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Short Films in Focus: Crude Oil

As we distance ourselves while remaining in contact with each other, some of you may be feeling a bit relieved knowing you don’t have to be in the presence of a particular person in your life. Maybe we don’t want to admit it, but there's a silver lining in not having to deal with certain people on a daily basis right now, be they friends, co-workers or family members. If so, Christopher Good’s “Crude Oil” is a movie you can surely relate to in this moment. 

The film deals with a toxic friendship between two women, both in their early twenties and at a crossroads with their lives. Oh, and they both have secret superpowers. Jenny (Andreina Byrne) can make people smell things; Lynn (Tipper Newton) can possess people. They have been keeping these powers quiet from one another while living in separate states. Jenny has been trying to break free from this friendship while Lynn misses having someone in her life she can control. These superpowers come into play just as the friendship is at its most fragile.

Good’s playful film is jam-packed with visual flourishes, creative storytelling shortcuts, and a dense aural landscape that's best appreciated when listening on headphones. He gives the viewer so much information about Jenny and Lynn’s past that it might be hard for some viewers to keep up with the narrative flow, but if you stick with it and give it a re-watch or two, you might find it quite dazzling. The sequence of Jenny trying to figure her way through life, and all the different occupations she dreams of having, is brilliantly designed; the short's final moment is a perfect example of how to take a typical scene of dialogue and turn it into a visual poem. It all builds to a thrilling, cathartic climax that will have you thinking about a toxic friendship you may, or have, had in your life. 

Q&A with writer/director Christopher Good

How did this come about?

I'd made a short film called "Brad Cuts Loose" with the same crew in 2017, and we liked the film and that experience so I guess I just thought "let's push this further." In general I probably write three or four short scripts for every one that I actually make—they can seem like a good idea at the time but then you get to the end and something just feels off, or somehow leaves you empty. Like last summer I spent a month writing a vampire thing and I hit page 28 and it suddenly hit me: "Is this actually lame?" And I tossed it aside and never looked at it again. Anyway, that's all just to say that, for whatever reason, I wrote "Crude Oil" and was immediately sold on it. Although it might be noted that Jenny's "superpower" in "Crude Oil" is taken from one of those abandoned scripts. I feel like for that and other reasons it's never really a waste of time to write something, or try to write something.

We financed the production primarily through a Kickstarter campaign, and then additional costs found their way to my credit cards, where they've been living happily ever after. Casting-wise, Tipper Newton and Josh Fadem are my friends as well as actors I can't get enough of, and I wrote their respective parts specifically for them. Like there's a scene late in the film where Josh's character is flopping around on a bed, in excruciating pain—a moment like that, it's part of the story of course, but I'm also writing it just to see what Josh does with it; he's so good at using his body in surprising ways. Andreina maybe hadn't acted in a speaking role before, but she'd acted in probably a dozen or more music videos we'd made together. Eventually it was just like, "what if you played Jenny in addition to producing this?" And she was wonderful—it just all worked out.

There is an awful lot of coverage here for a short film, in terms of how much we learn about these girls and their past together. What was the biggest challenge there?

From a writing/directing/editing standpoint, that's probably just typical of my style: dense, and frequently tangential, for better or worse. It's just what I like.

So the biggest challenge was really just shooting all that footage, from a logistical standpoint. We shot for five days in October of 2017, then I think for a few more days that November, then Tipper came back to Kansas City for a few more days in January ... it went on for a while. But not in an unpleasant or draining way, at least from my perspective. And definitely not in an unexpected way; we knew it'd be a long haul. We were just picking things up whenever we had the time in between music videos and other productions. And it was a small crew in general but as the shoot went on sometimes it'd literally just be three of us. 

There's a moment in the film where Andreina's character drives from Kansas City to Bloomington, Indiana, starting in the middle of the night. The idea was always to show this through an extremely quick montage of the highway signs she sees on her way. So for months it was like, when are we gonna do this? When are we driving to Indiana? Finally we took off one night at probably like 3 AM or something. We drove, the sun came up—and then we saw it: a sign for Bloomington, Illinois. Which I had no idea existed. We kind of looked at each other and it was like "well ... we haven't really taken many shortcuts on this film, but maybe this can be an exception." So it's a sign for Bloomington, Illinois standing in for Bloomington, Indiana. We ate lunch at a Perkins and came home. 

How did you come up with the ideas to visualize Jenny's superpower?

In the rough cut, it was just Jenny looking really intense and that was kind of it. Clearly we needed more. I think it was pretty late in the game that we shot those inserts you see: the items representing what she's making people smell, falling in slow-motion. We were in the parking lot outside our cinematographer's studio, just dropping cinnamon rolls and cat feces in front of the camera over and over and over.

The inserts definitely helped, but it still needed something. At the time we'd recently made a music video for Okkervil River's "Pulled Up The Ribbon," and in that video there were a few quick shots where I'd tried out a technique that I guess I'd been thinking of. It's really time-consuming. Basically it involves shooting footage of someone, and then printing out that footage frame by frame as color copies. Then I take the color copies and cut out the person from each one, and then place those cut-outs against a green screen and reshoot them all. Then I take each shot of the cut-outs and lay them over the corresponding figures from their respective shots in the original footage. So to me it almost creates a stop-motion effect, but also with the slightly degraded look from being color copies.  

Once I placed all those shots in, it really felt right, for whatever reason. And then our sound designer Danny Bowersox added his effects and really got it there. 

What were some of the special effects challenges?

I think with that stuff, it was again more just time-consuming. Not just time-consuming, but that was usually the toughest factor we'd be up against. 

There's a part where Jenny imagines herself in this sort of marshmallow room, and herself as covered with marshmallows. That was an all-day thing, and Andreina sat for hours in a chair as our production designer Sinjun Strom adhered marshmallows to her. I really like the way it looks, and we did what we could. But, you know, sometimes I watch it and can't help but think "wish the walls had marshmallows too". So I guess that's my ambition for the future: to be in a position where I can have entire walls covered with marshmallows. 

We blew up a cardboard box at one point, that's always fun. This fellow Tim McGill, he's been doing movie explosions for decades, and he was kind enough to drive from Wichita up to Lawrence to do that for us. Some people's passions in life, it's like you can respect them even if you don't totally understand them. But wanting to blow things up for the movies? That one, I 100% understand. And Tim's a real sweetheart besides. 

What has the response to the film been like?

Certainly to me it's been pretty wild, the mileage we've gotten out of "Crude Oil." It toured with the 2019 Sundance Shorts Tour, which plays at theaters all over the U.S. and Canada and some other countries. So essentially we had theatrical distribution for a short film, which was incredible. One thing that sort of blew my mind was American Cinematographer magazine doing a feature and interview with our director of photography Jeremy Osbern. With that it was just like ... they're going to talk about "Crude Oil" in print? It was exciting. And very well-deserved for Jeremy!

Audience-reaction-wise, it's a wide range. Like the people who come up to me or write to me about it are enthusiastic. But you know, it's probably a pretty different film, if not just straight-up aggressive. So I can see where if it's not your cup of tea, it might feel aggressively not your cup of tea.

What's next for you?

Time to make a feature. Obviously it might be a while. I've got a couple scripts in different stages of completion. But yeah- we'll see when it's even possible. 

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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