John Merriman in William Goss' "Sweet Steel"

SXSW ’19 Interview: Will Goss on Showing Strength with “Sweet Steel”

After scouting for a grocery store in Austin where he could film a scene for his latest short “Sweet Steel,” things were looking up for Will Goss when the Wheatsville Co-Op had agreed to open their doors for a few extra hours. However, his happiness grew into concern when he noticed that the store liaison he’d been negotiating with started suddenly following him on Twitter.

“I began wondering, ‘Which smart-ass tweet of mine is going to torpedo this whole arrangement for us?’” said Goss, whose mordant wit and affection for puns have long brightened up the feeds of folks on Film Twitter ever since a previous life as a film critic for such publications as and Cinematical. “And it turns out that Anthony, the liaison, is a fellow film fan and said that he enjoys my humor, so that was a nice, unexpected vote of confidence at a late hour on a long day.”

Goss had been nervous that the location could fall through for other reasons. After recent shorts “Lemon Drink,” in which a couple threatens to be torn apart by one’s exclusive use of film dialogue to communicate, and “Pick-Ups,” where a pair of extras take center stage in between a film crew shooting a scene over and over with the main cast, the writer/director has made a film with “Sweet Steel” that is more serious-minded than self-referential, yet no less ingenious about what it can achieve cinematically as it joins a man at his lowest low (played by John Merriman, a master of tragicomic expressions), ready to take his own life. Yet the man has second thoughts and it is here where Goss lets audiences experience the same ecstatic sense of surprise as his main protagonist has when realizing the ingenuity that’s born out of complete and total desperation.

While “Sweet Steel” arrives at a most unexpected place, the feelings it stirs undoubtedly hit home and to hear it from Goss, the film is as much an emotional breakthrough as a creative one with the deeply personal effort set to become his first to play at a major festival when it premieres as part of the Texas Shorts program at SXSW later this week. On the eve of the debut of this most special film, the filmmaker and I conversed over e-mail about how he finally reached a place where he could make “Sweet Steel” after achieving a command of cinematic language to match his crafty way with words — then making a film that’s largely dialogue-free — as well as the ongoing collaborations that have yielded richer productions each time out and the clever behind-the-scenes maneuvers that made the small-scale shoot feel so big.

How did “Sweet Steel” come about?

Back in 2009, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” had a scene in which Colin Firth’s grief-stricken character attempts to position himself for the most courteously arranged suicide, doing everything from zipping himself into a sleeping bag to playing out the way in which his body was likely to collapse should he do it in the shower instead. It’s the only moment of macabre levity that I remember from that entire film, and it effectively demonstrated this guy’s fastidious approach to a dire scenario without the use of a single word. What landed harder than anything else was the specific thought of “How lousy would it be for the last thing you taste, the very last sensation you’d ever feel, to be the cold, bland barrel of a gun?” It was a conclusion I’d never reached before. Sure, I had a few standard mopey moments as a teen, but depression wasn’t an issue at the time that I found myself filing that morbid idea away somewhere in my head.

Over the course of my twenties and heading into my thirties, I did begin suffering from severe depression accompanied by periods of suicidal ideation. Whenever that ball would get rolling, I was less prone to considering how to carry it out and more about how I wouldn’t do it as a matter of practical limitations. I was too fat to ever hang myself and too picky to ever taste the barrel of a gun. I drive a Prius, so choking on fumes in the garage was out. Anything to do with wrist injuries instantly makes me queasy, which meant that tried-and-true technique was a non-starter. For me, it was chiefly about eliminating options and hoping to diminish the literal aftermath rather than having my heart set on any one particular terrible way to go.

Now, during my more lucid stretches, I felt compelled to make another short following “Pick-Ups,” which had stalled out on the festival front and premiered online pretty unceremoniously. (I’m still proud of it.) This was about a year later, and I wanted to apply the lessons learned to whatever came next. The shoot had to be simple and cheap, of course, but unlike my past three shorts, I didn’t have an easy premise or gag in mind that happened to be suitably scaled to the resources at hand. After a while, you hope to accomplish something bigger than calling in favors and rotating between friends’ houses for locations, but in reality, the idea had to be a contained one if we were to make anything at all.

