Jacob Sillman

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Synopsis: Based on true events, The Pale of Settlement, tells the story of a 10 year old Jewish boy, Moische, who must escape forced conscription into the Russian Army during the Crimean War.

How did you become aware of this story and what prompted you to tell it on film?
The Pale of Settlement was originally based on a story my mother used to tell me when I was growing up about how my great-grandfather fled Bolsheviks seeking to recruit him into the army during the Russian Civil War. Without giving away any spoilers, the events that transpired affected me so deeply that I continued to think about them throughout my entire life. So, when it came time to make my Senior Thesis Project, it was only natural that this would be the script that I was most passionate about making. However, it was not until after production started and I was doing additional research for the film that I became aware of the phenomena of Khappers. I was so shocked by the stories that I read that I felt compelled to share the history of these forgotten children with the world and so I changed the script to what it is now and set the events of my great-grandfather’s story within that world.

Historical dramas require a great deal of attention to period details. You seem to have got this right. How did you do the research for a time and place that is so unfamiliar?
The internet is an incredible tool for filmmakers today. I read and looked at anything and everything that had to do with this time period. My research started with Wikipedia and continued into the physical library stacks of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Undeniably, I had to take everything with the grain of salt in that the information I have today may have been manipulated severely over time and may not be entirely accurate. However, my job was to mine the existing data and make an assessment of what would be historically accurate based on what seems to be the general consensus. So I consumed as much raw information as I could, mainly primary records, i.e. first person accounts and photographs, in order to make this assessment of a time and place that was so unfamiliar to me. Luckily, the time period I chose had several visual references to go off of in determining wardrobe, props, hair and makeup etc. Sometimes I used paintings in lieu of photographs in making these determinations. It was a very tedious process but in the end a combination of combing through search engines, memoirs, and visual representations from the time period allowed me to realize an accurate representation of the world of my film.

What were biggest challenges in filming a story like this?
The logistics. I had everything you’re not supposed to have in a student film: animals, children, stunts, winter weather, rugged terrain with very few roads and cell phone service, lots of heavy equipment to haul around, a train, and special effects. The whole production took me a year and a half to prepare given the intensity of the shoot. It was a challenge to figure out how to get everything up the mountain and back down again without exhausting the crew in the first few days, to keep the actors comfortable in such a harsh environment, complete all my shots given the small window of daylight in the winter, coordinate with the train company to film the train coming around the bend at just the right moment, and blocking the horses for a chase sequence. Producing the film was by far the biggest challenge I have ever dealt with as a filmmaker.

You shot this film in New Hampshire. Why?
The cabin that worked the best for the time period of the film was in Northern New Hampshire as there were very few indicators of twenty-first century life. On top of that it had a perfect backdrop of the White Mountains, which worked extremely well as a substitute for the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. In addition, New Hampshire’s state tree is the White Birch tree, which is commonly associated with the visual landscape of Russia and the Pale of Settlement. The combination of the beautiful landscapes, similarity to actual location, and the fact that I had gotten permission from the location owner to shoot there for free sold me instantly on the idea of shooting in New Hampshire.

You’re 22 years of age and this film is your graduation piece from NYU film school. What advice have you got for a filmmaker who is about to shoot their first short film?
Pay attention to everything that you do and the outcome of that action because the process of making your first short film is one of the most important lessons you will ever get in filmmaking. Treat everything that you do as an opportunity to learn and don’t write off anything as a mistake. I would say it is common for young filmmakers to be so emotionally involved in the production process that they often do not realize what exactly it was that they did wrong. They allow the stress of the situation to override their analytical processes. It is of the utmost importance to look at everything that happens as a lesson, because it would be very unfortunate to have gone through this process and not have learned from it at every step of the way. I also would say try to build up incrementally in terms of the complexity of your productions. I had done several smaller scale shoots with far fewer resources before attempting to tackle the challenges of this behemoth production. While it is good to think big and be ambitious in your storytelling, it is still important to remember not to bite off more than you can chew.

What’s next for you?
I recently started a Commercial and Film Production company called Whiteboard Pictures that I’m currently expanding with my partners. We recently completed a web campaign for LG and are currently in the process of developing several narrative projects, ranging from Feature Films to Online Web Series.

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