UI film graduate goes to Sundance
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When Spencer Gillis got a call on Thanksgiving Day from a number he didn’t recognize, the University of Iowa film studies graduate did what many people spending a holiday with loved ones likely would do—he let it go to voicemail. When he finally checked his messages later in the day, he received stunning news.
“It was a representative from the Sundance Film Festival,” he recalls. “She said, ‘We loved your film. You told a powerful story, and we’d like to have it in the festival.’”
Gillis’ 17-minute film, GUN, is about Roy, a suburban, family man who buys a handgun for self-defense following a home invasion and becomes obsessed with mastering the deadly device. The false sense of power he gets by carrying a concealed weapon soon leads him down a dark path.
GUN was one of 65 films selected in the prestigious festival’s shorts category—and one of 8,102 submissions.
“Getting into Sundance is a huge career accomplishment,” says Gillis, who plans to attend the Jan. 17-27 festival in Park City, Utah. “Sundance is part of the top tier of festivals that includes Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto. But Sundance really focuses on emerging talent and originality.”
Gillis, who lives in New Jersey with his wife and son, works as a freelance camera operator in New York. GUN is his directorial debut, but he has worked on more than 20 feature films, including Shame and Blue Valentine, as well as in television and documentaries. The Kansas native originally earned a business degree from a Missouri college, but a year as a loan officer left him feeling unfulfilled.
He had always been interested in filmmaking, so when his then-girlfriend-now-wife moved to Iowa City for a doctoral program in genetics, Gillis quit his job and decided to enroll in UI film courses.
“It was an amazing experience. I totally fell in love with film, and the whole department at Iowa was great,” he says, noting that he relished the long hours he spent in the UI library pouring over old trade magazines and watching movies. “Studying film uses a different part of the brain than business, so it was very exciting for me intellectually and creatively.”
Gillis earned a bachelor’s degree in cinema in 2004, and with encouragement from his mentor, Rick Altman, UI professor emeritus of cinema and comparative literature, he continued in a master’s program in film studies. In 2006, he set out for New York City and started applying for film industry jobs on Craigslist.
“I wore a suit to my first job interview, and the guy laughed at me,” he recalls. “Nobody wears a suit on a film set. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”
The work environment may be casual, but the job is demanding. Twelve-hour days are standard, and the hours are not always good ones (“Some small night scene may take several nights to complete,” he notes. “For the movie Shame, much of the six weeks of filming was done between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m.”)
Most of his film gigs have been as second camera assistant, or “second AC.” Duties include holding the clapper board in front of the camera to sync sound before takes, getting down on the floor with a roll of tape to mark where the action stops, ordering any camera gear needed for specific shoots, and anything else needed to assist the camera team.
“As second AC, you’re always listening to the camera operator who’s talking to the director of photography, and trying to anticipate what will happen next,” he says. “You’re close to the action on the set, more so than most other people working on the film. You hear the director talking to the actors and really see how the process works.”
Though he has been employed primarily on independent film projects, Gillis also has worked in television, including the reality shows Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia and shooting “webisodes” for 30 Rock. He also has worked on some studio films and has been hired as a “day player,” an extra crew member brought in by a studio for big or complex shoots. That was how he landed on the sets of Salt and The Bounty Hunter.
“I don’t have as much fun on those. You just don’t feel so integral to the process,” he says.
Every job, however, has helped inform his work as director—a role Gillis wishes to continue in the future: “I really want to tell stories that blend my time in New York with where I’m from.”
GUN does exactly that. Though not autobiographical, the storyline of Roy’s gun obsession developed in Gillis’ imagination shortly after he and his wife moved to the New Jersey suburbs. Compared to his years living in the city, suburban life seemed particularly quiet, and when a noise on his back deck woke him one night, adrenaline kicked in. It was a false alarm, but it made him realize that he had nothing, not even a bat, to protect himself.
In the film, Roy purchases a gun for protection, and Gillis says he understands the mental shift that occurs in Roy after he first handles the firearm.
“My mom was a cop when I was growing up, and she was on a pistol team. She taught me how to shoot,” he says. “There’s something about the first time you shoot a gun and feeling just how powerful it is. It does something to you. Knowing you can take a life is a heavy responsibility.”
Once Gillis had finished writing the script for GUN, he enlisted the help of friends he had made in the business—including film editors and fellow UI grads Erin Casper and Adam R. Brown—and was able to shoot the film on a very tight budget. A campaign on Kickstarter.com secured enough funding to finish the project and enter it into the Sundance Film Festival.
Gillis says he won’t be basking in the glow of Sundance for long.
“While I’m really excited about getting into Sundance, I can’t sit back and relax,” says Gillis, whose next project is a feature-length script based on his mother’s tenure in law enforcement. “Being in the festival has opened doors, but now I have to work twice as hard.”
To learn more about GUN, see gunshortfilm.com.