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Death after Sundance: <i>The Execution of Solomon Harris</i>

AS THE TITLE indicates, The Execution of Solomon Harris deals with an inmate paying the ultimate debt to society — except that his execution is botched.

The modern-day morality play, directed by Ed Yonaitis and Wyatt Garfield and produced by a SCAD student production crew known simply as “Team G,” was an entry into this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

We spoke with co-director Ed Yonaitis, who also wrote the script, last week about the 8-minute short. It screens at the Savannah Film Festival Mon. Oct. 27 at the Lucas Theatre at 11:30 a.m., and Fri. Oct. 31 at the Trustees Theatre at 9:30 a.m.

Why a film about an execution gone horribly wrong?

Ed Yonaitis: The whole concept behind The Execution of Solomon Harris stemmed from an Errol Morris documentary I saw once entitled Mr. Death. The film focused on a man whose job was to oversee that criminal executions in the U.S. were done in the most humane way possible. In an interview he alludes to a certain case years ago where a prison lost power while they were administering an electric chair execution, forcing them to reroute power while the condemned prisoner remained alive.

This story was only a minor aspect of the documentary, but it made me begin to think about moral implications in such a situation. Are there certain regulations in prisons for these situations? Is it barbaric to leave someone alive and suffering while they carry out the “correct” way to execute a prisoner? Who can be held responsible?

One of the more interesting aspects of taking on this project was my own personal feelings on the death penalty at the time, which were ambivalent. I couldn’t really formulate a solid opinion on whether or not it was right or wrong, since it seemed very easy to argue for either one or the other. We didn’t go into it with the intent of showing if capital punishment was justifiable or inhumane. We really wanted to explore morality on a very personal level, and focus on the prison guards and the impossible task of taking responsibility for the life of another human being.

Did you have serious conversations about how graphic to get with the disturbing premise of the film?

Ed Yonaitis: Going into it, we were very aware of the risk of putting things way over the top. The first draft of the script sort of fell victim to that. There was a lot of screaming and pulling out guns, lots of wildly overdramatic stuff. We knew we had our hearts in the right place, but it really was off the mark as far as the tone we wanted to create.

I reworked the script to keep it at a high level of intensity, but restrained the action and kept everything within one room to try and create an air of claustrophobia. We were very concerned about pushing things way too far, so we kept a lot of the graphic content either off screen or obscured.

We weren’t censoring ourselves; we were instead focusing on the conflict happening within the Head Warden, who must decide if he is capable of putting right the horrifying situation at hand. I didn’t think we needed to show graphic violence to drive home our point.

Tell us about the whole Sundance experience. Was it what you expected? How did it defy expectations?

Ed Yonaitis: Sundance was a blast, really. We never even expected it. Hopeful, yes, but completely unexpected in all honesty. We never would have made it there if it wasn’t for support from SCAD.

None of our team had ever attended beforehand, so we really had no idea what we were going to get. It was like a dozen of the team members there, all staying in this rented condo outside Park City. Lots of premiere screenings and a few celebrities, stuff you would expect.

What was was especially great was how Sundance gave special attention to shorts filmmakers, throwing press meets and parties specifically for us. It made us feel welcome there, especially in a festival that everyone looks to for up and coming feature filmmakers.

Any plans to bring back Team G?

Ed Yonaitis: Team G is alive and in full force! There was a lull period after we left Savannah where we all moved to different cities, but the vast majority of us are now currently together and residing in Los Angeles. We are all ecstatic to be working together once again.

I’m also happy to announce that the Team is currently at work on a feature film to be shot next year, another co-directing effort between myself and Wyatt Garfield. It’s a lot different tonally from The Execution of Solomon Harris, but I believe it will be more true to myself, as it is a personal story of my family living in New England in the early 80’s. cs