Your muscles tighten in the first few minutes of Red Bank filmmaker Steve Herold’s short film Waimea. You’ve seen this kind of film before—the black-and-white shots of people in distress, mostly silent except for the occasional sigh or lugubrious words of encouragement. The question isn’t if this film is going to be dark, but how dark?
And then, in an instant, everything changes. The pace, the action, the dialogue, the feeling. The emotions of both the characters in the film and the viewer. Now, it’s kind of integral to your enjoyment of the film that I don’t mention what that surprise is, but you can see it for yourself on Dec. 1 at Kevin Smith’s inaugural Smodcastle Film Festival in Atlantic Highlands.
Herold’s been making short films and touring them on the festival circuit for several years. Noticing the motions and tropes of the dramatic films he often saw playing with his earlier work, he thought why not take that construct and flip it on its head with Waimea.
“I kept seeing these films like that and my brain instantly goes to comedy, and I’ve got a bit of a twisted mind sometimes,” Herold says. “I kept seeing these films and I thought it’d be interesting to trick the audience or play with the audience and make them think they’re about to see one type of film and take them in a completely different direction.”
Herold’s clear that he’s not mocking that style of film, he’s more so playing with viewers’ expectations of the form. There’s a good amount of slapstick and absurdist comedy that follows the film’s big reveal, which should appeal to folks who are going to a Kevin Smith-run festival.
Herold welcomes the opportunity to attend a screening of Waimea in person; when the film was completed, venues and festivals were still doing remote screenings. Waimea, now at the end of its festival run, has only had two or three in-person screenings, and due to his work on other film and TV projects, Herold hasn’t had the chance to sit with an audience—or the cast and crew that helped him make it—during a viewing.
These festivals—especially one as anticipated as Smodcastle—are important for small filmmakers. The plan, Herold says, was always to use shorts as an avenue into feature filmmaking.
“The shorts were always kind of hopefully a springboard into a feature. And the short films did well, and they got us into some doors with bigger studio type stuff,” Herold says. “With them, we find they’re not willing to take a chance sometimes on something that they like but it seems a little risky. We’re writing something right now that the end game will be to finally take the leap into a feature film. I really thought I woulda done that by now. Whatever.”
Indeed, changes in the industry and consumer habits are a double-edged sword when it comes to building a career in film. On the one hand, there are a lot of platforms to pick up work; on the other, consumers are faced with a firehose of choices and so it’s not guaranteed that wherever a film lands that it’ll be seen by enough folks to move the needle of a filmmaker’s career.
“There are so many streaming platforms and so many of these just random things that didn’t exist like Tubi and Pluto and Roku; they’re all making original stuff or seeking original stuff,” Herold says. “There’s so much stuff now, it’s easier to get lost in all that. You can have a major film and it went to festivals and it did well and then you get it up on Amazon or iTunes or Roku or Hulu or whatever, and unless it’s got a big name attached to it, it’s just gonna get buried in the pile of all the stuff that’s out there.”
But Herold’s making it work like indie creators in other media. When he has an idea (and time to make it), he’ll write, shoot, edit and produce a short film, and (often) finance it himself—often with collaborator James L. Palmer. He’s shot films during the downtimes of working on other projects, with the cast and crew members on hand.
But of course getting his films to the public, via a studio or platform, is tricky, which makes the festival circuit a valuable resource. Sometimes, though, hearing feedback from studios and festivals helps the final product—Herold recalls being told to cut his 15-minute short down to five minutes, and wondering, how? Ultimately he got it down to nine or 10 minutes, and the film was better for it.
“It helped because there were things we cut trying to please them that helped the film,” Herold says. “There was stuff that we said, ‘That’s going back in, that’s going back in,’ but them asking for that made me rethink it and helped us in the long run. Without them, there was five minutes of stuff we may not have cut out. “
Herold’s been doing this for a long time. Growing up, he often hung around Asbury Park (which was in the throes of change at the time) and used it as his own personal film lot.
“Even back to when I was in film school, before the revitalization of the city or parts of it, I used to go down there. Anytime I was going to make any type of film or anything, I’d beeline it to Asbury. You had city streets, regular streets, the beach and boardwalk and nobody would be down there. It was like my own little playground. It was like having my own B-lot.
“I went to the Paramount; they unlocked the door and said, ‘Let us know when you’re done.’ I was telling somebody it was kind of spooky because it was like you’re just walking around. I wanted to get to the roof and stuff. I was just wandering around back there, carrying these big boxes of film equipment. Climbing up old wooden stairs to get to the roof. Back then you could do that.”
Not for nothing, Herold made Asburied, a film that documents Asbury Park through “a rougher part of its history” through a first-person account.
But since those early days, his films have screened around the world, and he’s earned several awards for his films, including best Jersey Short Comedy Film at the 2020 Jersey Shore Film Festival. And now, his work gets what figures to be another big festival screening at Smodcastle.