Friday, April 18, 2008

Featured Filmmaker -- Ben Slamka, director of Tympanic

Ben Slamka is the epitome of resourcefulness. When I met him at a local coffee house, he was writing his latest script on an old borrowed laptop, a long-since-outmoded Sony still running on Windows 95 that he refers to as a “dinosaur.” In a day when wannabe screenwriters spend hundreds of dollars on scriptwriting software, Slamka is writing brilliant work on a computer that doesn’t even have enough juice to run those programs. As a senior at the University of Arizona, he managed to make his senior thesis film Tympanic for $5000, most of which was funded by grants, donations, and outside investors. That’s a paltry sum that he estimates could very easily have been three times as much. But he relied on “student perks and discounts,” such as donated 16mm film stock from Kodak. He didn’t let a lack of resources stand in the way of his vision. “You find ways,” he said.

The Cincinnati native and 2007 U of A graduate always wanted to be a filmmaker, but was initially too “afraid of being poor” to take film classes. He started off majoring in health sciences, then physiology, before finally making the leap to film. “I always liked film,” he said. But Slamka has more than just an interest in watching movies – he has an abundance of talent at making them.

Slamka is a writer and director of several shorts, and he has plans to dabble in documentaries soon. The film he’s most proud of, though, is Typmanic, which he first described as “simple, cold and painful” before correcting himself – “simple, cold, and ironic.” Ironic indeed, but it’s certainly a painful film to watch (and hear). Tympanic is about a man imprisoned in a dank and empty prison cell. Fitted with a device on his head that amplifies sounds to an ear-piercing degree, he’s driven to the brink of insanity by a common housefly.

There’s no information given about the prisoner, or when or where the film takes place. “It has three acts,” he said, “but we don’t give you too much.” He feels that some short films suffer from trying to pack in too much story or detail into a small timeframe. “Here, we just have this moment,” he said, but without giving any answers, Slamka’s film raises all sorts of questions.

Slamka and his producer/cinematographer Troy Kurtz shot the film in 6 days at the Tucson Ice hockey rink. They built the set in Slamka’s backyard, a time-consuming process which required thousands of rivets to be individually hand-glued to the walls. He’s quick to credit Kurtz and others who helped out, who accepted payment in the form of beer and pizza. “I couldn’t have done it by myself by any means,” he said, appreciative of the “great effort from people who were excited to work on the film.”

It should come as no surprise that his major stylistic influences include atmospheric geniuses like Fincher, Lynch, and Cronenberg (who he refers to as “the three Daves”). But the theme of Tympanic comes from Slamka’s personal experiences --he was in and out of hospitals for 6 months recovering from a brain hemorrhage, where he remembers “being alone, cold, and in pain.” During this time, he thought a lot about a different kind of imprisonment – being stuck in the hospital or physical therapy, not being able to move forward.

Fully recovered from his illness, Slamka is moving forward very quickly these days. In the Fall of ’08, he will begin working on his M.F.A. at the University of Texas-Austin. His dedication to academics (he graduated suma cum laude with a 3.95 GPA) secured him a spot in the program, but he believes Tympanic is what landed him a very prestigious fellowship.

This is an impressive and stylized film that sucks you in. “You can create a world, that’s the neat thing about film,” he said, before quickly adding “if you do it right.”

With Tympanic, Slamka did it right.

Ben’s picks to see at the festival: The Electric Sleep

Tympanic is part of the Arizona Shorts program, which plays Wednesday April 23rd at 8:00 p.m. at The Screening Room.

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