Director: Steve Blackwood
Steve Blackwood, Sandi Bainum

I'm sure most - not all, but most - of my readers do not have any experience in the entertainment industry, particularly in television and motion picture production. You may have had dreams once upon a time of entering the industry, but you probably saw quickly that the odds would be greatly against you. But what if you wanted to enter the industry all the same? Would it be possible to make any actions that would increase the chance of you reaching your entertainment goal? What could you do if you wanted to become a director, for example? Well, for many years, it was suggested that if you really want to become a director, you have to go to film school. But personally, I have noticed that the students of film school always seem to make movies that are incredibly bizarre and pretentious, unlike the real movies you and I generally prefer to watch. Would a studio executive assign a popcorn movie to a director like that? Unlikely. Well then, what else could an aspiring director do to break into the industry? Well, there is the case of Quentin Tarantino. He never went to film school, yet he became a big director despite doing things towards that goal in an unconventional manner. He worked for several years in a video store, which gave him the opportunity to learn about many kinds of movies, and he dabbled with screenwriting until by a chance meeting he found someone to back his first movie, Reservoir Dogs. The legendary producer Roger Corman, however, was more lenient with people who aspired to direct. With one wannabe director, Corman simply gave the guy a movie camera and told him to practice taking shots for a day on a nearby beach, and at the end of the day the person felt he was ready to direct a bona fide movie.

However, more often than not, a benefactor will not come into the way of someone who wants to direct, and the wannabe director will have to do the lion's share of the work that's needed to make a movie that is his or her own first. And let's face it, making any movie is a lot of tough work. You don't have to just arrange the actors and the crew; you have to juggle additional responsibilities like craft services and toilets for everyone. Plus, you have to not only make sure that the screenplay written by either you or another party is filmable, you have to film it in a competent manner. And... there's a good chance that covering all the costs of the production will drain your savings greatly or entirely. As you can see, making a feature length film of your own would seem daunting to most people. So that is why a number of filmmakers who make their own first movie make it as a short. The advantages of making a short over a feature film are quite considerable. Obviously, it would almost certainly cost a heck of a lot less than making a feature film. The shooting schedule would likely be a lot shorter as well. The behind the scenes coordinating and preparing would be less taxing for the wannabe director as well. Scripting the short would also be much easier in more than one regard, such as there are a wealth of short story ideas that wouldn't make it if they were adapted as a feature length movie. To tell the truth, if I wanted to make a feature film of my own, I would get my feet wet by first making a short of my own; it would be a great learning experience in a number of different ways.

However, there are disadvantages in making a short over a feature length movie. It could be difficult to attract top talent in front of and behind the camera for a short production time for reasons I will get into shortly. If you do get your short finished, you'll almost certainly find it very difficult to Privateget it seen. Yes, there are film festivals everywhere, but you'll see that they more often than not focus on feature length movies instead of shorts. And even if you get your short into a film festival... where could you take the short from there. It's an ungodly task to get a television, streaming, or home video sale and release for a short compared to a feature film. It's small wonder that when shorts get made, they almost always seem to vanish completely afterwards, even if they got a film festival release. So working on a short over working on a feature would seem a waste of time to that top talent I mentioned earlier. Shorts are so often orphaned immediately upon completion that I don't watch them very often, except for stuff like cartoons from the golden age of Hollywood, or the works of Chaplin, Keaton, and others of their field. However, when Steve Blackwood (long time actor on the soap opera Days Of Our Lives) approached me recently to ask me to review his short Private, something piqued my interest. It may have been in the way he approached me, it may have been that it has won a could of awards at festivals, and it may have been that the subject matter of the short - a film noir tribute - but whatever it was, I told him I was intrigued and I would take a look at it. As I said, the short is a tribute to film noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, where Blackwood himself plays a private detective named Jim Calloway. Calloway has seen better times in his personal and work lives, but all the same a client named Sally Danforth (Sandi Bainum) has approached him for help. Danforth is a socialite with a secret past who is married to a U.S. senator, and he has recently gone missing. Calloway has taken on the case, though if you know film noir movies well, you'll know that his subsequent investigation had uncovered a lot of surprises the deeper he dug.

