Steff Gundling, a fourth year Digital Media student and a graphic designer, is no stranger to the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival (VISFF). The filmmaker awarded with two prizes for her very first brush with the film craft in 2013, a short romance called Year Of The Living Dyingly, has been shortlisted again this year and will be showing her new documentary Habit on February 6 and 7.
Navigator: Where did you grow up?
Steff Gundling: I was born in Halifax, but my dad was in the military so we moved around—mostly back and forth between Canada and Germany—about every two years my whole life. We spent the longest in Ottawa—about five years during high school, which is when you kind of come of age and form your individuality, so I’d say that’s my hometown.
What brought you to BC?
My parents retired in Nanaimo and I got accepted at Malaspina College and fell in love with the town. I kept traveling between the Island and the mainland, though. After college I moved to Victoria to work at an advertising agency for a few years, then moved to Vancouver to do additional schooling, but ended up back in Victoria, and then in Nanaimo again to get my degree at VIU.
What specifically drew you to back VIU?
The community. I had a great time studying at the former Malaspina, because compared to the big classrooms and distant teachers in Vancouver, Nanaimo was the complete opposite. You really get to know your professors, and the classes are much more intimate.
Is there something you’d like to see change at VIU?
I’ve been taking a lot of electives in Liberal Studies and it seems that when you have classes of eight people, it’s all about discussions and you get to learn about the topics more, whereas Digital Media Studies is about halfway there—the small group work.
What role did VIU play in your shift toward filmmaking?
I took a few classes and they just angled me towards it. I wasn’t necessarily forced into it, but it was in the curriculum. I also did an internship back in Vancouver at a Documenatry House. I worked in post-production for about six months and really enjoyed the editing side. So when I came to VIU and had to start at the beginning, do the production and go through the whole process, I fell in love with it.
What do you love about filmmaking?
Telling stories and having your own viewpoint and a way of expressing that. For me, filmmaking is about experimenting, trying new things, and problem solving. I don’t really approach film as a process where you start at one point and you have a structured way to get to the end point. I know what story and mood I want to get across in what tone, and then it’s about organically finding your way through it. I’ll shoot a whole bunch of footage, but then I don’t know how to structure it until I sit down and try a bunch of different ways to work with it.
What do you enjoy the least?
Trying to find enough options to put things together—technologically, equipment-wise, find enough available people, music. I am lucky enough to know a few bands and music creators who let me use their resources and who I can collaborate with, but it can get very limited very quickly, especially when the genre or topic I’m approaching is different than their music. Those type of restraints is what I don’t really like.
How long did it take to produce your first short film?
It took more time to edit than to actually film it. I filmed it in Victoria over a weekend. I had help shooting with my friend Matthew Dolmage who also got the soundtrack for that. He was filming it while I was art-directing. Then it took me about a month and a half to edit it. I went through different versions—I started with a structure completely different from the final thing that I was happy with.
How did you know that, out of all the different versions, the final was the one?
Because it told the story in the most poetic way. It went well with the soundtrack as the music gets quicker and louder. Having the timeline shift quite a bit from the present to the future and end gives the story more intrigue than a rather bland chronological set of events. That would be just about a relationship falling apart rather than a juxtaposition of genre roles.
There is no dialogue or even a word spoken in the film. Did you feel that was the best way to capture and express romance?
I didn’t want the story to be about the characters. It was more about what was happening with them, and I felt that if they started speaking, they’d become more human and I wanted it to be more separate, a story about coming of age and what everybody goes through when dating in their early 20s.
Where did you find the actors for your film?
They are people close to me. I chose them because the film is about a sensitive topic that can be very personal for people. I tried to work with a couple of acquaintances, but they didn’t have the kind of honesty I was looking for in the film. So I reached for people within my inner circle who were more trusting towards me as a filmmaker and they opened up a lot quicker. It’s usually a great tactic for me, especially when you have a topic where you want the characters to connect with the audience. You can definitely tell when the subjects are uncomfortable in the film.
Do you think you’ll always be able to work only within your inner circle of friends?
Hopefully my inner circle will continue to grow. That’s really important. When you only stick with the people or things you know, you don’t really grow as a person or an artist. So continuously pushing the boundaries within all those aspects is important. This is why the festival is a great thing for the community. You get out there and it’s scary and you’re putting yourself out there, but there is such a good landing—the group of people who really support you.
Especially when the first film you’ve ever made wins in two categories. How did that feel?
It was a complete surprise! I mean, I’d be lying if I said I don’t love the awards or that I’m not excited about my success, but for me, it was more about my personal achievement, going to the event, and having the film seen by the audience for the first time. That was a big thing. I remember, when they called me up for the first award, I fell down the stairs. I slid all the way down and had to get back up there. I was so nervous. But walking away from it was such a great experience. That’s one of the reasons why I was kind of scared to submit my new film this year. It’s always a bit scary. But it feels great to be involved in the festival again and be selected.
Can you give us a sneak peek into your new film?
It’s about the small habits that everyone has. I was challenged in my film classes to do a documentary, and at the time I was trying to quit some of my vices, and cut down on caffeine, smoking, and alcohol. I was focused on that and that’s where the idea for the documentary came from. As I was looking inwardly why I was doing certain things, I started to notice the habits of other people.
What is it about short movies that attracts you as a filmmaker?
They’re quick to the point. I like that there are more constraints to them and therefore a lot more thought processing and problem solving on how to find a pure message of it and tell that as quickly as possible with less filler. If I were to do any of these films as a full feature narrative, I wouldn’t have been able to as efficiently as I wanted to. It would be filled with a lot of nonsense.
And as a movie viewer, do you prefer shorts or features?
It depends. I like both if they’re done well. Longer films could be easier to do because you have more time to develop characters and a connection with the audience. In short films, you need a lot more thought put into how exactly you’ll be telling the story.
Do you want to stick with short movies, then?
I can’t really say. I’ve had different kinds of passions throughout the past 10 years, so I don’t know where I’m going to go next. I love making short films, but for me, it has already started to revolve around interactive storytelling and media, rather than sticking to just film. I’m focused on creating something that will offer audience participation. It’ll be a new challenge for me and a different set of rules you have to follow and think about which intrigues me. I think I’ll always need to be challenged. When something gets comfortable it loses the thrill for me. And this semester, I’m hoping to do my first interactive film. It’ll be a mix of coding and web development with a story that I developed last semester in the Senior Media Studies Project class. This will be a challenge, because it involves a planning stage that needs a lot more planning in pre-production than in editing.
I’ll always need to be challenged. When something gets comfortable it loses the thrill for me.
What would be your advice to beginning filmmakers?
I don’t consider myself a very advanced filmmaker, but the most important thing for me is to not take myself too seriously, to understand what I’m trying to convey, to experiment, and to not do anything just because other people do it—like not put emotions in there just to make it seem more important. But experimentation and finding solutions to the problems that arise during production should be a part of the fun.
Experiments may lead to failure. How can people deal with that in a constructive way?
Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. It can make you grow. If you know you’re going to be successful at whatever you do, then you shouldn’t be doing that. You should kind of anticipate failure at the things you care about the most, because that’s the biggest pay off—when you fail, fail, fail, and then manage to succeed that one time. That’s what I really strive for.