While studying abroad in Prague last fall, Elon University senior Liam Hall co-wrote and co-directed “Tři Cíga,” an eight-minute short film gaining attention on the festival circuit, including the New Orleans Film Festival.
The earliest recollection Liam Hall ’16 has of the storyline for his short film “Tři Cíga” traces back to an aimless night he spent on the streets of Prague.
Last fall, while studying film production in the Czech Republic’s capital city, the cinema and television arts major and his two collaborators, Matias Breuer of Vassar College and Zackary G. Mejias of American University, were at an impasse with potential story plots, just hours before their pitch was due.
“We were taking the tram lines all through Prague that night, and we just couldn’t think of any ideas,” Hall said. “It finally came to us at about three in the morning. What’s funny though is that the idea wasn’t even all that close to what the finished film is.”
Regardless of the initial concept, the finished product, an eight-minute short film highlighting two teenage boys whose relationship is tested, has garnered strong reviews since its December 2014 premiere.
In addition to capturing Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director at the 2015 Trinity Film Festival, a national platform for undergraduate filmmakers, “Tři Cíga” was accepted by the New Orleans Film Festival, held Oct. 14-22. The film will compete in the festival’s Narrative Shorts category. All three student filmmakers plan to attend.
“The previous festivals we have been in have been more student-focused festivals, and we’re proud that we’ve done pretty well,” Hall said. “But in New Orleans, we aren’t competing in a student category. We’re against professional filmmakers, which is incredible. Some of the shorts have actors that I actually recognize. It is surreal to be in the same category as these people who are working professionally.”
“Tři Cíga” – which translates in Czech to “three cigarettes” – is the culmination of Hall’s fall 2014 study abroad program at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, one of Europe’s oldest film academies.The semester-long program, called “Film Production in Prague,” is offered through one of Elon University’s affiliated program partnerships with CET Academic Programs. During the program, students devote their entire term to a single film project.
Under the supervision of their Prague professors, Hall, Breuer and Mejias wrote the screenplay and Hall and Breuer co-directed the film, which depicts two teenagers spending an eventful day in the park. “I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but the main focus of the story is about a shifting power dynamic between these two boys,” Hall said.
Hall called the creative process “incredibly collaborative” between him and his two co-writers. “We worked unbelievably well together, especially with creative stuff, which could have caused tension. It was very seamless working together,” he said.
Faced with managing a budget, casting the film’s actors, and overcoming a language barrier, Hall and his cohorts also withstood several other challenges. One hurdle was shooting on 16mm film, which Hall had no experience with. Another was suffering through near freezing temperatures during the film’s three-day shoot.
“We shot on what had to be the three coldest days of the semester in December in Prague. It was absolutely miserable,” Hall said, recalling that the actors would bundle up before and after takes. “At the same time, it was so much fun.”
Mother Nature threw another hiccup, snowing on the second day of shooting. Because the crew shot the second scene first, Hall and company spent the better part of an hour clearing snow to avoid a potential continuity error.
The film is in Czech, and the filmmakers endured several rounds of translation to make sure the script worked. Additionally, only one of the two main actors spoke English, and he had to translate the directors’ instructions for his onscreen counterpart. The language barrier, though challenging, had an unexpected benefit: Hall and his team focused not on actors’ speech but their emotions on film.
“We had to put a lot of trust in their acting abilities, and just look at what was coming across emotionally,” he said. “Not knowing the language sort of simplified it down to that level.”
Once the film wrapped, the students spent two weeks editing the picture, before screening the final version at a little theater in Prague.
“It is always fun to be in the theater when people are watching. There is this one moment in the film that is a little bit startling, and feeling that reaction is really great,” Hall said. The co-director has enjoyed how audience members interpret the film, especially because its conclusion is open-ended.
In the months since leaving Prague, Hall, who participated in the Elon in LA program this summer, has had ample time to reflect on “Tři Cíga,” its production and his work.
“Being a filmmaker, particularly a student filmmaker, there is always something – four or five things in every scene – that you wish you could have back,” Hall said. “There are several of those in this film. But at the same time, it is nice to have those mistakes because when I watch it today, now I know I won’t make them again.”