Five weeks ago, Matthew James Reilly sat for an elegant dinner at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, on the French Riviera. Around him were acclaimed filmmakers such as Alexander Payne, Michael Haneke and many others, and earlier that evening, Reilly himself had been honored with a Cannes student film award for his 17-minute short, “Abigail.” He had come a long way from Glendale High.
“I've been an avid fan of the Cannes festival since I first got into filmmaking in high school,” says Reilly, 22. “I used to geek out on it every year and watched what films came out of it. To be able to be a part of that, to be honored, is unreal.”
It was an astonishingly unexpected outcome to a film he'd made for a class at New York University, but the quietly evocative story of a young woman who quits her job at a gas station in an attempt to change her life clearly made an impression. Reilly wrote, directed, produced and edited “Abigail,” which was one of just two American films accepted into student competition, out of 4,500 entries.
The short film won second place at Cannes on May 26 as part of the La Cinéfondation program, which seeks to support and encourage the newest generation of filmmakers.
“This is probably the first film and the first script that really represents the type of filmmaker I want to be, and the type of stories and characters I'm attracted to,” Reilly says. “I feel like everything else I've done so far has been an exercise.”
The young filmmaker now lives in New York, where he just graduated from NYU, but spent most of his life in Glendale, from age 5 to 19. His interest in film came unexpectedly during his teenage years, when his original career goals were much different.
“I was pretty dead set from 9th grade on to being a professional skateboarder, but when I was 15 years old I severely injured my wrist, and that eliminated that dream,” he explains. During that summer, he watched Jim Jarmusch's 1984 indie film classic “Stranger Than Paradise” on TV, and his perspective on what a movie could be changed.
“It was the first low-key, super-low budget independent film that really spoke to me,” he says now. “I'd always loved movies, but that was the first film where I was able to recognize the voice of the director in it.”
He began his film studies for a year at Los Angeles City College, while working part time at a Circuit City store in Glendale, then transferred to NYU. For “Abigail,” he drew inspiration from his family roots in New Jersey, where all gas stations are still required to offer full service. He was also moved by the photography of William Eggelston, known for deeply saturated images of poverty and fading Americana in the Deep South, in pictures that are often wry and seemingly off-hand.
“A huge inspiration of mine is John Cassavettes. He's one of my favorite filmmakers and probably the reason I got into film was his movies,” he adds. “He made films that are completely character-driven because they're so incredibly low-budget and so done on the fly. It's all about the life that he breathes into the actors, how they illustrate all their flaws. It's about the dynamic of the characters, and that's something I'm really attracted to in filmmaking.”
He shot “Abigail” over four days a year ago in Edison, New Jersey, with a small cast and crew that never numbered more than nine. “All of them were some of my closest and most dependable friends from film school, and people that I've worked with on other projects before,” he says. “They all assembled together in one dream team.”
Now as an award-winning filmmaker, Reilly now hopes to take “Abigail” to other festivals, and he is currently at work “tweaking” a feature-length script he hopes to direct soon. The $14,000 that came with his prize will help him finance pre-production.
“The whole Cannes experience was a big honor, but it was also really just inspiring,” says Reilly, who hopes to one day return to Southern California. “There were a lot of amazing films there this year. It got me excited to start working again.”
For more information about the film, go to abigailthefilm.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun