Watch ‘Mr. Petrified Forrest,’ the Debut Film By ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Helmer Matt Reeves

By  · Published on July 7th, 2014

University of Southern California

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Various things can happen to a famous director’s student films. Mostly they wind up hidden from us, sometimes permanently in the case of something intentionally destroyed, other times simply held from being uploaded to YouTube or another video site. It’s not often that a currently successful filmmaker is proud of his or her schoolwork, no matter how much money, passion and talent he or she put into it. That’s a shame, because a lot of these pre-professional shorts (and occasional features) aren’t that bad. Many have won awards, deservedly so. Others helped the student get a foot in the door, which obviously means there was promise there. In very, very rare circumstances, a student film will get distribution, possibly in an altered form. That was the case for Matt Reeves, director of the new sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as Cloverfield and Let Me In.

Reeves attended the University of Southern California, where he made an award-winning short film titled Mr. Petrified Forrest during the 1991–1992 year. Other now-prominent people who worked on it include J.J. Abrams, who co-produced and composed the scored under the name Jeffrey Abrams and also created a plane crash scene (on his parents’ lawn) that looks like a Max Fischer production of the Lost pilot. Regular Abrams collaborators Bryan Burk and Greg Grunberg were also producers, the latter additionally appearing as a limo driver. Actress Amanda Foreman, who also went on to work with all these guys on Felicity and was more recently in both of Abrams’s Star Trek movies, is the female lead. And filmmaker James Gray edited the film along with Reeves, with whom he’d later write The Yards.

The plot is clever enough. A passport photographer named Steven Forrest (Sam Clay) is petrified of death following the sudden demise of his fearless buddy in a martini accident (he chokes on the olive). He attempts to stay alive by avoiding air travel and by protecting himself from a possible major earthquake he believes is coming. It sort of reminded me of the paranoia of Devon Sawa’s character near the end of the first Final Destination. We know that Death managed to track him down, though, because the short features an interspersed device where Forrest is in the afterlife, with his friend (Tim Doyle, now a TV writer/producer), trying to remember how he got there. Foreman plays Sam’s love interest, who has her own crazy death fears related to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Following the premiere of Mr. Petrified Forrest at USC’s student film festival in November 1992, the school kept it on hand to screen for students as an example of great sound design. They also apparently sold it off to a production company for inclusion in a 1994 horror anthology called Future Shock. Never mind that Reeves’s short is hardly a horror film. It seems strange that a film school could do this, even if they do technically own the work. Supposedly nobody involved with its making were compensated in the transaction, not that I believe the movie made a whole lot of money. And it’s not something that any of the now successful talent seems to ever recognize, though the title does frequent Reeves’s bios as being the work that got him an agent or at least noticed in the industry.

I haven’t seen the feature, which also had a segment by Oley Sassone, who is best known for the Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie, that stars Bill Paxton, but according to Reeves the version of Mr. Petrified Forrest in Future Shock is not the whole film. As far as I know, the following video that popped up on Vimeo since then is the real deal, complete with USC credits. One thing to note, also, is that this isn’t technically the short start of Reeves, who met Abrams ten years earlier when they both, as teenagers, entered a Super 8 film festival held at L.A.’s Nuart Theater. That 28-minute thriller from 1981 is called Stiletto, and sadly I’m pretty sure that isn’t available online anywhere. At least we do have this:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.