The germ of the idea for my short film “Pony” came from a real life event. My 5-year-old daughter was vacationing with my parents in Florida, while playing a treasure hunt game at the beach, she discovered the remains of a human leg. She excitedly called to my father, “look what I found, Papi!”. My dad, a doctor, immediately recognized from the skeletal structure that it was the bone of a pre-teenaged girl. They reported it to the police and discovered a young girl had been missing. Upon hearing what had occurred, I prepared myself for how to process the myriad of psychological effects that the trauma from such a macabre and gruesome find would have on my daughter. However, instead of being traumatized, as I had feared, her response was one of excitement at how cool it had been to ride in a police car. It became clear to me after speaking to her on the phone, that my daughter was unaware of the gravity of loss of life and her disturbing find seemed to have no emotional impact on her. I realized I was going to have to figure out how to explain death to my 5-year-old daughter in terms that would be appropriate and also resonate with her.
The idea for the short film script began as a way for me to process the difficulty of explaining death to a young child. This incident was my inspiration, but I made the clear decision to craft a story that wouldn’t focus on the dark or grotesque side of death. I knew that the story would have a dramatic purpose, but it would have to be light in tone, and contain enough elements of humor and whimsy to satisfy my sensibility. I set out to illuminate the meaning of loss by examining it’s opposite, human connection and the idea that the importance of the connection is what gives it’s loss gravitas. The story of “Pony” is about a connection that develops between two people, a 5-year-old innocent, MIKO, and her opposite, her jaded 58-year-old uncle, JEFF. Miko experiences the loss in the film and her uncle Jeff has to try to explain the pain that the child feels. This experience bonds these two unlikely characters. Jeff helps Miko process her loss and the pain that comes with it and in doing so, he faces the pain of his own deep-buried past loss which led him to shut himself off from having meaningful connections with the world. Both the child and adult experience something that changes them and helps them heal. This dose of reality is the catalyst for Jeff to come out of his allegorical cave and back into the world where he re-discovers the desire to connect and create.
In trying to realize the script, I knew the film would succeed or fail based on the performances and chemistry between the actors. In Xander Berkeley, a veteran actor with a long list of impressive credits, I found the perfect collaborator. His passion for the role, and understanding of the character, gave the perfect amount of texture and complication to Jeff. He dedicated himself to learning guitar and even faced a personal fear of his, singing live, which he brilliantly mastered. I cast Suzy Nakamura, another talented and impressive actor, as the mother CLAUDIA. The formidable task of eliciting a deep and believable performance from a 5-year-old child, Miko Nakano, was eased knowing she’d be surrounded by two seasoned professionals. I workshoped the scenes with Miko and Suzy to get them to a very natural place so Miko would feel comfortable talking back or getting sassy with her delivery. I didn’t push the rehearsing with Xander as much in order to create the opposite environment and maintain an element of surprise with realistic first time reactions captured on camera. We often shot rehearsals for this reason.
Aware of the type of film I was trying to make, I wanted to be honest about my priorities with each step. I was extremely fortunate to be able to surround myself with experienced production professionals. I storyboarded every scene and worked with cinematographer Brad Rushing to design a lighting and shooting concept that would accentuate the progression of the characters. My editor Brett Hedlund and I worked to fine tune the performances in an effort to balance the dark and light emotions of the story, and keep a good pace, while affording the powerful moments the time to breathe and settle. I initially wrote the lyrics for the original song in the film inspired by the allegory “Plato’s cave”, and once Xander came on to the project he took to molding the song to suit him and worked with veteran guitarist Peter Atanasoff on the sounds and arrangement. The result of this amazing collaboration is a beautiful dirge like rock-lullaby embodying a central theme of the film– lost innocence slowly being recovered. I worked with Joseph Conlan on the film’s score to come up with the right sounds to enhance the overall impact of the film.
“Pony” is a model for films I hope to continue to make, films that are both personal to me and entertaining for the audience.