There’s a formula to making an indie short film.
You shoot on a weekend. You crew up with volunteers. You power your production with passion, creativity, and a never-say-die attitude. Where money is involved, you cut every single corner.
The Shipment didn’t follow that formula.
The Shipment was directed by Bobby Bala and screens this week as part of the 23rd annual Vancouver Asian Film Festival. The film tells the story of a grief-stricken space trucker (Van Helsing’s Aleks Paunovic) who agrees to traffic 200 alien slaves so that his young daughter won’t have to grow up on a busted ship.
While The Shipment is technically an indie short (it wasn’t produced by a studio, and its run time is less than 30 minutes), it doesn’t have much else in common with the other films that typically populate the indie short category.
With its slick visual effects, big cast, Canadian stars (besides Paunovic, there’s Continuum’s Omari Newton and pro-wrestler turned actor Robert Maillet), sweeping original score composed by Crispin Hands and performed by the Vancouver Film Orchestra, and pulled-from-the-headlines theme (trafficking), The Shipment has the look and feel of a blockbuster film — except its got the beating heart of the prototypical indie project.
Bala grew up in Vancouver and worked in the videogame industry in California and New York before starting Elite HTS, a luxury home theatre seating company, in 2004. In 2010, he was itching to do something a little different, so he enrolled in a five-day filmmaking course at Vancouver Film School.
Bala came out of the program determined to make a film. He drew inspiration from a galaxy far, far away.
“I’m a big Star Wars fan, too, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I make my own Star Wars film?’”
That sounds both audacious and not wholly unique — not everyone who says they want to make their own Star Wars film actually does it.
That’s not to say that The Shipment is a Star Wars fan film. It takes place in its own distinctive universe, although you can see and hear the influence of its progenitor, from the shots of the battered ship docking at a grungy spaceport, to the symphonic score that evokes vintage John Williams.
And where Star Wars tells an epic story about light and dark,The Shipment is a more intimate story about a father and his daughter (played with nuance by Bala’s own daughter, Ishana).
“I wanted to tell the story of an everyday, blue collar guy, and how he’s torn between doing the right thing and what’s needed,” says Bala. It’s a story that people in this galaxy know all too well, notes Bala. “There are people smuggling other people across the border from Mexico. They have their own reasons for doing that work. A lot of them are probably bad people, but some of them are probably good people stuck in a bad situation.”
Bala financed The Shipment through his home theatre seating biz and shot his actors in Vancouver. He employed artists in Mexico, Colombia and Iceland to bring his concept artwork to life after finding Vancouver visual effects companies to be prohibitively expensive.
The Shipment has screened at more than 20 film festivals, including the star-studded Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it played to sold-out crowds at four different theatres.
Bala is happy with the final film, but given the chance to do it all over again, he’d go in with a clearer sense of budget and time.
“We went into it blindly, and we were over our heads,” he says. “It took us 17 days to shoot, when sometimes you could shoot a feature in that time. We finished shooting, and I had all of this green screen footage and I thought, ‘I need to create this world now.’ It ended up taking twice as long as I thought. The post-production itself took three years to finish.”
“You get so deep into it that quitting is never an option,” he adds. “I didn’t know what I was getting into and the only way out is forward and you finally come out the other side.”
Bala’s next project will be only slightly less epic: a romantic drama that he describes as The Notebook meets Slumdog Millionaire. He plans to film it in Vancouver, Chicago, Louisiana and India.
“I like to think big,” he says.
The 23rd annual Vancouver Asian Film Festival runs Nov. 7 to 10 at Cineplex Odeon International Village. Schedule and tickets at vaff.org.