"For me, it has always been about the imagination. It's why I've stayed here in Phoenix, and it's why I keep throwing resources at what I create . . . I'm not looking to make Hollywood blockbusters, but I also don't think my films are the typical 'loners sitting around in a room'-type indie films."

As Blackwell continued experimenting and borrowing equipment, he found himself looking for inspiration. He enrolled in Scottsdale Community College's film production program and, after graduating, created Squishy Studios with a few friends. Blackwell and his four-person studio have since created 40 short films, two feature films, six screenplays. (His second job — the one that actually pays the bills — is freelance commercial work.)

"Squishy comes from the very colorful, fun movies we like to make," he says of his company's name. "We're not Disney, by any means, but we're into that joie de vivre, irrepressible silliness."

Seesaw's Lindsay Tingstrom, Raquel Raney, and Angela Hardison
Jamie Peachey
Seesaw's Lindsay Tingstrom, Raquel Raney, and Angela Hardison
Seesaw's inspiration wall
Jamie Peachey
Seesaw's inspiration wall

At 34, Blackwell describes himself as a late bloomer — perhaps not the kind that couldn't find a date to prom, but the artist whose work still doesn't fit in with what's considered slick or cool.

"I used to look at Chuck Jones (of Looney Toons), who was depressed in art school because he couldn't draw as well as the other students. He was talking to his uncle, who told him that up against a bunch of sports cars, you can be the fastest pig you can be, but you shouldn't want to compete in the same arena. And it's a lot like that for me. I want to create my own projects and share my vision of a unique, fun and enjoyable world." — Claire Lawton

Robert Kilman and Safwat Saleem
In their short film Phoenix: City of the Future, Safwat Saleem and Robert Kilman tell the story of a man who's been hired to make a documentary that will sell the creative class on the joys of living and working in Phoenix. It's a story that hints at the challenges that the filmmakers, who share writing and directing credits on the movie, were struggling with themselves when they were hired to make the movie. Unlike their hero, it's a struggle that both are determined to overcome.

"I have a real love-hate relationship with Phoenix," Kilman admits. "I just returned from several months in England, and being gone from here made me realize that there's a lot of cool stuff happening in this town that I don't take advantage of when I'm here. When I find myself complaining about Phoenix, I try to remember that."

Kilman moved to Tempe from Texas in 2002 to pursue a degree in experimental electronic music at ASU, where he met Pakistan native Saleem, who was wrapping up a graduate degree in graphic information technology. Their first collaboration, 2008's And Everything Was Alright — about a lonely, six-foot-tall teddy bear that longs to travel into outer space — hinted at the cinéma vérité style they would later perfect in the tongue-in-cheek Phoenix: City of the Future.

That movie started out as a straight-ahead commission. When the duo was approached about creating a short film for last year's Phoenix Design Week, an annual event for local designers and other creative types, they jumped. "I said, 'Let's have a big laugh about the struggles of selling our city to the very people who will be seeing it,'" Kilman says. "The film was originally just supposed to be shown at the conference, after the keynote speech, but it was so well received, we ran with it."

Shot in a matter of weeks in the Valley, the movie follows former Australian soap actor Barry Moon, who co-wrote the film with Kilman and Saleem, as he goes looking for what makes Phoenix attractive to people who might move here. Its zingy, pseudo-documentary style teases our town's shortcomings while celebrating what Saleem calls our "from-the-ashes approach to the arts here."

"We cut the original ending from the film," Saleem says, laughing. "The way we shot it was that Barry has a moment of exasperation about trying to sell Phoenix, and he goes into a bar and lights a cigarette. He doesn't realize that it's illegal to smoke in a bar here. And the bartender shoots him, and he dies."

Phoenix: City of the Future went on to play the ASU Art Museum Film Festival, and Kilman and Saleem have recently begun submitting their movie to national festivals here and abroad. They are already at work on their next film, about a woman who dresses as a chicken and allows game-show contestants to beat her up. And Saleem continues to pursue a personal goal: to inspire others with his day job as a graphic designer at ASU. "If I can improve the standard of creativity in both local filmmaking and graphic design," he says, "then there will be no more question about whether Phoenix is attractive to creative types. They will already be on their way here." — Robrt L. Pela

Saxon Richardson
When ASU Art Museum Curator John Spiak got a call from a young-sounding girl, asking whether he'd consider her friend's film for his museum's film festival, he was not optimistic.

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Ewww, the last comment did not like my punctuation. I am sorry if it is difficult to read. But I hope it still makes the point and can be taken in a constructive manner. Thank you!


I found the article about "Robert Kilman and Safwat Saleem" to be incredibly insulting. As an active member of the local film community, I had never heard of these two before the Big Brain nominations. I came to NewTimes expecting to learn something more about them, and their up-and-coming talents.

Instead, I read nothing but insults towards our city. I have traveled across the country, but in Phoenix found a WONDERFULLY talented and visionary community. So I have to ask, “Kilman, are you kidding me?” Have you been to a recent A3F screening? (If not, many of the films can be found online now.) Have you ever watched the Media Guys? SyntheticHuman Pictures? N'Raged? Junk Draw? They all make incredibly good films, not to mention the films by your fellow nominee from Squishy Studios. And if comedy isn’t your style? You'll find no lack of drama, horror, action or suspense here. "Leashed" is the name of one short I really enjoyed, but I don't recall who made it.

If you want to “improve the standard of creativity in… local filmmaking”, let me give you some sincere advice:

First, find out what that standard already is. Sure, there's dozens of amateur films for each one that is note-worthy. But every filmmaker has to start somewhere, and I believe in encouraging the students & beginners. I don’t use them to set the standard when organizing a competition, however.

Second, leave your over-inflated ego in LA, and start networking here. We are a young, but rapidly growing city. It has been said that Phoenix will be the "Next Hollywood" and for good reason. Let’s work together and make that happen (without the pollution and corporate crap please. Indie ftw!)

All filming aside, we have a vast and wide-spread variety of artistic attractions. Have you visited The Lost Leaf? Been to many First Friday events? I can't list everything going on in this city. It's literally an everyday, ongoing, kaleidoscope of creativity.

Congrats on your nomination! But as you continue improving your art and gaining recognition, please remember - before YOU question "whether or not Phoenix is attractive to creative types." You should realize we are already here.

Nicholas DiBiase
Nicholas DiBiase

With all due respect to Atherton and Keener, Dudlik takes this one by a mile. That little whippersnapper has reanimated th' mummy of Phoenix functional and aesthetic design culture. What one year ago seemed like a battlefield populated by a scattering of wounded ronin now feels like an unstoppable polycerebral juggernaut of radness. Kind of like "Oogy Boogy" from "Nightmare Before Christmas."

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