Features & Columns

Cinequest Guide: Filmmaker Sean McCarthy

He flash-mobbed the Oakridge Macy's with a cinematographer in a wheelchair and a crew of 15. He was cuffed and booked for the crime of guerrilla filmmaking. San Jose's Sean McCarthy spreads out from student pranks to the film-festival circuit.
Sean McCarthy Filmmaker Sean McCarthy

Valley fiilmmaker Sean McCarthy has been arrested for his art, but he hasn't, as he says, "broken my cherry" on a full-length feature film yet.

Recently, however, McCarthy, who lives in Almaden Valley, was hired to write and direct the trailer for this year's Cinequest, to be done in the style of Jibjab.com Monty Pythonist Terry Gilliam's stop-motion animation. The coming attraction features an all-star cast of geniuses—from the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs—facing initial rejection, a sly comment on the task ahead of young moviemakers.

These trailers will be shown before every movie at the festival, meaning that more people at Cinequest will be seeing McCarthy's work than the work of any other filmmaker. Such is the triumph of the short-film maker. Like the short films in the numerous shorts programs on view, this snippet will help a hard-working local filmmaker catch the attention of the industry luminaries who will be attending.

McCarthy's short film "Raging Cyclist" drew a sold-out crowd at Cinequest in 2005, so naturally he's a Cinequest fan. He used to cut school and ride up on the light rail to attend the festival.

"I got to speak directly to Philip Kaufman, John Schlesinger, Kurt Kuenne and many others," he recalls. "Being able to ask them questions and receive advice was amazing for a teenage filmmaker."

Over the course of 15 years, McCarthy has made a number of enjoyable and technically adept short films. His works have been finalists in festivals from Utah to Michigan to the Eerie Horror Film Festival, which is, indeed, in Erie, Pa.

The New York–shot short "Officer Down," which he co-produced for director Richard Recco, won the 2008 Babelgum Award at the Cannes Film Festival Court Metrange. Spike Lee himself presented the award.

"Boxed Up" is an actioner, something like a cross between Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Silence of the Lambs.

It stars McCarthy's fierce 'n' pierced sister, Syra, as an fishnet- and hoodie-clad avenger chosen to go after a serial killer. The opening sequence, shot inside the Oakridge Mall, shows the result of the time McCarthy and his camera crew ran through the shopping center.

"Raging Cyclist," which drew a sold-out crowd at Cinequest in 2005, is a bike-themed comedic actioner, about a demon loose on Almaden Valley bike paths.

More of the filmmaker's solid technique and weird sense of humor can be seen in "Superhero," an adult mockumentary about a delusional suburbanite.

The short film falls somewhere in the orbit of Kevin Smith, Fight Club and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I liked it better than Pilgrim, and its use of a camouflage-suit gag predates the one in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows by several years.

In "Superhero," McCarthy stars as a legend in his own mind, a would-be danger-man, with a cool, pursed smirk and a low breathy voice. (It's McCarthy doing Eastwood, or McCarthy doing Christian Bale doing Eastwood.)

The narrator describes McCarthy's character as "A latchkey kid raised on a steady diet of comics, TV, movies and music." One detects a bit of semiautobiography here.

Working tirelessly in the fertile niche of short films, McCarthy has cobbled together a surprisingly robust career in filmmaking.

He produced a public-service message urging people to pay their bills online to save paper and trees; directed by McCarthy's colleague Frankie Nasso, it starred Steve Carell.

His extremely creepy music video "Cutting Seams," which will be playing in Australia's Victoria Independent Film Festival, was made for the Sebastopol band Simoom. It boasts better special effects than many a horror film that made it to the top of the box office.

"I don't think I'd be a good slasher filmmaker," McCarthy tells me. "But I do think I'd be good at making something psychologically horrifying, with subjective camera like Polanski."


The Almaden Roasting Company used to be ABC Video and Laser, where McCarthy worked and soaked up cinema.

He points: "We're actually sitting where the Academy Award section was, and over there"—indicating the storage room—"was the porn section."

McCarthy is 30ish, slightly pale and lightly bearded. He's dressed unobtrusively, but he sports a pinky ring with the ancient "sator square" design engraved on it.

