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Catching Fireflies (Short Film) Review and Interview with Director Lee Whittaker



ProductionStillsSkipReviewer: Stu Greenfield

Director: Lee Whittaker

Stars: Gianna Gomez, Carlotta Elektra Bosch, Stephen Boss, Eugenia Care.


A film does not need to be lengthy to be significant, or beautiful and the new short film Catching Fireflies from director Lee Whittaker is a perfect example of this. Whittaker has honed his creative film making skills both in front and behind the camera working as an actor in films such as Into The Storm and The Open Door and working in the stunts team on films such as Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and Die Hard 4.0. Having spent time as a second unit director on a variety of projects it is little surprise that Catching Fireflies has hit the short film circuit with critical praise.

The visually acrobatic Catching Fireflies tells the story of young Isabella who is living in a cardboard house on the wrong side of the tracks in LA. Sofia, her mother, is an addict who is mainly focused on her nest hit rather than her caring and sensitive daughter. Isabella traverses this life via her lucid and vivid imagination. She has been given lemons and with them she makes the most exquisite lemonade. Isabelle has the power to turn the most damaging and hideous circumstances into something magical. Be it a crack den, her mother being attacked or even a murder.

Whittaker has managed to create something of absolute beauty. The cinematography in Catching Fireflies is simply astounding. Simple in parts but always atmospheric and effective. The film has hints of child fantasy films like family favourite Nanny McPhee or The Chronicles of Narnia franchise. There is a whimsical innocence injected into a topic that is anything but. Child homelessness and suffering is broached in a way that juxtaposes the ugliness of its reality with the naïve charm of a child’s mind. In an interview with Movie Marker director Lee Whittaker spoke of his inspiration for Isabella’s mind:

I knew if the message was going to reach people on a global level, I would need to do it from a different perspective than what has already been done. From more of a whimsical child’s perspective which would be the ultimate juxtaposition. Isabella being a child see’s beauty and magic everywhere not the disgust and decay that we as adults turn our heads from. She embraces with an unconditional perspective of a child’

Although Catching Fireflies displays some of the elements of a family fantasy film, the undertones are much more dramatic. When speaking of his influences in the visuals of this film Whittaker names Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labrynth and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild. These influences shine through in the cinematography within the film, combining the light and playful part of Isobellas imagination with the dark and gritty reality. But why make this film in particular. Why use such an emotive and socially shameful topic to create such a striking piece of art? Whittaker explains when talking to Movie Marker.

‘In another country on my way to work, a tap on my window from a pan handler is the norm in this overcrowded city. Looking over expecting to see an adult with their hand out, I was astonished to see a young girl of maybe 8, completely naked and covered in filth. I’ve never seen a child so dirty. The only clean spot on her was just under her eyes where tears had carved through the grim of the cities despair. It was 6:30 am. Within seconds the driver sped away and I was forever scarred with that visual memory. I finished my work there and returned to Los Angeles still unable to shake her eyes starring through my soul. The next week I was downtown LA for a meeting. Making a wrong turn I ended up in tent city-skid-row where I saw nearly the same thing. Except this time, I saw a young boy judging by how he was clothed. This is 11 miles from Beverly Hills. I then realized this is in everyone’s backyard and no city or country on the planet is immune from its disease. Feeling lead by an awakening within I then knew I needed to use the skills acquired through film making to do something about it. The process has changed me as a man forever’.

This is something that the film does extremely well. The images offered to the audience do exactly what the images of those young children did to Whittaker. They stay with you afterwards and the film has an internal effect on you. This film will resonate with you, and it will highlight an issue that you may not have noticed, or that you may have learned to ignore. Whittaker has utilised the medium of film to explore a socio-economic issue in a way that is both deeply emotional but at the same time completely stunning. Whittaker told Movie Marker how he feels the medium of film is an important tool in raising awareness of social issues:

‘The world has a massive influence from the entertainment industry. There is proof of its influence everywhere and I feel it’s our duty to give a perspective that is honest and true along with the escape and fantasy we seek. It can break us and it can make us, but we have to be brave and creative to push forward. The easy way out has flooded the market, just ask some of our great film makers of yesterday and they will attest. Documentaries are definitely getting it done, but I feel that our narrative needs to pick up the slack and lets’ get back to being a great collective of people. Perhaps that’s a bit Utopian, I don’t care. Then it’ll start with me’. 

There is one aspect of Catching Fireflies that shines through and that is the extraordinary talent of Gianna Gomez, who plays the young Isabella. The nuances she is able to portray in her face and demeanour are fantastic and she is able to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings seemingly without effort. There is such emotion within her performance and an understanding of what and who Isabella is that the honesty that Whittaker strives for comes easily. Having previously starred in small parts in a variety of TV series and short films, as well as a part in the Adam Sandler film Jack and Jill, Gomez is set to be a star.

‘I hired casting director, Lisa Pantone and her assistant Cambria Hankin. They brought in some amazing talent to choose from. However, when Gianna first came in she carried such depth and history in her eyes. I needed a young actress with an old soul who could portray life on the streets and as we began the audition process I knew pretty quickly that Gianna had what it took to carry a character with such conflict but at the same time bring the playfulness of a child’


At 20 minutes in length Catching Fireflies is fleeting yet affecting. There is a definite sense that there is more that could be explored. Would Whittaker consider developing the project into a feature film? It would appear so, according to the director himself.

The feature was completely written before I actually finished post of the short. With the short film, the festival circuit has been a great way to affect people, gain a global audience and give a glimpse into the films potential. Ultimately though, I have always known I could reach more people with its message through a feature having it in; theatres, VOD, planes and red boxes all over the world. Only then could I truly make a difference on a bigger scale’

It is obvious that this film has a deeper meaning than purely work for Whittaker. This is more than an interest or a passing phase. The devotion that Whittaker has to his subject material is obvious in the intensity of the storytelling, but the issues highlighted within the film have also affected him in other ways outside of his work.

‘I have already teamed up with an organization called FREE ARTS and I’m in discussion now with the UNION RESCUE MISSION in downtown LA. Catching Fireflies isn’t just a film, it’s a cause. On the website there are links where people can go and make a difference if they feel led. For most people they don’t know what to do or how to act in these regards, I hope to give them a vehicle to answer that.  For the most part the easiest thing to do is, next time you see a homeless person, ask how their day is. Don’t give them money right away, most of the time they just want to feel connected to society and not feel abandoned. Compassion is our greatest quality as a human race and we need to get back to embracing that quality. BE THE DIFFERENCE is the mantra I started from the beginning and it starts with me, with you’

Catching Fireflies tells its story eloquently, highlighting an issue that needs to be taken seriously. As Whittaker states this feels more than a simple short film. This feels like a call for change, like a campaign piece. But will this be what Whittaker strives to achieve with his future projects?

‘I have a few projects I am working on at the moment. One is definitely a socio- economic topic, the other is a touch different. A cerebral sci-fi thriller that questions spirituality and origin. I do like to be diverse however I think for me every project I do will be thought provoking in some way. To make us search deeper, question further and stretch ourselves into something greater than what we currently have become’

Whittaker’s experience both in front and behind the camera are extremely evident in the outstanding directorial debut. Catching Fireflies is emotional, whimsical and heart breaking in one imaginative and visually stunning package. With strong performances from cast members, not least of all Gianna Gomez as the playfully innocent Isabella this film has already made waves as a short, and is set to make a tsunami as a feature film.

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