Fort Wayne native Collin Schiffli was a filmmaker before he realized it.
Sure, his first storyboards were really crayon drawings and his first actors were toys and Legos he and his older brother would shoot with a camera their father brought home from work.
But those were the first steps that would eventually lead to his upcoming directorial debut at the renowned South by Southwest Music and Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Out of 1,324 submissions, Schiffli and screenwriter David Dastmalchian have produced one of the eight competition feature films screening at the festival, which takes place March 7 to 15. The pair made it into the festival despite a 14 percent increase in submissions, and despite coordinators reducing the number of films because one of the screening venues is closed for construction this year.
Schiffli, 27, has been living in Los Angeles for four years with his older brother, Brandon.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” Schiffli says during a phone interview. He was in the car, heading to Hollywood for a meeting. Since hearing about the admission into the festival a month ago, Schiffli says there has been a rush of phone calls and emails as he prepares for the trip.
“This is my first feature film, and you always wish for the best for your films, but you never know what to expect,” he says. “You just don’t know what kind of attention you’re going to get.”
“Animals” tells the story of a young, homeless couple who have learned how to con and steal what they need to stay ahead of their drug addiction. When one of them is hospitalized, the two must face the reality of their situation.
Schiffli says he met Dastmalchian when he asked the actor to be a part of his senior film thesis at Columbia College Chicago. Moving to Los Angeles around the same time, Schiffli says the two became good friends, shooting short films and helping each other get jobs on movie projects they were working on.
“(Dastmalchian) said, ‘I got this script for you, if you want to do it,’ ” Schiffli says. “It was a huge honor. I knew that it was a very sensitive project to him, and he was like, ‘I want you to do it, I trust you to do it.’ This was my first film, and it was going to be a big undertaking, but I wasn’t going to turn him down.”
Schiffli began storytelling and filmmaking at an early age. He says he and his brother would draw and paint obsessively as children; their art would morph and evolve as the two grew older.
“We would write stories and drew pictures to go with them, and we acted them out. Then we acted them out with puppets – goofy things you do when you’re younger,” he says. “As we took fine art more seriously, we realized film is also an artform, and it combined all these things that we loved to do.”
Throughout high school, Schiffli won multiple local fine arts awards; he finished sixth with a short film in the Project XL Farm Bureau Contest in 2004.
“It morphed and kept getting better and better until it wasn’t a question about going to film school,” he says. “It’s weird, because in my head, making this film really felt like the same way it did in high school. There’s more pressure because there’s money involved and other people involved, but it didn’t feel any different than in high school, shooting with my friends.”
Schiffli says he hopes the world premiere of “Animals” will lead to procuring an agent and manager. Currently making a living as a film editor and production coordinator, Schiffli says this accomplishment will hopefully be able to help launch a professional career as a director for him and his brother.
Much like Academy Award-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Schiffli says one day that he and his brother will hopefully be able to fulfill their vision with films they want to do.
He says they are far from dropping childhood hobbies.
“We want to take these childish things from our childhood and really shed a new light on them. We want to make the surreal real, and push people to use their imagination,” Schiffli says. “There is a way to get that reaction from a lot of people.”