Writer and director William Stribling (not pictured), whose film Lies I Told My Little Sister screened at last year’s festival, returns to the Sarasota Film Festival with his mockumentary-style short comedy Down In Flames: The True Story of Tony “Volcano” Valenci. Starring RJ Lewis as the eponymous fire-eater, Down In Flames chronicles Valenci’s heartfelt and Don Quixote-esque quest to enter the record books with a fire-breathing stunt for the ages, undeterred by failure or skepticism. Utilizing original storytelling interwoven with interviews from real-life record-holders in the sideshow arts, Down In Flames is Stribling’s sixth short as director and shows a growing mastery of the art.
Inspired by a documentary about a strongman similarly attempting to break a world record, Lewis brought the idea to Stribling after the two had worked together on Stribling’s 2012 short film Beyond Belief. “It was right up my alley,” he said, and set to writing the story with Lewis. “It was a gut instinct and everything just came after.”
Stribling decided early on to go with the mockumentary style, aiming for a This Is Spinal Tap feel but more grounded in reality. Using Lewis’ connections from his time as a performer and showman, Stribling was able to reach out to Valenci’s real-life counterparts, such as Richie Magic, the man who extinguished 200 lit cigarettes in under seven minutes in his mouth, and the sword-swallowing, light bulb-eating showman, Todd Robbins, to participate, lending a sense of credibility to the outlandish story and almost making you believe that Valenci could be real. “[Lewis] was essentially drawing upon his own experiences and the skills he had,” said Stribling.
In a film that already required extensive fire-eating, fire-breathing and even an elaborate sky-diving sequence, Stribling says the decision to include the real performers had more than artistic impact, but also helped cement the project and bring it together. “That really opened things up for us,” said Stribling, who had other concerns while filming, including Lewis’ health as he ate fire (including lighter fluid) over 12-hour days.
“I had never worked with any kind of real stunts or anything like that – nothing too flashy,” said Stribling of the challenges inherent in filming with such volatile a subject as fire. “I just had to trust RJ and his ability to do what needed to be done.” Lewis performs mightily, bringing to bear some classic fire-eating tricks as well as some new ones, such as spooning down a flaming bowl of cereal for breakfast. But perhaps the most challenging sequence for the young filmmaker and one that will likely allow Down In Flames to stand out this week among the submitted shorts, sees the cast and crew jumping out of an airplane to get the perfect shot.
“We went shot-by-shot with what we wanted to get and how to get it,” said Stribling, who coordinated seven cameras – some on the ground, some strapped to divers’ helmets – to catch the climactic moment. “You really only have one shot at it and we ended up getting it in one shot. We were very lucky.”
Nearing the end of its festival run, Down In Flames has garnered acclaim and Stribling reports excellent audience reaction. “This is one that I really enjoy seeing with a new audience; just sitting there and laughing along,” said Stribling, who has been traveling from festival to festival with the film. “Sarasota [Film Festival] is quite an impressive one, so we’re going out with a bang and we’re really happy with the reception we get.”
Down In Flames: The True Story of Tony “Volcano” Valenci screens Apr. 13 in Regal Hollywood 20 at 1pm in the “Shorts 2: Narrative 2” block.
Pictured: RJ Lewis stars in Down In Flames as Tony Valenci.