Scott Blake’s short anti-Western The Surveyor contains flashes of the formal precision of recent Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as the moody existentialism of The Shooting-era Monte Hellman. So why haven’t you heard of it?
Blake, 26, a University of Washington English major with no film training, spent two years making the 25-minute short. When it was finished, he submitted it to Ridley Scott’s YouTube short film contest. It made the initial cut, but then, says Blake, got disqualified. “I included a quote in the beginning from Cormac McCarthy, and they wanted me to get permission from him to use it,” he explains. Blake tried to engage McCarthy through his agent but failed. Disappointed, Blake premiered the short at the Tacoma Film Festival in October 2012, but since then, he says, “it just died.” Having shown first at a small local festival, larger premiere-only fests refused to play it. “Honestly, you guys are plucking a film out of nowhere because it’s been a disaster on the film festival front.”
Set in the mid-1800s, Blake’s film follows a surveyor as he pushes West, forging a path for settlers and the American government. Amidst stunning widescreen visuals there’s a terse shoot-out with a villainous stranger, a hallucinatory, tragic finale, and an overall air of mystery and introspection.
Blake said he was inspired to make the film after reading McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian. Realizing the rights would be beyond his reach, Blake says he “started reading history books and came across [the subject of] surveying. During the 1800s it was the most dangerous job in America. When you talk about surveying, you are talking about the foundation of cities and civilization, but it goes unnoticed in the history of the American West.” Because it led to the loss of their lands, Blake says, “Indians described surveying as ‘dark magic,’” a categorization that contains a key to the film’s austere conclusion.
With personal funds and a small grant from the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council, Blake wrote a 10-page script and set out to make the film. Not knowing any other filmmakers, he assembled a skeleton crew. “I just hired people I could find,” he says, “and I edited myself to save money.”
After Scott’s rejection and the Tacoma premiere, Blake uploaded the short to Vimeo where, a few months later, it caught the eye of screenwriter and The Stranger columnist Charles Mudede, a fellow 25 New Face. Mudede selected it for the paper’s “Short Film Fridays” and, in June, picked Blake as a finalist for its 2013 Film Genius Awards. Mudede wrote, “As a director, [Blake] is mostly self-taught. But watching Surveyor (the movement of the camera, the positioning of the actors, the sparseness of the music), you’d think he had attended film school, had an encyclopedic knowledge of westerns, and had received training as an assistant director on a number of local and national projects.”
Currently paying the bills by way of a desk job at a Seattle tennis club, Blake is continuing his cinematic schooling by soaking up Criterion Blu-rays. And he has completed a script for what he hopes will be his first feature, a jittery post-9/11 mystery thriller set in the world of private security firms. “People talk about the great movies of the ‘70s,” Blake says, “so it almost sounds cliché. But I just want to make an entertaining thriller, a movie like The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor.” — S.M.
Photo by Kelly O