February 6, 2007

Musical Mastery

West Bank Story Takes Ari Sandel From Sundance To Oscar Night

By James Tella

A clip from the 22-minute film, written by the director along with fellow production alumna Kim Ray ’04, who also co-penned the musical’s lyrics.
From the freezing temperatures of Sundance, to the multinational markets of Dubai, to the mountain scenery of Switzerland, director Ari Sandel ’05 has traveled the world showcasing his musical comedy West Bank Story. But on February 25, no place can compare to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood when the School of Cinematic Arts production graduate walks the red carpet as one of the five nominees for Best Live Action Short at the 79th Annual Academy Awards.

“I could never have made this movie if I didn’t go to USC,” said Sandel about his film, which is set in the fast-paced, fast-food world of competing Middle-Eastern falafel stands. “Part of the movie making process is learning how to fail before you succeed, and the school enabled me enough times to do both so I knew what I was doing.”

The 22-minute film, written by the director along with fellow production alumna Kim Ray ’04, who also co-penned the musical’s lyrics with Sandel, has played in over 100 festivals, garnered 25 awards, and screened in every continent except for Africa.  
Logistics involved camels, goats, chickens, burning buildings, and singing for the camera.

“When I pitched my idea to people, I could anticipate just when they would raise their eyebrows. All I had was a title

 and a concept —Jews and Arabs dancing —but no real story,” laughed the California native, who set out to not only make a film he was proud to use as his calling card, but also to produce one that was even-handed, carried a pro-peace message, and made people laugh. “Kim and I realized that to deal with a tragedy like the conflict in the Middle East, simplifying the situation was necessary in order to make it possible for people to laugh. Once we came up with the concept, the story started to write itself.”

Freely admitting he was no fan of musicals, Sandel researched the genre extensively, of viewing a number of cinematic classics including West Side Story.

“Adding music and lyrics gave us the opportunity to make jokes and allow audiences to look beyond the underlying tragedy,” he added. “I have a huge appreciation for the technical challenges of musicals. I love them now.”

Setting the scene with actress Noureen DeWulf.
Despite the logistics involved in a story featuring camels, goats, chickens, burning buildings, and the seemly impossible task of transforming Los Angeles into an Arab village, Sandel points out that the intense camaraderie of his crew turned obstacles into opportunities.

“In the end, I wanted to combat the feeling of hopelessness that the mainstream media leaves people with when they show stories of the Middle East,” Sandel said, recalling the phenomenal experience of having the film play in United Arab Emirates, a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. “They embraced it with such feeling, and here I am thinking it couldn’t get much better than Sundance.”

That feeling reached even greater heights last month when Sandel received word that his movie was one of five short films up for the industry’s highest honor.

Will West Bank Story take home the Oscar for Best Live Action Short? Tune in to ABC on Februray 25 to find out.

“The whole thing has been a surreal experience,” said the elated director whose advice to current ’SC students is to obtain work in the industry either before or during their studies so they understand how the business operates, as well as increase their network of professional contacts.

Next on Sandel’s list is promoting his directorial project Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights - Hollywood to the Heartland. In the meantime, he’s still trying to wrap his head around a potential Oscar night acceptance speech.

And in the midst of the whirlwind press and accolades following Sandel and his short film, one thing is certain—who will be on his arm on the red carpet.

“I’m taking my mom,” he smiled. “I mean, come on. You’ve got to take your mom.