Virginia Newcomb looks like the girl next door. In fact, the actress admits to a history of being typecast as a squeaky-clean love interest or hapless victim.
“I wanted to be in a bar fight,” Newcomb said with a wicked smile.
Writer and director Paul D. Hart took Newcomb up on her idea and together they fashioned a character with a story that will perhaps become one of the most important roles of Newcomb’s career.
Three Fingers is a short film premiering Sunday, Aug. 30, during Sidewalk’s Alabama Shorts II, a potpourri of short films produced, directed or written by Alabama filmmakers. Newcomb plays Jessie, a Marine who has returned home after a tour of duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Female Engagement Teams (formerly, Team Lioness), but acclimating to civilian life is a battle within itself. The character grapples with emotional and physical scars left from the cruel realities of warfare and the particular demands on females in combat. Newcomb, who has earned her first producing credit with Three Fingers, does get to be in a bar fight, but the exercise of playing a more complex, darker character is more fulfilling.
“I have this well of anger that I can unleash with this character,” the Alabaster native said. “I wanted to play something different, and I wanted to play something bold and aggressively. …We all have this darkness, and sometimes we can get lost in that darkness. And that’s the relatable aspect of this character.”
In addition to physical training, the actress spent time with a former member of Female Engagement Teams as part of her research for playing Jessie. Newcomb explained that meeting those Marines allowed her an intimate view into the lives of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly females, who process PTSD differently than males.
“It humanized my understanding of not just soldiers, but of women and what it means to be a woman in a man’s world” Newcomb said.
Hart, whose music video for GT’s “Heavy Dreams” won Best Art Direction and the Audience Choice Award at Sidewalk Scramble this spring, studied psychology before pursuing directing at the Los Angeles Film School. He said he was familiar with broaching topics of mental illness and the military, but had never addressed it from a female perspective.
“What I worked around to from that little, original idea wound up being something that was very poignant and something that is kind of a hot-button topic,” Hart said. “It’s something that is just now starting to get a lot more light shed on it and how much of a problem it is.”
Hart said he was shocked when his contact at Wounded Warrior Project revealed the statistics: 22 veterans kill themselves per day in the U.S., according to stopsoldiersuicide.org.
“One American veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes,” Hart said. “They think that number’s a little bit low…There’re a lot of deaths that don’t get counted as that — when someone commits suicide by taking pills, in some states it’s not counted as a suicide; it’s just counted as an overdose.”
Broaching the subject of Female Engagement Teams is something that Hart says sets Three Fingers apart from other recently released films about war in the Middle East like American Sniper and Ashley’s War.
“It’s not really discussed all that much because females are not supposed to be in combat,” Hart said. “It’s against the law in this country to do that. However, starting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became a necessity. They started plucking women out of warehouse jobs and other types of [military] jobs that had tested well for certain skills like language, or medical skills, and immediately put them into combat situations.”
Jeremy Burgess’ bicep tattoo is partially visible under his sleeve: “A saint in the city” written in black ink upon his skin.
The tattoo is appropriate for the screenwriter and producer of Dead Saturday, a religious thriller debuting at Sidewalk on Aug. 29, during Alabama Shorts I.
The film opens with a close-up of a Bible turned to Matthew 27:45, “The Death of Jesus.” A teardrop lands on the page.
“I’ve always liked the idea of Christianity as being something where you’re allowed to ask questions and it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers,” Burgess said.
He explained that the belief that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead was his inspiration for writing what was to become Dead Saturday.
“I was wondering about that day in the middle,” he said. “There’s Good Friday and then there’s Easter Sunday.”
While in high school, Burgess played with the idea of a day where people could release all their inner demons and give in to all temptations.
“Not that I’d ever do that,” the Homewood native is quick to say. “But I always thought it’d make a cool horror movie or thriller.”
About 12 years later, along with co-writer and director, Benjamin Stark, Burgess developed a concept reminiscent of 2013 horror film The Purge, but infused with Southern Gothic eeriness and a religious fervor made all the more believable by its Bible Belt setting.
The 9-minute film stars Kurt Krause as Jimmy, a teen who believes he has found an answer to finally escaping his violent urges: Dead Saturday, a day where all sins are overlooked. He presents his shaky logic to his preacher, and the debate becomes more dangerous than either expected. Eric Roberts — Oscar Best Supporting Actor nominee for 1985’s Runaway Train, Boss Maroni in The Dark Knight and Michael Z. Wolfmann in 2014’s Inherent Vice — delivers a pivotal performance as Pastor Malcolm.
Burgess is no stranger to religious topics.
“It seems like Christian films these days are for Christians only,” said the former Baptist. “In our film there’s a gun and blood and there’s cursing. It’s not a film someone’s pastor would necessarily show his congregation, but it’s not anti-religion either.”
The reception of the film from audiences, whether negative or positive, is one that Burgess said he looks forward to.
Though Burgess said his film isn’t a “philosophical discussion,” Dead Saturday does raise challenging questions about religious zealots, miscommunication and the differences between doctrine, symbolisms and reality.
Alabama, 1959. The note on the package reads simply, mon petit chou. From the moment Madeline touches the unwrapped harmonica to her lips, the composer’s perception of reality skews.
Jen West’s 10-minute thriller Little Cabbage is the prelude to her upcoming feature Electric Bleu, which will begin filming in the fall of 2016. The writer and director lived in Birmingham her entire life before moving to Atlanta two years ago. A long-time friend of Naked Art Gallery owner Véronique Vanblaere, West took the title of Little Cabbage from the translation of the French term of endearment Véro playfully uses. The film will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 30 during Alabama Shorts II.
The plot of Little Cabbage is surreal, moving from scene to scene with Kafkaesque jolts as Madeline tries to make sense of the ruin her life becomes. The stomach-dropping irony is that the harmonica, an instrument of creation, has been cursed with the powers of destruction. It is a theme that echoes so strongly throughout the 1948 classic The Red Shoes and the fairy tale of the same name.
It is fitting that Little Cabbage, full of magical realism and unexpected bursts of humor, is compared to folklore. As West weaves the narrative, the story feels ancient and much bigger and longer than its allotted time. That can be attributed partially to West’s meticulous eye for detail.
“Little Cabbage was certainly an experiment in working with period material and things that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with,” the filmmaker said. “One of the biggest parts of making Little Cabbage was making sure things were historically accurate from the time, place, the people, the music.”
West explained that the cast and crew worked with Anderson Alden, a composer from Los Angeles, to immerse the audience in the world and soundscape of the film. Alden, according to West, is an expert on the type of classical music a composer like Madeline would play in the 1950s.
“I’m really proud of what we made,” West said. “I think it’s a great test film as we approach doing a feature length that’s in a similar vein.”
Though the film is undeniably dark, there is a more believable, human aspect to it apart from tragedy. West, a participant in Sidewalk since 2004, explained that making dynamic films came with experience.
“When I first started making films, I was told to write what you know,” West said. “I took it a little too literally. At that point in my life I was a wedding videographer and so I made a film about weddings, and it was my day job, but I wasn’t necessarily that passionate about it. It was just kind of a shallow, skim-of-the-surface, funny film. Once I learned how to make films and how to use my voice I started to explore some bigger, broader, deeper concepts.”