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ANDREW BLACK: Director of The Snell Show

by Carina Hoskisson

:: UPDATE :: The Snell Show won the Grand Jury Prize for Shorts at the 2003 SLAMDANCE Festival. The following is an interview conducted January 3, 2003 ::

During the production of The Snell Show I drove down to the set out in Utahís West Desert. Only a few decades have passed since the US Government tested bombs here, including those nuclear in design. Whoever told you that dry heat is Ďno problemí has never spent a July day baking under an unrelenting sun and a swarm of equally persistent flies. The Snell Show centers on the detonation of a nuclear bomb by Old Man Snellóto the delight of his wide-eyed party guests. Dog Valley, just miles away from the actual testing sites, is the setting and I donít know if Iíve ever wanted to go on location less. Making movies is slow and dirty work, the set is plagued with dust devils and biting insects, I believe I mentioned the 110 degree heat.

Approaching the huge camera I notice Andrew Black in a rumpled brimmed hat, soft green t-shirt and a fresh sunburn. Andrew rarely talksóoccasionally one word or two escape, usually a name, sometimes a succinct idea. His lips are pursed, hands near his mouth, obviously preoccupied with the progress of the light. Black speaks in low tones to cinematographer Travis before asking wife Anne for a consult. He says three words that no one can decipher and immediately Anne is in motion: fixing, yelling, moving. Everything revolves around this man of middle height, quiet voice, and deep red hair.

Before any film director becomes a household name (or even a working stiff on the B-movie sets,) he must pay his dues by making a short film or two or perhaps dozens. This is Andrewís turn, his and all those who have worked so hard alongside him. Together, they hope to produce something noteworthy, a short that could serve as a calling card, a celluloid resume or maybe even launch a career in the Ďbig time.í

Six months later the film was finished and I sat down with Andrew to talk about what happened on that dusty set, before and after my visit. Much to the directorís delight The Snell Show has been recently been accepted into competition for The Slamdance Festival, a hip movie festival that revels in its Ďoutlawí reputation. We talk in a small apartment, his soft-spoken Scottish accent makes you lean in share the conversation.

CARINA: First off congratulations, itís a beautiful film

ANDREW: Thank you

CARINA: What was it about the story that you thought could translate to film?

ANDREW: I read it in a screen writing class and I really enjoyed the story. I felt it was very visual and there was no dialogue at all in the story. I saw it in my head and I thought it would work well as a short film. I had been looking for something to make with a subject matter that was festival friendly. Something that was very short that was doable for us with something in its subject matter that was a possibly a little bit dark or twisted or quirky and it fulfilled all of those really well. I thought that if we could pull it off it would just work really well.

CARINA: Did you run into any issues in post-production?

ANDREW: We shot at the end of June. We edited it quite quickly working over the summer, obviously. We had a rough cut probably a month after we finished shooting. As is usual, from having a pretty finished cut, it then took another couple of months until we actually got it finished. Our first rough cut was about eight minutes. I was quite alarmed, I only wanted it to be six Ĺ minutes long. We trimmed another minute so that the final cut with credits is just under eight.
We changed the ending slightly. The ending as it was written and shot had some sorts of closing comments. There were additional punch lines and even though they were kind of funny I didnít think the film needed it. I had changed my idea for the ending from something that was very big and happy to something that was completely dead and empty. So the comments and little vignettes werenít required so we cut them out. Then we trimmed back some other stuff. It was kind of hard. A lot of the slow motion photography was so pretty to look at but we had to cut each of those shots down.

CARINA: It seems that you had a good editing sensibility going into the project.

ANDREW: Maybe. I was just being realistic. Even going into shooting one thing you have to remember is that short films play very long. Youíd be surprised how long seven minutes is. You think of that in terms of a feature film it seems like nothing at all, like a couple of scenes. Probably the most common fault of student filmmaking is length. Things go on longer than they should. Iíve always tried to be conscious of that. I knew in the writing that I had to keep everything as brief as I could. I knew that Iíd be shooting things that werenít scripted because they looked good. I had always determined that I was going to cut anything. When I went into the editing room with Alexander [the editor] the first thing I said to him was ďI may tell you differently in a weekís time but right now anything can go to make it as short as possible but still working well and flowing nicely together.Ē I may enjoy sitting there watching someone being blown by the wind in slow motion for a minute but the average person doesnít want to see it for more than ten seconds.

