There are plenty of filmmakers exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality, but far fewer explore a much more interesting phenomenon: fiction that creates reality. The most iconic example being Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” which became instantly legendary for inspiring mass panic in listeners who didn’t realize the broadcast ⎯ a live reporting of a Martian invasion ⎯ was fake. (A disclaimer was made only twice during the hour-long radio play.) When filmmaker Patrick Biesemans first learned about the broadcast in a media studies class, he knew he wanted to turn it into a film. But it would take another decade for his fantasy to become a reality.
Patrick’s film Embers & Dust, our 2016 Musicbed Film Initiative winner, is a poetic examination of the infamous night of the Welles broadcast ⎯a story about fear, family, imagination, and the power of media over our minds. You can see the original, winning treatment that Patrick submitted here.
“When it comes to passion projects, I want to be as artistic as I possibly can,” Patrick told us. “I’m not that concerned about the normal narrative of a character finding some sort of resolve by the end. I don’t think that’s necessary in all short films. I believe short films can be this little slice of life from a different time and place. A postcard from a character’s heart.”
We talked to Patrick about his short film, Embers & Dust.
Musicbed: When did you first get interested in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast?
Patrick Biesemans: It actually started in college. My college mate and I were in a media studies course, and they played the “War of the Worlds” broadcast for us as an example of how mass media can affect an audience. Obviously, “War of the Worlds” is an extreme example, but it came at an important time. In 1938, radio wasn’t very old. It was a relatively new format. The year before, the Hindenburg disaster had been broadcast live. And Hitler was now all over the radio waves. So when people heard the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a lot of them mistook it for reality. Not everyone believed it was aliens, of course. A lot of people thought they were talking about someone invading the United States — the Kaiser or whatnot.
So when my college mate and I heard that story, we started thinking we could use it for our thesis project. Blend fear and reality with fantasy and sci-fi. Confuse the audience about what they were actually watching. But that same year, in 2005, Spielberg came out with his War of the Worlds film, which was a direct adaptation of the H. G. Wells book. So we ended up putting our idea on the backburner, which was a good thing. Neither of us had a voice yet as filmmakers. We were students. And when you’re a student, you think your style is something conscious. “I really like these things, and I’m going to make sure they’re in my films.” But the more you do this, the more you realize your style is purely about your gut reaction. It’s not something you put thought into. It’s reactionary. That’s when your style comes out — when you’re not thinking about it.
So you came back to the “War of the Worlds” idea after you’d developed your voice?
It was 12 years later. I’d made a feature film by that point, and I felt like I wanted to do something more personal. Something closer to the chest. So I was going back through my journal, and the “War of the Worlds” idea kept coming back. At first I thought the radio play was public domain. But I did my due diligence and found out that the writer of the play, a man named Howard Koch, still owned it. I contacted his estate and was able to get the option of using seven minutes of it in a 10-minute film. So I held on to that while looking for the right way to use it.
You got the rights to the audio before you had a story in mind?
Yeah. And then I started looking high and low for writers I wanted to work with. Really, I was shirking the chore of writing, because when you start calling yourself a writer/director, you’ve got to embrace that. So I was working with writers, but I wasn’t getting the sentiment I was aiming for. It made me realize something important: when it comes to passion projects, I want to be as artistic as I possibly can. I’m not that concerned about the normal narrative of a character finding some sort of resolve by the end. I don’t think that’s necessary in all short films. I believe short films can be this little slice of life from a different time and place. A postcard from a character’s heart. That’s all it needs to be. So I realized the problem with all of the scripts I was reading was that they were narratives. When I finally decided to write it myself, it ended up being a much more poetic thing.
Did you do much research into the radio broadcast?
I’m a history buff, so I already knew a bit about it. One thing I learned was that when it happened, the newspapers made a much bigger deal out of people’s reactions to the broadcast than what really happened. What they were doing was attacking the medium. They were attacking radio itself.
Another thing I got a better sense of through my research was the state of America at that time. We were just coming out of the Depression and the Dust Bowl years. There was a generalized fear in the country. And historically, fear has always traveled via a generation’s primary line of communication. Fear mongering has existed for a long time, and it works through whatever mediums are available. For us today, it’s Facebook. For them, it was radio.