Given the fairly brief running time of Private (just a shade under twenty minutes in length), it probably won't be too much of a surprise (if at all) that the short is completely focused on the two aforementioned characters, the private detective and the socialite. No other characters make an appearance (visually or even audibly) in this story. So a noticeable amount of whether the short as a whole succeeds or fails falls on these characters and the actors who play them. I'll start with the detective Calloway, played by writer/director Blackwood.  Calloway in the ends comes across as adequate. Blackwood's performance seems not too far removed from his soap opera background, feeling a little out of place a few times for this film noir atmosphere. It's also a little casual or befuddled on occasion, and in these times, you don't feel the confidence and assertiveness you'd get from someone like Humphrey Bogart in this role. On the other hand, when Blackwood's character does get angry or annoyed, a spark is ignited, a spark that is convincing and grabs your attention. Towards the end, Blackwood's character also has a monologue revealing a painful part of his past that's been injected by Blackwood with enough trauma and a touch of reluctance to be believable as well. I should also mention that the banter Blackwood has with his co-star Looney feels natural on his side. Looney, on her side, manages to skillfully catch Blackwood's words and then deliver her words back with just as much ease. When her character is momentarily left to her own devices, Looney manages to convey what many women in the classic film noir movies have - a resignation towards feeling that everything is out of their hands and they must simply accept that things probably won't get any better, at least any time soon.

But Looney's socialite character does go beyond this, and she has her own monologue when she brings up her own secrets. It's pretty powerful, not only because Looney sells it with skill, it's also because the secret that is revealed is a secret that you'd never see in one of those classic film noir movies because of the Production Code at the time. However, the sordid details are written to be not very far removed from the Production Code guidelines, so the details as a result seem to fit naturally in this particular film noir narrative. While I'm at it, I'd like to comment on other particulars about Blackwood's script. For starters, I did appreciate that the short didn't start with the cliched setup of when the female client enters the detective's office for the first time and tells of her problems etc. Instead, the short starts near the end of this story for the two characters, where the dame and the detective are wrapping things up, and we learn what has happened in the recent past for them. We are given exposition as this is going on, which is a clever change of pace, though I will admit that was somewhat confused for the first few minutes as I was trying to put all the pieces together. Later on in the short after we've learned what happened in the past concerning the two characters, I did enjoy how subsequently detective Calloway manages to put the final piece together and figure out more or less what happened. I will say no more about that or what happens subsequently, except to say all of it is neatly written in a way that you'd expect to come from one of those classic film noir movies. That includes the ending, which while respecting the Production Code, also makes sure to have that familiar cynical edge that told the fans of these movies that life's problems aren't always wrapped up well for all participants.

Another thing I admired about the script for Private was that except for an opening outdoor shot, all of the story takes place in one room, the detective's office. Though writer/director Blackwood was obviously helped with not keeping things from being boring by the short's brief length, he still made the effort to write enough punch throughout to keep things interesting. As well, in the director's chair he put additional lively touches. He was certainly helped by the black and white cinematography of Jeffrey Buchbinder; with expert lighting, there are some shots combining black, grey, and white that look absolutely eye-catching and out of those old movies he was obviously emulating, like when light is shining on a character's eyes, yet it's darker everywhere else in the shot. Getting back to Blackwood, he has the narrative go by at a brisk pace, and he went to the trouble of putting in enough period detail, such as his detective wearing an old-styled watch. Even the frosted glass door of the detective's office has the detective's name written on it. I do wish that he had managed to get a better hat for his character; what he has instead looks a little goofy. Also, there are a few brief moments when what power he is trying to put into a moment is soured a little by the music of Charlie Barnett (Hell Squad); it sounds too modern for this aged black and white world. But while Private may have those and a few other flaws, this is a short that you can't dismiss in short notice; there is quite a lot to admire here, and I am glad that I eschewed my normal policy of avoiding shorts and giving this one a look. But as you probably know, finding shorts like this to watch can be a challenge at times. Hopefully it will only take you a short time to find this short.

(Posted January 29, 2023)

See also: Consenting Adults, The Hot Spot, Wrong Turn At Tahoe