CARINA: At what point does the audience become a factor in your work?

ANDREW: We did show it to people, sort of test screenings I guess, though I didnít really change anything because of it. This film in particular, though some of my other films too, arenít maybe as obvious as some and I like that. I like that some of the audience will watch the film and wonít get it.
Iíve shown it to some people and they donít get it, they donít understand what has happened. Iím Ok with that because I think itís a minority that that is true. The experience for the other percentile that does get it is better because it is subtler.
A lot of The Snell Show's attraction is the way it handles the material. It doesnít shove it down your throat, it sort of unfolds and you gradually understand whatís happening. Itís not obvious. So there were some concerns like showing the reflection of the bomb in the sunglasses. That was an issue that went back and forth, from more blatant to subtle. I was always on the subtler side. In the end it was more obvious that I would have liked it to be because a lot of people we showed it to just didnít see it. Some people still donít see it. Which seems so amazing to me because itís so up there and big. I was nervous about the effects shots. Effects are something that Iíve always been wary of using. Even very large budget films often fall down with effects no matter how good CG is you can still tell CG. Very rarely is it used effectively.

CARINA: Filmmakers seem to underestimate the audienceís ability to tell CG from reality.

ANDREW: Yes. So with this film, knowing Iíd have to have some kind of special effects shots, we had discussed using the blue screen, actually seeing the blast over the audienceís shoulders and heads. I did not want to do that. I knew we couldnít pull it off believably or seamlessly. So the reflections seemed a subtle way to do it. It was easy to do in the individual shots. We looked at doing it in some of the wider shots or moving shots but there were too many small mistakes that didnít line up. It just wasnít worth doing it.

CARINA: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?

ANDREW: I am a perfectionist, Iíd say yes. With those shots I was happy to lose them. Iíd have done the film with reflections if we had to, but luckily we didnít.

CARINA: Is this (Director of Photography) Travis Clineís first project?

ANDREW: No, heís done a ton of stuff. For a student photographer he has an incredible body of work. Heís the only DP Iíve ever worked with, just because he knows his stuff very well. Weíre good friends outside these kinds of things. Heís very very keen. Of all the other students, in any department, heís the keenest person. Heís always reading up, he acknowledges that he has so much to learn but heís just very devoted. He works incredibly, incredibly hard.
We prepare a lot before; going through story boards together, even just thinking of shots, initially Iíll bounce those ideas off him. Before we go into the shoot Iíll make sure that he knows exactly what each shot is going to be. If there are any problems we try to get them worked out beforehand. We work really well together.

CARINA: You adapted the screenplay and directed. Would you do it again in the future?

ANDREW: I donít know. If the material was appropriate for me to adapt. Iíve only worked on one film that didnít have much to do with a script at all, it was quite nice in a way. It certainly has advantages, adapting, youíre much more connected to it, and you donít have to ask somebody for advice on what these things mean or interpretations. But at the same time itís probably healthier to have more creative input rather than solely you. Iíd like to work on a longer length project, so itís less likely that I will be the sole writer.

CARINA: The Snell Show seems very American to me. The expanses the landscape, the theme, do you view it as an American kind of movie?

ANDREW: I wanted it to feel very very American. Originally it was even more so. We had a flag in there. There are a few remnants left, but there were a lot of iconic American images, which I pulled back a little bit on because, I didnít want the film, itís not a critical moral film. It depends on how you interpret it: certainly nuclear weapons, possibly war in general. I didnít want it to seem too anti-American. If itís anti anything it should be anti first world, developed countries. The material itself is very evocative of the fifties cold war time. It was wonderful from a design point of view; costumes, props and of course the landscape is very typically American. One thing I was trying to avoid was to make the film too sort of redneck-ish. Lots of people who read the script described it as Ďhicks exploding bombs.í I didnít want that at all. I didnít write it to read like that. I was kind of concerned that the film didnít come across too like that. I wanted these people to appear very nice, friendly, like normal people. Which in my experience is what most Americanís are like.

CARINA: Youíre not an American

ANDREW: No, Iím not. Iím from Scotland. So Iím coming at it with probably a slightly different view.

CARINA: Which directors have really influenced you?

ANDREW: Iím a film junkie. I tend to like pretty much everything, at least in some way. My favorite director by far is Akira Kurosawa.

CARINA: Do you fancy yourself an epic filmmaker?

