Although Sundance shorts don’t aren’t met with the starry premieres of their feature-length counterparts, there are plenty of strange and wonderful finds — especially for genre fans via the Midnight Short Film Program. One of this year’s standouts was “A Folded Ocean,” written and directed by Ben Brewer. In a 14-minute tale of sex, romance and bodies fusing together in a Cronenberg-esque nightmare, real-life couple Anabelle Lemieux and John Giacobbe star as an erotically charged pair whose closeness literally draws them closer and closer together.
Brewer, who was the lead visual effects artist for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (he designed, among other elements, the “Everything Bagel”), was also in charge of the outrageous and nauseating body horror in “Ocean.” But despite the showstopping visuals, the love story between the two leads — mostly unspoken — resonates deeply, especially in a complete work no longer than a few TikToks.
Variety spoke with Brewer — who has also directed music videos for artists like Justin Bieber and Diplo, and whose feature directorial debut, “Sand and Stones” starring Nicolas Cage, is slated to come out this year — about his inspirations and how he developed such sickening visuals.
What was the genesis of “A Folded Ocean”?
I’ve always have this desire to come up with unusual ways to use visual effects, or at least use them in the context of a small independent film. And I become obsessed with these films that have come out of Romania in the last 15 years, because they’re just these small, intimate observations of human detail. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t be interesting to try to do a small, stylistically-indebted work, but then apply this visual metaphor to it with the visual effects ability I have?” Maybe those two artistic influences will collide in an interesting way.
What works influenced the flesh design?
Funny enough, it’s inspired by Plato’s “Symposium.” There’s a part of it where he describes the early man as two people joined at the back, and this idea that what love is is this desire to homogenize, to take two people and become one. There’s this tremendous power, but horror, in that. So I wanted to figure out an effect that would evoke the horror of a couple that wants to gain that level of intimacy.
I did some tests just messing around, and there was ] one piece of software we used a little bit on “Everything Everywhere.” It’s a plug-in in After Effects that basically does 2D tracking, but in this very compelling 3D way where you could, say, put a logo on someone’s T-shirt and have it hold with the folds. There’s virtually no “traditional” CGI. It’s all real skin that has been utilized in this way, tracked and painted on to the footage.
I did a visual effects test early on where me and my girlfriend literally got naked and I filmed us crossing a room in this awkward pose, and I tried out my theory. Then I thought, “Oh well, all the other stuff I’ve planned will be great because I’m able to actually pull off these gross flesh shots.” All of the skin is ostensibly real skin. There’s not a single makeup effect in the short.
Are you hoping to develop the themes or special effects in this short into a potential feature?
It’s a spiritual companion to a feature that I am in the process of trying to make called “The Devil’s Breath.” I’m very interested in whether or not some of these topics of romance and intimacy can be externalized in a horror conceit.
We’re looking to close the financing. I’ve been in the process of putting it together since 2019, so it’s been a long period, way before the short. I’m actually hoping that people who like the short film reach out and want to hear about this feature.
“A Folded Ocean” is playing as part of Sundance’s Midnight Short Film Program through Jan. 29, with online watching options available here. You can keep up with Brewer’s work on his Instagram.