by Tim Birkbeck
For some people, cramming several different emotions into a 12 minute film is probably like climbing Mount Everest.
For award-winning director of the beautiful short film Birthday, Chris King takes the challenge in his stride and has gained critical acclaim for his efforts.
Crediting his early fascination with character-driven films to the haunting performances in The Deer Hunter and Ordinary People, King’s short tells an incredible story of a military wife and her marine husband dealing with life after disaster strikes.
Vulture Hound was lucky enough to catch up with the director to discuss the film and future projects he is working on.
What gave you the inspiration for the topic in Birthday?
In July of 2012, I came across a photo online of a young, unnamed, severely wounded Marine. I don’t remember how or why the picture showed up in my email, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stop looking at it. As a veteran myself, I naturally have a soft spot for our wounded vets, so photos of them always affect me – but this photo in particular spoke to me in ways others hadn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but his picture haunted me.
Maybe it was a combination of how young he was, that his eye was missing and his face so badly damaged, and that his expression was just so, well, expressionless. I began to insert all sorts of meanings into this image until I couldn’t take my curiosity anymore as to who this Marine was. So the process of tracking him down began. After a few weeks of research via websites, phone calls and emails, I discovered this young man to be Corporal Kyle Carpenter, a severely wounded Marine who was still recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland. We first chatted on the phone and later via Skype. What an amazing human being. Such a positive – almost cheerful – attitude on him despite having had his jaw and teeth blown out, his eye lost, and his arm and leg shredded. He threw himself on a grenade after it landed on a balcony where he and a fellow Marine stood. Those initial conversations with Kyle sparked my script about the severely wounded veteran rehabilitative process that ultimately become Birthday. Two years later we finally made the film, but more significantly, Kyle received the Medal of Honour for his courageous act.
What the two characters go through in the film is a journey many armed service personnel may encounter, was there any specific story you heard that you formed the film around?
In addition to meeting Kyle and speaking with him about his recovery process, my wife Heather and I also connected with several other wounded service members and trauma nurses to hear their stories. There was also a wealth of information on many of our wounded veterans that we researched online as well.
What has the response to the film from service and ex-service personnel been like?
Wonderfully rewarding and validating. Theirs were the only opinions on Birthday that we ever cared about. As a veteran myself, it was so important to get as many of the details (of battle, hospitals,rehab, etc.) correct so that we felt like we were honouring them by having taken the time to be as authentic as possible. Many, many veterans, wounded veterans and their family members have thanked us for how we handled “Birthday”, and we couldn’t be happier about that.
Even though the film is 12 minutes long you pack a lot in. How was it working with Mandy (Moody) and Chris (Gouchoe)?
Mandy and Chris are practically family now. It’s been such a long road in the making of this film and the festival circuit it’s been on, it’s just been amazing to see how audiences have applauded their work in Birthday, for their heartfelt and genuine performances that really hit home with them.
Many people are shocked to learn that Chris isn’t actually an amputee; what has the toughest task of pulling off the effects?
Many viewers of Birthday have been stunned to learn that our “Marine” actor does indeed have all of his limbs, especially viewers who see him come down to the stage for Q & A at film festivals. We initially put out a call for a disabled actor, but never got any responses – even from the union that represents disabled actors. Then we got quotes from FX agencies to turn our Marine into a multiple amputee, but went into sticker shock at their quotes of $80K – $225K. The entire film was made for a small fraction of that. We gave up on the idea of outsourcing the special effects and I decided to do the effects myself via green screen and After Effects.
I did a green screen test on myself to “become” an amputee to see if I could convincingly pull this off. Fortunately it looked realistic, so we decided to move ahead with production. We had a double-amputee Marine and his wife (Jesse and Kelly Cottle) join us for filming for seven days. Jesse had lost his legs to an IED, so he was our body-double and they were both on-set consultants. Our actor practised walking side-by-side with Jesse to study his gait and movements so as to make it all as realistic as possible. We knew we needed to do the effects on this as convincingly as possible, both to honour our wounded vets and because it would take viewers out of the story if it was poorly done. It’s greatly satisfying to us when viewers have no idea that we used special effects, and even more satisfying when some thought Birthday was a documentary.
Your story mainly focuses on the wife in this story, why did you believe it was important to put across her side of things?
Because we felt that we had already seen too many films from the wounded veterans’ perspective. We wanted to show the journey for family members too, once their wounded loved ones have come home and how it effects their lives as well. We also wanted hope to be a big part of the film too. Hope for our wounded warriors and their spouses. To show that they can get through this and come out stronger.
But really, this film is for all couples that have gone through really, really hard times – those times when the dark side of “for better or for worse” comes a-calling and yet have still chosen to find the best in themselves and each other. We view Birthday as a love story that is a testament to all those who keep choosing love and hope over defeat and despair.
Why did you decide montages to tell the bulk of the narrative?
Because I wanted to show that a year or so had elapsed during the rehabilitative process and their time back home as they adjust to their new normal. Shooting a huge collection of various stages of this process and this couple’s time together was the only way I could think to convey all of this in a short amount of time.
Interestingly, in doing this we had to chronologically shoot the film backwards because we had our “Marine” actor grown his hair and facial hair out so that we could film the rehabilitation scenes first. Then, as the film progresses, his hair and facial hair get shorter until we finally see their wedding scene shots of them dancing.
One thing that really stands out is the lack of dialogue, do you think this technique adds to the emotional impact the story tells?
This was certainly my intention. I did not want Birthday to be a heavy-handed, melodramatic or sappy film with violins playing in the background. Nor did I want it loaded down with lots of dialogue. As a filmmaker, silence, or the unspoken, coupled with powerful visuals is far more interesting and compelling to me. I only wanted a couple minutes at the very beginning of the film to allow the audience to get to know our couple a little and to (hopefully) care about what happens with them later on. The adage is true: If you don’t have characters that people care about, you don’t have a story.
Why did you decide on a birthday to be the day the Marine returned home?
I wanted it to symbolise a new beginning for their life together. They’d gone through so much since the IED exploded, and they have a long way to go from here forward. I also wanted this day, which is normally a happy one of course, to really give our Marine a moment of pause and reflection; on what had happened to him, how it’s going to affect his life forever, and what it all means to him (and the relationship he has with his wife).
You have already gained critical acclaim for the film, how does it feel to gain such recognition from your peers?
It does feel really good to see our labour of love playing in so many festivals and other venues and getting this kind of recognition, but it’s even more rewarding to see the impact it has had on viewers in the audiences. Many have come up to us with teary eyes and thanked us for giving a voice to our severely wounded veterans and the families who care for them. It’s all we ever wanted for this project.
On a personal level, what influences you as a director?
Simply put, truth in film. This is what influences me. Some directors are really great at bringing amazing realism to their films, like Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Winterbottom and Paul Greengrass. Many of their films are shot documentary-style, lending a wonderfully truthful feel to their narratives. Honest moments from amazing actors. That’s what I try to achieve with my projects. Because with an amazingly truthful approach, one can really connect with an audience and therefore get them to care for your characters and the story you’re telling them.
Are you working on any projects in the new year that people should keep an eye out for?
We are almost done filming a short about the early days of Carol Burnett before she became famous. We’re also shooting another military-related short very soon, and we’re writing a feature film as well, all as we both work full time and raise two kids. It’s a very busy life, but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it.