Sal Bardo is a gay filmmaker who works in the short film format. His smart, sharp dramas, which have played festivals across the country, include “Requited,” about a gay man conflicted about his feelings for his straight best friend; “Sam,” a nearly wordless short about gender identity and bullying; and “Chaser,” a controversial short about barebacking.
Bardo’s films are compelling slices of life that ask questions about our place in society. The strength of his work is not just that these short films grab viewers in their opening moments, and build suspense until the final payoff; it is that he resists preaching or moralizing, allowing viewers to come to their own decisions about the provocative issues being raised.
The writer/director/producer’s latest short, “Pink Moon,” which premiered at the Miami LGBT film festival this spring, and is available on YouTube continues this trend. The short tells the story of Ben (Brandon Tyler Harris), a young man living in a world where homosexuality is the norm and abortion is illegal. While he is in a relationship with Leo (Adam Jepsen), Ben finds himself in a tricky situation when his girlfriend on the side, Emily (Cole Johnston), gets pregnant.
The Mirror spoke to Bardo about making short films and his penchant for addressing sensitive topics.
Why have you chosen to make short films rather than features? What is it about this format that is so appealing?
It’s first and foremost a necessity, because a feature film is such a big undertaking—financially and otherwise. I never went to film school, so making short films has been the way I’ve learned the ins and outs of filmmaking; it’s my way of going to film school. For “Pink Moon” specifically, it was originally a feature film. I wasn’t sure how to get that off the ground, so I made a short film to pitch it to producers.
What sparks your interest as a storyteller? Why tell gay-themed stories?
It’s a matter of that old adage, “write what you know.” For me, the topics that have interested me the most are the ones that are socially and politically relevant. I think I gravitate to stories about topics I want to understand more about or have something to say about. It comes naturally to me to tell these stories and build my career in a niche because I’ve been embraced by queer audience and at queer festivals. I see it as a stepping stone, like short films are for making features. I was recently on a panel about what does it mean to be a queer filmmaker, and it’s to make good films and tell an interesting story.
From the movie "Chaser".
What can you say about the theme of paradox in your work? The heroes in all of your shorts seem to be struggling with a sense of belonging. Why do you keep exploring this internal conflict?
I struggle with attaining what I want, and [knowing] if it is something that I want. It’s not a conscious thing; it just comes out in my writing. Another way to put it is: How do we react when we feel we don’t belong? I’m dealing with that in my personal life, so I guess I’ve been exploring it in my work. Where do I fit in in the gay community? I felt on the outside of it for a long time, and I think because of the films I’m making, I’m finding where I belong.
In addition to choosing interesting subjects for your films, you tell your stories in a distinctive visual style. What can you say about your visual approach to the material and matching the story to the format?
I work as closely as I can with cinematographers because, as I said earlier, I didn’t go to film school. I like to collaborate with people who have a visual style that matches the tone of the story. I discuss the characters and explore the themes in the script visually, without dialogue. The love scenes, in “Pink Moon,” for example: one of them is very warm and pink, the other is cool and blue, which is meant to represent the main character’s relationship with Emily—one of the few warm and inviting scenes in the film—and Leo, which is in daytime and bright, but it’s cool. I want to convey the disconnect between Ben and Leo with the colors in the bedroom.
What can you say about distribution for short films, which people generally get to see on the festival circuit and on video in boxed collections?
My first film Requited was released on a DVD collection and that was great, but I haven’t seen any money from that, and I haven’t been able to post it on line because it’s on DVD. My subsequent films, I put them online after the festival run and that, to me, is the best way to get your work out there, especially as a filmmaker in the early stages of my career. It’s more important for me to have people see my films than making money—but I’d like to make money. For Pink Moon, I’m not waiting to post it online because the subject matter is really relevant. We had 50,000 views on YouTube last week, which reaches more people than if it had played the festival circuit, so it’s important to exploit the resources like YouTube and other online sources.
Speaking of resources, many short filmmakers rely on Kickstarter and crowdsourcing to make films. What can you say about financing?
At this point, all of my films have been funded via crowdfunding—Kickstarter or Indiegogo. It’s great. Twenty years ago, there was a lot more money going around to make features. I can lament about that, but those filmmakers didn’t have the resources and platforms we have now. I can go online and talk about my film and get investors from around the world. Crowdfunding is absolutely a necessary resource, and I can’t imagine making films any other way. I don’t know millionaires wanting to fund queer indie film. It’s a really exciting time to be an indie filmmaker.