Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

Alex Weil, One Rat Short

"It wasn't my goal, but I have a feeling that New Yorkers who see this film will actually feel differently about rats from now on."

The subterranean stars of Alex Weil's One Rat Short

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

You're one of the lucky ones -- your film is finished, and has been for a while, right?

It's funny you put it that way, because it wasn't finished for Cannes. God, I tried. So yeah, it's finished, but getting it finished was a bitch. I worked on it for years.

I was reading somewhere that it took three years?

Yeah, but that was a lot of starting and stopping a number of times. It wasn't like I was sitting in a room with a production crew for three years working on a film.

I imagine not, but there must have been some technology developments and changes that helped you find your way.

To tell you the truth, just a little faster. The dual processors, and then I bought more stuff. Just to get the film done, I had to increase my rendering capabilities by a lot. Otherwise, I wasn't going to get it done in time for anything. So I did that, and we got it done. But there were no real technological breakthroughs. Honestly, the breakthrough was all just huge writer's cramp circle of starting one place, losing confidence constantly in the story, changing it and going back and at the end of it realizing I came back exactly to where I started.

For the record, I guess I should pass along what One Rat Short is about.

The film is about a New York City subway rat who falls into an odyssey where he meets an unusual female counterpart. The rest you have to see.

What turned you on to the story of a New York City subway rat?

I guess that's where the technical comes in in a way, because I was looking to do something at that time, when we first started even thinking about the story --which was more than three years ago --that was different than thing that had been out there. Toys had been out there because they were easy --plastic and wood -- and I said, "Hey, why don't we do fish?" They said, "Don't you know they're doing fish already?" Fish are perfect for CG in terms of the underwater environment, the light, the flotation, and most especially the lack of hair. So I wanted to do a creature that had fur. That was going to be my technical (challenge) but so much time went by that by the time I was finished, it was no longer a breakthrough. So then the challenge really became to tell the story from what I had that moved people. That was what I was trying to do the whole time. I was trying to draw the viewer into this world that I created and using my communication skills that I developed along the years that I never really used to tell a story I had written.

For me, that was the challenge--how do I pull people into this world, and get them to feel human emotions while watching a disgusting rat? That was also one of my experiments; the mixing of repulsion that you usually feel for rats with love -- all in a short piece. What would that be like?

And for so many New Yorkers, there is this ambivalence about the subway itself. There is sort of a romance and a history in addition to the filth, smells and general decay. How did you reconcile the two in your film?

Well, I grew up in New York City, and I took the subway to junior high school every day. To this day, when I walk through those tunnels and I smell that stale urine, it brings back my youth. (Laughs.)

Sorry about that.

It's funny because when I was making the film, in the middle of doing it, I'd go to the gym early -- like 5:30 in the morning. I'm on the sidewalk and it must have been garbage time because this rat comes right across my path. I had been studying rats in detail for a while, and instead of my normal reaction, I was like, "Hey there, little fella!" It wasn't my goal, but I have a feeling that New Yorkers who see this film will actually feel differently about rats from now on. They're smart, you know?

You've taken this to so many international festivals, but Sundance is as big as it gets in the States. Are you nervous or apprehensive about bringing the film to this audience?

Not at all. Quite honestly. The people who go to Sundance who are nervous are the ones with full-length features. Sundance is a marketplace, but for shorts, it's just another festival. I was nervous before at other festivals because I had never stood up for my own film before. But I've proven I can do it; I've done it a number of times now. I can work off that energy to go up there and do my thing. I'm not nervous, but what I am nervous about is that our film is fortunate right now to be on the Academy short list, so we're down to 10 now, and that'll be announced in the middle of Sundance. I damn sure hope we get some attention at Sundance, and frankly, I was shocked we were selected at Sundance.


Its history of being film-oriented, and its history in the feature-length arena, anyhow, is that they want you to be their premiere place. And since I'd already played in so many places, I totally thought they'd skip me over. I was completely shocked. I wasn't even expecting it; I wasn't wondering, "Hey, I wonder when we'll hear form Sundance." I was like, "What?" It was just my impression, and my impression was wrong.

But the reason I'm going over there is that the film is computer animation. And I think when people say "computer animation," they think of a cold thing, you know? So I want to be there to stand up at every screening I can be at to put a human face on it and tell the human story behind it. Because computer animation isn't done by computers; it's done by humans working on computers, and working very hard to move other people, you know? And that's the story of my film.

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