Five years ago, Casey Stein woke up and checked his Twitter.
He came across the story of a down-on-his-luck boxer trapped in an impossible set of circumstances and shared it with his friends. The boxer was a victim of his environment, stuck in a crumbling steel town with no education or job prospects. He began dealing low-level drugs. Eventually the streets caught up with him; he died.
Stein and his friends Bernard Zeiger, Dustin Grant and Neil Sanjay Singh decided to make a short film loosely based on the story. The question they sought to answer: Was what happened to him his fault, or a product of his bleak surroundings? Their first draft followed a linear storyline. The team were immediately dissatisfied with the effort.
“We sat there forever trying to figure out why it sucked so much,” said Stein. “And then we realized it was because it was one-sided — and life isn’t one-sided.” Out of their restlessness, creativity prevailed and interactive short Otis was born. It’s a new way of taking in a story, wherein a viewer can toggle between three different perspectives to wrestle with different sides of the story. Who you choose to follow, and when, changes how you digest the story and — ultimately — where the blame lies for the boxer's swift demise.
And Otis is just the beginning. The collective is currently working on a larger series of shorts about the rise and fall of a small American steel town. For the upcoming series, a handful of individual perspectives will be filmed and edited start-to-finish, a process that begets new issues at every step of the production. But they’re not here to disrupt the film landscape. They simply want to create stories for an audience whose media-consumption habits are changing by the day.
“I’m a filmmaker in NYC,” said Stein. “And I probably go to the movies about twice a year. It’s just not how I watch content. I watch at home with my laptop on my stomach or on my phone on the train. It’s how millennials watch and how we watch. This is just designing content for those people.”
The highlight for the crew (and I’ll add the viewer) is the aftermath. Everyone sees a different version of the film: different story, different structure, different lighting — a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure for the 21st century. In comparing these distinct versions of the film (whether with a friend or on a repeat viewing), your opinions will be challenged, debated and perhaps even — gasp! — reconsidered.
Novel concept, that.