Did they change the rules about broadcasting that type of thing after what happened with “War of the Worlds”?
They didn’t change any rules, but I think studio managers and broadcast owners became a little more restrictive about what their people could do. Twenty years later, they performed a version of “War of the Worlds” in South America that also caused panic in the streets. But when people found out it was only a radio play, they set the radio station on fire, which killed some people. A few years after that, somebody did it in Jersey and got arrested for broadcast terrorism.
They need to stop doing this play.
I think they have, for the most part. A few stations might still broadcast it on Halloween. But it’s cool to see how long and how far this thing has resonated. Even listening to it in 2016 gives you the chills. You can only imagine what it was like in 1938.
It’s so minimal too. Just some people in a room making noises, capturing everyone’s imagination for an hour.
There’s a pretty decent film from the ’70s called The Night That Panicked America. It’s pretty much a play-by-play of how the night unfolded at the radio station. They show you where Orson Welles was during each moment of the broadcast, and what they used to make all the different sounds. I think they made the grinding noise of the spaceship opening ⎯ which is a very cool noise ⎯ by running a mic all the way down to the restroom and having one of the station’s secretaries open a jar inside a toilet bowl. Tons of stuff like that. They had to choreograph everything to get those real-time noises because none of it was prerecorded.
“Filmmaking is an adventure. And when you see what’s coming across on camera, it’s hard not to keep working, to keep plowing through. This was a tough shoot, but the morale was never low.”
What was production like on Embers & Dust?
Well, one of the big hurdles with passion projects like this is finding the funding. Especially when it’s a short film. Nobody is looking to invest in one. I suppose if it does well enough and goes to enough festivals, it can recoup some losses; but that’s never the point. The point is to make it. So even before I learned about the Musicbed Film Initiative, I’d been trying to figure out a way of funding this thing. I had the treatment written, and I was about to start an Indiegogo campaign. I kid you not, I had the whole thing laid out and was ready to hit launch when I found out my film was the top selection at Musicbed’s Film Initiative.
Production itself was pretty grueling. I once shot a feature film over 18 days on a secluded island in the freezing cold. But that didn’t even compare to the hell I put our crew through during the four days we shot this film. There were two torrential downpours. There were bears. On the first night we were shooting, my wife, who does a lot of production design on my projects, told me she heard noises near the prop shop. So I sent someone with her to go look. Five minutes later I hear, “Bear. Bear here.” We all look, and sure enough there’s a black bear looking at us like, “Am I not supposed to be here?”
I don’t think I’ll ever shoot outdoors during August again. It’s so unpredictable. Our set got shut down for hours while waiting for storms to pass. One night there was this massive lightning storm, and all of our c-stands and lights were out there. Our visual effects crew was literally trapped down in a gorge, waiting for craft services to bring them something to eat.
But that’s the adventure, right? Filmmaking is an adventure. And when you see what’s coming across on camera, it’s hard not to keep working, to keep plowing through. This was a tough shoot, but the morale was never low. It was all so much fun.
In the film it’s not completely clear what’s going on, especially with this jellyfish. Do you like leaving pieces like that open for interpretation?
It’s a metaphoric, interpretative poem. I definitely don’t want the audience to come away confused, but I’d like them to question things. In this case: a celestial jellyfish. But that’s the joy of filmmaking. You build this whole thing out, and you’ve got a particular feeling about it or a rationale behind it. But then the film is released, and now it’s everybody’s. Now they tell you what they see, and you’re like, “Holy shit, I never saw that.” That’s what’s great about making short films. You can get away with that. It’s harder to do that in features. You have to be a little more literal. Sometimes the ending can be left up to interpretation, but the majority of the film can’t be. With short films, you don’t have to follow those same narrative rules.
What did you learn from making this film?
Making Embers & Dust taught me just how important it is to push for your vision to come across, especially in a short film project like this. Short films are a chance to work with watercolor when you normally work with Sharpies. You have to hold your ground. Not that I had a lot of opposition on this project. Everyone was quite supportive. But it’s so important to have it be your film that you’re making, not something you’re doing just for views or accolades or badges. A short film is a chance to be purely you.