‘Happy Birthday, Barbara’: A Wonderfully Restrained Piece of Fine Visual Storytelling

A woman stands in a hotel hallway, switching her stare from a wrinkled little piece of paper in her glove-protected hand to the stylized number on the wooden door of a hotel room she’s obviously preparing herself to knock on. The paper confirms she is in the right place; something about her tells you she’s also at just the right time. And yet, she can’t seem to force herself to knock. Her struggle is briefly interrupted first by a couple casually entering an adjacent room, and then by the hotel bus boy delivering a large birthday cake on a cart. The busboy stops right in front of the room and prepares to enter; the woman is snapped from her cloud of insecurity and self-preparation—she jumps out at him, pleading to allow her to take the cart into the room herself. The fancy cake displays a nice message on top: Happy Birthday, Barbara. Something indefinite shifts in her eyes, as she puts the little piece of paper away and raises her hand once again to knock. The door she finally opens isn’t the one we expect: she’s obviously home, and engages in a brief conversation with her kid. A nice, completely different cake is on the table: the words on the frosting identical. She sends her son to bed, puts the wrinkled piece of paper on the table, closes her eyes and blows out the never lit candles.

Films aren’t supposed to be riddles; they can be, but their purpose by definition shouldn’t be to perplex the audience, and filmmakers who believe the more complex and difficult to follow a film is, the higher its artistic value gets, are simply wrong. There are countless examples of easy-to-get, straightforward, narratively simple movies that are a joy to watch and a marvel to experience. Happy Birthday, Barbara is a simple film, with its story contained in just a little more than five minutes, concentrating on perhaps an hour in the life of the protagonist, but it’s a film made with intelligence and a clear understanding of the potential of film as a medium of visual storytelling. The story of Barbara, an obviously nervous, distressed woman on the verge of reaching a decision that could turn her world upside down, could have been told more directly, satisfying the needs of the slightly confused portion of the audience, feeding their curiosity, but Parrish Stikeleather is not a filmmaker to underestimate his viewers. Every single thing, every little bit of information needed for us to grasp the wider meaning of the story, and connect the dots that seem confusing perhaps only at the first superficial glance, is served here with style and grace and no disrespect for our intelligence. For instance, take the shot where Barbara, nervously and hesitantly, takes off her wedding ring. This sequence could have been served for consummation accompanied by a pesky “Am I a person who does this kind of things” piece of inner monolog, but such gimmicks belong to the workshops of lesser storytellers.

With sparse dialogue, Happy Birthday, Barbara relies heavily on acting, and the performance of Megan Petersen in the lead role is really great to watch, as she carries the film on her shoulders while at the same time conveying all of her inner struggles through the screen with barely a full sentence spoken in the first two-thirds of the film. Ms. Petersen briefly appeared in Netflix’s celebrate TV show House of Cards, but her talent obviously transcends the boundaries of such a limited filmography sheet. The filmmaker decided to trust her completely, and made no error of judgment, as her acting, supported generously by a score that helps create all the tension Mr. Stikeleather wanted to convey and Joey Connolley’s beautiful cinematography, breathes life into a film that, in its five-minute form, manages to tell a powerful story of a much, much wider scope. The filmmaker shows quite a lot of praiseworthy restraint and a lot of patience, carefully allowing the story to unfold before our eyes, which means he had the utmost faith in his material and full confidence in his crew to carry the task to completion. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker adhering to the “show, don’t tell” policy of filmmaking.

Both written and directed by Parrish Stikeleather, Happy Birthday, Barbara was made in the summer of 2016 and was released online in February this year, which means we’re four months late in opening up our Short Films Showcase. Beautifully made little films like this, which exhibit real talent and make us wonder what kind of marvels the authors and their crew might create in feature film territory, are the main reasons we wanted to dedicate our time to presenting short films to our readers.

Mr. Stikeleather, how and why did you start making movies?
I began making films in high school with a good friend of mine, Joey Connolley (he was actually the DP on this film). I started making films simply because I loved movies. I’m not quite sure what it was but ever since I was a kid I knew I wanted to be involved in filmmaking in some capacity. At first it was acting, and although that is something I do enjoy, at some point I became more interested in what was happening behind the camera.

