This image was taken from the official trailer for “The Wake,” distributed by Luis Gerard

Many thrillers try to balance suspense with social commentary, but few hit the mark. In his latest short film, writer, director and producer Luis Gerard (“The Absolution”) succeeds.

“The Wake” won an honorable mention at the Cleveland International Film Festival, qualifying it for Oscar consideration. It was also screened at the Hollyshorts Film Festival and won a Jury Award at the Thomas Edison Film Festival.

In a short that addresses gun safety, death and deafness, 15-year-old Walter (Isaac Kragten, “Luckiest Girl Alive”) and his younger brother Martin (Zander Colbeck-Bhola, debut) live in a funeral home their father (Robert Fulton, “The Devil’s Tail”) manages. Set in a small town, the two brothers seek adventure by rummaging through a deceased client’s belongings, hoping to find something of use. However, they get more than they bargained for. 

Gerard is currently developing the thriller-esque short into a feature-length film. 

The Michigan Daily had the chance to talk with Gerard about his motivations as a filmmaker, the decisions he made during the filming of this short and what impact he hopes “The Wake” will have. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. 

The Michigan Daily: What drove you to make films and what themes are you most interested in exploring as a director, writer and filmmaker?

Luis Gerard: Film has been in my life for as long as I can remember, so my love for film and my drive to make movies is something quite organic. My dad, even though he’s an architect, had an arthouse movie theater, so I grew up at the cinema. It was the first cinema on the island — I grew up in Puerto Rico — that screened arthouse, independent cinema. So movies have been in my life for as long as I remember. 

I tend to be drawn to darker subjects for some weird reason; maybe that will change. So far, I’ve been able to perceive (that) I like social commentary that’s wrapped in genre. That’s something that someone pointed out recently, and I guess “The Wake” is a little bit of that. Part of the idea came from the issue with guns in America, that they’re so accessible and anybody can have one — sometimes everybody can have one. I mean, it’s not that much in your face, because I didn’t want to make it that way, but in “The Wake” it’s a bit like that. That was the starting point of the film and one of the roots of the idea. 

TMD: Who are you trying to address in this film? Is it adults when it comes to gun safety? Is it the way that we, as a society, perceive death and the way we might treat it lightly? Who is the audience for your story?

LG: It’s more directed toward adults, because the adults are decision-makers, but their decisions end up affecting the kids. However, there’s also another side of the story, which I think is a big part of the story. And it’s the relationship between Walter and his dad, and how his dad profits from the dead. Sometimes we become our parents, even when we hate our parents when we’re teenagers because we cannot do what we want, and I wanted to explore (that). The young boy is criticizing his dad. You see they have this bad relationship. But when you see him later on, when they’re breaking into a house, you see him actually taking a bottle of whiskey from the kitchen, and he drinks directly from it. He’s profiting from the dead. In his head, he’s not doing anything wrong because these people have passed away and they don’t have any need for the things they are taking. But it’s that cycle. 

TMD: As you said, we’re all scared of becoming like our parents, and I perceived Walter as being angsty. It’s really interesting that you chose to go that route. 

LG: Shorts, to me, are like an extra narrative exercise. I was exploring all these subjects, like guns in America. Every time you see a gun in the movie, you see the American flag — it’s always in the frame. But at the same time, it’s also (about) the father-son relationship and how sometimes we become our parents, or how our parents drive us to certain places without knowing. It explores the subject of death. It was something that I was curious to see — these kids that grow up surrounded by death, and how perhaps they become a little bit desensitized to it. 

TMD: What was the casting process? Were you looking for newer actors specifically? What were you looking for when you cast Kragten and Colbeck-Bhola? 

