It took Stephen Herman two semester-long breaks from his undergraduate study and a change in concentration to find out what he wanted to do after college. He graduated from Baruch College in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree.
Recently, he won Best Director at the 2017 CUNY Film Festival for his short film Message Received.
His brief but enthralling thriller highlights the desperate measures a husband takes in order to keep a dark secret from his wife.
The husband receives prompts from a masked blackmailer to meet in a secluded warehouse and give up his valuable positions, including the wedding ring that indicates his love and affection for his wife.
Message Received swells with iconic imagery that reminds viewers of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, which Herman cites as inspirational to him.
Despite this reminiscence, the film still brims with originality because the film relies almost exclusively on music, noise and text exchanges to bring its meaning to light. Back-and-forth text exchanges are meant to expose the majority of the characters’ inner thoughts.
“A huge part of shooting in films is sound and dialogue. You have to have someone running the mic and following the actors and taking care of the background noise. We didn’t have the money or time to do that, so we figured why not just do something without dialogue,” Herman said in an interview.
“Then we came up with the idea of doing [the film] with text. Especially in this age everybody texts so we wanted to do a movie about texting in the text era.”
Despite the intention to create a speechless film, there are a few slips worth mentioning because they detract from the film’s ambience.
David Chin, Herman’s directing partner and the lead actor who plays the pressed husband, demonstrates his frustration clearly but the film could have reached new heights if his expressions were exaggerated.
Perhaps a nit-picky request, but the text exchange had flaws in that the dialogue between the husband, and the blackmailer seemed artificial due to overuse of the caps lock key and the exclamation point.
When any character sends a text, it appears on the screen and viewers use the texts to follow along with the plot.
The grave mistake, however, is not accommodating for text tone. Though it may not be proven, caps and exclamation points can connote a sarcastic demeanor through text, as if none of the scenarios should be taken seriously, which is not at all the intention behind the thriller.
As a result of their inclusion, the text tone does not always seem particularly menacing or threatening; they are only alarming because the viewer knows the situation.
A scene toward the end breaks the wordless flow when Chin yells out, “Oh, shit,” a response that otherwise would be appropriate for the moment but seems poorly orchestrated and flimsy.
Prior to this, the film had already established a dynamic that pushed the main characters to express themselves using either text or body language, so the outburst seemed arbitrary and unsubstantiated.
Herman said that he and Chin put the film together in less than a week, allocating a single day to coming up with the premise and filming it in short bouts within three days.
For its length and short time frame, the film is compelling and gripping.
Chin and Herman had little money and time but managed to make do with what they could. “We’re basically paying for everything. The hardest part is just not having enough time and at the end of the day, realizing you didn’t get stuff you needed or wanted. You have to make executive decisions on the spot,” Herman said.
The end of the film can batter a heart because neither character receives a fair resolution. To denote the lack of resolution, a stream of distorted music plays throughout the final scene until the credits, during which the music resolves cleanly, smoothly indicating the end has come.
“We use [music] to amplify the moods. Even if you didn’t know what was going on, certain chords can dictate that it feels uncomfortable,” Herman said.
This combination moved the film along and created a state of suspense, during which the viewer felt compelled to watch but constantly awaited the final outcome.
With shows like “Black Mirror” on the rise and “The Twilight Zone” making a comeback, Message Received has the potential to fit well into today’s pop culture.
Herman’s thriller escalates a common occurrence—a partner wanting to disclose something to his or her partner—and gives viewers chills due to its dystopian and unnerving themes.
The film is available for viewing on Herman’s website, BrokenBoxInc.com.