A Conversation with Operation: Cavity Writer/Director Alex Morsanutto
Cup of Tea Critiques sits down with indie director Alex Morsanutto
A group of young kids team up to rob the dentist who has wrought havoc on their childhood.
Jonathan P. O’Reilly as Douglas Maroney
Scarlett Lewis as Lucy
Howie Sheard as Kitkat
Declan Foley as Timmy
Neil Samuels as Dr. Caine
Writer/Director: Alex Morsanutto
Editor: Alexander Frasse
Director of Photography: Sam Cutler-Kreutz
Music: Sam Warfield
Producers: Kara Bartek, Catalfamo Megan, Alex Morsanutto
Special Makeup Effects: Jessie Roberts
Alex Morsanutto wanted to make a short film about a relatable concept: childhood fear. Cue Operation: Cavity, a fun coming-of-age-meets-heist short film about four friends who plot to avenge the pain their dentist has inflicted on them. Cup of Tea Critiques sat down with Alex to talk about where he gets his ideas, his favorite aspect of directing, the purpose behind producing a short, and other aspects of his work.
We began by talking about the themes in Operation: Cavity, including the hyperbolic nature of kids’ imaginations.
“The film in general is inspired from my youth, and kind of like that idea of playfulness and adventure,” says Alex. “And, thinking crazy things are in play, when in reality, you're just a kid, and you don't really know what you're getting yourself into. But, all those intimate shows that we grew up on, Hey Arnold, Doug, Recess: School's Out is another great reference. All played into where I was drawing from for this sort of adventure.”
Similar to other creators, Alex found inspiration in his own life experience, both past and present. After careful thought, he was able to fuse the style of movie that he wanted to make with that life experience.
“I mean, to this day, I'm still nervous to go to the dentist. And I feel like for the past eight years, maybe I've had this idea of a film I wanted to do with the dentist. I just couldn't figure out how to make it into a film for the longest time. And, I kind of just started brainstorming, and then I wanted to make a heist movie, and I thought maybe I can mix these two genres together.”
While the film as a story stands alone, Alex produced the short with a longer project in mind. Many filmmakers with a limited budget go this route, like Robert Rodriguez with The Customer is Always Right or Zack Snyder with Die Free.
“I was hoping that this would be like a proof of concept for a TV series, where each episode would focus on these kids. And they get themselves into trouble. They need to get themselves out of it in a creative way. So, the next one could have been detention or some kind of devils of night adventure, around Halloween time, stuff like that. It's definitely something I'm gonna keep pushing once I get the opportunity to.”
Alex’s goal is not uncommon among indie directors, who often have limited resources for making their films. Rather than produce a full-length feature, many young directors opt to use their budget and connections to make a short film that, similar to a portfolio or a writing sample, showcases the director’s abilities.
“A short film is either like a calling card, or just something to display, your directing ability or writing ability, producing, whatever. And I was trying to get the most bang for my buck. I tried to develop a short film that I could adapt into something bigger, and really launch my career as a director in the narrative space. So, these things take a lot of time to make, as I said earlier, and trying to make every single at-bat count, as much as possible. If you're gonna spend three years making a short film, might as well make it something that you could hopefully adapt and launch your career moving forward.”
Often, an indie director’s long-term goal is to parlay his or her concept into a more expansive project. Alex spoke on the logic behind using a short film not just as a display of his directing chops, but also as a proof of concept.
“Proof of concept is great, because if you have a bigger idea, you could show a producer, or an agent, maybe your manager, ‘Hey, this is what I'm thinking of, something that I'd like to do as my next project. I already have this visual example of what it's going to be like. This is the proof of concept. All you need to do is get me the money and we're in business.’”
Many filmmakers feed off of the passion and devotion to style that the most accomplished in the business give off. Alex spoke on how he enjoys directors who have had a similar career path to his own.
“I always liked the directors that came from a commercial world, because I come from a commercial world. And I'm hoping that my career can somehow replicate theirs. Directors like Ridley Scott or David Fincher, Michael Bay, that'd be an awesome career, but, I also like Jeff Nichols. Jordan Peele. I really admired his stuff with Key and Peele. As a commercial director, I work in the comedic space. And the sketches that he did on that show are just amazing. His ability to pivot from comedy to horror is something I look to as if it's possible, we can make some movies after the stuff we've already made.”
