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Even in the most hopeless circumstances, the desire for love can weigh more heavily than food, water and shelter. That is the stark reality for the lone survivor in Lluís Quílez’s short film Graffiti.

The Spanish/Ukranian co-production, which Quílez wrote with Javier Gullón, follows Edgar (played by Oriol Pla), a young man who’s endured a plague that has left the world silent and barren. Accompanied by his dog, he occupies his seemingly endless days by avoiding contaminated areas, fantasizing about the woman whose legs tease him from a billboard, and writing cries for help all over decrepit building walls. But one day, amidst his spray-painted frantic messages, he finds a sign of hope in the form of a single word: “Anna.”

Already decorated with over 20 honours, including the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Best Live Action Short Film award, Graffiti marks the Barcelona-born director’s return to both short films and the Oscar race; he was previously shortlisted for 2005’s Avatar.

Partly shot in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which was abandoned thirty years ago after suffering the worst nuclear power disaster in history, Graffiti is also one of only two Spanish contenders vying for the Academy’s coveted man in gold. (Quílez, who also serves as a producer, is joined by fellow Barcelona native Juanjo Giménez, who earns his spot on the list with Timecode.)

Through minimalistic storytelling that never underestimates its audience, Graffiti is a riveting 30-minute ride. And although the genre it occupies is one that audiences of both the big and small screens are all too familiar with, Quílez’s brilliantly crafted short is an entry into the apocalyptic canon that will stand out for its originality, depth, and deep understanding of humanity.

Ahead of January’s Oscar nominations announcement, I had a chance to ask Quílez about telling a love story in the most unlikely of settings, filming in a ghost town, and luring audiences into a mystery.

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ScreenPicks: There are so many TV shows, films and books nowadays set in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic future. What inspired you to tell this kind of story? And was it a challenge to find originality within such a popular genre?

Quílez: Since the beginning the idea was not to make a catastrophe movie but a film about loneliness, love and the power of imagination in a catastrophic environment. I was not interested in the survival conflicts, which most of the apocalyptic films like to explore, but to approach an emotional story of two characters meeting at the end of the world.

ScreenPicks: You shot part of the film in Pripyat, Ukraine. What challenges did filming in a ghost town present?

Quílez: I had always dreamt of filming something in Pripyat. I’ve always loved the vibe of films like Stalker, where the location could have been right there in Pripyat. I’m attracted to abandoned or ruined locations, and I always go out of my way to try and include places like that whenever I film something. To have had the chance to film in Pripyat is an experience I will NEVER forget. The toughest challenges involved having to organize a shoot from so far away (all the pre-production was done in Spain), and arriving one day before the shoot to prepare all the different locations and then filming everything we needed in just five days. It was cumbersome because of the weather conditions; we’re talking -15 degrees with virgin snow up to our knees. That said, the radiation in the area is tightly controlled and, following a few simple rules, no one was exposed to any health risks.

ScreenPicks: Just from looking at photographs of Pripyat, it looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic thriller. While that setting does have its benefits, you still had to shoot certain scenes in Valencia. Can you talk about the process of disguising Valencia into this lonely and haunting environment?

Quílez: Most of what we filmed in Valencia consisted of interior shots of Oriol in his hideout. There were A LOT of shots on that set, especially on the wall where all the messages are written. The idea of shooting anything else in Pripyat after five intense days was just unthinkable, so we rebuilt the room where Edgar sleeps in an old abandoned storage building, which we also used for other interior shots that we weren’t able to film out in Chernobyl. Luckily, the art director had spent time in Pripyat previously so we knew exactly how to preserve continuity. The other big scene we shot in Valencia involved the big helicopter landing moment. I mean, it was just impossible to pilot a helicopter in Pripyat. We have Onirikal Studio (also co-producer of the short) to thank for that magic as they were able to disguise Valencia as Pripyat using VFX.

ScreenPicks: This film is a great example of show, not tell, and actions speak louder than words. I won’t spoil it, but the dialogue that Edgar does have in the film becomes so much more effective because there’s so little of it. What would you say are the strengths of minimalistic storytelling?

Quílez: I love minimalist cinema that, with very few elements, creates a thrilling story full of meaning. In this case, everything was in favour of building a story full of silence with almost no dialogue. I knew it was risky but I thought that if I were able to make it work, the audience would create a strong link with the protagonist, which would lead them to the identification and to feel the same things as he does in the film.

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ScreenPicks: Unlike a lot of films nowadays, this one doesn’t underestimate audiences by feeding them with exposition. Audiences have to piece together the puzzle themselves. But many things are still left ambiguous and open to interpretation. What attracts you to this type of storytelling?

Quílez: I feel very comfortable telling stories that use mystery or thriller mechanisms, which play with the audience, driving them to make certain decisions in order to complete the story. It is not something I think about on purpose when I create a story, but I guess it is because I love the cinema of Polanski, Hitchcok, Haneke or Lynch. Those are the filmakers that influenced me the most in my training stage.

ScreenPicks: On the surface level this film is about a man trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, but on a deeper level it’s about the innate human need for communication and connection. Edgar’s desire to meet another human arguably rivals his drive for survival. What does his plight tell us about humanity?

Quílez: Graffiti takes the catastrophe film premise to introduce a lonely character that lives isolated, as if he were the last man alive in the world, as the result of a mysterious accident. But my intention was actually to tell a minimalist love story. Graffiti is a romantic drama that talks about loneliness, the faith in love, the power of imagination and the need of someone else. As a filmmaker, I feel the need to communicate with others, to reach people I don’t know with my stories and to touch them. To create this link is magic to me and what brings meaning to my life. With no intention to spoil the story, I will say that I found it interesting to force the protagonist to risk everything he had, even his future or his own life, to find the love he’s been dreaming since so long. Somehow, Graffiti‘s message would be that it’s worth it to die with someone rather than surviving being alone.

ScreenPicks: Prior to Graffiti, you directed your first feature film, Out of the Dark. What was the transition like from making a full-length feature to going back to a short?

Quílez: I don’t think to make a short film after a feature film is a step back. Graffiti‘s script was conceived long before Out of the Dark came up, but I didn’t have the chance to make it before. When I found the finances I jumped into Graffiti, which I also produced as well as directed, since it was the project of my dreams for a long time. Moreover, a short film brings you freedom and allows you to experiment, which is essential for any creator.

ScreenPicks: Not only is this your second time making the Oscar shortlist but your film is also one of only two contenders from Spain. What does this achievement mean to you?

Quílez: I am very happy to be shortlisted with Graffiti, since it is my most personal film, and I am very proud of the warm reception it has been receiving by the audience in all the festivals it was screened in. The achievement is an honor for two Spanish short films, since in our country the short film industry is certainly minor.

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All ten live action short finalists are listed below.

Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)

Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)

Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)

Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)

The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)

Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)

Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)

Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)

The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017. For more on Quílez and his film, check out his personal webpage and the film’s official website.

(All photos are courtesy of Euphoria Productions.)