So I tried working backwards from the base elements of storytelling. What were the steepest stakes the story could start with that would engage the viewer, even without the benefit of a basic character introduction? The opening had to not just be attention-grabbing, but emotionally direct, enough so to buy us maybe a minute or two of someone’s curiosity, by which point the viewer might find themselves genuinely invested in the outcome. Once that first moment became our anchor, the “plot” grew out of a logical train of thought of how this character might go about diligently resolving his perceived dilemma, then finding a way to tie that into a larger character arc. I wanted to encompass the most important four minutes of this guy’s whole life, whether he knows it or not.

How did John Merriman come to mind to play the lead?

Anyone who sees a few hundred movies a year inevitably racks up a mental roster of solid character actors who always deliver strong work whenever they show up, no matter how big or small the role, no matter how rotten or delightful the film. If you’re like me, you smile a little and know that they’re going to hold up their end of the bargain. Even while watching indie films for the sake of writing reviews rather than scripts, I placed increasing stock in a growing number of familiar faces: Melanie Lynskey, Pat Healy, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Robert Longstreet, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Macon Blair, Lee Eddy, John Gallagher Jr., and Bill Wise among others. [Sidebar: if I listed your name just now as you read this very interview, let’s talk.]

The Austin film community is understandably prone to casting from the same shared pool of talent, so the longer that I attended SXSW, the more I couldn’t help but notice a guy like John. I originally saw him in Steve Collins’ “Gretchen” in 2006, my first time to the festival and the town. Then he really impressed me in Collins’ follow-up, “You Hurt My Feelings,” at the 2011 Austin Film Festival, marking my first year attending that festival. In hindsight, I wonder if “Feelings”’ largely wordless, deeply melancholy vibes had some subconscious trickle-down effect in convincing me that a quiet short also starring John Merriman could get away with a similar degree of restraint.

John continued to pop up in indies like “Cinema Six,” “Pictures of Superheroes,” and “Pit Stop,” as well as the wonderful Old Murder House Theater productions of “Die Hard,” “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Aliens on Ice.” Our social circles expanded enough to overlap and we hit it off. In the summer of 2017, we were at some downtown shindig and he asked what I was up to. I told him that we were prepping “Pick-Ups,” and then, as I recall, he half-jokingly asked when I was going to offer him a part in one of my films. I assumed that he wouldn’t be interested in giving up a weekend to star in some short film of mine, but I was happy to hear it and told him as much.

I tried to offer him an off-screen role in “Pick-Ups,” which may have seemed a little backhanded on my end, but the timing didn’t work out. Fortunately, he showed zero hesitation when he responded to the script for “Sweet Steel.” It was a relief to have not only an actor I already got along with, but someone willing to work at our scale and speed and capable of managing the tricky tonal balance of a piece like this. The final shot of the film was the first shot we got, and by the end of John’s first take, I was tearing up at the playback monitor. That was when I knew that we were lucky to have him carrying this thing on his shoulders.

Was the challenge of a project with minimal dialogue something you embraced?

The minimal dialogue was born of two things. The first was the decision to focus on the loneliness of this premise at the expense of traditional interactions with other characters. The lead’s actions alone are intended to sufficiently indicate his thought process and thereby his emotional state on their own. The second was a previously scrapped script, a real-time two-hander designed to tackle similar subject matter that had put me off due to the corny and forced interplay I’d written for the two leads. Granted, a writer usually tends to hone their own dialogue in subsequent drafts, but the lines kept triggering my figurative gag reflex with their mawkishness or quippiness. It all read like dialogue that I wouldn’t have liked coming from anyone else. “Pick-Ups” being decidedly banter-heavy may have also factored into seeing how far we could get without leaning on that element, like trying to generate a significant point of catharsis with one hand tied behind our collective back. But more than anything, the story dictated the form.

How long was the shoot?

