Short film in focus: Charlotte

Zach Dorn’s animated short “Charlotte” covers so much in its 13 minutes that when it ends, you can’t really believe it’s over. It sets up a feature where several generations of a family unit come to terms with the success of a pop song (the film’s title) written 50 years ago, which has now resurfaced in the form of a cover version by a contemporary artist. The woman who wrote the song, Lena Black (voted by O-Lan Jones), has long been out of the spotlight, but has two grown children and a grandson named Eli (voiced by Devin Schlatter), who has songwriting ambitions of his own, much to the dismay of his mother (voiced by Phoebe Jane Hart). who would prefer that he stay out of the music business.

Dorn’s film gives us a clear overview of these characters’ lives as the film jumps around in time. Lena Black’s frustration at a condescending interview on a talk show goes a long way toward explaining her behavior around her own children, who as adults are still trying to sort through their experience of living with her and how it has informed their parenting. Eli bonds with his estranged father (whom we’ve never met) because his own mother can’t come to terms with his interest in music. He writes songs that kids write at this age and is wildly proud of them (it’s weird, but “Dog Patient Dog” will stick in your head more than the snippets of “Charlotte” we get to hear).

The animation/puppetry style works well for this material, especially in this era of short films where puppetry is used and animation is often used for documentary renderings (see “Shots In the Dark WITH David Godlis” from a few months ago, just an example). I’ve gotten so used to this approach that it actually made me look up to see if these people were actually real. I somehow never tire of this tactile method. The story feels lived-in and incredibly personal, but Dorn works from the ground up and has a lot of love for his characters, warts and all. The imperfections in the animation style compliment the messy lives these characters currently lead. It magically brings us closer.

The movie reminded me of the novels of Nick Hornby (About a boy and Juliet, naked, especially), and Dorn is equally astute about the role music plays in our personal lives and how it can come back to haunt us when we least expect it. Maybe one day “Dog Patient Dog” will become a pop sensation, leaving a trail of happy fans and messy personal lives in its wake.

Q&A with director Zach Dorn

How did this come about?

“Charlotte” took shape after I heard Carly Rae Jepsen cover up Joni Mitchell‘Both Sides Now’ while shopping at a department store in Santa Clarita, California. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Carly Rae Jepsen version, but it’s undeniably upbeat and catchy. The song is an unexpected interpretation of such a sentimental and melancholic masterpiece. For months I imagined these two songs in conversation. There was something irreconcilable between them, a hollow distance, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that Carly Rae Jepsen and Joni Mitchell were still singing the same song. This contradiction inspired the script and animation style.

Tell me about the animation process for you. It looks like a combination of stop-motion and puppetry.

I spent my twenties as a puppeteer, performing multimedia puppet shows in bowling alleys, drive-in theaters and art galleries across North America. “Charlotte” is my first attempt at turning this living puppet style into a purely stop-motion film.

For the puppets, I collaborated with my friends Oliver Levine and Lily Windsor, and I fabricated all the sets and props in my one-bedroom apartment for about ten months. Then, during the first lockdown, I left my mattress and turned my 10′ x 10′ bedroom into a recording room where I shot, animated and edited the film.

We get a very clear picture of this family, who they are and what they are up to, from past and present, with a new generation being directly influenced by the music. Was it difficult to cut everything down to 13 minutes?

I started the process by writing from the perspectives of about eight characters that had a connection to Lena Black’s original version of “Charlotte” and TYM’s cover. For example, I would spend a few days writing from the perspective of TYM’s manager and then switch to writing a pseudo-memoir from one of Lena Black’s ex-husbands. In the end, Lena Black and TYM’s life became incredibly real. Even now, I’m often surprised that Lena and TYM don’t actually exist. This clarity of their worlds made the writing process quite easy, but led to a script that was far too long. When I animated this movie alone, I had to get something like 15 minutes. The cutting process was a real challenge.

There was something about Eli and Diane’s stories, even if it wasn’t directly related to the song, that captured the contrasts between TYM and Lena’s versions of “Charlotte.” Diane and Eli’s relationship felt like the perfect way to frame and contain the worlds of the two musicians. They both helped me shape the story into its final 13 pages.

There are so many themes with many possibilities here, and the film accomplishes a lot. Are you interested in exploring more about the role of music in our lives?

My parents were both failed musicians who became piano salesmen. While I grew up with pianos in my home, they represented a failure of my parents’ artistic ambitions and, after their divorce and decline in the home piano market, a failure of American middle-class aspirations. For this reason, I am fascinated by music’s inner-live conflict, where a song can say one thing but deliver something completely different.

How did the voting go?

An actor who read for Lena Black was working with O-Lan Jones at the time and recommended her. I could not believe it. I sent her the script and O-Lan agreed. It was a bizarre coincidence because O-Lan’s mother worked at Cafe Wha, which is featured in the film, and she spent a lot of time there growing up. O-Lan is also an incredible musician himself.

She read the opening monologue about Zoom and the character just came to life. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing, so I tried to direct her and failed miserably. She knew exactly what she was doing, and in some ways she probably knew Lena Black better than I did.

Devin Schlatter, who voices Eli, was the child of a friend of a friend. When I interviewed him on Zoom, he was such a mischievous boy. He kept pulling tricks on his mom, turning on face filters while we were talking, and she kept getting frustrated and embarrassed, like he blew the audition, but he killed it. And he has such a great, raspy voice!

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m hoping to find funding to create an experimental documentary about Livia Soprano and this genetic mutation called BRCA. In the film, I recreate family videos through stop-motion animation and deeply fake my dead mother’s face on a bunch of Italian-American actresses as they make her famous Italian stuffing recipe.

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