Of the 26 short films that comprise The ABCs of Death, one of the best is Marcel Sarmiento’s “D” is for Dogfight. Anyone who’s seen The ABCs of Death can’t help but mention how stylish and effective the short is. Since it comes early in the alphabet, it’s especially memorable. It’s shorts like “D” is for Dogfight that showcase the full potential of the ABCs of Death as an idea in practice.
Sarmiento’s got two features under his belt so far, and both couldn’t be further apart in terms of tone and genre: the Malin Akerman rom-com Heavy Petting and the teenage necrophilia/zombie film Deadgirl. We had a chance to talk over the phone about making the most out of the short film form, how constraints and restrictions are helpful to the creative process, and why his dog trainer should get acting gigs.
Look for our full review of The ABCs of Death tomorrow.
[Editor’s note: Some of the questions and answers have been altered to avoid spoilers.]
You’ve probably gotten this a lot, but “D” is for Dogfight is one of the real standouts of The ABCs of Death. How do you feel about being regarded as one of the best of the 26 short films?
Well, it’s been… [The experience itself] was awesome because a lot of the other directors are people I was a personal fan of. And to be in the mix and at the top with a bunch of other people you respect — you can’t complain about that.
Could you talk about the assignment process in The ABCs of Death? Were you given out the letter itself?
What they did was they asked us all to pitch them three letters, and they would hope to give us one. I didn’t have any ideas and just picked B, C, D. My thinking was, “I’ll just try to be towards the beginning of the movie,” because people would be more supportive of [the anthology] toward the beginning no matter what. So then I got D and I had to figure out what the hell to do. That’s kind of how it worked.
And then I sat down with a bunch of friends and started spit balling ideas. Mostly I was thinking, “Well, there’s no money… Who do I know?” My assumption was that some of these guys and girls were going to try to out-gross each other, so I couldn’t compete on that level since it’s not totally my thing, but I still want to make sure that people think what I do is cool and worthy to be in this group. So I tried to think of what I could do that maybe no one’s seen before that I could pull off without a lot of time and money.
What other D words did you have in mind before you settled on “dogfight”?
I think one of them was “duct tape.”
Duct tape? [laughs]
And another one was “decompression chamber,” maybe.
Those actually would have been pretty promising too.
Yeah, yeah. I didn’t exactly have any ideas for them, but… I actually liked “duct tape” a lot and had some ideas for it. But yeah, there were a couple other ones. That was sort of fun.
I remember reading in another interview that the fighter in “D” is for Dogfight is the trainer of the dog. Can you explain how you got in touch with him?[Steve Berens] did the dog work in my first movie [Heavy Petting] and the dog work in Deadgirl, my second movie. So he was a guy I knew, and I heard a lot of his stories. Essentially when I went and talked him about my idea for “D” is for Dogfight, he told me to go away, it was crazy, it would never happen, he didn’t have the time. But I was just looking at him and thinking, “Man, he’s got such a great face.”
So I was like, “Why don’t you be the guy? We’ll let you be the star.” And he’s never been asked that before, so that just changed everything.
He was like, “Oh… Well, let me think about it.” This did not happen over night. This took a couple weeks, but finally he was like, “This could be interesting.” So I got really lucky with that. I mean obviously without him this would have never happened on so many levels. And he’s great, he’s really good.
It’s surprising he’s never been asked to act in anything since he has such a distinctive appearance.
Let me tell you something: we set up a photo shoot for him so he can get headshots. We’re like, “You can get cast. You’re SAG already. Why not do it?” But he’s not– He’s humble! He’s like, “Oh, I don’t know…” We’re trying, believe me, we’re trying to push him, but he’s got to run with it himself if he’s got gumption. But I definitely think he could be cast in a heartbeat. I’ll use him again if I can.
One of the reasons that “D” is for Dogfight stands out so much is that it’s a short film like a mofo. It’s so stylishly shot. Was this also part of your strategy for ABCs of Death?
Well, I think that’s sort of a strategy in general with everything. I think now, if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to [do it]. I want to keep working as a director, and I think you need to have a strong sense of style no matter what it is. So me and the DP, who also shot my last feature Deadgirl, Harris Charalambous, definitely wanted “D” is for Dogfight to be beautiful.
We had the same sort of conversation on Deadgirl. You know, Deadgirl was challenging sometimes to pull that off.
That’s a hard-to-sit-through movie. It’s subject matter is so distressing and disturbing.