Can you name a few of your cinematic role models and explain why you hold them in such high regard?
The filmmakers I really look up to are those who can both dazzle an audience visually and move them emotionally at the same time. My early high-school years are when I discovered Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson. Those were really formative years for me and I think the work of those three filmmakers in particular made a lasting impression. On the other hand there is Sergio Leone—Once Upon A Time In America blew me away and has stayed with me for years, Stanley Kubrick with Barry Lyndon, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made, Hal Ashby with Harold and Maude and Coming Home, then Peter Bogdanovich with What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Filmmakers who have a great sense for visual spectacle but aren’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve. That is what I am chasing and always hoping to do with the films I make.

Where did you get your film education?
In terms of education, it is really a mixture of making films and watching films. I worked at a church for ten years beginning my senior year of high-school that really allowed me to constantly create stuff. I made tons of shorts and promo videos and through trial and error, along with a great mentor, learned how to make films. It was an amazing opportunity to have that place to make something, fail, and try again. The other part of education is just watching movies. I would discover movies I loved then just scour Charlie Rose’s website and YouTube for interviews with the director. Whoever they mentioned as their favorite filmmakers I would then go to Blockbuster (RIP) and find their movies. Sort of like learning the history of film in reverse.

Let’s talk about Happy Birthday, Barbara. How did the idea for making this film develop?
The initial idea for Happy Birthday, Barbara began as a short story I was working on. I just had the concept of a woman at a hotel who was there to have an affair, but wasn’t quite sure of the protocol. Should she just walk in, knock, etc. I liked the idea of someone struggling through those smaller decisions that, little by little, brought her to face the bigger decision. It was that combined with the separate thought of someone coming home to a birthday cake made for them but with nobody waiting around. It then moved from a short story to something I thought could work well as a film.

It seems to me you and I share the same disdain for underestimating the audience: in your film, there’s no over-explaining and tedious exposition.
I certainly tried my best not to over-explain anything in the film. There’s this quote from Billy Wilder, which he apparently took from Lubitsch, which says, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” I really agree with that way of thinking. If the scene is really working then the audience should be invested whether they understand all of the specifics or not. It’s always more satisfying as an audience member to be the one putting the pieces together.

What was your budget for Happy Birthday, Barbara and how did you manage to cover it?
We made the film for right around $3,000. The number is still growing a bit because we’re entering it into festivals at the moment. We had to travel and book an entire wing of an old hotel to film in. That was a big portion of the budget. My wife and I had been saving money and when I finalized the script we decided it would be best to use some of our savings so I could make it immediately rather than waiting to find the funds elsewhere.

The actress does a brilliant job here. How did you find her?
Megan Petersen is an amazing actress here in Wilmington, NC. We worked together at the church for several years and she helped with a lot of the videos we made. Upon finishing the script she was one of the people I immediately thought of for the role. We discussed the film and she auditioned and it was spot on. It just made sense for this project. Having known her for a long time, it was great to finally get to work together as director and actress.

As an author of a film which doesn’t rely on effects and attention-grabbing action, would you say contemporary Hollywood production offers enough to satisfy the more demanding viewers, who are looking for more than simply brief entertainment in movies they watch?
As for the state of Hollywood filmmaking I can certainly see how it has changed. Of course, I am saying this as someone totally on the outside looking in. I understand what filmmakers are saying in regards to the “middle” disappearing, where you have huge blockbuster superhero films and then movies that are extremely low-budget. At the same time, I still see so much great work being produced year in and year out both inside the studio system and out in the indie world. Some of the films you may have to do some digging to seek out but I think there is still great stuff being made for people of all tastes.

What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on a couple of other short scripts. I hope to go into production on one of them this summer. In conjunction with that, I am working on a feature script. It is in the early stages of development but something I am trying to push forward to make in the next several years.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
In five years time, I hope to have made a feature film, or at least be moving steadily towards that goal.

Best of luck. We’re really looking forward to seeing your work in the future.

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