If the Trees Heard Us, which was shot in North Dakota, follows a brother and sister’s journey to relocate their childhood home. There’s not much dialogue, and the narrative is felt more than explained, resulting in an emotionally-charged experience that combines powerful cinematography, music and less-is-more storytelling techniques.
Straub, who now spends most of his time in New York City, went to school at Western Kentucky University, as did most of the WTWS Productions crew he works with.
In our conversation, he spoke about the visibility boost that came from winning the Slam, what’s next for the If the Trees Heard Us film and how he started his journey in filmmaking.
Louisville Film Society: If the Trees Heard Us was the Jury Award Winner of the Short Film Slam in the Spring of 2023. What was the experience like in terms of showing the film at, and winning, the Short Film Slam? Did it help with things like visibility and engagement?
Christian Straub: Definitely, I think so. We were so excited to go to the Slam. That was our second event that we had been to with LFS. The year before, we had actually shown our previous film, “The Silence Between.” We had shown that at not the Short Film Slam, but the Flyover Film Festival. We were super excited to return. LFS was even able to help us get this movie made. So, we were really excited — that was sort of our big premiere. A lot of us were able to have friends and family come, so it was a super exciting event for all of us. And then obviously we were ecstatic that we won. We thought we were in really good company. We thought the competition was pretty steep. We definitely weren’t the highest budget. We definitely weren’t the most experienced. But, we had a really talented group of filmmakers who just really care about making good films, so when we all came together, we were able to make something great, and we were so excited when we won.
In terms of visibility, it’s helped a good amount. [With] other festivals, we’re still waiting to hear back on a few others. But, we were able to show it at the Sky Arts Film Festival down in Bowling Green. We have also been able to meet with several people about our next projects. So, this not only brought visibility to our project, but to our team, and we’re starting to work on another short film that we’re starting to shoot in the spring. We’ve been able to secure some funding, secure some locations, and different crew and producers and stuff like that because of the visibility that we were able to get from LFS.
You already briefly touched on this, but where is If the Trees Heard Us currently in its cycle? Are there any festivals or showings coming up? Or any other news or dates people might be interested in?
I would love to give you something like that, but unfortunately a lot of the festivals, they don’t notify us until the new year. So, we don’t have any more screenings for the rest of the year, but we are still waiting on at least five to ten more festivals that we’re not going to hear back from until at least January or February. So, I think people can keep an eye out, follow our Instagram, check out our website and all of that stuff. We do have an email sign-up — a newsletter — and when we do have a new screening we send that out. But, as of now, there are no concrete dates. Fingers crossed there will be something real soon.
The film is sort of an emotionally driven, haunted-by-the-past journey of healing that doesn’t have much dialogue, but carries a lot of weight through the performances, cinematography, and the score. What’s happening in the narrative is clear, but the backstory is much more opaque. That’s also why I can’t stop thinking about it. Can you talk a bit about the storytelling techniques used in the film?
I really love working with this crew. We are almost entirely made up of graduates from Western Kentucky University, so we all went to school together, we all trained together. So we kind of speak the same language, both on-set and cinematically. I really have to chalk that up to our director, and our director of photography, Noah Griffin and Mikale Youravich. They are just an incredible team, and they worked with Kat Frantz, our production designer, and the rest of our crew to bring some amazing stuff to life. A lot of it is, for lack of a better word, improvised. Noah and Mikale, they always go in with a plan. They always know the movie they are going to shoot. But, often they will show up to a location and there’s a window that just completely changes everything. Or the light is facing this way, so actually, let’s go shoot this scene over here.
How did you get your start in film? What initially drew you to the industry?
Crazy enough, I started as an actor. I got out of that as soon as possible, but I enjoyed my time. Funny enough, I did a couple of shows in high school, and then when I stopped getting cast, I was like, ‘I guess I just need to make something for myself.’ So I started doing little sketches on YouTube at my house, with my friend, with the $50 camera that I had gotten for Christmas. From there, it just took off. My senior year, I actually made a 40-minute film for my thesis. It was high school, but we still called it the thesis project that you would make. It was a silly little YouTube video, but we got almost the entire senior class in on it. It was really fun and I really just found my passion, not only for being in front of the camera, but being behind it and orchestrating everything. Having my hand in the design, the cinematography, anywhere I can give my talent. I like to boost everything I make to the next level.
What was your favorite part of working on If the Trees Heard Us? What was the most challenging?
I think they go together, honestly. I think my favorite was working with the people of North Dakota. They were so incredibly enthusiastic to let us do this. I was walking up to ten locations a day, with less than an hour’s notice, because [the crew] would see a location and would be like, ‘We think this place is run by this company. Can you do a little research?’ So I would research that company, find a number, talk to a person, talk to another person and they would send me to another person, and I’d get a call an hour later. And that person would be like, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool. This is the coolest thing I ever heard. Yes, please come shoot your movie there.’
WTWS Productions is currently in pre-production for their next film, “Always Were.”
This month’s Louisville Film Society Short Film Slam takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $8 for Speed and LFS members.