Moviegoers frequently think of directors as responsible for planning the look, angle, and length of every shot on screen, but an equally important task is coaching up the actors and managing people. Alex shared which aspect of directing he likes best.
“Working with actors is one of my favorite parts of the job. I went to acting school after NYU. I did some time at [Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute] and then I did [Upright Citizens Brigade] in New York. And I really started to appreciate just the craft of acting and what goes on in an actor's head, scene by scene. And when they get the script, what are they thinking about? So as a director, it's like you're trying to pull that out from them.”
Filmmakers get their starts in varied ways and often draw on their past experiences to solve problems. Some cross over from another field of entertainment, like former standup comedian Judd Apatow. Others find their way into directing from a completely different industry, such as former journalist Ava DuVernay. For Alex, directing commercials allowed him to get his feet wet and become comfortable taking charge.
“It's kind of like anything in life. Directing commercials gives you an opportunity to get the repetition, to get in the habit of creating a shot list, creating a mood board, working with department heads, working with actors, trying to get specific shots, and working with new equipment and all that stuff. It's really just getting the reps in, like how an athlete works out so many hours a day and practices with their team. I feel like it's the same thing for an artist, you need to get those reps in, and get comfortable taking charge of the set, pivoting if something goes wrong, or changing the line of dialogue if it's not reading right, and stuff like that. Directing commercials has been so rewarding for me in that way.”
Children ages 12 to 13 are at the center of Operation: Cavity. Many professionals in the film industry speak to the challenges of directing child actors, whether it be the limited hours they are available for shooting the film due to school, their typically shorter attention spans, or their lack of significant life experience to draw motivation from for playing their characters. Alex elaborated on the challenge of keeping the kids’ energy levels and spirits up, as well as some of the tactics he used on set to reinvigorate his adolescent actors.
“Working with kids is particularly hard. Especially at that young age, when they memorize the lines, they get to the cadence where they're memorizing with their parents, or guardian, whatever. And they almost sound like robots. Even when it comes to line delivery. I went as far as creating these audio notes for them, sending them how I think they should read the lines to help them get into the pacing of things and the inflection, stuff like that. You really have to be clever with how you schedule your days so you get a good burst of energy…it's really tough to get them to keep moving. We tried donuts and cupcakes, and candy to try to keep them going. And it was fun, because the kids are feeding off each other too. So all you really need to do is have one of them buy in and then, they all were pumped. But it is, it's definitely a challenge.”
It took Alex a solid two years to finish post-production, which consists of editing, color correction and the addition of music. Though the completion of the film itself gets much of the attention, the marketing and distribution can be the most arduous task. Many indie filmmakers have trouble getting eyeballs on their completed project and hear many “no’s” before something breaks their way. For Alex, it took almost a year before his short film was accepted to the Hollyshorts Film Festival in Hollywood, California.
“It's such a weird dance,” Alex mused. “You spend all this time in post-production, trying to make everything right. And then, with a short film, and basically a feature film too, you want to get a good premiere. So you're submitting to all these top tier film festivals, you're getting a bunch of rejections, you're waiting a long period of time, because it's not like they're one after another. So we were going through that process. And we were basically at the end of the line when we got in with Hollyshorts, which was great, because it was an Oscar qualifier. That was almost nine months of submitting to film festivals to get a premiere somewhere big…It's such a weird process, because a lot of it is just waiting with this finished film. Hoping to get it in front of people who can help push your career one way or another.”
Alex hopes to build upon the success of Operation: Cavity but is also pivoting to different projects to continue challenging himself.
“If the opportunity comes up to adapt Operation: Cavity, I'd love to keep building out that world. Other than that, the thing I had my eyes set on right now is this Viking film that I'm going to shoot in Norway in 2023. Super indie, not a lot of money, but just something unique. And that's kind of grounded in the Norse mythology over there in Norway, so I'm excited for that. As I've gotten older, I've gravitated away from comedic movies to stuff that's more serious; horror, thriller, suspense, that type of stuff. So I'm hoping my next movie is along those genres.”
You can follow Alex’s upcoming projects at silvermineproductions.com or follow him on Instagram and Twitter @ajmorsanutto or @silvermineproductions.