ANDREW: Iíd love to do an epic. Other directors: David Lean. Iíd gone through a period of watching Lawrence of Arabia many times a month. I think a lot of those landscape shots. And there is minimal dialogue, The Snell Show definitely had some moments in there. Other directors: the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam.

CARINA: Do you see yourself doing fantasy or science fiction, like Brazil?

ANDREW: Iíd love to do more fantasy than sci-fi. I think sci-fi has been done very well, but its also been done so often in the past 20 years. Iíd love to do fantasy because it hasnít really been done well, even Lord Of The Rings. I think there are a lot of fun ways that you could take fantasy rather than the traditional epic, kind of over-blownÖ

CARINA: Öhobbits and elves?

ANDREW: Yes. Hobbits and elves are cool but Iíd love to tackle them in a slightly less traditional way, which would maybe even be more complicated. I donít know if the world is ready for that yet.

CARINA: You worked closely with your wife on The Snell Show. Do you collaborate in work often?

ANDREW: Yes, Anne produces most of the things Iíve made. She also production designs all of them and often costume designs too.

CARINA: Is it difficult drawing the line between work and home?

ANDREW: Not really, weíre both so obsessed about film and making films is what we talk about all the time anyway. There isnít much of a line. Itís all on the film side. We work well together. We know each otherís sensibilities. Sheís one of the few creative people that I can work with who I can trust implicitly. The hardest thing for me is to be everywhere at once, or at least having an eye over everything that is happening. Itís so nice to have Anne working around all of that. I donít really have to be checking up or she doesnít have to constantly be asking my opinion, she knows my tastes better then anyone. In that way itís very productive.

CARINA: How did you feel when you were accepted to Slamdance?

ANDREW: Very surprised. I found out at the same moment when I checked my email that I had been rejected from Sundance and accepted to Slamdance. It was very nice. I was a little bit down about the Sundance thing, but Iíve got over that. I was just really really excited. At that time I didnít know I was in the competition. We just thought I was in the festival. I kind of thought I was probably in the lounge, which is a non-competitive section where most of the shorts are. I wasnít told until the week after that in fact I was in the competition and that is very very exciting.

CARINA: Would you classify The Snell Show as a student film?

ANDREW: Yes. We are so lucky at BYU at having access to the level of equipment that we do. I think there is no other film school, well BYU is not a film school, but even the major film schools donít have access to the kind of stuff that BYU students do. I wanted to take advantage of that and make something that was as professional as possible. That is why we shot on 35 MM, used some nice equipment and spent a lot of money on it. It certainly is a student film. All the people who worked on it, with a couple of exceptions, are students.

CARINA: It is unusual for a student film to be accepted to Slamdance.

ANDREW: It is. I donít know all of the statistics. I do know that this is the first year that there have been two student films accepted into the competition section. The other student film is also from BYU. Jared Hess made a film called Peluca, which is also a sort of quirky comedy that is very very good.

CARINA: What outcome would you like from the screenings at Slamdance? And what is the wildest?

ANDREW: The wildest dream isnít really one that I entertain. But in previous yearsóI am a pragmatistóthere are examples of directors of even shorts getting feature deals.

CARINA: Slamdance has a good tradition: Soderburgh, even Swingers had been accepted.

ANDREW: Slamdance is great because there are a lot of really important people sitting on cushions on the floor. Itís definitely a good proving ground. I think the features are getting even less attention than the shorts. The director who made Duece Bigelow was offered that project on the basis of his Slamdance short. So thatís really exciting to think about. There have been a lot of success stories out of Slamdance. A lot of the shorts have gone on to win Oscars and awards at Cannes. Iím not planning on getting anything like that. If anything happens that would be nice. The only thing I really do kind of expect is attention from other film festivals. I believe thatís quite common for festivals to approach you directly and say ďWe want your film in our festival.Ē That would be wonderful. Then I wouldnít have to go through the submission process. And sometimes they fly you to the festival, which would be nice. Weíll see. Whatever happens, its great to be there. There are awards but I donít know what our chances of winning are. If we do, incredible. If not, there are only twelve shorts in the competition so even getting in is a big thing. Just being there is great. Incredible.

The Slamdance Film Festival takes place January 18th-25th in Park City Utah. Check them out at HBS & will cover the festival and deliver the best of Slamdance to youóno moon boots or sub-zero coats required. For more on The Snell Show visit

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originally posted: 01/12/03 20:32:52
last updated: 09/23/05 17:29:48
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