Short film ‘A Snake Marked’ cuts deep
Last winter, Juan Riedinger spent a long, cold night in a Burnaby jail cell.
His old friend – Adam Lolacher – was there, too, in an adjoining cell. There was no heat, and no plumbing.
Despite the low temperatures, the lack of plumbing, and the eerie echoes bouncing off the concrete walls, Riedinger was exactly where he wanted to be.
The friends weren’t inmates – not in the traditional, “doing time” sense. The building where they slept – Burnaby Youth Detention Centre – hasn’t housed actual inmates since 2007, when the over-crowded facility moved its operations to another site.
The former detention centre is mostly a film set these days, which is how and why Riedinger and Lolacher ended up sleeping on the premises: filming A Snake Marked, their short film that has its world premiere this Friday at the Vancouver Short Film Festival.
Lolacher stars as a prisoner who receives a couple of unwelcome visitors – his father (played by Howard Siegel), and a child from his past (played by rising star Christian Convery) – during a critical period in his incarceration.
“Part of the reason we slept there was for insurance reasons,” recalls Riedinger. It’s late December and he’s seated at a conference table in the YVR Screen Scene offices. “Somebody needed to stay with the gear so we wouldn’t have to unload everything and load it back in the next day.”
Like his old friend Lolacher, Riedinger is an actor. He starred on CBC’s searing spy thriller The Romeo Section, and played drug-running aviator Carlos Lehder in Netflix’s hit series Narcos. He’s won multiple Leo Awards, including two in 2013 for Best Performance in a Web Series and Best Performance in a Youth or Children's Series.
He’s currently in New Orleans filming a meaty role in Claws, a TNT series about manicurists in Florida who enter the world of organized crime when they begin laundering money for a neighboring pain clinic.
Riedinger’s also an award-winning director and editor of short films. He had 13 under his belt – including Birth Day, which won the A&E Short Filmmakers Award in 2013 – and had decided that he wasn’t going to make any more of them when Lolacher approached him with the idea for A Snake Marked.
Riedinger had wanted to hold out to direct a feature film, but he was intrigued by the film that Lolacher described, and specifically the prospect of experiencing something new. That’s how he’d selected his previous directing gigs: each one presented a learning opportunity, be it a genre he hadn’t directed in before or a filmmaking technique he’d need to master in order to get the job done (like 2011’s Float, which required him to master underwater photography).
“When Adam approached me with this one, what was different was the fact that it was going to be such a personal thing for both of us and something I’d never really undertaken before, to collaborate with somebody else that closely,” says Riedinger. “I wanted to experience that.”
They ended up writing the script together, with Lolacher starring in the film and Riedinger directing and editing.
Which leads to the other reason they spent that night in a defunct jail: they’re both method in their approach to acting, says Riedinger, and “we took the same approach to making this movie. We didn’t sleep in the same cell. We slept in adjacent cells just to have that true solitary experience, and it was scary. People say that place is actually haunted. I believe it was a place that was for the youth, and it became a women’s prison, and now it’s basically a film set for productions. It was sad, actually, to picture what had gone on in that place.”
In many ways, A Snake Marked is markedly timely: a cinematic study in fractured masculinity and what can happen when men bury their traumas. But any resemblance to 2019 headlines about masculinity – toxic or otherwise – is completely coincidental, according to the film’s director.
“The story itself is not set in 2018 or 2019,” says Riedinger. “I wanted to treat it in a way where you don’t know when it’s taking place, but in terms of relevance to masculinity today, I think it does tie in, and I think that’s something that was also relevant a couple decades ago. Those themes are timeless, and as much as things are shifting, they definitely will always exist to a certain degree, for better or for worse.”
“When I make my films, I try to strip everything else away and focus on the fundamental human story, and really dig into those human moments and experiences,” adds Riedinger. “One thing I try to do in all my films is haunt an audience, if I can, and make films that sit with them after, if I can.”
Riedinger is full of praise for his actors: for Lolacher (“He’s so committed. He shaved his head. I wanted him to really feel different than he’d ever felt before, out of his own skin, and to strip that away, strip the hair away. He lost close to 20 pounds for the role, and he’s the kind of guy that, when he takes something on, he 150 per cent in it, and it translates to the work”), for Siegel (“Howard’s performance is stellar in this film. We were having a really hard time casting the dad. He needed to have a certain brokenness to him and he had to be somebody that you didn’t want to like because of what he did to Adam’s character but at the same time, couldn’t help but sympathize with at the end, and I couldn’t think of the right actor for that role until Howard popped up on Facebook”), and for young Convery (“That kid is on fire. He was in Venom and Beautiful Boy. His star is on the rise, and he is such a pro”).
The film also features a brief appearance by one of Riedinger’s twin sons: Taj, who was 18 months at the time of filming. (You can read about Taj’s mother – actress, writer, and director Agam Darshi – in this YVR Screen Scene article from January 2018).
A Snake Marked is the first film that Riedinger has directed since he became a dad. Fatherhood has changed him in profound ways, he says; as an actor, he lives “in a different level of depth than I used to. It’s much easier for me to access emotions that I couldn’t access as easily before I was a father. All I have to do is think about those little guys and it makes my heart explode.” As for Riedinger’s filmmaking, “it’s made me more mature as a storyteller. You get one chance to leave an impact with what you create in this life, and it’s nice to make meaningful things and things that have a little bit more depth, for myself at least.”
Lolacher is currently developing a feature film version of A Snake Marked, but the short is very much its own entity, notes Riedinger – one that he hopes will haunt its audiences long after the end credits roll.
“In the world these days, it’s easy to get numb about things, and I just want to leave people feeling impacted and thinking about the film and about the human experience,” says Riedinger.
A Snake Marked screens this Friday as part of the 2019 Vancouver Short Film Festival. The festival runs January 25 and 26 at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre and features 39 shorts from West Coast filmmakers. Schedule and tickets at http://www.vsff.com.