Two real-life tragedies brought together a director and an actress to form a heart-felt short film “Arctic Plunge” that is screening in Los Angeles this week. The limited screening of the short is to be eligible for Academy Award consideration.
Filmmaker and photographer Brian To took a trip to Norway and shot some stunning National Geographic-like footage of wildlife. He got brown bears standing on their hind legs, he got polar bear cubs, eagles and seals with the backdrop of impressive glaciers. He also had a few of the people on the nature tour ad-lib a few scenes of a break-up. Last year, To shot some footage of 16-year old William Dewar and 25-year old Jessica P. Jackson while on the tour of Norway. The footage sat unused, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
In 2013, he wrote and directed a short film “Dry Dock” about a man who reconnects with a childhood friend whose marriage is on the rocks. Real-life couple Jen Oda and Vincent Maggio starred in the short, and on Feb. 25, 2015 after being served divorce papers, Maggio went to Oda’s Beverly Hills home and shot her and then shot himself. Maggio’s 18-year-old son discovered the murder-suicide shortly after it happened.
Reeling from the tragedy of his friends, To decided to turn his footage into a story with voiceovers. He went to Oscar-nominated actress Sally Kirkland, whom he photographed many times and starred in his short 2001 film “Audit” with Alexis Arquette and Judy Greer.
“I saw the footage, and it was beautiful and overwhelming, and I said I would do the voiceover, but not with anyone else,” Kirkland said.
For To, that was magic. “It came together with Sally’s voice, and knowing it was just her made it a lot easier to structure the story,” he said.
To’s friend and mentor “Grease” director Randal Kleiser helped him move the key phrase at the beginning of the short movie: “I was your Mrs. Robinson.” (Brian To appeared in Kleiser’s 1996 personal film “It’s My Party.”) To says, “My co-writer, Ron Godfredsen, originally wrote the line for the very end of the film, however Randal suggested putting it at the beginning of the movie to connect Sally Kirkland’s voice to the young girl who plays her character in the movie.”
Kirkland adapted a deeper-voiced British accent for the poetic voiceover that gets juxtaposed with the footage of the animals and the scenery of Svalbaard, Norway. A haunting, melancholic score written by Stephen Viens creates a beautiful through-line that sews the voiceover and the imagery together very nicely. The pieces came together in just the right order, at just the right time.
When To came over to shoot the voiceover of Kirkland, the actress was just on the phone dealing with the news that a friend of hers hanged herself. With both actor and director feeling the pain of recent suicides in their lives, the heavy sadness weighed even more on the storyline of the short film.
Yet, Kirkland points out that in some screenings of the eight-minute short, some viewers don’t get that there was a specific suicide of the younger man, and that the older woman was pining over his loss. There is loss, for sure, but they pulled back from being too on-the-nose, and left the audience to interpret the sanguine monologue recited by Kirkland.
“I don’t want the suicide mentioned in the press notes, I think that the audience should come up with their own interpretations,” said Kirkland, who is also the executive producer of the short movie.
Kirkland, To and producer Mansan Luc attended a screening on Saturday at the Vista Theater in Los Angeles and answered questions about the movie, getting impressions from the audience and talking about their unconventional screenwriting process.
To says, “It was thrilling for me to create a story line with non-actors who just happened to be in this extraordinarily beautiful location. And Arctic Plunge could not be a more perfect follow up to Dry Dock, which had a chilling quality after the real-life suicide murder took place between cast members. The suicidal imagery of water squirting from a hose to kill feelings in Dry Dock is very similar to all the dark imagery of melting ice and water in Arctic Plunge juxtapose with polar bears trying to survive and procreate.”
It’s multi-dimensional in all its brevity. Kirkland is delighted with the environmental message of the movie. “It’s about the beauty of nature, the glaciers melting, and I’m glad people see some of that in the film,” Kirkland said.
To added, “I also didn’t really realize until the premiere of Arctic Plunge how much the viewers experienced the film as a call to action against global warming, and how the earth is committing suicide in relation to us, since man has treated it so badly over the last century.”
In order to be eligible for the Oscars, the short film is being screened this week at the Vista. At some of the screenings, both the voiceover actress and the director plan to make appearances. Kirkland plans to be at Tuesday’s screenings on Sept. 29.
“I love hearing what the audiences come up with when they see this movie,” Kirkland said. “I think that people should come away with their own interpretations.”
“Arctic Plunge” will screen at the ornate Vista Theatre, 4473 Sunset Dr., through Sept. 30 at 11:30 a.m., 11:50 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. for a cost of $5.