Interview with Filmmaker Robert Steven Mack (CHISEL)

CHISEL played to rave reviews at the June 2021 BLACK & WHITE Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

Chisel is the fourth of five dance or dance-related films I’ve produced as an undergrad at Indiana University, from where I just graduated with a degree in Ballet (with a double major in History and a minor in Classics to keep myself busy!). My first film, Shift, won “Best Film” at your festival last year! However, Chisel is the first film I directed solo. The genesis for the idea was that I wanted to make a film version of the Arabian pas de deux from “The Nutcracker” set in an industrial setting. I also knew from early on that I wanted to shoot on black and white film. I had begun setting the wheels in motion with some collaborators at The Media School when COVID struck and everything got derailed. Even as I was home from school and uncertain of the future, I was intent on still bringing the idea to life. Since I predicted social distancing restrictions, I wanted to do a pas de deux without touching. That’s when the film slowly became darker and more topical, a meditation on the loneliness and fear many of us felt during the pandemic.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

Roughly a year. I wrote a treatment last summer and set the wheels in motion for pre-production in the beginning of the Fall, when I returned to IU. Finding a collaborator in Caleb Allison, the cinematographer and editor, was very fortunate. He loves shooting on film and had an eye for what I was going for. We shot it in late November over two days. It was a very cold day for the dancers! Once Caleb and I settled on a picture lock, I worked with Isaak Liu and Luke Chernchenko to finish the score and sound design. They both worked quickly so we were able to get it done in February.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Contemplative and melancholy.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Everyone who worked on the film is either a student or faculty. We all have busy lives so scheduling is always tricky. Apart from that, I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to make it because of COVID restrictions. But we worked safely and everyone was accommodating.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I’m thrilled. It’s the first time that I’ve seen the artistic choices I made as a director recognized by an audience. Especially as a novice director, that’s important to hear. I was also happy that everyone’s work, from Alex and Anderson to Caleb, Isaak and Michael Vernon, the choreographer, was recognized, because it deserves to be. Everyone worked for free and put their time and energy into this.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

Probably when I was 5 or 6. I’ve always loved movies. The first movie I recall seeing in a theatre was The Polar Express by Robert Zemeckis. There’s an amazing shot early in the film where the camera appears to go through a book the main character has pulled out. You see the letters backwards in the foreground, as if you’re staring from the flip side of a mirror. That image has always stayed with me, for whatever reason.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

That’s a tough question! Maybe Back to the Future or Top Hat.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

It makes the whole submission process so much easier. It’s amazing to have all these festivals at your fingertips.

9. What is your favorite meal?

I love a good steak or meatloaf. Those who know me, know that I’m a stickler for a good dessert – cheesecake or a souffle. Not very dancer-like perhaps but there you have it!

10. What is next for you? A new film?

More dancing and more films, hopefully. I think I’ll always be making films one way or another. I go bananas if I’m just sitting around without a project to keep my mind occupied. I really want to do a musical on 16 mm or Super 8. This idea will keep me up at night until I find a way to do it.

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