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Director Alexander Jeffery On Building the El Dorado of Short Films

As part of a new TV[R]ev series on creators, I sat down with Alexander Jeffery, whose short film “Memoir” will screen Dec. 14 on ShortsTV, the global home of short films. You can listen to my full conversation with Alexander on my Bloom In Tech podcast here.

ShortsTV director producer Arkansas

Alexander Jeffery

Filmmaker Alexander Jeffery didn’t plan on returning to live in El Dorado, Ark., where  the family had moved for his father’s work when Alexander was in high school.

But after finishing film school at the University of Nebraska, and stints in Los Angeles and Sweden, the prolific producer/director of short films (IMDB counts 13 of his shorts since 2009, plus a feature), Jeffery ended up back in southern Arkansas’ City of Gold, making movies, running a film festival and helping launch a $100 million arts and entertainment district in El Dorado’s town center. And he’s a big fan of short films, for a lot of reasons.

“I think shorts, when they’re done well, they’re like poetry,” Jeffery said. “You get this little glimmer of a story and  you can be moved the same way you can be moved by a feature.”

And making shorts is actually something even a low-, low-, low-budget filmmaker can actually do.

“The thing I like about (short films) is that it’s a great way to practice your craft, and really have the opportunity to make something that has high production value,” Jeffery said. “When you move into the feature-film world, even a low-budget film is considered (to have a budget) like $5 million, which just seems so unattainable for me at this moment. But you know I can scrounge together money and friends and equipment and make a short film that has at least feature-level production value, and really learn how to make a movie, how to tell a story. I think it’s a great way to get your feet wet.”

“Memoir” is one of Jeffery’s three 2016 projects. It’s a science-fiction story about a scientist named Theodore Maine (played by the film’s screenwriter, Paul T.O. Petersen), who has invented a device called the Memoir that he is using to try to go back in time to see his mother.

“He has a lot of deep-seated regrets about the last moments he spent with her, and a young sort-of warrior from the future shows up and rocks his world,” Jeffery said.

It’s a proof-of-concept film, a short that tells a self-contained story but also is designed to attract backers who will finance a feature-length exploration of the story. Carving a standalone short out of a feature-length project in a satisfying way for an audience is tricky, Jeffery said, but it’s paid off with plenty of notice for the project, including a nomination for best Sci-Fi short film at the FilmQuest US festival.

“We wanted to have some sort of completion arc over the 15 minutes to make the audience feel at least somewhat satisfied,” Jeffery said.

Another recent Jeffrey project, “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mr. Bellamy,” has won a string of awards at various festivals, most notably the Louisiana Film Prize. Jeffery said he and his collaborators “hand-crafted” the project to compete in the $50,000 film prize,  which is based in Shreveport less than two hours away.

The result is a story about a homeless man in the 1960s who sees a job posting, but realizes he doesn’t have the right clothes for the job. In creating a suit to wear to the job interview, he discovers a love for sewing and creating clothing.

“We didn’t want to be too heavy-handed or didactic but there is a racial undertone to the film and with everything that was going on in the world at the time, and is still going on in the world, we wanted to touch on that without being too preachy,” Jeffery said. “We thought telling a story about this passionate and beautiful human being  would be a nice way in, (and) let the audience decide for themselves what they thought.”

Well into his career, Jeffery returned to El Dorado, a town of not quite 19,000 people that is the headquarters for  Murphy Oil Company, initially to take part in a production of “Les Miserables,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the South Arkansas Art Center.

During the production, Jeffery met his girlfriend and ended up staying,  in part to help in the development of a $100 million entertainment district in the town center, financed in part by Murphy oil money. That project’s first phase opened recently with an epic, and epically diverse, music festival that featured Train, Migos, ZZ Top, Smokey Robinson, Ludacris,  and Brad Paisley among other notables.

Richard Linklater El Dorado Film Festival

Bryan Cranston and Steve Carrell in Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying”

Jeffery is a co-founder of the El Dorado Film Festival, now in its fifth year. The festival’s most recent iteration featured Richard Linklater’s latest project, “Last Flag Flying,” opening the film the same weekend it debuted in theaters in Los Angeles and New York, Jeffery said.

“We try to highlight shorts and we try to highlight Southern-made content,” Jeffery said. “We really want to put an emphasis on the amazing films that are being shot in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, all the surrounding areas. It really tries to put an emphasis on truly independent filmmakers, filmmakers that don’t have the opportunities of studio backing or that kind of distribution. ”

Jeffery also draws inspiration from Linklater’s beloved Austin, Texas, now home not just to his film production company but also director Robert Rodrigues and the sprawling South By Southwest music, tech and film festivals.

“It’s a matter of baby steps, but I really hope we can develop something in that direction, where people are excited to come visit El Dorado, Arkansas,” Jeffery said.

Jeffery said he “could not imagine” finding the money to make even a short film in Los Angeles (he spent $30,000 shooting “Memoir” in northern Louisiana). But the favors he could call in while filming in Shreveport, La., and “the way the community got behind us,” allowed him to make “Memoir” for half or less the L.A. price. And for young filmmakers, economics like that can be decisive.

Less clear for Jeffery is whether, in an era of decentralized distribution platforms and inexpensive production tools, he needs to live in a production hub such as Los Angeles or even Austin to make more, or at least bigger, movies.

“It’s a real interesting question and something I’ve been struggling with myself,” he said. “But I do think living outside the big centers, the generosity of the people, and the excitement of the people around you about the art of filmmaking is pretty contagious. I think you can get away with so much more in a small town or a small community with a short film or even a feature film to burst out of the gate with.”

You can see more of Jeffery’s work on his channel at Vimeo, at his website BespokeWorksLLC.com and follow him on Twitter @AlexanderRJeff.