As the latte steamer hisses, McCarthy tells me that he been hot for film ever since he was a 3-year-old.

"It was the only thing I wanted to do, literally from the moment I watched Ghostbusters with my dad. For two years, I had dreams about Sigourney Weaver in that red dress. I used to wake up and see her."

McCarthy's father would pick him up at the gates of Castillero Middle School and take him straight to the movies: Fresh, The Silence of the Lambs or whatever else was playing at the Century 16.

"When I was 12, my dad took me to see Pulp Fiction. He leaned over when Tarantino was onscreen and said, 'That's Quentin Tarantino; he's the writer/director.'"

McCarthy continues, "It was a surprise for me. There is this moment when you come to understand that there are people who work at making the films ... and you could be one of them."

Since McCarthy was familiar with cameras at an early age, he rebelled at the film classes taught at Leland High. "I didn't want to learn how to do the medium shot and close-ups, that kind of thing."

The class worked on 3/4-inch videotape decks, with in-camera editing.

"We were supposed to do something that looked like a 5 o'clock news broadcast. So I did an expos– of the school. I claimed that the principal was running a drug smuggling/prostitution cartel. I got marked down in the class for that."

But that was just the beginning of a rebellious approach to movies. "The one I got the most trouble for," McCarthy says, "was the trailer for the imaginary porn film Dangerous Behinds: 'From the makers of Passenger 69 and Feeling Miss Minnesota ... ' I have a good relationship with my former teacher now. But whenever they were showing one of my films in class, she used to sit next to the VCR and have her finger on the stop button anytime something got too racy."

When he graduated from videotape to film, McCarthy used editing rooms at San Jose State University, UC–Santa Cruz and De Anza College. He was, at least, attending classes at the last of the three.

"I just put my name on the door and reserved some time," he recalls. "I'd talk film with the students while I was there. I got special thanks credits on a lot of senior theses videos at UCSC."

As a young filmmaker, McCarthy reached out to Tim Sica and Larry Jacubecz of the long-running Celluloid Dreams show on KSJS-FM. He was a production assistant on a movie by former area filmmaker Ken Karnes, and he has also run with local filmmaker Shawn Flanagan, whose feature The Friggin' Mafia Movie is available now on Netflix.

Sometimes, McCarthy's guerrilla methods attracted negative attention. "Superhero" includes a smoke-bombing sequence staged right outside the very cafe where our interview is taking place—the cloud of smoke startling passersby.

McCarthy remembers a similar incident. "One of the times we were shooting here in Almaden, we had a scene with a guy with a cowboy hat holding a rifle. We'd just wrapped and were putting away the guns. That's when six cop cars came flying in, parking in front of the Lucky or Alpha Beta or whatever it was at the time.

I saw them and thought, 'I have a feeling that's for us. Let's see what happens.'"

What happened was that McCarthy got off with a warning.

Some time later, he was on the expressway, filming a scene of the shooting of a pimp called Big Willie.

"I wanted to do this crazy Touch of Evil opening shot," McCarthy explains. "We're driving down the expressway, and all of a sudden we've got two security guards driving behind us. The cops were behind them. I was still filming."

The cops "got on the loudspeakers and told us to stop and get out of the car. I had the camera in my hand. I put the camera down, held my hands up and angled the camera with my knee. I framed the shot.

"Here comes the helicopter and more cop cars. They all blocked Almaden Expressway. They aimed their guns at us, and we had us get on our knees and crawl to the police car to get cuffed."

After it was all over, McCarthy tells me, "I talked to someone on the force, because they took my camera as evidence. Supposedly, everyone at the station watched the footage, because it showed how well the cops had followed procedure. They told me they were really proud of it. I said I was proud of it, too!"

Another time, the SWAT team showed up when McCarthy was directing a scene of battling skinheads.

"After that, I'd just call the nonemergency number at the police station and say, 'Hi, this is Sean, and we're filming and I'm going to be shooting this scene, containing this kind of violence.

"Typically, they'd send out a unit to double check. The unit would talk to me, watch me for a little bit and drive off."

