2014 was a good year for Tucson filmmaker Alex Italics.
His short film, "Sheltered Love," won nearly two dozen awards on the festival circuit to festivals, including the Best Short at the Delta International Film and Video Festival, the Best Student Film at Rainer Independent Film Festival and the Golden Gong Award right here at Tucson's Loft Cinema.
He won a contest to make a music video for They Might Be Giants with a pastiche that evoked the televised news reports from the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Comedian John Hodgman, who judged the contest, had some serious praise for the video: "The amount of talent that has been poured into this—from all the actors to all the costumes to the set design and the video design, not to mention the elderly newsman tear deployment—makes it as hypnotic as the Zapruder film."
And on New Year's Eve, he got married to his sweetheart, Ashley Nixon.
Italics, 31, is starting out 2015 on an upbeat note, too: His new video for Tucson band Head Over Heart—featuring a curious mash-up of psychoanalysis, film-strip technology and somewhat creepy voyeurism—landed an Entertainment Weekly exclusive last month, with the magazine noting that the video "contrasts the song's New Wave-inspired electro sound and anxious energy with an even more retro look based around an archaic educational technology and a creepily voyeuristic theme. The end result should leave you intriguingly unsettled."
He's hard at work on his next project: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants has commissioned a video from Italics as part of the band's 2015 project: Releasing a new song and accompanying video once a week. Italics says shooting will start any day now—he has to have it wrapped by the end of February—and he's staging an homage to those unforgettable Ronco greatest-hits album ads that were all over television in the 1980s.
And this Friday, Feb. 6, he'll be cohosting the First Friday Shorts movie contest at the Loft Cinema—a contest that he's conquered multiple times. Italics is the only person to ever win three Golden Gongs, the prestigious award presented to the very best of a given year's entries.
"We all love Alex Italics," says Loft programming director Jeff Yanc. "He's incredibly talented and we've seen his films over the years and he's gotten better and better and better and more accomplished. He has a very distinct vision. You can always tell it's an Alex Italics film. He's an auteur. It's this retro look, but it's also quirky and offbeat."
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All this praise for Alex Italics is especially impressive given that he fell into filmmaking almost accidentally. Growing up in Tucson, Italics was more interested in being in a band.
"I've never been someone who is really passionate about making films," he says. "I enjoyed films, but music was definitely at the forefront of my passion."
When Italics decided to pursue a degree at the UA, music fell by the wayside. He started out studying political science, but when he realized the program wasn't a good fit, he picked up a course catalog and flipped through until he came upon film and television production.
"I figured, why not?" he says. "It was kind of like a Hail Mary pass."
Part of his inspiration came from attending the Loft Cinema's First Fridays Shorts program, where aspiring filmmakers show their work on the big screen. Each film gets at least three minutes; after that, if the crowd isn't enjoying the film, they can jeer loudly enough to persuade the host, cartoonist Max Cannon, to bang the dreaded gong and bring the film to a premature end.
"It seemed kind of unique to me you could make an exhibit to an audience on a monthly basis," he says. "And the prize money was attractive to a starving student."
Going to the First Friday Shorts competition taught Italics a lot about filmmaking. The audience can issue harsh judgments, but there's a lot to learn there, including the importance of making sure the crowd is invested in the film within the first three minutes so they don't call for your film to be gonged.
"The audience is either on board or it's not," Italics says. "There's a lot of raw hatred behind the negative response that is coming from the right place in terms of the work. If the work is flawed in some way, they're responding to it more so than an average person."
So as he started his studies in film, he tried to craft projects that could work both in academia and be screened at places like the Loft.
Italics' films typically capture a certain period in American life, such as the 1950s nuclear hysteria that runs through "Sheltered Love."
As a kid, Italics didn't get to the movies all that much, "so the films that I watched were stuff like VHS dubs of 'The Absent-Minded Professor', a black-and-white children's film from 1961. I don't think that now you can get a kid to watch the film—it would never hold their attention."
When he rattles off influences, he mentions Hitchcock's style, Tim Burton's production design and Hal Ashby independent vision; Ashby's "Harold and Maude" was one of his mother's favorite films, so he watched it "many, many times" while growing up, which explains the offbeat humor in his films. "I kind of understood that that was the way comedy worked," he says.
Another big influence: Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone." Italics has huge admiration for Serling: "He wrote something like 90 of the shows 150 episodes. It was classic television, it was some television of all time and he was literally cranking them out."
Serling's influence is all over "Sheltered Love," which involves star-crossed, teenaged lovers, an unhappy father and a bomb shelter. It was inspired, at least in part, by a "Twilight Zone" episode called "The Shelter," wherein a group of neighbors try to crash one family's bomb shelter after hearing the rockets were launched.
