Finding Sincerity In Parody - A Miniflix Interview With Rob Kerkovich
Film and television actor talks making short films without a script, the power of collaboration on a no-budget project and making sure every story you tell has heart.
Rob Kerkovich is one of the first short filmmakers we’ve interviewed to principally come from the world of television. He’s made appearances on Parks and Recreation and New Girl but is most notably known for playing series regular Sebastian Lund on NCIS: New Orleans. In his spare time though, he makes genre-mashup short films for a yearly film festival called “Smokescreen.” Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it only takes place among a group of Rob’s longtime friends each and every year. What started as a fun excuse to make short films slowly became a ritual and a major creative outlet for everyone involved.
Rob’s most recent short for “Smokescreen” is Blood Brothers, a quick and smart take on the 1980s movie world of buddy cops and fighting tournaments. He talks with Miniflix about all the challenges, and the surprising successes, that come with making a movie for no money alongside talented collaborators.
Miniflix Interviewer: During your time at USC as an undergraduate, were you ever involved in acting on student projects? Did you bring anything you learned from your USC years to Blood Brothers?
Rob Kerkovich: Well, I’ve been making short films on and off both during and after college. I was a theater major at USC, but was a film minor. Because of that I ended up becoming friends with a lot of the film majors there. The film minor at USC only offers classes where you watch movies and talk about them. That was awesome, but as a result you couldn’t get any hands-on filmmaking experience. It was only in working with my film major friends on their projects that I started getting into that.
By getting in tight with that group, we’d start making our own things together. In fact, by our senior year, we were starting to make stuff and put it on the internet. By way of that, I was forced to learn screenwriting. At the same time, I was learning how to use Final Cut and getting more of the behind-the-scenes knowledge about things. You could say it’s a backdoor film school just from being guided all those years by people who were learning it more legitimately.
Miniflix: What sort of short films were you making between graduating college and making Blood Brothers?
Rob: The comedy group [Summer of Tears] I was in at college started as an improv group but slowly morphed into sketch comedy. This would be early to mid 2000s, so the internet and YouTube were only in their nascent stages. The Lonely Island started putting out videos around that time.
We were doing live stage shows, but we also had ideas for film stuff. Once we saw that there was an avenue to put them online, we spent most of the mid-2000s making our own stuff. Eventually we recruited another USC guy and my roommate at the time [Jameson Fry]. He was an amazing editor with a great eye. So he started directing our best videos. By 2008, or somewhere around then, we started to get featured on a now defunct network called G4 and their special called “Attack Of The Show!”. “Tosh.0” also featured one of our videos. So we weren’t doing stuff that was like “blowing up the internet”, but we were able to get some notoriety. Nothing compared to what people get nowadays.
M: What was the genesis of Blood Brothers?
R: Blood Brothers is actually part of a separate series of shorts. Nathan Budde, a film major buddy of mine out of the University of Iowa, started a mini film festival that was entirely in his apartment. It was called “Smokescreen”, which is why the beginning of Blood Brothers says “Smokescreen” presents… It was just for a small group of friends. The rule was that you’d have to make something 10 minutes or under.
So we’d all just show up, get sort of not sober and start pulling names out of a hat and screening each person’s short film in that random order. Blood Brothers was part of “Smokescreen” №9. The first “Smokescreen” short I ever did was just pulling together snippets of old Summer of Tears sketches…and on the very first “Smokescreen” my name got chosen first (which became something of a trend later on). It went over fine. But once everyone else started showing their films, my mind just got blown out of the back of my head. Half of the people involved aren’t even professional film people. They didn’t go to film school. They’re just friends who are creative and figure out a way to do it.
That first year I remember getting completely embarrassed, because I’d shown up with something that was half thought-out while others were coming with short films that I’d legitimately call art. As years went on, all of us kept stepping up our game. It wasn’t out of any sort of competitive nature, but because you realize you’re surrounded by people you respect so utterly and completely. You don’t want to let them down.
On shorts for “Smokescreen”, I really just wing in. Kind of by my own personal rule, I don’t even write a script for it. I’ll have an outline and then when we’re shooting I’ll improvise a lot.
M: So you worked the same way for Blood Brothers as well?
R: Yes, and it ended up biting me in the ass a little bit. I had an outline, probably about a page and a half. I knew what the basic story was going to be, and because I was going to be the one editing, mixing, etc., I already knew how I’d basically cut the film together even before shooting…but the night before shooting my wife asked if I had a shot list together.
I didn’t, and I never do have a shot list for the “Smokescreen” shorts. I mean, I went so far as to print out the outline, so I was taking this pretty seriously. But at the end of the day, as I was looking over the footage I suddenly realized that I completely forgot to shoot my reactions to a giant orc coming in from the back room with his giant sword. I had to take reactions from a different part of the movie…so that was a situation where I probably played things too fast and loose.