In the interests of keeping the peace, McCarthy has dealt with the "kind of weird" San Jose office that hands out film permits.

"When I was shooting on the bike trails for 'Raging Cyclist,' they shut me down. The kind of stuff I like to shoot tends to have darker elements. They're not as willing to give you the permits for that kind of thing. I told them, 'We're just shooting a guy riding a bike.' I didn't tell them that the guy riding the bike is wearing a dark robe and waving a blade.

"Some people around here don't like the fact that there are kids running around with cameras. People try to call the cops on us, not just when we're making violent scenes, but just because their Sunday was being thrown off some way."

Boxed Up SISTER ACT: Sean McCarthy's 'Boxed Up,' starring his sister, Syra, combines elements of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' and 'The Silence of the Lambs.'

Another Wanderer

"No, I don't want to be murdered in your basement." That's what McCarthy's companion and producer Elizabeth Mitchell told him when they met. Sean had asked her to audition for a film he was making.

"Some casting couch!" McCarthy said. "We didn't date until two years later."

The petite Mitchell had been looking for work as an actress via MySpace. When she got the invite to audition from McCarthy, she noted his love of demon-fighting movie star Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame. It was a love she shared.

"I figured he's either legit, or he's going to a lot of trouble to get me into his lair," Mitchell says. She auditioned but didn't get the part.

At the cafe table, Mitchell prompts McCarthy whenever his memory fails him. The two "have been together every second" since they got together, says McCarthy.

But there's some slight discord. Mitchell complains, "We can't even go to a restaurant, and Sean notices something—he just talks—he's a filmmaker, he wants to hear people's stories. He's Mr. Social all the time. I'm not social, so sometimes it's a little frustrating."

"In junior high, I had a lot of friends who ended up in jail," McCarthy adds. "Gangbangers and whatnot. In high school, I partied a little. Mostly, what I'd do is walk home and study movies. For a long time, I was very introverted. My dad was a salesman, and he had to talk to people, so I knew how it was done. Since my projects were kind of ambitious, I had to find people to help."

About a quarter of Sean's high school turned up to be in an homage to the GoodFellas Copacabana scene. "It made me have to come out of my shell, to talk to someone about being in a movie or asking them to be a part of it."

Maverick Method

A few years ago I called McCarthy the most broadly talented local filmmaker I'd seen since I started writing for Metro.

I didn't make that judgment because he works in more than a few genres nor because of his technical finesse. McCarthy is exceptionally dedicated on that level; the work he did on a piece called "The Mudvayne Trilogy" featured 600 special effects shots, as many as in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The scares in "Cutting Seams" are due to McCarthy's mastery of bizarre effects in a film that's one long bad-dream sequence.

McCarthy works in the commercial realm that he loves—tales of serial killers, or nutzoid Raimi/Rodriguez action anti-heroes, or tough-mouthed killers straight out of Tarantino. He makes fine use of local locations and local actors: He's a filmmaker sizzling with passion for all the tools of the trade.

"It strengthened my character, making 'Raging Cyclist,'" McCarthy says. "Making sure your short films are really good is the best way to get people to entrust you with a feature film. It got me work directing and producing music videos and commercials. I was offered a few projects, including a Skinemax feature, but I turned that down because I didn't want to be a hired gun or a 'shooter.' I want to focus on writing and developing projects I'm passionate about."

According to McCarthy, "With the democratization of the tools and YouTube, anyone can call themselves a 'filmmaker,' so the market has become crowded with a lot of pretenders and hobbyists. I think the biggest thing is to honestly communicate your excitement for the work to others. You have to be supercreative, develop strong technical and business skills."

Although he has made many shorts, McCarthy still hasn't decided on a subject for a feature film.

"I've seen a lot of people kick out a feature film without much preparation, and I'd hate to waste everybody's time," he admits. "I've watched lots of films at film festivals. Sometimes I could tell if they've let something gestate, if it touched my soul. Sometimes, you could tell in 10 seconds that the person hadn't put in the time and the effort."

He continues in a reflective vein, "A film doesn't have to be the work of an aesthetician like David Fincher, but when you watch it you want to know that everything's been worked out. You've only got so much time on earth to do good work."