What began as a casual movie night in the basement of a Sister Bay coffee shop has turned into a film festival that’s been running for 15 years strong.
The Door County Short Film Fest (DCSFF), led by festival director Chris Opper, started out in 2009 as a gathering of 20 to 30 people in the downstairs of the former Base Camp Coffee. Within two years, the festival outgrew the venue and moved to the Sister Bay Town Hall and in 2023, it moved again, this time to Northern Sky’s Gould Theater.
Owen Alabado, Frank Maloney, Dan Smrz and Kurt Krauss are a few of the filmmakers with local connections whose work will debut on the big screen during this year’s festival, Feb. 16-17. Alabado will present a psychological thriller, Two Truths and a Lie; Maloney and Smrz will show a music video for Raising the Stakes, a song by Frank Maloney and His Big Country Unit; and Krauss will unveil an adaptation of a Stephen King story, The Last Rung on the Ladder.
A Hometown Horror Story
When Alabado moved to Door County in 2020, he brought with him his acting and filmmaking experience from his former Los Angeles home base.
“When I moved to Door County, I knew I wanted to continue to make films and find out how many people here would be interested,” Alabado said. “There’s a lot of talent up here.”
In the past, Alabado has created a comedy, a martial-arts movie and a web series based on his standup – but Two Truths and a Lie marks his first time making a psychological thriller.
The film follows a group of friends whose game night goes very wrong. Its cast, which Alabado assembled during an audition at The Filling Station at Husby’s, is composed entirely of Gibraltar High School graduates.
Those graduates include familiar faces in Door County’s performing-arts scene, like singer-songwriter Zephyr Ciesar; Brandon Bogenschutz, who performs in local improv troupe The Knobs alongside Alabado; and Logan Thomas, who performed in cabaret shows by Northern Door Pride, which Alabado founded. They starred alongside local actors Sam Radosevich, Alex Janisse and Justina Zukauskait.
Though Two Truths and a Lie was not Alabado’s first time making a short film, it was his first time doing so with just a few friends to help him out behind-the-scenes, rather than a full crew. That meant Alabado played multiple roles backstage, serving as the movie’s screenwriter, director, cinematographer and editor once shooting wrapped in the spring of 2021.
He also handled lighting and sound, and taught his cast – familiar with theater acting – the basics of camera acting, which is subtler. The actors were quick to pick up this new skill, Alabado said.
“I’m incredibly proud of this cast,” Alabado said. “It’s really nice to see my friends in Door County get to that point where they’re feeling comfortable on camera.”
With the film now ready for the big screen, Alabado feels inspired to make more.
“With Two Truths and a Lie getting into the festival, I feel that itch again to start writing another script,” Alabado said.
From Musicians to Movie-Makers
Local country musician Frank Maloney was on his way home from Husby’s around 13 years ago when the idea for the song Raising the Stakes struck him.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that the song, recorded by Maloney’s band Frank Maloney and His Big Country Unit, got its own music video – shot, fittingly, at Husby’s. The venue is a special spot for the band, which performs there often, according to its drummer and music video co-director Dan Smrz.
“Husby’s has always been super supportive of me and Frank, so it was really cool that it worked out,” Smrz said.
The vision for the music video was Maloney’s; Smrz and Chris Opper helped translate that vision onto the screen.
While Smrz drew from his experience filming and directing the Frankly Stoned podcast, creating smaller-scale music videos and writing and directing a play in high school, Opper brought the equipment and his filmmaking experience, shooting and editing the film. Both helped Maloney organize his ideas with a storyboard.
“Chris and Dan made me sit down and plan it out,” Maloney said with a laugh. “I was just going to go by the seat of my pants.”
A still from the music video for Raising the Stakes.
Lugging a music-video crew into Husby’s on a busy night wasn’t an option, so the video was shot on Easter day when the bar was closed. The co-directors gathered friends to act as extras in the video, and when the cast was assembled, they blacked out the windows in the bar, set up the cameras and rolled. Once filming was finished, Maloney and Smrz agreed to show the final product at DCSFF at Opper’s suggestion.
