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Short Films in Focus: the Ref

With school back in session and many students enrolled in after school sports or other competitive programs, Peter and Ian Edlund’s “the Ref” feels like the right short film for this month, particularly for anyone involved in education. All teachers are referees on many levels and with the political storms that have been brewing over the last few years with regards to curriculum and content in our nation’s public schools, the main character here feels like a kind of spokesperson for the frustration our teachers feel over every spectator, be it parent or politician, trying to take control of the classroom. 

The setting here, though, is a second-grade basketball game. Drew (co-writer and producer Ian Edlund) has just lost his mother and has to do double duty as a referee for the game while his co-worker makes little effort to be there on time. Meanwhile, one of the head coaches, Campbell (Frank Boyd), tries his best to console Drew over his mother’s death, but clearly has ulterior motives for doing so. As the game begins, the less hospitable onlookers continually try to undermine Drew’s calls, decisions and demeanor throughout the game. He can only maintain his composure for so long as everyone tries to tell him how to do his job. 

Although this has more to do with grief than just stress on the job, I still always liken this sort of thing to an episode of “Fawlty Towers,” in which the put-upon professional has no choice but to finally lash out at everyone he’s supposed to be serving and call them out on their awful behavior. We can feel the catharsis taking place and we often wish we could be as quick with our tongues in real life in similar situations. The Edlunds make a smart choice in keeping the hecklers mostly offscreen, making them more like an aural cabal of irrational expectations and demands constantly feeding itself into Drew’s psyche as he continues to process the bigger picture.

I’ve always been a sucker for any movie or TV show about very specific and stressful jobs. “The Ref” feels like it comes from a real place, made by people who have been there. 

Q&A with writer/director Peter Edlund

How did this production come about? 

My brother sent me the first draft of this script out of the blue. I had no idea he was working on it, but it resonated with me immediately. I had told him that if we made another short film it would need to take place in a single room, which technically it did. I was both scared and excited by the scope of the project. I sent the script to our producer Megan Leonard to see if she thought it would be possible and she brought the project to Sevana Films, Sons of Rigor, and Farcaster Films who ultimately helped us get it made. The story is so niche to Ian and I’s interests while also being a huge pain in the ass to execute. I really expected someone to finally say, “No, it’s too much,” at every stage but the whole team was all-in. It still feels surreal that we got to make it in the way we did.  

You nailed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways parents try to influence referees or teachers by getting into their business and to curry favor with them out of desperate insecurity. What, if any, personal experience are you bringing to this film?   

Ian and I grew up playing basketball, soccer, and baseball so we brought a lot of our own experiences from those years. Less specific moments or characters, but lots of little details. I spent a lot of time in gyms as a player, a fan, and even a ref for a little bit. Our dad coached us growing up so we had a lot of different angles on the world even within our own family. 

Youth sports are endlessly fascinating to us. All of the narratives that people bring into this space that’s both communal and competitive. There are so many stories happening simultaneously in whatever direction you look. It can be very high stakes or incredibly dull depending on your connection to what’s happening, and I find that combination of energies really compelling. 

There’s a specific type of mania that inflicts some parents when it comes to their kid’s athletic careers. Emotions dominate while logic and context go out the window—a great place to be for a dramatic story. 

I feel like a lot of people in education can relate to this. Have you heard reactions from anyone who might be in this kind of situation? 

No one in teaching specifically, but I can definitely see how some of these experiences would apply. We’ve heard from a lot of people who are involved in youth sports as coaches, parents, refs, players, etc. ... It’s been very fun and a little terrifying hearing other people’s stories.  

Shooting it in 4:3 (correct me if I’m technically wrong on that) is an interesting choice. What went into that decision?

There was a creative reason and a practical reason behind this. Creatively, it helped communicate the oppressive nature of the environment for our lead character. As things progressively fall apart over the course of the film, there isn’t anywhere for him to hide. It’s all very public. So taking away some of the horizontal space of the frame felt like cutting off those escape angles. I wanted to really drop into how claustrophobic and suffocating the gym feels for him. 

Practically, shooting 4:3 helped us have more control over the frame. Maintaining the illusion of a gym filled with people was one of our biggest challenges with a short film budget. The narrower aspect ratio helped us focus the image on the characters in the foreground and create the chaos we needed in the background with our available resources. 

Some might see the ending as wish fulfillment for Drew and not the reality. Were there other endings in mind? 

It’s funny because the ending of the film is very much inspired by a real experience my brother had with an ump at a little league game. It’s the section of the film where we had the most direct inspiration. I don’t know if there were other endings necessarily, but the ending is where we did the most work in the writing and the editing of the film. Different beats and moments were being shifted throughout the process. It took us a long time to find it. We had versions that were much more explicit about Drew’s headspace and some of the themes of the film but it ultimately felt right to let the images and performances speak for themselves. 

What’s next for you?

We’re looking for financing for a feature script based on our previous short “Mixtape Marauders,” and Ian and I are deep into writing our next not-quite-a-sports-movie-but-also-totally-a-sports-movie feature project.

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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