Olivia Silver's short film that debuted at the Williamstown Film Festival three years ago returns in an expanded version as 'Arcadia,' above.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Regular patrons of the Williamstown Film Festival may remember director Olivia Silver's 2009 short film "Little Canyon."
If they liked that sensitive depiction of an adolescent coping with major change and a wildly uncertain future, they will love "Arcadia," Silver's debut feature that retells and expands upon the story of Greta.
"Doing the feature allowed me to really develop, especially, the sibling relationships," Silver said this week in a telephone interview. "It was always important for me to portray that realistically, mainly between the two sisters but even between the [younger] brother and Greta.
"Between the two sisters, I wanted to show what that's like: One day you're fighting and the next you're helping each other."
There is plenty for Greta and older sister Caroline to fight about. Along with brother Nat, they are being moved cross country from Connecticut to California by their father, Tom, whose motives are unclear and who refuses to tell the children why their mother is not along for the ride.
"Arcadia" screens on Saturday at noon at Images Cinema on Spring Street. The Williamstown Film Festival opens Wednesday at the Williamstown theater with an evening of shorts.
Short films are always a big part of the 14-year-old WFF and play an important role in the independent film industry the festival celebrates.
In addition to being works of art that stand on their own, short films also can be important resume-builders for filmmakers aspiring to make the jump to features.
Such was the case with Silver, who earned her bachelor's degree in English at Williams College and created "Little Canyon" as her master's thesis in the University of California at Los Angeles directing program.
She always envisioned the story, which she describes as semi-autobiographical, playing out in a feature-length film.
"I began writing the feature script a few months before I wrote the short," Silver said. "I always wanted to use the short as a testing ground to try out some of those characters."
As a practical matter, "Little Canyon" also was a proving ground for Silver, who used it to help generate financial support for the feature.
"If you're a first-time director, you've got to convince [backers] to trust you with their money," she said. "It's always good to show them what you intend to do."
What she's done is take the same basic story and add depth, rounding out the principal characters and giving the audience a greater sense of closure.
"I was fascinated because the short seemed so complete," WFF executive director Steve Lawson said. "It's 20 minutes, so it's a longish short, but it's interesting how it's flowered, how she's amplified it."
Silver said there is only so much of the story she could tell in the short film. And, at the same time, she felt an obligation to audiences to give them more in the feature.
"I think if you start to pack too much into a short, it can get very weighty very fast," she said. "When I was doing the short, it wasn't so much about 'we need answers' as 'we're not going to get answers.' ... It was more about the kid being in that murky world of adults and having to find her own way."
Clockwise from top, Williamstown artist Stephen Hannock in the documentary of his life 'Dreamscapes'; 'Knuckleball' looks at pitchers including local Major League legend Jim Bouton; Lily Taylor and Gerard Hurley in the father-son film 'The Pier'; Garret Dillahunt and Alan Cumming are a couple caught in a custody battle in 'Any Day Now'; at right, author Richard Russo talks with Williams professor Jim Shepard and Brad Silberling, filmmaker and Russo collaborator.
Greta finds her way again in "Arcadia," but this time her journey includes an important twist that the short film lacks.
"I think it's always important to have reversals," Silver said. "I think it's probably more important in a feature. You want to see as you're sitting through an hour and a half [film] that maybe things aren't as you thought. You want to maybe be surprised."
Greta is the central character in both the short and the feature, but the character of the father is, if anything, more important this time around.
"I always intended in both the short and the feature to show that this character is really complicated," she said. "Deep down, the main overriding thing is that he loves his kids. That was important in both.
"I'm happy that in the feature he was more intense and more extreme."
This time around, the father is played by John Hawkes, who also appears on screen this fall opposite Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," which won the audience award and a special jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
"Arcadia's" cast includes the sister-brother acting duo of Ryan and Ty Simpkins as Greta and Nat, respectively. At 14, Ryan is a veteran of 20 films and television shows. Ty has acted in several features, including 2005's remake of "War of the Worlds," and had recurring roles on two soap operas, "Guiding Light" and "One Life to Live."
Silver said she had hoped to cast actual siblings in the family drama and was happily surprised when she was able to do so.
"It brings a whole other level of depth to the screen," she said. "They're not faking this relationship. You get so much richness from having actual siblings that shows on the screen."
Just as "Little Canyon" has expanded to become "Arcadia," the WFF has expanded this year to include nine features and 28 short films — one more feature and seven more shorts than the festival offered in 2011, even though the event has gone from its traditional two weekends to one.
Lawson said he originally was hesitant to go to a one-weekend format, but it has some advantages.
"A number of the board members felt that we were, perhaps, dissipating the energy by doing two weekends," Lawson said. "And some of us, including me, thought initially, 'Doesn't that seem like retrenchment or pulling back?'
"And ultimately it wan't pulling back at all. ... Technically, it's actually bigger. We're doing more in a condensed period of time.
"I think it will sort of focus the energy and make it a slightly hotter ticket."
The festival already has one sellout under its belt. Friday evening's screening of "Dreamscapes," a documentary about Williamstown artist Stephen Hannock, is sold out according to the WFF website. The film screening is paired with an appearance by Hannock, director Wolfram Hissen and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a friend and patron of Hannock's who appears in the film.
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