Culture News

Phoenix Filmmaker Sean Oliver Wins Danny Elfman Challenge

A still from the Elfman Challenge-winning Natural Promotion.
A still from the Elfman Challenge-winning Natural Promotion. Sean Oliver
Phoenix has lots of buried treasure.

While our city continues being portrayed as a saguaro-riddled, culture-less hellscape to the rest of the country, the truth is we've got lots of lively artistic communities here doing interesting work. From an active hub of storytellers to a stand-up comedy scene big enough to sustain multiple feuds at once, there are folks putting in the time and doing quality work in the Valley of the Sun. Our indie filmmaking community is no different.

One independent filmmaker who's having a moment in the sun right now is Sean Oliver.

His 10-minute short film, Natural Promotion, will screen at the L.A. Film Festival Festival on Thursday, June 15, as part of the Danny Elfman Challenge block. Last year, sponsored a filmmaking challenge where directors from around the country could create a short film of any genre set to one of 10 tracks off of Elfman's Project: Rabbit & Rouge album.

The films were subjected to two rounds of eliminations, judged by a panel of filmmakers that included Hollywood bigwigs like Paul Haggis, Suzanne Todd, and Gus Van Sant. Oliver's film was one of a select few to make it to the festival's big screen.

Watching Natural Promotion, one is struck by its adept blending of genres. It starts off as a Modern Times-esque corporate nightmare, as the protagonist (played by Keenan James) wakes up to work a rubber-stamping job at the Bureau of Bureaucratic Offices. Soundtracked by Elfman's “Frolic,” the first few minutes of the film have a cartoony feel – like Tex Avery trying to do a live action version of Brazil. And then our nameless hero is whisked away to a forest, where he is set upon by what seems to be a cult of rabbit-men who do bloody and terrible things to him. He wakes up back at his desk, thinking it was only a dream, only to slowly transform into a man-bunny. The film ends with him ascending a throne surrounded by giant eggs, becoming the new Easter Bunny (or the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland – who knows?).

When asked about what inspired his story of a man turning into a bunny, Oliver points to Elfman's album cover.

“The rabbit on the cover with a cane reminded me of my friend Keenan, who plays the bunny in the movie,” Oliver says. “Going off that album art is how this idea came together of a man tranforming from his sad corporate life.”

After finding out about the Elfman challenge in July, Oliver quickly put a team of collaboraters together. “We did nine days of actual filming," he says, "but it took us months of preproduction to do makeup tests, make the eggs, and get the costumes together.”

Oliver and his team almost spent a year getting Natural Promotion together, filming it all in-state. The film's sad office scenes were shot “right in downtown Phoenix, in a place called Tomahawk Studios – right off of where First Friday happens,” Oliver says. “We shot all the forest stuff on the Mogollon Rim, near a buddy's cabin.”

While Oliver is excited about his short film's acceptance into the festival, he's already looking to the future. He plans to make another short film soon, and just accepted a gig as assistant director to fellow Arizona filmmaker Nathan Blackwell, who's about to shoot a pilot for his Voyage Trekkers series.

Looking back on Natural Promotion, Oliver is still amused by the reactions they got from their out-of-town film shoot.

“The neighbors definitely thought we looked crazy,” Oliver laughs. “It was because Keenan had to get in this full bunny makeup and walk around the neighborhood. So these kids on dirt bikes would see us hiking out with this man-bunny and they'd just stare, deeply confused.”

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Ashley Naftule