<em>Present Trauma</em>
Courtesy Photo

This is a chilling, slickly produced short film about a war veteran with severe post-traumatic stress issues, examining how his hallucinations affect his ability to deal with everyday life. On the frontlines are his estranged wife, young son, and a stray dog, which plays a central role in the narratuve.

How was this story developed?

It all started with a documentary that the writer, Jeff Chanley, and I had co-edited together called A Second Chance. Among the footage we didn’t use for that film was a story recounted by a Marine involving another Marine who was experiencing a hallucinatory episode while at a friend’s house. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it was the inspiration for Present Trauma, but I will say that how our film ends is how that story ended, thankfully. Needless to say, Jeff and I were both affected by that story.

Jump ahead a few months and I asked Jeff if he could write a script based on that moment for a highly competitive class at USC Film School that selects three scripts every semester to be made into a short film. Jeff’s script was chosen as a finalist, and then I was selected as a directing finalist, and we paired up as a team, pitched to the faculty, and were chosen to make this film. It really was a perfect pairing since the story meant so much to the two of us. We were both extremely passionate about telling this story the right way, and we felt well-equipped to do so after our experience working on that documentary together.

We then brought on our two producers, Tim Astor and Thembi Banks, who also contributed greatly to the development of the story and this film that we are all really proud to be screening at SBIFF.

His case of PTSD seems very extreme, but is it fairly common? Are full-on visions a frequent occurrence?

PTSD affects people in different ways. Full-on visions are not common in the vast majority of those who suffer from PTSD. However, there are a small number of those who do experiences visions after having traumatic experiences, which was the case with the Marine’s story that inspired this film. There is debate in the medical community as to whether or not these individuals had these symptoms prior to their PTSD, but there is no doubt that the intense and violent situations they encountered are what their visual associations tend to stem from.

The full-on visions in our film are a cinematic representation of the survivor’s guilt of our protagonist. From what we heard and gathered when we were researching, someone having a severe episode related to their PTSD could believe things were happening that were not. Regardless of how material the things in front of them may be, if they believe it’s real, it’s real enough.

The way we approached these visions were undoubtedly a significant concern to us as filmmakers from the script phase all the way through the final film. We wanted to tell the story of a man with an extreme case of PTSD in a compelling and cinematic way.

It is important, however, to stress that those who are diagnosed with PTSD are NOT an inherent danger to themselves or their families. The story told in our film is, indeed, based on a rare case.

The audio, especially in the diner scene, is a critical component. Was that known while the film was in development, or did you decide to make the sounds more important while filming?

From our research of how PTSD can often manifest itself in veterans at home, we knew that sounds in everyday life are often associated to sounds that they heard while in combat situations overseas. Things like a trashcan falling would sound like a gunshot, or a truck going by would sound like a tank on patrol. Moreover, we knew that those who have been in combat develop a heightened sense of hearing as a survival mechanism.

From the script phase, we wanted our protagonist to enter into his hallucination through his heightened sense of the sounds he was hearing in the diner. That being said, the writer and I weren’t sure exactly what those sounds would be and how we could make it clear to the audience that our main character was associating the diner sounds with sounds from the battlefield.

Our sound designers, Alex Parslow and Jacob Strick, came up with several brilliant ways of making the soundscape of the film and the subjectivity of our main character really come alive. They figured out ways to blend sounds from the opening scene in the forest with the ambience of the diner. For example, the chatter in the diner was blended with the chatter on the walkie talkie in the forest. The sound of birds flying from a tree in the forest was mixed with the sound of a wooden door closing in the diner. Moreover, reverberation was added to the voice of the dead Marine to amplify the fact that he was in the mind of our main character.

The work that our sound designers did on the film was a vital aspect of telling this story more completely, and the experience that they give audiences truly takes the film to another level.

Have dogs played a healing role for veterans suffering from PTSD?

Yes, they have — in many amazing ways. The documentary I mentioned, A Second Chance, was actually all about the healing powers that dogs have on those who suffer from PTSD. The documentary focused on a Marine and his journey of going through the process of being paired with a trained emotional support dog provided by a charity organization called “Pets for Vets.” All of the veterans who spoke about what having a trained emotional support dog has done for them is truly remarkable.

The unconditional love that dogs have for their owners is, of course, therapeutic in and of itself. “Pets for Vets,” however, goes the extra mile by providing a dog that not only matches the temperament of its owner, but is also trained to deal with specific needs that the veteran has. For example, a soldier who was afraid to go out into public places because he never felt comfortable anytime he was seated with his back to people had a dog specifically trained to “guard” the veteran’s back to put him at ease. All the dog does is sit behind him and that’s enough for the veteran to know he doesn’t have to watch his own back. The dog will protect him.

The Marine in our documentary experienced severe nightmares, so the dog he was paired with was trained to wake him up if it sense he was experiencing restless sleep. Just knowing the dog would do that allowed the Marine to put his mind at ease and sleep. Dogs are doing amazing things like this for veterans with PTSD, and they are enabling them to live more normal lives after returning home from war. This fact is one of the main reasons why we were so passionate in wanting to tell the story of Present Trauma.

Please explain the Santa Barbara connection a bit more.

Jeff Chanley, the writer, was born and raised in Santa Barbara County and still calls Santa Maria his home. He’s a product of the Orcutt Union School District and Allan Hancock Community College. If not for his decision to attend UCLA, he would have most certainly been a proud Gaucho.

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