The idea was hatched over coffee in Van Ness. It was there that Amy Saidman and Jon Gann sat down to bring two projects together. Saidman, who runs SpeakeasyDC, the monthly solo storytelling series, and Gann, who created the DC Shorts Film Festival, sat down to discuss her idea.
“I like to do mashups of story with something else and with people in the arts that I know,” Saidman said. “The premise was there. We tell a story, a team makes a film adaptation. I was thinking maybe multiple weeks, but Jon was like no, it’s better when it’s tight. It’s in, it’s out, you get this energy and then you do it.”
That’s how SpeakeasyShorts came to be. Over the course of two Fridays, the process is a whirlwind. The first night, a ticketed crowd and a group of moviemakers listen to stories told live on stage. Then, each tale is matched up with a film director. Each group has five days to turn around a production, then they all reconvene to watch them the next Friday and pick a winner.
“Retirement” was last year’s winner. The director and writer is Rob Raffety, a West Virginia native who’s been in D.C. since 2001. He’s got a bit of an aw shucks demeanor, but his film is intense. It tells the story of an employee who finds inspiration in a quirky local icon when his soul-crushing office job gets the best of him.
The Vimeo of the original story is pretty plain. A simple shot, just Saidman on stage. She’s clearly a seasoned storyteller and knows how to work a crowd. The overall mood of the story is lighthearted, and aspirational. With a fun end. “What would Cedric do?”
Cedric Givens, that is. The backwards jogger. If you haven’t seen him, look harder. He’s the guy you see spinning through the streets from H Street to the White House every morning, spreading his cheer along the way. He’s a local legend and serves as the story and the film’s aspirational hero.
As one collaborative effort led to the creation of the contest, another chance team-up helped create the short that will premier at DC Shorts Thursday. Raffety, who works at George Mason University, was deskmates with Satya Thallam. The two hit it off as creative partners and they created “Cap South” a web series they describe as “an exaggerated version of this reality that focuses on the shenanigans that occur within just one dysfunctional congressional office.”
So, when Raffety was tasked with translating Saidman’s story to film, he tapped Thallam, who is one half of the downtempo lounge music duo Astronaut Jones, to do the music. “I was really impressed with what those guys did. I think the score really contributes to that story, because the music sets the mood for every sequence,” Raffety, 38, said. “It worked out incredibly well. I was kinda shocked, actually.”
Thallam was more than happy to help. They turned around the score in less than a day. “[I said] If I’m going to do the music, I need to do it the next day, because that’s when me and my partner will be in the studio. So we don’t have time to wait for you to film it. We just gotta do it. We spent ten hours just putting a bunch of music together,” Thalam, 33, who doesn’t work with Raffety anymore but is still a friend of the filmmaker, said. “We sent it to him at 6 in the morning, and they were going to shoot all that day. They just kind of shot with the story and music in mind. They were listening to it in the car on the way to the first location.”
The story itself is a typical Washington one, for many. In Saidman’s version, she’s working in a dead-end job at a non-profit that effectively bores her silly. She looks out the window and routinely sees Cedric and his infectious enthusiasm and decides to use that as motivation to get through every day. The film version is decidedly darker, but still has a happy ending. Raffety admits that he took some liberties in the process.
“Typically, most of the stuff I do on my own is stuff that I write and create myself. Here, I’m adapting someone else’s story. And it’s a true story it’s her life. I want to make sure that whatever I produce is honest to that scene that she was trying to convey,” Raffety, who lives in Arlington explained. “It is definitely a pretty liberal interpretation, but that was okay. Sometimes I think that works better. If you try to tell that story, line for line. If you tried to communicate what she told us by the book and almost make it a documentary, it doesn’t necessarily make it as effective for the screen.”
In some ways, this is a great movie. It has little dialogue, but the music buttresses the story perfectly. In less than 8 minutes, it explores basic themes of satisfaction and fulfillment without being too sappy or ridiculous. Everyone knows someone like the main protagonist of the story. You can’t help but to relate.
As an amateur filmmaker who never dreamed he’d have a movie that showed at multiple festivals, Rafferty was honored that Gann asked to showcase it. “To this day it’s always been a side hobby. It’s nice to have this kind of affirmation. I would say Retirement is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “If someone had shown this to me 10 years ago and said ‘hey Rob, you could make this,’ I would have been floored.”
And Saidman is happy with how it turned out as well. Sitting in Malcolm X Park with her dachshund Wednesday afternoon, she reflected on the process and how it went. The actual SpeakeasyShorts event, the third of its kind, was last November. “I loved it, I was very pleased, I thought they did a great job. I enjoyed seeing my story reinterpreted on film,” Saidman, 44, said.
“What is fascinating about the process of going from a spoken word to visual is very interesting. They need to find visual ways of telling the same story. When I have my words, I can say everything that’s in my head. I can say everything I think is in everyone else’s heads, but they said so much with so little. If nothing else I give them credit for taking what they had and finding a way to communicate that without words. Really smart.”
As for Cedric, the man who doesn’t stop moving and helps draw bleary officer workers out of their cubicles and into a more fun life, did she ever find him and follow him as she intonated she might do in “WWCD”? Alas, that part never really happened.
“I decided that would be stalky,” she said.