The claustrophobic breathing that ushers in the blank opening screen of “Skin & Bone” is all that’s needed to set the tone for the folk-horror short.
Character? Plot? Setting? These things can be nebulous in short films, which, like short stories, are often focused on evocative impressions over deep cuts (although the best ones leave both).
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“It’s less about the role and more about the overall project, because sometimes I don’t even know what my character is,” said Amanda Seyfried, who stars in the 17-minute “Skin & Bone” along with real-life husband Thomas Sadoski. “I know that sounds kind of nuts, but with short films, you have a different type of space, and there are less people and pressure and more creativity involved, so it’s really about the storytelling more than anything.”
Seyfried’s schedule won’t allow her to attend 2022’s Aspen Shortsfest, where “Skin & Bone” is premiering in-person at the April 5-10 event. But it doesn’t lessen the 36-year-old Oscar nominee’s enthusiasm for the film’s inclusion. The competitive event is also an Oscar-qualifying festival, and one of the few such prestige-events celebrating the short-subject art form. This year, 77 films are in contention for prizes — and a potential path to Academy Awards.
“You need passion, you need a solid idea and story, and you need a few incredible characters,” Seyfried said of short films, which she has gotten back into lately with “Skin & Bone” director and former assistant (now friend and collaborator) Eli Powers. “Nothing needs to be absolutely fleshed out. It’s not always necessary for the audience to understand what’s happening. You’re just putting some balls in the air.”
Speaking via phone on her way to an international flight at JKF airport on Monday, Seyfried was fresh off attending a very-weird 2022 Oscars. She’s also lately riding high on acclaim from “The Dropout,” a fictionalized series about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and her billion-dollar swindle. It’s gathered roundly enthusiastic reviews for her performance — arguably the best of her career.
Seyfried, who become known as a sidekick in “Mean Girls” but has lately been starring in prestige projects (see “Mank,” “First Reformed”), was personally invested in “Skin & Bone” — and not simply because she executive-produced it.
“I’m not good at reading scripts but I would read Eli’s and thought he was just wildly intelligent and had some really dark and interesting worlds,” said Seyfried, who also worked with Powers on the award-winning, deadpan comedic short “Holy Moses.”
“Skin & Bones” continues Powers’ themes of brutal, unknowable forces of nature and the humble people caught up in them. It plumbs candlelit imagery and intimate fears in its depiction of drifter Christian (Sadoswki) finding his way to the remote farm of Serene (Seyfried), a mysterious woman prone to enigmatic statements and creepy, beautiful banjo playing and singing.
“With short films, you just pitch in,” said Seyfried, who lives on a farm in upstate New York. “Who’s going to help us out for free? What’s the least we can make this for? What horses can we use? I’ll go to Trader Joe’s for supplies. That’s my goat, Billy, in (‘Skin & Bone’), and that’s my farm.”
While filming the short in 2020, Seyfried would put her kids to bed before sneaking off to get shots for “Skin & Bone.” Despite the folk-horror subject matter and occasional gore, the experience felt like a family affair, she said, with zero outside pressure and plenty of artistic license.
“But it was hard because we were going to do it in fall 2019, and when the (pandemic started) it just didn’t feel safe. I had just had a baby. … But where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Seyfried’s pre-pandemic schedule is returning, bit by bit, with jet-setting press tours for “The Dropout” and myriad projects ramping up. Shortsfest comes in the middle of it all, which is why she’ll be watching from afar. Her husband was also going to attend, but he just won a role in a play in New York City. Seyfried is disappointed Shortsfest doesn’t have a streaming component this year — as with the last couple.
Still, this brief, refreshing interlude in her career has been a recharging experience, she said, and something she’d like to continue doing as long as she can.
“I worked really hard on it but also had an amazing time,” she said. “There was a lot of control and it felt really safe. It’s such a luxury to be able to put something like this on a bigger platform, because it’s usually all about features or all about TV. Here, you can get in and get out.”
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