Chelsea Clark Edmiston, in a scene from "The Searcher."
Joe Shaffer — the youngest winner of the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival’s Golden Badger Award — has known since he was 13 that he wanted to be a filmmaker. The West High senior has already made more than a dozen films, including his latest, The Searcher, a five-minute silent experimental film.
Shaffer says he was thrilled The Searcher was accepted for the film festival. Even better was the “wonderful and incredibly unexpected” news that he was receiving one of three awards the festival presents in the “Wisconsin’s Own” category. According to film festival staff, Shaffer is not only the youngest Golden Badger winner this year, but the youngest in memory. The Searcher will screen on Saturday, April 11, at MMoCA as part of “Wisconsin’s Own Shorts.”
Despite the professional look of his film, Shaffer is self-taught. He calls himself a student of Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Jean-Luc Godard, and in addition to writing, directing, shooting and editing, he has become adept at marshaling all the resources around him to make his films.
He made his own steadicam out of a wire hanger and shot The Searcher in a number of locations, including a classroom at West High School and his own living room and bedroom — and the neighbor’s bedroom window. The cast includes his parents (former Isthmus editor Dean Robbins and Ann Shaffer) and several close friends. But Shaffer also needed extras for the film’s opening classroom scene, in which a boy doodles and daydreams about a classmate as a teacher drones on. “I had about 12 extras, and the day we were supposed to film, people started texting me saying they couldn’t come,” says Shaffer. “I was there [in the classroom] and had rented all this expensive equipment. My mom started grabbing kids off the street.”
Although he produced it on a shoestring budget, the film’s production values are high. The poignant and quirky performances are underscored by the lush soundtrack from John Ford’s western The Searchers. The film features vivid colors, smooth edits and Shaffer’s self-assured point of view.
“I think the idea probably came in a similar situation to the first scene, a beleaguered teen, lost in his own head, staring at a girl, wishing he were somewhere else doing something else,” says Shaffer. “That just seems like such a quintessential experience, and this was kind of my big final movie in high school, so it seems fitting.”
Shaffer, who has also studied improv, standup comedy and acting, says he was struck by the physicality of his lead actor and best friend, Reid Annin. “I think he’d make a phenomenal mime,” says Shaffer. “ He’s one of those people that you look into his eyes and you see wonderful things.”
The young filmmaker doesn’t have much time to bask in the glow of his Golden Badger award. As he finishes up his senior year, he’s choosing whether to attend Emerson College, Oberlin College or New York University. Wherever he ends up, he knows he’ll keep making films. “I think film is such a malleable, exquisite medium. You can pull so much stuff in. You get the energy of music with the complexity of literature,” says Shaffer. “I’ve written songs, done standup and written short stories, and I would always feel like I was missing something. Film is the only way of telling a story where I feel utterly satisfied doing it.”