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The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam

By Geoffrey Maingart

Hollywood, CA. (The Hollywood Times) 8/23/2014. ~

The art of the short film is a challenge for any fine filmmaker. A career can be launched quickly when an artist can make a profound statement in a short span of time. Arlene Bogna has surely made her mark with this brilliant and surreal film that tells a wonderful story completely and solely visually.

The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam poster
The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam poster

 By Geoffrey Maingart

Hollywood, CA. (The Hollywood Times) 8/23/2014. ~

The art of the short film is a challenge for any fine filmmaker.  A career can be launched quickly when an artist can make a profound statement in a short span of time.  Arlene Bogna has surely made her mark with this brilliant and surreal film that tells a wonderful story completely and solely visually.

The tale is about “a desert traveler driven by desire and ambition who embarks on a mystical journey in pursuit of redemption.” Snake Oil Sam is a maker of potions and magical elixirs who in the story is frustrated to the point of exhaustion to create the perfect potion and win the approval of an eclectic group of desert dwellers.  He is visited by ethereal spirits portrayed by three muses and wakes to divine inspiration.

snakeArlene describes the film as a desert steampunk fantasy featuring the music of West Indian Girl.  The music has as much to do with the story as the tale itself.  The film was shot entirely in the desert in Joshua Tree in Southern California when it was 110 degrees in the shade.  Even the camera had to be cooled down between takes with ice.  Originally pitched as a music video, Arlene saw immediately that this was a much bigger story and could become a visual fantasy.  The film evokes tones of the Sergio Leone westerns and for this writer it brings back memories of the commune scene from Easy Rider.  Arlene was also inspired by the desert scenes in the 1970 film; Vanishing Point.  The scenery is harsh and the characters are otherworldly.

snake2As Arlene writes, “To make the film feel both anachronistic and timeless, I experiment with dreamlike visuals, time, and costume.  The style is influenced by Steampunk with just a hint of Burning Man, a love letter to the tribal dance community and its subculture, music and the self expression it encourages, the sincere attempt to reconnect with earth and a sense of tribe.”  Great moments happen without words.

The main character is wonderfully portrayed Zane Byrdy, who landed the role shortly after moving to Los Angeles.  The role contains no dialogue and the actor visually has to show with intensity his need for redemption.  His character captures you from the beginning.  The impressionistic performance by everyone is totally captivating.  The costume design is completely eclectic.  The original score by Vivek Maddala drives the film.  The film allowed for amazing artistic freedom, musical colors and a visual tone that is truly unique.  Put together by a dedicated band of filmmakers, the caravan escaped to the wilderness of Joshua Tree and in days shot a poetic, surreal canvas that is The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam.

The film has already participated in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival at the prestigious Cannes Short Film Corner, Dances with Films, and the Madrid International Film Festival.

It is always fascinating to have a chance to speak with the director of any film and understand the choices, back stories and anecdotes about the production process.  I was able to spend a couple of hours with director and writer, Arlene Bogna.  Besides being a delightful and fascinating person, she provided an insight into the film making process that became The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam.  First and foremost was the passion by all involved in participating in an indie film project that everyone believed in.  The original idea came from Anthony Ferranti who co-wrote the script and along with Romell Foster-Owens produced the film.  The story was inspired by the music of West Indian Girl and Taboo.  That and the solitude of the desert created the perfect place emotionally.  As Arlene explained, it was a safe haven or sanctuary and the perfect rugged location in Joshua Tree.  They scouted the desert and found two spots that were used for the film.

Arlene storyboarded the whole shoot and some things changed with opportunity.  Originally Sam’s shack was to be a building and they had a chance to find a teepee that provided the perfect location for his laboratory.  Producers agreed with the change even though the shooting space was somewhat limited.

As in most film shoots many decisions are made with the question “what if.”  Light had a lot to do with the answers as they wanted to have the long road to the commune and the golden and blue natural light added to the sense of the passage of time.  It also creates the feeling of going to nowhere.  Turquoise is the color of the film and is an important color in Indian culture.  The color of Sam’s truck was turquoise.  At the end of the film Sam has to make a choice of direction when they get to a fork in the road and Arlene leaves the reason for the choice up to the audience.  Always remembering that the film is about redemption and acceptance Sam’s purpose is to win over the tribe.  Arlene said that the position of the sun had a lot to do with the style of filming at each location and the limited time shoot often was about chasing the sun as everyone had to make the film in the middle of nowhere in harsh conditions.

Billy Peake provided the final magic as the editor of the film and brilliantly created the story without words.  It was the editing and the wonderful musical score that drives the story.  As Arlene stated, it was important to let emotion play itself out.  Scenes can be longer or shorter depending on the musical score and the pacing changes with song.

Arlene explained that short films are shown mostly at film festivals and that one of the most exciting moments was the showing here at the Chinese Theater.  Most everyone donated time and equipment to make the film and it was a true labor of love and a testament to the filmmaker.  When you have finite resources, one has to make the best use of the assets.  There was a short window to do the shoot because of availability of people.  Arlene is planning a feature film about an Apache trained warrior avenging the death of her family.  She plans to bring back the character of Snake Oil Sam in the feature.

For more information, Go to www.TheBalladofSnakeOilSam.com , www.VistaPointPictures.com and The film trailer is available for viewing at  http://www.arlenebogna.com/The-Ballad-of-Snake-Oil-Sam

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