While Raising the Stakes was the first music video for Frank Maloney and His Big Country Unit, Maloney and Smrz hope it won’t be their last; they both enjoyed their experiment with an art form that’s different from their usual.
“We’re always grinding the music scene up here,” Smrz said. “It’s cool to do something different, and it’s exciting because it makes it more feasible to do another one [music video.]”
A Festival Frequent
A year after his historical drama Confessions of a Sailor premiered at DCSFF, producer and Sturgeon Bay native Kurt Krauss is back with another short film.
This one, titled The Last Rung on the Ladder, is an adaptation of the 1978 short story by Stephen King, adjusted for the screen by writers Max Blaska and Karla S. Bryant. In addition to Krauss, the film’s Door County connections include actress Carrie Counihan and Brussels-Union-Gardner volunteer firefighter Adam Monfils, who served on the film’s safety team.
Behind the scenes of The Last Rung on the Ladder. Facebook photo.
The Last Rung on the Ladder follows award-winning author and mental health advocate Lawrence Gatlin, who recounts the loss of his sister while attending a gala in his honor.
Blaska bought rights to adapt the story through Stephen King’s Dollar Baby program. The program, which was discontinued starting in 2024, sold amateur and student filmmakers the rights to one of King’s short stories for the price of a dollar. Filmmakers would have the rights for one year and could not financially profit from the film.
The short film was submitted to several not-for-profit film festivals, per the contract with the King organization. It made its world premiere to a crowd of over 300 people at Venue 404 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin – one of the movie’s filming locations – in late January.
The screening was preceded by talks from guest speakers from mental-health and sex-trafficking prevention organizations.
“This story carries some heavy themes in areas of mental illness, sexual exploitation, and suicide,” Krauss said. “Beyond bringing these to light, we wanted the premiere to be a place where audiences could be made aware of resources to receive help.”
What to Know Before You Go
This year’s Door County Short Film Fest features three feature-length films and 20+ short films. They will be screened at 7 pm on Feb. 16 and 1-7 pm on Feb. 17. Guests can enjoy refreshments, participate in Q&A sessions with featured filmmakers, and vote on their favorite film, which will receive the 2024 Golden Mug Award.
Weekend passes are $25. Advance tickets are available online at northernskytheater.com and in-person at Northern Sky’s Gould Theater ticket office, which is open Monday-Friday, 10 am – 4 pm. Tickets will also be available at the office on Feb. 16, 5-6 pm. On Feb. 17, the ticket office opens at 12 pm.
Northern Sky’s Gould Theater is located at 9058 County Rd. A in Fish Creek.
7 pm Feature Films:
- Love Differently directed by Emma Siewert
- Puppy Love directed by Gail Gilbert
1-2:25 pm Short-Film Block:
- Animated Life directed by Jason Love
- Cappuccino directed by Jacob Lefeber
- Ballad of a Mushroom Cloud directed by Len Borruso
- Visitant of Paris directed by Jeremy Strohm
- The Giver directed by Emily Schumann
- Spark Plug directed by Cole Sheldon
- Two Truths and a Lie directed by Owen Alabado
- The Birth of the Modern Snowmobile directed by Nate Sheppard
- Stairs directed by Jeph Porter
3-4:25 pm Short-Film Block:
- Reach New Heights. With Frank Weber directed by Will Keizer
- Woodland of Wonder – Wisconsin’s First Preserve directed by Brenda Hughes
- The Stone Carver directed by Bryan Royston
- Nothing directed by Rile Wadzinski
- “When You’re Here, You’re Pizza!” directed by Tim Schwagel
- Expiration Dates directed by Wesley Morgan
- Kamerad directed by Toby Kearton
- Raising the Stakes directed by Frank Maloney and Dan Smrz
- Capital Games directed by Cole J. Sheldon
5-6:25 pm Short-Film Block:
- Pickup directed by Sean Wisbey
- Swept Off directed by Melonie Gartner
- Vessel directed by Bennett Michael Johnson
- 3 Hours Per Frame: Creating of Wood directed by Morgan Jones
- Waltzing With The Dead directed by Mariah Koehler and Will Keizer
- Last Rung on the Ladder directed by Jeff Blankenship
7 pm Feature Film:
- Love & Irony directed by John A. Biesack