Well yeah, purposely, definitely. But to answer your question, yes. We decided on slow motion — it was one of our first decisions — things like that would give us the opportunity to be atmospheric.
How long did it take you to shoot?
We shot in two days.
We spent half a day setting up the light rig and the fight set, so it was really sort of a day-and-a-half. We had other stuff we were going to try to do. We actually trained the dog in a wide shot to run towards the trainer, leap, and grab the trainer’s crotch.
And in that same shot, the trainer would go down with the dog holding onto his crotch.
And it was really cool, but we just couldn’t… It became a point in the day where we could do that and spend two or three hours trying to get this one shot to work, or I can tell the story. And I had to choose, obviously, the story. But that was a bummer because we worked really hard on that effect. I don’t think you’ve ever seen that before non-CGI.
That is like Jackie Chan-style stuntwork — just death-defying. [laughs]
With only two days, were you pretty efficient with what you were shooting? Was everything planned well in advance?
Ummm… I did loose storyboards. But I really don’t do shotlists and boards. I was the AD and the director, and no one really knew what was coming next from me, and it was only two days, and it was a small crew. I knew what I needed. The actual dog — I guess you would call them stunts — those were very meticulous because we’d know the things the dog could do.
So those were definitely very specific. Those things we knew, but that’s more like, “Okay, we’ll get this from a couple of different angles, here’s what’s going to happen.” But I don’t like to totally storyboard it out because then it kind of takes some of the energy away. I feel like you’ve got to kind of roll with it a little bit.
And how long did it take to put “D” is for Dogfight together?
Man, how long did it take to put together? A couple months… Three months, maybe. The dog was a white lab, so one of the things we didn’t anticipate was that it would immediately lick off all the dirt and blood make-up.
The one thing we had to do was find someone who could go into After Effects and dirty-up the dog for me in all those shots, and track the dog as it moves. But all that stuff on the dog’s hair is After Effects, and that took forever because there were like 200 shots of the dog! And then you have to track all the movement. Yeah, it was crazy. I did some of that stuff — had to teach myself to do that crap. Painful.
[laughs] I didn’t even notice! It looked completely seamless.
Yeah, it looks pretty good. Maybe if, you know, people get the Blu-ray and study it they’ll find little imperfections, but, you know, no one ever does that stuff.
[laughs] Actually, why the white lab? Why not a pitbull or a rotweiler? Was it just for safety?
No. Honestly, we had this Mexican hairless that looked really ferocious [in Deadgirl], but it just didn’t have the aggression. One thing Steve the trainer said was that we need a dog that can, on cue, have this energy and aggression or it just wouldn’t last a day. And he’s like, “I got this white lab. This dog is energetic and happy and can bark.” That was really the reason. He’s like, I’m not going to find you a dog — that costs money and time — here’s what I got. Take it or leave it.
That was really a blessing in disguise because in the story it really makes more sense that the dog is not a pitbull. So that was great. This happened on Deadgirl all the time as well. Sometimes when you’re stuck with limited resources and options, they result in the best choices you could have made. You could have screwed it up if you’d done what you’d originally wanted.
That’s a good point. Also working within the time restriction of a short film you’re also forced to compress a story. How were you able to compress the story?
There’s really like three or four beats in the whole thing. I knew working backwards you’d have to have the turn in the story, and that came late in the development. I have this whole elaborate backstory that you don’t probably get about how everyone winds up where they are. Really, this is a three-beat structure, and filling in the gaps in between was cool — elevating the fight stakes.
It was fun. It was nice to have limited time and have to pull something off quickly.
I read in a press bio you were working on a comic book adaptation next. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Oh… That might be… That project I think has gone away, sadly. [laughs]
Yeah, when I wrote that bio it was over a year ago or something. But yeah, that was something that sort of slightly fizzled. That project may come back, so I can’t talk talk about that too much. These things come and go constantly, it’s unbelievable. As a director it’s tough because you don’t really get paid to work on these projects with the writers, so you spend a lot of time developing, and then if the movies don’t happen, you’re sort of–
Yeah. [a beat] Do you have a project you’re working on next, though? And since there is a chain of dogs in your filmography, will there be a dog involved?
There is one project that I’m probably going to shoot this summer. I can’t totally talk about it, but I think there will be a dog in it. [laughs]
It’s not a theme I’m trying to continue, it’s just that there is. But yeah, there’s a bunch of other features I’m attached to or developing with other writers. I’m definitely trying to get something going by the fall.