Among this year’s collection of Santa Barbara short films, few are as successful as Stephanie Gumpel’s A Tiny Portal. A little film with a big message, Portal follows one closed-off young girl named Fern (played by Gumpel) who has her mind-set expanded when a set of elderly neighbors gift her with a magic copy of an encyclopedia. Mixing a quirky and fanciful score with some super-sweet visual tricks — and an appearance by Office Space alum Richard Riehle — Gumpel’s short packs a fantastical punch. Below, we talk with the director/star about the inspiration behind A Tiny Portal.
Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind the film?
The film is inspired by the idea of passing through obstacles that we perceive as impossible whether they be social, emotional, or physical (all three in Fern’s case). The portal is a visual symbol of passing through a “wall” into a new place that seemed impossible to get to before.
Visually, the inspiration came from a place in Hawai’i called the Makapuu Tide Pools. While I was going to film school in Hawai’i, I visited this place that is all volcanic rock. There are holes in some of these rocks carved out from the waves hitting them, and the light shines through these holes beautifully from some angles. It was a very striking image to me, and it has stayed with me.
Is Fern based on anyone in particular?
Fern is a composite of people that I’ve observed. People that I care about with great talent and beauty inside but seem stuck in some way, perhaps because they are lacking courage or clarity. Once I started to write the character, she really began resonating with me. Perhaps she is a part of me, too.
When did you guys shoot?
This was shot in late June/early July 2012.
Richard Riehle is a pretty big get for a short. How did that work out? How was he to direct?
[Cinematographer] Jeremy Poindexter contacted a very talented casting agent who is a Facebook friend. I talked to him, Dustin Blackburn, over the phone, and we connected on what kind of person I needed for Mr. Turner. I kept my faith in Dustin, and he came through with Richard.
He was so great to direct. We met at a restaurant to read one time before the shoot, and he was really open to talk about the character. He had great insights on Mr. Turner that I as a writer didn’t even realize.
Richard also brought great energy to the set. Everyone on set felt enthusiastic to work on a film with him in it. It was quite an experience. He told us stories at lunch about his early career in N.Y.C. in Greenwich Village and stories about Office Space. It was wonderful. I felt that there were valuable pieces of film/art history and tradition being passed down to me from the previous generation. It’s hard to explain what a special feeling that is.
The portal scene is fantastic looking. How did you guys build it and what was the process like?
I built the original model for the portal six months earlier. It was about 7 inches wide and made of cardboard, paper, and staples. I had a vision of Fern’s whole body passing through the portal, which is supposed to be about a half-inch wide in reality. It was such an exciting possibility for a shot, and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I had to attempt to build it. Our very talented set builder and our AC was able to build the7’x12’ frame for it. His name is Mark Patton, and he’s a genius with set design.
Between the effects and the editing, you guys had your hands pretty full I imagine. What was the biggest challenge you ran into during filming/post?
There were many challenges, but I feel grateful that things went very smoothly. It was a matter of applying continual effort for an extended amount of time — finding a way to keep adding to the project every day for about six months after the shoot. I think much of this energy was generated during the shoot by the enthusiasm and positivity of the cast and crew.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, but also success of post, was the score. We flew to Brooklyn, New York, for a week in August and recorded with composer Perrin Cloutier from the indie-rock band Beirut. He was so open to communicating about concepts. We had to work out a language together. I write a little music, but he’s on another level. We had to continually work together so closely to work through problems that came up and find solutions, a continual communication process. In the end, I think the score is so brilliant. All of the energy we put in was worth it!
As a viewer and reader, are you drawn to fantasy stories?
Sometimes. I don’t like “escapist” fantasy, if that makes sense. I like fantasy that reveals something deep or hidden about my actual reality. Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist, is a big inspiration. So is Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter.
What’s the message behind A Tiny Portal?
The message of A Tiny Portal is we are capable of so much more than our narrow identity can allow for. We must let go of who we think we are in order to transition into a new and better life.
What do you hope viewers walk away with?
I hope viewers walk away with a sense of wonder and feeling like more is possible in the world than when they walked into the theater.
I’m working on a feature idea. It will be my third feature script, and I am very excited about this idea, maybe more than I have been about ideas in the past. It’s in the very, very beginning stages, but I am eager to see how it develops.
The Tiny Portal screens as part of Santa Barbara Shorts on Thursday, January 31, at the Lobero Theatre and Sunday, February 2, at the S.B. Museum of Art.