October 26, 2017
Not Short on Talent
An Interview with Gridlock director: Ian Hunt Duffy
by Jennifer Parker
A short film that is long on talent is Gridlock directed by Ian Hunt Duffy which is a psychological thriller with a comedic overtone. No small feat in a film that lasts less than twenty minutes. This film has all the ingredients of a feature length drama. Written by Darach McGarrigle, the script dares to explore social issues like group think, mob mentality, paranoia and machismo under the umbrella of a traffic jam on a country road. The traffic jam trope works because it forces the audience to get behind the driver and out of the cocoon of the private vehicle where there’s a fall sense of security that inside the car is a unique world unto itself.
Some Highlights from my conversation with director Ian Hunt Duffy:
Why make short films?
I love short films. The most important element of a short is always the story. What’s it about? That’s the first question anyone will ever ask, so you need to have a compelling answer. Shorts are unique because they are typically only ever viewed amongst a program of other short films, so you have to grab the audience’s attention with a good story or hook that will make your film stand out from all the others. ‘Gridlock’ is a ‘whodunit’ thriller, and so that mystery gets the audience to engage, guessing what will happen next or who they think is responsible.
What was the impetus for Gridlock? In the US, when I think of gridlock, I think of it in the literal terms when traffic is at an intersection and cars have entered from perpendicular roads creating an impasse. Was it your intention to pull the abstract from the concrete?
I love high-concept thrillers that are set in a single location and I always wanted to do my own version. One day I was stuck in traffic and I thought it would be interesting to set a thriller entirely during a traffic jam and see what kind of suspense I could create in that restricted environment. From there I had the idea of a father whose daughter goes missing from their car, and that was the jumping off point for Gridlock. The title is used somewhat ironically, as when I personally hear the word Gridlock I also picture that large sprawl of traffic on a freeway in the US, whereas our story is set on a narrow country road in Ireland. It is more contained, yet the intensity should remain the same with lots at stake for the protagonist, so Gridlock was a way to encapsulate that dichotomy. It also became a reflection on the main character Eoin, and how he literally and figuratively cannot turn back from the choices he’s made.
Do you see Gridlock expanding into a narrative feature? What would that look like in terms of structure?
I’m currently developing a different film so I don’t have a script for a feature length version of Gridlock just yet but it is something we’ve talked about. The story could translate to a bigger road, like a freeway, and we would flesh out the story and characters more, creating more obstacles and increasing the tension.
Without giving away the ending, I realized that what seemed innocuous at the beginning may not have been.
I would agree, and hopefully Gridlock plays just as well on a second viewing once you know the ending, as there are many clues along the way you may have missed the first time around. Not to spoil it for viewers who haven’t seen it yet either, but we just wanted to create an exciting mystery for the audience to solve, with lots of different possible suspects. We tried to think of a satisfactory and surprising reveal to that mystery, and hopefully stay one step ahead of the audience.
The parent/child relationship trumps marital relationships, can you talk about why you wanted to explore that dynamic?
It was important for me to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes right from the outset. Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and something that every viewer can immediately relate to and empathize with, and so became a strong catalyst for all the dangerous behavior that unfolds. The main theme I wanted to explore in Gridlock is paranoia and mob mentality taking over, and how dangerous prejudices and stereotyping can be. Throughout the film, we see how easy it is for people to turn on each other when they're scared and panicking. But they don't just turn on each other indiscriminately, they band together and pick on those they see as weak or different, something that is particularly relevant given the current political climate. Gridlock also comments on how easily a victim can turn into a perpetrator, that sometimes people don’t always learn the right lessons from their own mistreatment. For example, there is a character in the film who initially is a victim of the mob and accused of taking the girl. But once cleared of suspicion, they immediately point the finger at others and vent their own prejudices.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m currently developing my first feature film with Gridlock writer Darach McGarrigle. It’s another high-concept thriller set in a single location called Double Blind and will also feature an ensemble group of actors. We’re really excited about it. We also have another short film called Low Tide which will be going into production next year.
How did you cast the film?
Gridlock was an ensemble piece, so I knew the success of the film would depend upon the actors and their performances. I wanted actors who were excited by the material and who could work well together as a team, so my producer Simon Doyle and I really strived to get the best cast possible. We aimed high with our cast, going after my ‘wish—list’ for the roles, but thankfully they all really responded to the script and were excited to come on board. That’s something I would always advise other filmmakers—don’t be afraid to approach an actor, even a bigger name. Often you will find that if an actor is available or has some free time, they would rather be working and acting. It’s all about timing.
In comedy, there’s the concept of the straight man whose purpose is to say what the audience is thinking. Did you intend to have a character who functioned as the narrator or guide for advancing the story.
Gridlock was our attempt at doing an American style thriller but with a distinctly Irish feel. One of the things us Irish are renowned for is our dark sense of humor, So the character of Rory, played by Peter Coonan, was an opportunity to inject some of that black humor into the script and give a mouthpiece for the audience. In many ways, he asks all the questions the viewer will be asking, stirring up trouble and pointing blame at everyone, so he was a really fun character for the story.
As we’re ramping up towards the Oscars I’m working on a series about why short films matter. I mean, we’re in the age of information overload, you tube, Vimeo, Facebook, vlogs and reality television. Yet, I think that short films have their place as an art form in their own right. What’s your opinion?
I totally agree. I think it’s important to keep making short films as it’s the perfect medium to help discover new talent and develop up-and-coming filmmakers and writers. It challenges you to tell an impactful and engaging story in a limited amount of time, and so the short film format really forces you to be creative and distil your story down to its bare necessities. In terms of an audience for short films, I would obviously love to have as large an audience as possible for my film, and in the past short films would only ever live on the festival circuit. But with more and more platforms emerging online that are championing short films, the potential audience for short films is definitely growing, and rightfully so.