Spencer Gillis talks plenty about how he grew up surrounded by guns in small-town Coffeyville, Kan.
His father kept a locked case of shotguns and two rifles. His stepfather, a hunting enthusiast and engineer, disassembled and reassembled firearms the way a tech enthusiast might pry open a computer. Gillis’ mother, a police officer, brought firearms into the family home all the time.
‘Gun’ and Sundance Shorts Program IV
Saturday, Jan. 19, 6 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City
Sunday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 8:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Thursday, Jan. 24, 4 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City
"I’m not a hunter myself," Gillis said by phone from his New Jersey home. "I grew up at the target range."
What the 34-year-old director talks less about is his views on firearms in a post-Newtown America. An ardent subscriber to the maxim "trust the tale, not the teller," Gillis prefers that audiences view his 17-minute short film "Gun" with an eye on the film. Keeping an ear on his political viewpoint is beside the point.
The short film, one of seven in the festival’s 94-minute "Shorts Program IV," has generated its share of prefestival publicity. Adam J. Segal, Gillis’ publicist with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., said he’s fielded an unusual volume of interview requests for the filmmaker in the national and international press.
"My intention, and what the film means to the audience, will hopefully be worlds apart," Gillis said. "I never read the news and thought, ‘This is a hot-button issue.’ "
But with the nation’s president advancing a series of gun-control proposals the day before the opening of Sundance, Gillis admits it’s become a gargantuan button almost impossible to escape. It was fast becoming that already when Gillis opened a Kickstarter account for his film’s post-production costs late last July, in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting.
"I heard from a lot of friends I grew up with, NRA members, who told me they wanted to contribute to the film, but wanted to know if it would make them look bad," Gillis said. "My response was always no. What the film does, or can do, is make you re-examine the ways you might see issues within the debate that are worth discussing."
The film stars Gabe Fazio as Roy, an almost nondescript suburban husband and young father who awakes one night, his wife beside him and their infant in another room, to the sound of an intruder. The home invader flees once noticed. Regardless, whether out of fear or braggadocio, Roy yells that he has a gun. He in fact does not, but wastes no time purchasing one the next day. What follows is a meticulous study — shot in a minimalist, almost stark, style — in how gun ownership alters Roy’s outward behavior and inner consciousness.
"Practical is one thing, but what feels good in your hand?" a faceless gun-seller asks Roy as he examines an array of handguns for purchase.
What feels good, Roy soon discovers, is the mounting confidence he feels after successive visits to an indoor shooting range. But this confidence, contoured by his passive-aggressive tendencies hinted at during short scenes at work and home, isn’t always matched to the summoning power of the gun he now owns.
For moviegoers used to watching actors aim and shoot weapons with all the nonchalance of ordering at a restaurant, "Gun" requires a certain recalibration of dramatic expectations. It ends in a kind of midthought, provoking viewers to piece together Roy’s fate.
Gillis said he hit upon the idea of making the film not long after moving to New Jersey with his wife, then pregnant. Like Roy, he awoke to the sound of something in close proximity to his domicile. Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm.
"But the moment just kept racing through my mind, ‘What would I do to protect my family?’ " he remembers. "To tell a great story, you need to start on a personal basis that adds texture. That’s what makes your work feel real."
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