first featured Australian-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jarrah Gurrie as part of the crop featured in one of the earliest Portable Film Festivals. Since then, he’s branched out across film platforms as only creative multitaskers can do; writing, directing and editing various works.
His latest project saw him pair up with accolade-collecting director Grainger David on the short film The Chair. This humble project took on a life on its own, becoming the filmmakers thus career-defining work as it won the Jury Prize at SXSW and was shortlisted for the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. The film is an eerie portrayal of a family fractured by a disease outbreak within their small town, presenting the events entirely from the perspective of the young narrator, whose voice is the only dialogue throughout the film. It’s a haunting, resonating piece that begins from science fiction premise yet has so much more to offer.
We spoke with Jarrah and Grainger about the process of their collaboration, the importance of a strong edit in a short film, and working with our favorite Draper, Kiernan Shipka. Additionally, the film will be available to view online for a limited time only here.
Portable: Jarrah, you were one of the very first filmmakers we featured on Portable in the beginning with your short Salmon Story, can you tell us a bit more about what you’ve been doing since then?
Jarrah Gurrie: That feels like so long ago! I was in my first year at film school when we made that. Since then I’ve finished school (NYU Grad) and started a small production company with a friend Caroline Oliveira called Ballad Pictures. We are based in New York and LA. We do small commercial stuff to pay the bills but we are also focused on working with our friends to get all of our movies and passion projects made together as a big supportive team. I’ve edited a couple of feature films and directed some shorts of my own; my latest one is called These Empty Streets. But working on Grainger’s film and getting to go to Cannes with him has been a big highlight.
P: As a writer/director as well as an editor, how do you find the balance between creative projects and how do they inspire each other?
Jarrah Gurrie: I think the fact that I have some experience as a director helps people trust me as an editor. They know I can relate to the challenges they may have encountered on set. As an editor I get to work with so many different directors and I am constantly being educated by their unique insight and skills as well as by the mistakes they make. All which will hopefully make me a stronger director when I’m in that position again. For now though, I am happy collaborating as the editor. I always wanted to be the drummer in a band, not the lead singer, so I guess it makes sense I ended up in this position.
P: How did your involvement together in The Chair come about?
Jarrah Gurrie : Grainger and I went to Grad film school together at NYU. I think while we were there we both had respect for each other’s work. I think we are the right amount of similar and different to make a good duo in the editing room. Grainger is a very talented writer and wrote this amazing short script for The Chair. When I read it I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved. I think Grainger probably felt I would be able to help him achieve the dark undertone that was required to give the film the emotional punch he wanted. I think we are both into exploring that darkness right now, which is weird because we are both very happy people.
Grainger David: I like all of Jarrah’s work and he has great taste. I wanted to work with someone who was willing to take some bold chances with the material.
P: The film ties in a science fiction premise with a realistic human depiction of events. How did you find the perfect harmony between genre and emotion?
Jarrah Gurrie : Honestly, I never really saw a science fiction premise. I always approached it as something very real that could happen today, tomorrow or yesterday. And I think that perspective adds a whole layer to the film. But, absolutley the most important thing for me, was to bring out the emotion in this boys experience. I think as an editor it was a case of timing the poetry of Grainger’s voice-over just so, to play at the exact moments that Khari (who plays the lead) was giving us something in his eyes; that kid has an amazing face. I think it was a case of Grainger and I tapping into our compassion for this boy and for the town that this awful thing is happening to.
Grainger David: I wanted the premise to make people wonder a little bit. Is that really possible? Could it be a true story? In reality, the kind of mold outbreak that spreads throughout a town and kills a bunch of people is not actually possible. But people can get sick from exposure to certain types of mold. And there is a lot of paranoia and uncertainty around mold. I was interested in using that uncertainty to create a feeling of plausible science fiction. The uncertainty also helps bring the audience into the character’s mindset; it puts you on the same level as this kid who is trying to understand all of the different explanations that he is getting for his mother’s death, from the church, from the teachers at school, from the scientists and the newspapers. He is looking for answers and not getting any satisfying explanations, and I wanted the audience to feel the same way and sympathize with his search.
P: The film focuses a lot on perception versus reality; the main character is not necessarily a reliable narrator but his point of view is crucial for the films’ impact. How did you achieve this balance?
Jarrah Gurrie: I think it’s just the case again of focusing on a story that comes from an emotional place, from the heart, rather than anything else. When someone is speaking from the heart it doesn’t matter if it’s wholly accurate or not. Also I think Grainger has a really nice way of writing dialogue from a child’s perspective. As a child, the characters recollection of events should be informed by his state of mind, not any kind of logic or rationale.
Grainger David: The narration and the visuals both alternate between a naturalistic, almost documentary style realism, and a more formal/stylized/dreamlike type of storytelling. This goes along with what I was saying above about the science fiction premise; one of our goals was to make people wonder if this was a true story or just a strange dream. The narrator’s memory plays a big role in that. I was very interested in how traumatic events of childhood can become distorted in our memories over time. Also: our sound designer Scott Hirsch deserves a lot of credit for creating a world that is both realistic and somehow at the same time a kind of distorted underwater version of that reality.
P: What was the process like of editing to a film with narration as the only dialogue?
Jarrah Gurrie : You would think it would be easy but it was actually quite difficult. There were so many options of which way we could go it was hard to ever be certain we were doing the right thing. I think eventually it came down to gut instinct and allowing ourselves time to feel certain we made the right decisions. And we had some beautiful cinematography (Jimmy Lee Phelan, DP) so when all else failed we just put our favorite shots in and saw how they played!
Grainger David : The challenge was finding the balance between just showing enough of the story to support the voiceover, but leaving enough space for the more non-narrative evocative/suggestive/surreal elements.
P: The film is more like a short story than a conventional narrative film, how did you realize this in the edit?
Jarrah Gurrie : I think the nature of a film that is entirely voice over is that it plays like storytime or a poem. I think it was always planned by Grainger to be that way.
Grainger David: I think in the end we just tried a lot of things and trusted our instincts.
P: What projects are you working on currently and what do you have planned for the future?
Jarrah Gurrie : I am hoping to pick up a couple of feature editing gigs over the next year. That is what I am focused on. I’m also finishing a script that I want to shoot in Australia as soon as I get a little more time. I also want to get back into directing more music videos so hopefully that comes along this year. I’m getting married in September and after that it’s an open slate which is a nice place to be, it’s been a busy year.
Grainger David: And we are working on another short film together! It’s called The Edge of The Woods, and it stars Kiernan Shipka who plays little Sally Draper on Mad Men. It has a CGI creature in it, and its own set of bizarre challenges. But I’m very excited about how it’s turning out.