Andzej Gavriss’ short film Malaria was built around an insight that came from the chance synthesis of two life experiences that occurred years apart.
Using the terrifying fact that a single mosquito bite can upturn a person’s whole life as a metaphor, the narrative fiction / documentary hybrid demonstrates how easy it can be to slip into homelessness through bad luck.
We asked the director to tell us how the film came to be.
LBB> Where did the idea for the film first begin?
Andzej> Most of the scripts for my projects are inspired by real-life events that happened to me.
Believe it or not, I got bitten by a dengue mosquito while editing my short film Veneno in Indonesia. After I recovered all I could think of was how a small insect could turn your life upside down in a second.
A few years later I moved to LA. I had a meeting scheduled in the Arts District, it was my first time cycling through massive shiny skyscrapers in Downtown LA. After a couple of blocks, the scenery started changing, people were lying on the ground, screaming, talking to themselves. As it turned out, I later discovered I was passing through Skid Row.
I had a strong feeling that I needed to write a story about this subject, so I started researching and came across a YouTube channel dedicated to homelessness issues in the US called Invisible People. [https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCh4pyZUB0mNzieaKv831flA] The key message in all of the homeless people's interviews was that a minor problem snowballed them into living rough. I figured that the mosquito bite would be a perfect metaphor.
LBB> When you were planning out the story, what were the key decisions?
Andzej> The main challenge was finding the right balance between symbolism, visuals, and budget.
The story is a one-man show, so the pacing had to be right. There had to be a lot of things going on around Kelsey during his journey to keep the audience engaged.
Some of the ideas were visually great but really expensive to produce, others easy to produce but visually poor.
I had to rewrite the script countless times. Initially, I had an idea to play around with the shadows in the desert to portray ignorance. We tested a couple of ideas on the empty street near my house, and it sort of worked. Unfortunately, on the scout at the sand dunes, the shadow idea was not working at all. I had to rewrite this part again. All this process was really stressful but in the end, I learned a lot.
LBB> What were your thoughts on how it should look/feel?
Andzej> The key idea was to create something that would grip and entertain the audience from the beginning and become shocking at the end. This way the viewer would have the same unexpected impact that I had while cycling through Downtown LA. That is why the film consists of two parts - narrative fiction and documentary.
LBB> Kelcey Watson is brilliantly cast and his performance is so key to the film of course. Why was he right for it?
Andzej> Kelcey played one of the leading characters in a music video for Korn that I directed last summer in LA. We got along really well, I saw massive potential in his work. We have kept in touch since then. From the moment I came up with an idea for Malaria, I had a feeling that Kelsey would be a perfect match for the role. I wrote Malaria with him in my mind. Kelsey and I had a couple of rehearsals to try things out and establish the character. There were a lot of tricky moments in the script that if not acted right, would turn out cheesy and turn the film into a comedy. I am really glad, we nailed it!
The limited amount of film stock and tight schedule did not leave a lot of room for improvisation on set, so being prepared helped a lot.
LBB> What was the production process like? Did coronavirus change the way you had to shoot at all?
Andzej> Luckily for us, we produced the short before Covid hit the world.
Still, I managed to have a remote pick-up day. I had to fly out of LA for another project, but deep down I sensed that we needed to pick up a couple of shots in the desert to make things easier in the edit. For the pick-up day, I was already in Moscow. The time difference and jet lag actually helped, I had a lot of time before the shoot to prep references and make a shooting plan for Kelsey and our DP Tony.
The Harper dry lake is a massive location, with no actual roads on the map. It was quite intense to navigate our crew car to the exact place we needed. The mobile phone signal was really low, and I was afraid that the guys would get lost and we would lose the sun. I never directed remotely over a phone - I can't say that I liked it. I usually enjoy exchanging energy with my actors and crew. Later on in the edit, we used a lot of the pick-up material, which once again proved that you can't give up on your instincts and senses.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges shooting it?
Andzej> There were so many. The whole project was a massive challenge.
The main obstacle was the budget that we had for an ambitious script. Without tons of support from the location owners and rental houses, I don't think we would be able to achieve the look we were aiming for. Overall the shooting days went great, the crew and cast were supportive and stood strong shooting sunrise to sunset.
The documentary part was not easy to shoot.
Being out on the Skid Row was quite scary and intimidating from the beginning. It was only the two of us - Tony the DP on the project and me - both carrying cameras and trying to hide them. People would start screaming, pointing fingers and threatening you straight away once they saw cameras. Social workers and police would stop you and make you aware that it's a life-threatening risk, taking pictures in this area as people carry weapons such as knives and guns. After our first session, I realised that if both of us would continue walking around taking pictures we would get into some serious trouble. I decided that I would go talk to people and ask permission to take a picture, and Tony would photograph them. For our safety, it was the best call and it would prevent us from getting in any life-threatening situations.
Honestly, you never know what kind of reaction you would get from a homeless person, some people were brutally rude, some kind and supportive. When speaking with them, people would get the idea that we are there to help not to entertain ourselves, they open up and tell me their personal stories of how they ended up living on the streets, even invite us in their tents to show us how they live.
LBB> When did Houseless Not Homeless get involved and how?
Andzej> Once we had a WIP version of Malaria on our hands, we started to approach companies.
Houseless not Homeless were excited about the film and decided to participate in a project.
LBB> What will be your enduring memory of making this film?
Andzej> The key element of the story is the mosquito itself. From the start, I wanted to go for a faux prop mosquito. As it turned out there is only one company in LA that provides insect miniatures for film, that was closed at the time we were prepping and shooting the project. All of our team was desperately looking for mosquitoes right up to the last shooting day, we even considered finding a real one, but it was not the season. After we wrapped the last shooting day my wife Julija and I got into the car and believe it or not there was a real mosquito flying in it. I guess that was a good sign.