Mark Kirkland's obsession with silent film dates back to his childhood, when his father bought him his first Super 8, a home movie camera that was pretty much state-of-the-art back in the early '70s.
"It had no sound capabilities, which was standard when we were 12 or 13," says the Southern California native, who enlisted neighborhood pals to act in the movies he'd shoot in his backyard. "So I had to learn to tell stories without words. And that was the same problem the film pioneers had."
Switch reels to 2014. Kirkland has now been directing The Simpsons TV show for more than two decades. He's also just finished a new live-action short, The Moving Picture Co. 1914, which will be screened Saturday evening at the Indie Spirit Film Festival, with the filmmaker in attendance.
A silent movie about the making of silent movies, Kirkland's film finds him coming full circle. It was shot in black-and-white in the backyard of his San Fernando Valley home, using a mix of digital and vintage film cameras and lenses, some of them up to 100 years old.
"We did everything in our powers to create the correct atmosphere," says Kirkland, who's also a camera collector. "While most of us have seen silent movies, we have not seen what it was like to make them. And so, really out of my own curiosity, I wanted to see that."
A romantic comedy that takes place, as the first title card explains, in a "long-forgotten movie studio," The Moving Picture Co. 1914 has a 22-minute running time that Kirkland notes is the same length as a Simpsons episode if you cut out the commercials.
"I'm used to that time length and meter," says the California Institute of the Arts graduate, who double-majored in film and animation. "The Simpsons are in my blood."
And so are Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, as it turns out. The silent-film superstars were the obvious inspirations for Kirkland's lead characters, endearingly played by Adam Celentano as the film company actor and Jennifer Starr as the guileless ingénue he falls for.
The film opens with Celentano miming a Little Tramp-style routine, complete with bowler hat and cane, while Starr watches him through a hole in the studio fence that she'll soon climb in hopes of literally breaking into the movie business.
Kirkland packs plenty of other silent film tropes into his seamlessly executed homage. There's the authoritarian director outfitted with military jodhpurs and riding crop, affectations that Erich von Stroheim employed on the set of his early films. There's the Keystone Cop in hot pursuit, the drunken barroom brawl, and the studio boss who looks like a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and the Monopoly game's Rich Uncle Pennybags.
And while there aren't any custard-pie-in-the-face fights — that would have been too obvious — there is a Last Supper tableau, with Weird Al Yankovic as an actor portraying Jesus and a number of Simpsons staffers as his disciples.
"After I wrote the scene," Kirkland recalls, "I thought to myself, 'If you could have anybody play that role, who would you want?' And the very first name that popped into my head was Weird Al Yankovic."
It didn't hurt that Kirkland and the pop-music satirist had already become friends while working on a Simpsons episode. But still, Weird Al as Jesus?
"I think it's the first time he's done it!" responds the filmmaker with a "Gee whiz!" attitude that actually sounds more earnest than ironic.
Once the comedian agreed to appear in his film, Kirkland was left to "delicately explain" what part he'd be playing. "After I told him, there was this silence on the other end of the phone."
The filmmaker quickly reassured Yankovic he'd be playing an actor cast as Christ, not the messiah Himself. The scene even had a historical precedent, he says, albeit of a less slapstick variety.
"I sent him a photograph taken in 1914 of a silent movie company emulating the Last Supper," says Kirkland, "just like it is in our movie."
Mostly forgotten biblical films weren't the only thing that made 1914 a watershed year for the Hollywood movie industry: Keystone Studios released the 11-minute Kid Auto Races at Venice, which debuted the iconic tramp with which Chaplin would forever be identified. That was also the year stunt comedian Harold Lloyd earned his first credited role in a career that would include more than 150 films.
Based on the silent films that still air on late-night television, the industry seemed awash in a wistful innocence. But 1914 also found D. W. Griffith in the studio filming The Birth of a Nation, a more-than-three-hour epic based a on novel called The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition to valorizing men in white robes burning crosses, the director's best-known film brings racist caricatures to a new level. One need only watch the film's notorious "black congress scene" — in which fraudulently elected legislators pass anti-white laws while drinking whiskey and eating fried chicken — to understand that silent film wasn't all sight gags and screen kisses.
Although barely known today, Griffith's Birth of a Nation was the most financially successful movie in silent film history, as well as the most controversial. Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House, the NAACP protested at premieres, and it reportedly inspired numerous incidents of white-on-black violence.
"D.W. Griffith's father was an officer in the Confederacy, so he came from that background of romanticizing the South," says Kirkland. "His early shorts, where he's starting to cover the Civil War, they always have the black servants played by white people in blackface. And in its day, that was accepted — by white audiences, of course.
"But today we look at Birth of a Nation as being so politically incorrect that you're going to have a hard time finding revivals for it, except for people who want to see it as a historical piece.
"And the fact that the Klan are made out to be heroes, yeah, that's a completely antiquated idea that doesn't really work for most people."
In what some would see as poetic justice, D.W. Griffith's success was remarkably short-lived. He spent $2.5 million in studio money on an even-more-epic successor, Intolerance, that unexpectedly carried an anti-bigotry message. It tanked at the box office. From there, his career was all downhill, as the director succumbed to alcoholism, was increasingly shunned by Hollywood, and was ultimately reduced to directing preliminary screen tests for the caveman scenes in the 1940 dinosaur movie One Million B.C.
As Griffith plummeted from grace, silent movies would soon go with him. In the aftermath of Birth of a Nation's success, studios rushed to meet an overwhelming audience demand for feature-length films, curtailing the market for their short-form predecessors. The arrival of synchronized sound in the late '20s brought the silent-cinema era to an abrupt end.
Comics like Laurel & Hardy would deftly navigate the transition to "talkies," Chaplin and Pickford less so. As on-screen dialogue replaced title cards and live piano accompaniment, silent-film stars' expressive acting styles began to feel unsophisticated and overly theatrical.
In the years since, it's been estimated that up to 90 percent of silent movies have been lost to history, due in large part to nitrate film stock's propensity for physical deterioration and, on occasion, spontaneous combustion. But if it's too late to preserve the vast majority of those films, Kirkland figures he can at least pay homage to them. He's even suggested to his producers that they shoot a silent Simpsons episode, although they've yet to take him up on it. He's hoping that if his own silent film garners enough attention, the cartoon crew might embrace the idea.
"In my animation career, I also try to tell stories visually, and I think some of the best filmmakers do that," says Kirkland. "I was taught that with a good movie, you ought to be able to turn the sound off and still understand what's going on."