M: There seems to be many genre influences going on in this film. The buddy cop and karate/fighting-type movies come to mind; what specific films did you have in mind when you were writing this?
R: Big Trouble In Little China was a big influence. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. John Carpenter is also one of my favorite directors ever. That’s why the title font is the way it is… obviously Mortal Kombat the game sort of played into it as well. Another influence came from just about any of those 80s buddy cop movies like Lethal Weapon and movies like that.
You know, I really love doing genre mashups….but hoping that by the end of the 10 minutes or so, you’re getting both the spectacle of the insanity behind the mashup along with something cathartic behind it. With Blood Brothers, it was all about building that relationship between the two guys even though they are completely ridiculous. By the end the main character ends up sacrificing his happiness so that his partner can have a life. It ends on this surprisingly somber, or heartfelt, moment.
M: So even though you wrote an outline instead of a script…what made you want to tell this particular story?
R: Looking back at all these things, they all end up reflecting back on something I was going through at the time…I started thinking about all my friends back in LA who I don’t see anymore. I had this community of all these people I met at USC’s film school and theater school who just stayed in LA right afterward. Everyone had moved to the same area. Everyone had that same down-and-out, starving-artist life. Most importantly, everyone was together. We even started getting married at the same time, having kids at the same time.
I started thinking about how I really missed that. So the idea behind these two cops (one of them going through a divorce and the other one being super-pumped about that because it means they’ll start hanging out more), had to do with everything I’d been thinking about. I mean, a lot of this comes to me way after I’ve already made it.
M: How many days did you shoot this over?
R: We shot it in two days. Everything in the dojo we did on the first day.
M: Was the fight choreography also improvised on the day? It obviously wasn’t super-involved, but it still needed to look convincing enough.
R: One of the biggest differences between this “Smokescreen” short and ones from the past was that I was actually able to recruit a bunch of the crew of NCIS: New Orleans. So one of the show’s gaffers said he’d shoot it for me, and he even showed up with a camera he was able to borrow. It really ended up becoming a fun couple of days. It started to mirror the end of a movie, where everyone’s banding together to help this one guy out. My stunt guy from the show happened to be in town still, so he showed up with two of his other stunt buddies. They came up with some moves — though I insisted that they in no way hurt themselves since they were just working for free.
On the day of shooting they’re off on the side working on some moves that they’ll then show me while I’m getting this mullet attached to the back of my head by the woman who usually does my hair on NCIS: New Orleans. My makeup guy on the show, Mat O’Toole, who has a long special effects background…actually came with leftover full orc makeup from The Hobbit movies. Prosthetics, everything.
M: I feel like one of the most important things about this short is that you make a parody that doesn’t fall into amateurish filmmaking. It’s the appropriate amount of campy without looking like you have no clue what you’re doing. I have to imagine that was a major challenge. Is that something you were consciously working through as you filmed, or did you just trust the process?
R: There’s a real fine line difference between the kind of movie you can watch on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a movie that’s made to be laughed at. Especially nowadays with companies like The Asylum that are leaning hard into the Sharknado thing — films that are trying to be bad. I’m not throwing any of these people under the bus, but when you’re setting out to make a “bad” movie, then I don’t really get the point of it…. when you think of something put on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or something Ed Wood made or even some of the 80s horror films, there’s a real sincerity behind that. I mean, sure, we’re gonna make fun of it because it’s executed poorly and the acting’s terrible and why did we just cut from night to day for no reason. But there’s a sincerity you can still find there that makes you love it despite it all.
You know, in Blood Brothers, there’s a sequence where this guy drifts into dust and blows away. And when we cut down to what’s left of the guy…it’s just potting soil. And it’s obviously potting soil. And I know that’s going to look like potting soil. There’s no part of me that’s trying to sell that as real. But hopefully I’ll get a laugh from that. Ultimately, it’s just about when you choose to have those moments. You can’t make the entire movie like the potting soil moment, though. Because that’s when you start to wonder why you started watching it in the first place.
M: There were some crazy, fun VFX in this short. How sure or unsure were you about what you wanted the different effects to look like? How did you communicate what you wanted to the VFX team, and did they bring anything to the plate that you hadn’t considered before?
R: Again, this was another NCIS connection. I went to Anselm von Seherr-Thoss, VFX supervisor on NCIS: New Orleans, knowing I had no time or money to offer, but asking if he could put something together in three shots, maybe four, that I had in my brain as being VFX shots. Most ideally, I wanted to be able to show my character kicking a man’s frozen crotch and watching it break into pieces. That’s been on my mind forever. And he immediately said, “done”.
M: Do you have a favorite short film? Why?
R: I recently watched Lights Out. It was the horror short that eventually inspired the feature film version. The idea is that the evil force can’t get to you with the lights on. So when the lights are out in the hallway, that means it’s that much closer to you. It was really well done, an extremely effective short.