Salt Lake filmmakers Arrius Sorbonne and Nathan and Ellesse Balli were named winners of director Ron Howard’s Project Imagination Film Contest this fall for their short film, Dominus. All three have experience creating films and commercials for local companies, but this experience was clearly unique.
Where did the idea for your film come from?
N. Balli: They gave us 91 photos (from the Canon photography contest) in various categories, and we had to use 10 of those photos to drive our narrative. It was very interesting and in fact a very difficult and creative exercise to fit 10 of those photos into one storyline.
E. Balli: We started brainstorming with the images. Nathan and I had recently watched a documentary on North Korea. That triggered the initial concept of, “What if you could imprison people psychologically, where they think that you’re perfecting them but in reality you’re keeping them?” That led us to consider how the mask (a dominant part of the lead character’s attire) could play into that, if it could be some sort of conduit for the propaganda that could influence the prisoners’ own thoughts.
Sorbonne: Nate actually owns his own production company called The Moniker. We had collaborated on a couple of corporate films, but this was the first time we’d tried to do some narrative work together. We had some ideas going into it, but you really just have to keep an open mind.
Why did you choose the mask?
Sorbonne: The reason we chose the mask was because it was such a difficult prop to find. We think we did well in the contest because we were able to find and use photos that kind of scared away other directors, because some of those props were difficult to find.
It was a low-budget film, made for $400 and with just two masks. Was that typical of the entrants for this contest?
N. Balli: Talking to some of the other contestants that won, their general budgets were in the $8000 to $15,000 range for their projects. When we mapped out our plan, we worked with everything we had to make the photos fit our story. We were able to really maximize everything across the board—everyone who stars in it is a friend and family member.
Only 10 films were chosen as finalists, five of them from those in the film industry and the other five from groups such as yours. What was it like competing against some of those professionals?
N. Balli: For us, it was pretty amazing. We come from such a small market, and none of us work within the narrative space. So it was interesting to step in with fresh eyes and really challenge ourselves. Some of the fellow winners have won Oscars in the student category, and others have been nominated for them and have won all sorts of other awards, whereas this was kind of our first rodeo.
You found out in September you were one of 20 finalists. What happened then?
Sorbonne: We knew Ron Howard was going to watch all of the films, so when our film was selected as one of the top five, that’s when we got really excited. Having Ron watch anything that you make, I mean, he’s such an incredible filmmaker. It was just awesome, kind of an eye-opening experience for all of us.
N. Balli: We’re actually starting work on our next film. It will be a short, around 25 to 30 minutes, created for festivals like Sundance. It’s going to be a western. We have the script finished, and we’re going to begin a Kickstarter project for financing.