Groton artist Kolton Harris debuts new short film Saturday at Conn College
In the arts world, mastery of the elevator pitch is almost an essential tool for an aspiring filmmaker to obtain funding or representation for a project. The idea is simple: you have to convey a story concept that sufficiently excites a producer or financier in a fresh way but using familiar comparisons to similar (and already profitable) projects — and do so in the brief time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to the next.
For example, let's say a young, Groton-based artist named Kolton Harris has an idea for a short film centered around a song he recorded called "Nightmare." As the elevator door glides shut behind him, he might face the mogul sharing the car with him and say, "Imagine Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' or "Bad' videos, but instead of Jon Landis and Martin Scorsese directing, it'd be Jordan Peele and Alfred Hitchcock. And the tune, in the activist spirit of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On,' is a hooky, contemporary (but uneasy) hip hop wake-up call in a world gone mad."
Maybe the exec has already gotten off a floor earlier than Harris anticipated and he ends his spiel talking to an empty elevator or maybe the bigshot says, "Hmm. I like it. Have your people call my people ..."
The thing about Harris — the former longtime director of New London's Writer's Block Ink, now working as a program director for the CT Office of the Arts and still serving as head of the Block's board of directors — is that he's equally adept at music, video, theater, dance and writing. He's also possessed of calm, quietly confident self-awareness.
Sure, he COULD spend weeks or months trying to set up or arrange pitch sessions. Or, in far less time and with far less left to chance, he could simply DO the project on his own.
Which is exactly what happened with "Nightmare."
The premiere screening of the short film takes place Saturday in Evans Hall at Cummings Arts Center on the campus of Connecticut College, where Harris was a 2014 graduate. The event will include opening music from Mark Little and a post-film Q&A/talkback with Harris and others.
Not a horror film
The film is about an evening's trip to the movies for a college junior suddenly transformed into titular menace in a fashion that leaves the student uncertain about how "woke" she really is.
Harris actually recorded the tune around which the film is structured a few years ago with longtime musical partners Jaden Williams and Zac Koval.
"I had the song in the vault for a little while," Harris says earlier this week by phone. "It was finished before I released (his 2020 EP) '4 Freedom,' but it didn't work for that, so I'd been sitting on it, letting it marinate a while."
That the multi-hyphenate Harris is fluent at all sorts of artistic endeavors and media tools means he doesn't necessarily think in terms of a project in a singular sense — writing a play as opposed to recording an album as opposed to making a film — but rather in whichever configuration of any or all works best.
Previous song/video projects by Harris, including "4 Freedom" and the back-to-back singles of "Black Joy" and "Another One Dead," have earned positive reviews throughout the northeast. The video for "Black Joy" won the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 Black Haven Film Festival. "Black Joy" has also been accepted at the Norwalk Film Festival later this month.
"I'm a storyteller at the core and I'll use whatever it takes to communicate," he says, "Some would say our culture is oversaturated with input and possibilities, but I'm still intrigued by this avenue I can occupy with cinematic and musical ideas."
Harris kept returning to the concepts of Gaye and Jackson, holding what he calls "metaphorical conversations with my heroes." He definitely wanted a menacing and foreboding tone to the film, but he also channeled other influences.
"I didn't want 'Nightmare' to be as graphic as what Jordan Peele has done, but I did want to take some cues from his work in how he explores our present condition as humans," he says. "I tried to stay away from making a horror film — I don't like the idea of scaring people — but by marrying the suspense elements of Hitchcock and Peele with my own ideas, I started to find my own voice and point of view."
As for the film itself, while Harris was theoretically and artistically open to the expansive possibilities of a longer film, he also worked with awareness of budget and contemporary attention spans.
"It's important to capture people's attention in fast-paced and efficient ways but also deep and lasting ways," he says. "So, again, Michael Jackson served as a template in the length department. Mine is a pretty straight forward story so there wasn't a need for a bunch of exposition or depth of character."
The "Thriller" video directed by Landis is just shy of 14 minutes long and Scorsese's "Bad" runs 18 minutes. "Nightmare" runs about 12 minutes.
Once he was committed to the project, Harris worked quickly. He tweaked the original recording of "Nightmare" over the summer and wrote the script in September. A casting call didn't provide the personnel Harris needed — "No one showed up," he laughs ruefully.
A little help from ...
So he turned to old friends: choreographer Lillian Cook and producer/production manager Juanita Austin from New London's Cultured AF Studio. Wylie McCann and Mia Barbuto joined Harris in the cast along with dancers Shya Fine (Stonington High School) and Tatiana Pemberton (New London High School). The editor and director of photography was Gary Falanga with help from Erik Durr, Zac Koval and Brandon Parker. The score was composed by Williams.
Harris also credits Lorraine McBride and Mystic Luxury Cinemas for "the space to create without the burden of financial responsibility."
Once everything was in place, Harris says the shooting and editing went quickly and they were able to meet a symbolic goal of finishing the film and arranging Saturday's screening during the anniversary week of the debut of "Thriller."
"'Nightmare' is very much a labor of love from the hearts of everyone involved," Harris says. "The message is a call to action for us to wake up and rewrite the narrative as a whole in a way we can be influential to our generation in an expansive way. Maybe others will create art that becomes cultural landmarks in the fashion of 'What's Going On' and 'Thriller.' Those have survived and still inspire people like myself who want to create in a positive way."
If you go
What: Premiere screening of "Nightmare," a new musical short film by Kolton Harris, with opening music from Mark Little and a post-film interactive Q&A with the filmmaker
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Evans Hall, Cummings Art Center, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: "Pay what you want" donations, all proceeds go to Writer's Block Ink
To RSVP and for more information: www.koltonharris.com