William J. Stribling, a graduate of NYU’s prestigious film program, screened his offering Beyond Belief at this year’s Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City. The film, though billed as a drama, contains elements of prophetic humor as it treats the life of a down and out magician. Along with his assistant, the protagonist endures the humiliation of living life as a wash out, but his skill of turning heartbreak into moments of playful wonder help turn the surprisingly intricate plot on its head. Even more surprising is the short’s snappy dialogue and aesthetic quality.
ArtsVegas : Did you audition many magicians for the film before arriving at your lead?
WJS: I actually wrote the film originally for a brilliant magician named Todd Robbins. Stephen Guice, the actor in the film that plays the bartender/cashier, brought me to an off-Broadway play called Play Dead when I was living in New York. Todd was the star of the show (which he co-wrote with the show’s director, Teller, of Penn and…). In the show he eats a lightbulb, and it’s not actually a magic trick at all, he just eats a lightbulb.
The early drafts of Beyond Belief had this stunt in it, but Todd Robbins wasn’t able to do the film due to some scheduling conflicts, so we set off to hold formal auditions for the role. I figured it would be relatively easy to find a magician with acting chops in the New York area. Boy was I wrong. We auditioned half a dozen actors who claimed to do magic, but nobody blew us away. Until one day we got a submission from a guy called R.J. Lewis, who had a couple Broadway, film, and TV credits, and after looking up videos on the web of him performing magic, I knew we had to get this guy.
He came in and auditioned for us, and I told him that we just wanted to see him act because I’d looked him up and could tell he was clearly a very skilled magician. He couldn’t resist throwing in some tricks while he was reading the part, and he blew us away. I was honestly very close to scrapping the project and writing something fresh for my NYU thesis until R.J. saved us. He read the script and went nuts for it, and it was a match made in heaven. After R.J. first signed on to the project, my crew and I were thrilled, of course.
We had been desperate to find a magician who would be up to par with the script. But then it kind of hit me, like, “Shit, now this film better be awesome because this magician is so awesome.” I definitely felt the pressure from that, but it forced everybody to bring their A-game, and I think it paid off. Everybody on set, cast, and crew, elevated their performance after seeing R.J. perform. He kind of infused his own passion into the piece, and I think it really plays on screen. Rather than try and fit R.J. into the role that was written for somebody else, I reworked the entire script to tailor it to R.J.’s repertoire and his strengths as a magician. So, in the end, the lightbulb-eating stunt was cut, but I think it was meant to happen this way.
Although your film was screened under the drama category, it seems to have all the elements of a comedy, though perhaps dark comedy. Can you speak on film genre and your project?
Yeah, I thought it was interesting that we ended up in a category called “Drama: Emotional Baggage,” since we’ve screened at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York City, the Comedy program at the Orlando Film Festival, and we were nominated for Best Comedy at the Super Shorts Int’l Film Festival in London. But then I thought about it, and I’m actually kind of flattered that we weren’t just shoved into a comedy category because there are some laughs in the film. I think the story is pretty dark, and it’s definitely a drama at its core, so I appreciate the Dam Short Film Festival for seeing the deeper meaning and the seriousness of the film. That said, I definitely agree with you that it fits into the “dark comedy” category, and that’s what I intended all along. Everything I write falls into that category; I guess I have a twisted view of the world that I can’t seem to shake. But audiences respond well to it, so we must be doing something right.
Short film seems to pose its own challenges and opportunities. Any that came to light during the making of Beyond Belief?
I think the biggest advantage to making this as a short film has to do with the budget. We were able to make a 19-minute film that looks like a more expensive film than it is. If we attempted to shoot this story at the feature level, we would’ve had to cut a lot more corners than we already did and the film wouldn’t have the polished look that I think we were able to achieve. Also, I feel like I was able to take risks that would’ve been much more difficult to pull off in a 90 to 100-minute movie.
You describe this film as your “love letter to magic.” Has your love of magic been enlivened by this project or put to bed? In other words, do you see this as a nostalgic exploration of a childhood infatuation or perhaps an ongoing theme for future work in some way, perhaps less
My love for magic has definitely been enlivened by this experience. I used to be really into it, and I’ve always loved it, but working with R.J. really inspired me to start tinkering in it again, just for fun, like for friends at parties. And anybody who comes over to my apartment is subject to me practicing my tricks on them. At the same time, though, it’s definitely a nostalgic piece, too. When you see a really great magician, you’re reminded of that amazing feeling the first time you saw a trick that you couldn’t explain. So far I think that audiences who see Beyond Belief for the first time are pretty well reminded of that feeling. My girlfriend makes fun of me because almost every screenplay or idea I come up with lately is either about magic or a magician makes an appearance. Whatever, though, I love it, and it’s something I feel I have a lot to say about. I recently moved out to California for grad school, so if anybody wants to bring me to the Magic Castle, I’ll be forever in your debt.
Where do you hope to go with future projects short or long?
Last summer I directed an indie feature called Lies I Told My Little Sister written by Judy White and Jonathan Weisbrod and shot by cinematographer Alex Gallitano, who shot Beyond Belief. Dylan Glatthorn, who wrote the amazing score for Beyond Belief, is scoring Lies as well. The film is a family drama/comedy starring Lucy Walters, Donovan Patton, Ellen Foley, Michelle Petterson, and Alicia Minshew. There are a handful of crossovers in casting, crew, and locations between Lies and Beyond Belief, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. I was really lucky to work with such amazing people on my short film that I wanted to use as many of them for the feature as possible. I’m also writing a feature film with R.J. Lewis that we hope to get made in a year or so. It’s kind of a logical follow-up to Beyond Belief, thematically and otherwise. The plot and characters are different, though, so it’s not like a feature version of Beyond Belief or anything like that. It’s based on an idea R.J. had, and I’m really loving the process of writing with him. I think it’s going to be a great film, and I can’t wait to shoot it.
ArtsVegas: Covering Las Vegas Art and culture since 2009.