"They end up literally coming to blows with one another and then, of course, in classic Serling style, it ends up not being a real threat," Italics said. "I thought it would be interesting to flip that idea. What if there was this personal drama unfolding and the characters were unaware of the nuclear threat? That same kind of moment but in a different way."
Italics decided to enter "Sheltered Love" in as many contests as he could last year—and it was a huge winner on the festival circuit, landing 22 awards for Italics and the other members of the production, including his frequent collaborator, cinematographer and fellow film student Brody Anderson.
"That guy is a genius," Italics says. "We work real well together."
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The exposure that "Sheltered Love" has had at festivals pales to attention he's gotten for his winning entry in the They Might Be Giants music video competition for "Am I Awake?," which faithfully recreates the look of news reports on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Italics did a report about JFK's assassination in the fourth grade and has probably read more than 100 books about it. He traveled to Dallas for the 50th anniversary of the shooting. "I've just been fascinated with it all of my life," he says.
So as he considered how to direct something with a '60s look for the video, he naturally remembered Walter Cronkite broadcasting from his news desk—and once he realized he could recreate that set, he was off to the races. "It just spiraled out of that," he says.
Making the video was a great experience. Italics didn't have to worry about dialogue or assembling a huge crew or many of the other challenges that come with narrative filmmaking. "You can try things and see if they work and have a relaxed shooting schedule," he says.
The video did not go over so well among Italics' fellow members of a JFK assassination conspiracy Facebook page, who kicked him out of the group.
"They did in fact ban me," Italics says with a note of puzzlement. "I thought if anybody would've liked that video it would've been people who are fascinated by the Kennedy assassination because there are a lot of details I tried to get right—for example, the Cronkite set—and I thought they would at least appreciate the effort."
Despite that negative review, the response to "Am I Awake" has been generally positive. The video led to the Jordan Prather of Tucson band Head Over Heart asking him to make a video for the band's song "No Sleep."
Italics decided he wanted to combine two very separate concepts: Filmstrips and psychotherapy. While psychotherapy might seem like a natural area for a music video to explore, filmstrips are a bit out there
"I just have this fascination with completely archaic media," Italics says. "I'm probably the generation that caught the very tail end of filmstrips. I remember, in high school, in the media arts class, one of my jobs was to transfer the filmstrips to videotape because they were just going to throw them away because no one was going to use them anymore. So they just seemed so dated."
And there's little love for filmstrips these days.
"With other outmoded forms, like vinyl or film, there's this romanticism," Italics says. "There's no real romantic surge for the filmstrip. I feel kind of sorry for it."
At the same time, Italics understands why the format was abandoned. He watched dozens of filmstrips to prep for making the video and concluded that they are, to put it bluntly, "inherently boring." He told the Weekly he fell asleep while watching some of them: "It's like a natural sedative."
He actually had to create a filmstrip for the video, taking still photos and sending them off to a lab for processing. (Yes, there is a still at least one lab in America that will make a filmstrip.)
"I didn't really know if it would be a success or not, but that's true of 'Am I Awake' and everything I've ever done," Italics says. "I'm guided by an idea or a vision but I'm not totally, 100 percent confident that it's going to work."
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Italics would love to make more music videos; over the next few weeks, he'll be putting together the new video for They Might Be Giants, he's kicking around ideas for another Head Over Heart video, and he remains hopeful that more work will come his way.
Italics has worked for law firms over the last decade and has studied to become a paralegal as a backup plan, but he's now applying to various grad schools in California, with a plan to move later this year to get a MFA in filmmaking. He says he'd love to make movies for a living, but knows the odds are long.
"If someone who says they want to do filmmaking for a living, it's like get in line," he says. "It's harder than ever."
He has some teaching experience at the UA and Pima College and likes the idea of teaching film.
"I think that would be a great opportunity to continuously make work," Italics says. "I certainly like making movies. I don't know if the work that I make is, on its own, the most commercial."
All the attention in the last year has been exciting, but Italics has barely had time to enjoy it.
"I try to stay so busy all the time that I don't get to savor things," Italics says. "Film is a funny medium because you spend so much time on a project that by the time it comes out and you're showing it to the world, you're already neck-deep in your new project. But I have no idea what the trajectory of my career is. I kind of gave up on any kind of pretense of having a dead-set career plan and figured the best thing to do is to make work and get it out into the world."
Alex Italics will co-host First Friday Shorts with Max Cannon on Friday, Feb. 6, at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. The show starts at 9 p.m. and Italics will screen his "Am I Awake?" video.