October brings chillier weather and, even in a year where nothing seems quite the same in the wake of an ongoing pandemic, chillier stories.
In his latest short film, “What Have You Done,” Jersey City filmmaker Mike Pelak goes for a different kind of chilling horror – one that takes the seed of an idea Pelak had working on political campaigns where he saw how things aren’t always done “by the book” to entirely fictional extremes, he said.
In “What Have You Done,” which dropped on YouTube Oct. 21, a powerful man (Jay Potter of “The Big Short” and “Hap Leonard”) meets up with a fixer (Smitty Chai, of “Madam Secretary” and “Iron Fist”) about what to do about the dead body in his trunk. While unrated, it would probably be rated R for a short violent scene that’s graphic but mostly suggested.
As in Pelak’s first film, “Deliveryman,” he plays on the idea of people not being always what they seem, with a twist – very important, he said, to the storytelling in a short film … “Especially in this thriller/horror genre.
“A feature has 90-120 minutes to really build something, explore the characters, make you question the narrative, etc,” Pelak said. “On the other hand, a short film needs to compact that whole thing into a much briefer time. I think writing a couple twists into the film helps to make a lasting impression on the audience, especially in a short film. Those are the things that make you want to go tell someone about it.”
In the six minutes of Pelak’s film, things go awry in a way that evokes “The Twilight Zone” or the EC Comics from the ’50s, which were rooted in horror or science-fiction and were often progressive morality tales. In the latter especially, people who often were supposed to be society’s bad eggs either weren’t (scandalous enough to start the Comics Code Authority) or were less dubious than the people who were supposed to be society’s pillars.
Pelak said this isn’t an accident.
“… I’m a massive X-Files fan and draw so much inspiration from that show, which drew so much of its own inspiration from The Twilight Zone.
“In the screenwriting I do, I often find myself writing characters who are not necessarily what they appear. I think that’s an interesting thing to explore, and something that feels like it could legitimately be real life, and that helps elevate the scary parts of it. It can open up a wide variety of themes and storylines.”
Though “What Have You Done” came out last week, Pelak completed the film last year.
“I wrote it in the spring of 2019, put together the cast, crew, insurance, equipment rental and other logistics throughout the summer, all for a one day shoot in September 2019,” Pelak said. “I then completed the final edit by the end of December. There’s so much more work than most people might imagine that goes into a six-minute film, but thanks to an amazing cast and crew, much of it was a breeze.
“(Potter) and (Chai) were fantastic to work with. (Potter) is an absolute pro, was an honor to work with, and gave an amazing performance,” Pelak said. “(Chai), a fellow military veteran, was so great, and stepped into a role I had originally envisioned someone older than him playing.”
The Bushwick/East Williamsburg location, chosen for its desolate-looking vibe, ended up being the film’s biggest logistical challenge, Pelak said.
“Sure enough, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the Saturday that we arrived to shoot, there was constant traffic up and down the street, and our permit didn’t allow us to block traffic. I think we managed to still make it look desolate though.”
Pelak is working on a feature-length script he hopes to produce and direct, knowing it’s a massive undertaking even without a pandemic going on.
But he seems to be rolling with that.
“My overall goal is to help shine a light on my screenwriting, which is something I am aggressively pursuing. The pandemic has made the festival circuit more challenging, though it has also opened up some other opportunities. For instance, the film screened as part of the Big Apple Film Festival, and the alternative venue that was used was a drive-in theater at Demarest Farms in Hillsdale. Pre-COVID, I certainly did not imagine that I’d be watching it at a drive-in!”
See details about the entire cast and crew of “What Have You Done” at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11114976 and more about Pelak at blackoilfilms.com.