We planned for a 12-hour day, working backwards from the window we had at the store after hours and grabbing everything at the house prior to that while we still had daylight. Given that we only needed our dolly for a single shot and planned to grab every other shot on sticks, we began with the final scene, which was both the most involved for the crew and the most demanding for our actors. Once that was handled, we had no dialogue to cover and a pretty exacting shot list to follow, so it was easy to keep things moving along at a good clip. Even with a company move between the two locations and a lunch break that ran longer than anticipated on account of a meal mix-up, we still wrapped an hour early by the end. (We had to book the store for a minimal two-hour window regardless of how quickly we grabbed our shots there.)

From seeing “Pick-Ups,” I know that sound is something that you think about quite a bit. Was it fun to do the mix for this? Those opening shower rings do set the mood.

Sound mixing is usually a highlight of post-production, especially because everything we’ve done to date has had almost no score, so we have a lot of room to play. With this one, narrowing in on this very deliberate process meant dialing up the mundane sounds of his various tasks to emphasize that isolated mindset and to also suggest the world beyond these tightened frames. It was important to fill those spaces with everything from the low, persistent hum of the fridge in his kitchen to the generically perky music inside the grocery store, which ever so briefly intrudes on his otherwise dispassionate routine.

Furthermore, we had to respect the severity under which we initially meet our protagonist. That situation is hard enough to consider to begin with — so intrinsically cold and lonely and dire in actuality — that there was no need to stack the deck with something saccharine on either end of the story or something more recklessly jaunty in between. Subject matter like this necessitates an appropriate sense of gravity, and the filmmaking aimed to establish that weight without either undermining or overplaying it. I’ll admit that it was tough to tell whether this approach would work in the first few cuts, but once we got in there with Kyle Graham (who has mixed all of our stuff), everything clicked into place.

You’ve edited all your films so far, but Tyler Mager, with whom you’ve been collaborating for a while, does the honors here. How did that handoff come about?

I’ve known Tyler for years. He served as our 1st assistant director on “Lemon Drink” and “Pick-Ups,” the latter of which required pulling double duty in playing a role as, well, “The 1st AD.” Like much of our motley crew, he’s smart, supportive, open to ideas, constructive with his criticisms, and an agreeable presence to have on set. He and the other co-producers — Peter Hall, Luke Mullen, and Paul Gandersman — are all film-savvy friends of mine to begin with, and they’re all bringing their respective filmmaking know-how to the table. Luke is our DIT and occasional colorist, Paul has stepped in to be our script supervisor before, and Ashley Landavazo continues to crush it as our production designer. And if any of them can’t fill a certain role on the shoot, they are each well-established enough to know the right locals to hit up for any given job.

On “Sweet Steel,” Tyler essentially issued a gentle ultimatum during our initial production meeting, saying that he’d rather not serve as our 1st AD again and that he’d like to take a crack at cutting this one. Operating as my own editor on the first three films had been vital to helping me as a director to comprehend the value of whatever coverage I would end up wishing we had in the edit. However, Tyler edits all manner of content for a living, so he certainly didn’t lack for expertise. We were on the same page regarding the kind of rigorous film grammar and rather specific rhythms of this project, and we didn’t even need to replace him as 1st AD on a shoot this small. I do think that this project was better off for having a fresh set of eyes on it, and it’s a role that I will likely surrender to more skilled hands going forward.

Before film writing, had you always planned on making films or did that desire evolve over the years?

There’s this hoary notion that all film critics must have originated as failed filmmakers, but my trajectory actually went in the opposite direction. In college, I was a journalism major who adopted a cinema studies minor, taking classes and contributing work to my earliest outlets. There were friends of mine who pursued the proper filmmaking track, but even taking a requisite course like “Fundamentals of Production” didn’t compel me as much as film theory did. Between 2005 and 2015, I accrued a number of steady writing gigs, only to gradually shed them as most film sites were acquired and promptly dismantled while newspapers reduced the perceived “soft news” coverage of arts and entertainment.