LG: It was a tough process, and it was long — it took a few months to find them. I remember the first (actor) I saw was Zander. I just couldn’t commit to selecting him because I needed to find the older brother — the lead — and his role was a little bit more complex. So I wanted to find (an actor for) Walter before committing to an actor for the younger brother. Also, (with) the older brother, there were several challenges. Obviously, he had to act. It’s a character that’s more layered because he goes through different things. But also it was a physical role. He’s a bit of a sociopath, so I wanted to find an actor that had a certain angel in his face. Even though he’s doing things that are questionable, he’s still likable, and it’s interesting enough for people to care for him and follow him. And of course, it was difficult finding someone that I thought would be responsible enough to learn sign language on his own time and not mess up during the production because he couldn’t get the lines. It was the best decision I made casting Isaac. 

TMD: In the first few minutes of the film, I was wondering how the younger brother would come into play. Were you thinking of the relationship of the two brothers from the start of your writing process, and why did you choose to display that dynamic between them?

LG: In some ways, the moments of lightness come from the times we see (the brothers) planning alone, having a laugh. It’s about these two brothers, and the older brother leads the youngest brother into coming into these adventures that are endangering them both. I remember someone asked me, “If he loves his brother so much, why does he bring him along?” Well, because that’s real life. Kids sometimes run into trouble. They do dangerous things without knowing that there’s an imminent danger in what they’re doing. But they’re not thinking that way. He’s not thinking that he’s going to get his brother into trouble. So it’s about that balance. You see that he’s bringing his brother along to do something that’s dangerous, but that’s not the intention. 

Loneliness is another thing in the story because these kids grew up in a town (where) there’s not a lot going on; it’s quite a sleepy town.  A boy that’s 15, 16 years old and is doing these kinds of things with his brother is probably someone who doesn’t have a lot of friends. That’s something you would be doing with friends who are your age. So the fact that he’s bringing his brother along, it tells you a little bit about him and the fact that he’s a bit lonely, and he just needs to have somebody with him — and his brother is the person. I was exploring some kid that grows up in a funeral home with that kind of father and how that alienates him. That’s why I think their relationship is so important.

TMD: I hadn’t thought too much about the idea that, as you said, his father’s distant and he’s constantly surrounded by death, which is something that’s very still. This propels him to want to seek out something thrilling to do as opposed to being in his house filled with an almost emptiness.

LG: When you see the father, in the beginning, applying makeup to the old lady’s corpse, the father seems to be more caring toward the dead woman (than the older brother). It’s deliberate the way I directed the scene. The father has his back to the son all the time, so when (the son) walks in and knocks on the door, the father is working on the porch, but he’s not facing the son; the father always has his back to (the son). So from the beginning, you have this cold relationship. 

TMD: You’ve touched on what informs your thinking as a filmmaker, but in general, is there a specific impact that you want to have and that you’re hoping your films will have?

LG: When I wrote this short, I wrote it super fast. It was just this idea, and I wrote it, and then it was shelved for a couple of years. When I was editing the movie, I started realizing where some of the ideas came from. I realized it was way more personal than I thought. That was something that struck me. I was not raised in a funeral home, I don’t have a deaf brother, my dad doesn’t drink, but it’s still a very personal story. And I was not even aware of it. The films that I write or that I make say something about who I am, and they have my voice because they’re coming from me. I liked not knowing exactly where some things came from and then realizing it later. I thought that was very interesting. Maybe that’s not the way it will always happen. But that was what happened here. 

TMD: It’s social commentary, but from your own voice, even if you’re not directly experiencing those things yourself.

LG: It’s my perception, and sometimes, it’s the way I want to tell that (idea), and maybe even what I am concealing by telling it a certain way.

TMD: Like you said, you didn’t really know that this story was personal until you thought about it. So you’re discovering what your perception is.

LG: I wonder if I make more films, (if) I’ll start seeing (certain elements), whether it’s during the filming, the writing, the editing or years after the movie comes out, and discover things about (myself). You make movies for (other) people, but it’s also a very personal process. And there’s a lot of you that goes into movies. When you’re making independent movies, when you’re the writer, the director, there’s a part of your life that goes into that film that you’re putting out there, and sometimes it’s years of your life that go in there. If you’re gonna go through that, it has to be worth it. There has to be a little bit of your soul in it.

Daily Arts Writer Kristen Su can be reached at krsu@umich.edu.