Spot Matt Rivera and Evan Sennett between classes at duPont Manual High School—it would be possible to mistake them for average.
Then catch a glimpse of the two on the set of one of their films—sporting turtlenecks and blazers, or while screening a 16 millimeter copy of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in a basement, and the reality becomes inescapable.
The filmmaking duo are a pair of high school-aged Wes Andersons walking among us.
Rivera and Sennett will premiere their newest short film, titled “Everything’s Relative” on Saturday at the University of Louisville’s Floyd Theater. It’s the pair’s third collaboration.
Their first film “The Executive”—which premiered at the 2012 Flyover Film Festival—and a second, “Writing the Big One”, which was accepted to a non-competition showcase of up-and-coming filmmakers at this May’s Cannes Film Festival. (Yes, the Cannes Film Festival.)
Co-written with fellow Manual student Max Abner—who stars alongside other peers from the Youth Performing Arts School—the filmmakers describe “Everything’s Relative” as a Larry David-style comedy with notes of Woody Allen. The plot centers around a high school student and his attempt to put on a film festival in order to impress an intellectual female classmate.
“She’s the sophisticated film buff and she likes this particular filmmaker named Sergei Eisenstein, who made this film from the 1920s called ‘Battleship Potemkin,’” Sennett said.
“He tells her that he’s having a film festival on Saturday and it’s like Thursday,” Rivera said. “And the story is over the course of a few days—him trying to throw this film festival together.”
Their Cannes entry “Writing the Big One” was a noir-drenched comedy with an all adult cast, but “Everything’s Relative” sees Rivera and Sennett’s return to directing actors of their own ages.
“We wanted to hire all the kids at the Youth Performing Arts School,” Sennett said. “They’re very talented over there. [Matt and I are] in design and production. We do technical theater. And we have these actor friends that we decided would work perfectly for this.”
Rivera added: “But I think it’s been amazing that we found that the kids at the Youth Performing Arts School have more going on in their schedules than those thirty year old adults [from “Writing the Big One”].”
“Everything’s Relative” was shot over a period of three to four months, as opposed to three days worth of 16 hour-plus shooting schedules for “Writing the Big One.”
“On this one we went in saying we’re not going to do [the long days] again,” said Rivera. “We’re going to do nice six hours days, kind of like the Coen brothers or something. But we don’t have the money that the Coen brothers have so it takes a little bit longer.”
Very few high school students can boast of having a film show at the Cannes Film Festival. And yet it is a prestige with which Rivera and Sennett are not entirely comfortable.
Rivera said he was “appalled” when Sennett submitted the film to Cannes.
“And then he told that we got in and I was even more appalled,” Rivera said.
Friends and family were very supportive, (at least, those who were familiar with Cannes), but the two noticed the biggest difference on the set of “Everything’s Relative.”
“When the cast … heard that we got our last film into Cannes, I think it stepped up their game a little bit,” Rivera said.
“They suddenly got a little more serious,” laughed Sennett.
Rivera and Sennett’s partnership reaches back to their time at Louisville’s Kammerer Middle School, where the two were first introduced to one another by photography teacher Victor Darrigrandi.
“In seventh grade I decided to go ahead and start making some of these little Lego animation films,” Rivera said. “And I showed some of them to [Darrigrandi] and he had just met Evan, who was also doing stop-motion animation. And so he kind of put us together and we just found that we had the same niches.”
Rivera also credits Darrigrandi with playing a major role in his transition from thinking of film as entertainment to an art form.
“He showed us the trailer for ‘Dr. Strangelove’ because he had wanted to start a classic film club,” Rivera said. “So then he suggested that we go home and watch it.”
“What’s really interesting about that is around the same time I went home and watched ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’,” Sennett added. “And of course ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’ are both Stanley Kubrick movies. So at about the same time we both got interested through the same director.”
Sennett and Rivera’s work is of note not just for its quality, but for the surprising attention to detail with which they undertake their craft.
“The Executive” is the pair’s tribute to the work of silent film greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Not content with simply recreating the look of a 1920s silent film, the pair went to the painstaking lengths of shooting on 8 millimeter, and then cutting and splicing the film by hand.
“We wanted to get into the mindset of 1926, making a silent film,” said Rivera. “Because it was such an exciting time, the 1920s, just before sound came in. Because they had virtually gotten to a point where they could do anything.”
The two also wrote their script on an antique typewriter and called each other on rotary phones.
This “method” approach to production earned them more than a few strange looks at school when caught up in crafting iconic noir one-liners for “Writing the Big One.”
“We watch these old film noirs and it becomes a part of our vocabulary,” Rivera said. “A lot of our friends at school are sometimes shocked by the things that we say, because we sound like two kids from the 1940s, or something like that.”
It is a combination of film appreciation and talent that has also attracted the attention of Louisville-based documentation Edward Heavrin, whose film “The Potter’s Field” debuted at this year’s Flyover Film Festival. Heavrin has been documenting the production of “Everything’s Relative” from start to finish.
“It is kind of strange,” said Sennett, of being someone else’s subject. “But he’s a very good filmmaker. He kind of disappears.”
Rivera and Sennett might not understand what all the fuss is about, but in the end it is their uninhibited and un-ironic enthusiasm that is so refreshing.
“Everything’s Relative” has yet to premiere but the two are already in pre-production for their next film.
Rivera noted that Hitchcock would often seem bored on the sets of his films. When approached about it, the director would say he was “thinking about the next picture.”
“And that’s kind of how we work too,” Rivera said. “The production of it is just rendering out everything that you’ve planned before, so we’re always thinking about the next film.”
(Also a budding actor, Evan Sennett is set to star opposite Will Oldham, a.k.a influential musician Bonnie Prince Billie, in a film called “West African Stowaway.” Louisville-native Chad Blevins will direct.)
“Everything’s Relative” premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday at the University of Louisville’s Floyd Theater, with a second showtime at 9 p.m.
Chris Ritter is a Louisville filmmaker. He’ll host a film podcast for WFPL coming this fall.