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Call + Response: Beast of Torpor

Composer: Micah Hummel + Filmmaker: Jeff Oliver

Actor Vaughn Kimmons in a still from Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor during filming at Open Signal.

Slaying the Beast of Expectation

by Kristin Thiel
photos by Kathryn Elsesser

When the Montavilla Jazz Festival asked filmmaker Jeff Oliver to participate in Call + Response, he answered yes without hesitation. Though he’d never collaborated like this before, he knew he was ready for the challenge. Not only does he love jazz and film but he often thinks and creates using the same kind of process this project required. “The idea that I would get a [musical] track, listen to it, and build a whole world around it—I do that anyway when I listen to music,” he said. “I build scenes around songs all the time. So, it was really freeing to be able to do that and know that I wouldn’t be reined in. I could get as weird as I wanted to.”

Director Jeff Oliver and the the Beast of Torpor puppet pose on set at Open Signal.

Oliver did just that. “The Beast of Torpor,” which responds to Micah Hummel’s call titled “Retroscript,” incorporates puppets and dialogue intertitles, swordplay and interior shots cleverly made up to stand in for exterior settings. The film is surreal and intense, anxious and powerful and hopeful. As the first cautious acoustic guitar notes play, the young Artist (portrayed by Vaughn Kimmons) sets out for an overnight hike. They calmly study the map, always continuing forward even though the trail signs immediately begin warning, “DON’T BE FOOLISH!!” and “TURN AROUND.” On the Artist saunters, though concern—and the need for the Artist to act—strikes when an uptick in the song introduces a beast that is both Jim Henson–esque and unnerving.

Angela Lares-Benitez and Aldolfo Cantu-Villarreal on set during filming of Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor

“I’m a genre nerd,” Oliver said of how many styles he packed in under eight minutes, though without making the film feel messy. “I love horror, sci-fi, fantasy. I think it’s an amazing way to tell personal stories without turning them into kitchen sink dramas. Also, I was a huge Muppets/Sesame Street fan growing up and have had a few chances to work with puppets before, and I love the surreal humor they bring to a project.”

Puppet operator Stu Davis poses with the beast head on location at Open Signal during film of Beast of Torpor

To make all that playfulness work, Oliver put in a lot of time and effort before ever picking up a camera. “The nuts and bolts of filmmaking are less glamorous than most people think. There are more spreadsheets involved than most lay people would imagine.” He listened to Hummel’s track “about 10 billion times,” often at home in front of the computer but just as much while out walking, where he “would listen to it then and try to feel the different emotions and stages the song was going through.” Later, the Artist character also would walk (and run, fight, and triumph) to that same rhythm. And, of course, COVID-19 considerations made production “so much harder.” But Oliver figured out ways to stick to his core vision: “from the start I knew I wanted to shoot half in a forest and half in the studio and blend them together to make something textured and layered in an unreal way.”

Actor Vaughn Kimmons on set at Open Signal during filming of Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor

He also knew immediately that he “wanted to have a Black main character in nature.” He said, “I was raised that way, and I rarely—if ever—see it portrayed in the media. I love camping and hiking, and it’s seen as a white activity, as if white people invented the outdoors. And,” Oliver concluded, his words yet another response, this time to the peaceful, strong smile of his Artist as Hummel’s song percussion crashes with a final celebration, “in point of fact, they did not.”