Rightly or not, I subscribed to this idea of occupational Darwinism: had I been worthy of full-time work after filing more than a thousand reviews, interviews, and news stories, then surely I would have landed a proper job by now. Once the last outlet laid me off with the callous rationale of “last hired, first fired,” I could no longer justify banging my head against that particular wall. Soon after, I dusted off the pre-collegiate habit of churning out short stories, simply to retain a semblance of creative output. An idea occasionally seemed more well-suited to become either a short or feature film, but I figured that I wouldn’t ever bother to make anything, having missed the window on attending film school. That ship had sailed, and it took me ten years to realize that maybe I should have gotten on board.

Then, in early 2016, I went about filling in a few Richard Linklater blind spots before the release of “Everybody Wants Some!!,” so I watched his first feature, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books.” I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s barely a movie, but the effort must have been worth it for Linklater if he got the chance to make “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy as a result. I took heed of that title and, for the first time, began to shift away from refusing to put my neck out there so as to avoid the potential humiliation and toward convincing myself that I’d be better off failing as quickly and cheaply as possible if I ever hoped to do it well. After all, there wasn’t a single filmmaker that folks admired on the basis of all the movies they never made.

By that summer, I picked the simplest idea to produce and direct, a three-page script called “Alarm,” and took comfort in knowing that we could always bury it if the results were too embarrassing. It took nine sweaty hours on a Saturday in August to get it in the can, with the action confined to the house in which I still live with some very accommodating friends (the same place where most of “Sweet Steel” would be filmed two years later using much of the same crew, making it a literal homecoming). The project wasn’t meant to serve as a flashy calling card when everything was said and done; at best, it might resemble a quiet throat-clearing of sorts.

The experience of making that first short fired off so many more synapses than expected, not only in terms of gaining a firmer grasp on the basic tenets of filmmaking, but also because it forced me to finally become a team player. (My athletic expertise in middle and high school was limited to bowling, which is about as compartmentalized as team sports get.) These self-imposed circumstances required me to be more articulate and more decisive, yet also flexible enough to navigate any sudden snags. I was surrounded by peers who were smart enough to solve problems and also knew when to push back on certain ideas. What’s more, the individual satisfaction of conceiving an idea and fleshing it out was now married to the thrill of collaborating with far more talented people to make the whole thing into a reality.

Each new film since has been a small-scale trial by fire, and even the setbacks are moderately tempered by the promise of having something to show for those stresses at the end of the day. “Sweet Steel” couldn’t have come along any sooner than last year because I didn’t have the proper vocabulary for it — neither technical nor emotional — let alone the invested relationships with our team that allowed us to get away with using a skeleton crew. If I walked away from my previous shorts only confident enough to keep making shorts, this was the first time that I came away believing that a feature might not be as daunting a prospect as it once seemed. Here’s hoping that I’ll have the chance for that sentiment to bite me in the ass when I’m ultimately pulling my hair out on a film set at some undetermined point in the future.

P.S. I still need to see “SubUrbia.”

What does it mean to play at SXSW?

I have been fortunate enough to attend South by Southwest for the past 13 years, whether as a critic, a panelist, a mentor, a host, or just a fan. This festival was the impetus to visit Austin during my first spring break in college. Between recurring pilgrimages to SXSW in the spring and then Fantastic Fest in the fall, it was the main reason for eventually moving here, having made plenty of friends during those weeks each year and being impressed by the strength of the local film scene. It feels a bit surreal to find myself on the other side of the experience this time around, but I know that their programmers are hardly pushovers (read: my other work was turned down in years past) and they’re only facing a growing number of submissions as filmmaking tools become more widely accessible and relatively affordable. Finding out that “Sweet Steel” was compelling enough to make the cut means the world to me, and I’m pretty excited to discover what audiences make of it.

“Sweet Steel” will screen at SXSW as part of the Texas Shorts Program on March 8th at 8:15 pm at the Atom Theater at the Austin Convention Center, March 10th at the AFS Cinema at 11 am and March 16th at the Alamo Lamar C at 11:15 am. It will next play at the Florida Film Festival as part of the Shorts #1 program “Respect” at the Regal Winter Park Village on April 13th at 3:30 pm and April 16th at 7 pm.