The Films That Shaped Me – and the Teenage Movie That Made Me a Director

Vincent Grashaw, whose new film, What Josiah Saw, is streaming now on Shudder, on ’90s classics and his WWII epic, The Shortest Straw.

When I was 12 years old, I was in love with A Bronx Tale. I would quote lines from the movie with one of my best friends like Italian-Americans with New York accents. I don’t know for sure if it was this particular movie that propelled my journey into the madness that is my current career as a director, but it was the first time I can remember thinking about how the filmmakers may have accomplished what I saw on screen. “They obviously didn’t really baseball bat that guy’s fucking head, so I think this is how they must’ve done it …”

I found myself writing scripts that were clearly inspired by the films I was watching at the time. I taught myself how to format a screenplay by browsing a website called Drew’s Script-o Rama (which still exists, and boy does it need a new web designer). I wrote two full-length screenplays at 14 years old. One was called Hitmen, about four teenagers who are hired killers and do their contracts once school ends for the day. I was ripping off The Usual Suspects and in my mind the film would’ve starred current heartthrobs like Brad Renfro, Andrew Keegan and Devon Sawa. Then I wrote a doozy called The Bench, which took place entirely on a park bench – a complete rip-off of Clerks. But my creative juices were flowing, and at least I was aware of it. The first thing my few friends and I ever filmed was on October 10, 1996, when I did my own take of what a scene from a Halloween movie should be like. The only reason I still know that date is because we didn’t know how to remove the date stamp on it! I’m kinda glad now we didn’t.

Vincent Grashaw’s teenage take on Halloween.

Looking back on the period of 1995 to 1999, I feel lucky that, during my most impressionable years, when I was between 14 and 18 years old, I spent so much time in dark movie theaters watching smart, original films. I am not saying that the films from this period are all-time greats, or even my favorite movies … but they had a hand in my creative development and all left a significant mark on me in one way or another. Those movies almost feel like my own personal memories. I am a strong believer in the idea that once any piece of art is released, it no longer belongs to the creator. It belongs to the people experiencing it.

Vincent Grashaw’s top 15 of the late 1990s. (Click here to view full annotated list on Letterboxd.)

Spike Lee’s He Got Game single-handedly changed my life as an aspiring filmmaker. It was the first time I realized music and cinematography could make their way into your subconscious. I was soaking all this shit in and I felt ready to make my own films, have my own voice. My parents were always very supportive of my dreams, but I knew deep down they must have been concerned to some degree about where it would actually lead me. On occasion, and usually from someone I didn’t know too well, I was told I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about and that I should go to college. The truth was, I really didn’t know shit about shit, but I had unrelenting passion for movies and creative desire was pouring out of me.

I was determined to make a World War II feature-length film for my senior project in high school (not inspired by The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan, of course). It was called The Shortest Straw and I needed $1,000 to make it. I asked my uncle for the money. He declined, but instead made me a much more generous offer: he would pay for my entire college education, anywhere I wanted to go. I was truly stunned and was extremely grateful to him. I don’t remember how long I sat beside him on that white swing bench in his enormous backyard. Maybe my reaction was instant, maybe a minute passed, but I almost immediately told him that I knew college wasn’t for me and went on my way to make my war movie.

When we shot The Shortest Straw, my dad chaperoned me and seven of my diverse group of Mexican, Salvadorian, Armenian and Persian friends as we staged a make-believe war in a rural area of Cherry Valley, California. I had Armenians playing the Nazis and had to “recycle” my Persian friend Amir as a Nazi soldier who got killed over and over. We wore American and German uniforms that my father and I had purchased from a gun show in Ventura. And we shot blank ammunition when we were aiming M-1 Carbines at each other, and live ammunition when we weren’t. This sounds insane to me now! We filmed for two days, slept in cars and froze our asses off. I was lucky enough to have one of my friends photograph behind the scenes with his 35 mm film camera.

Two shots taken on location during the making of Vincent Grashaw’s The Shortest Straw in April 1999.


I suffered a collapsed lung while we were in post-production, so there I sat at the editing computer with Amir, a long, plastic tube dangling from my chest. It sucked.

Vincent Grashaw, soldiering on the with the making of The Shortest Straw, despite a collapsed lung.

We finished the edit and showcased the “film” to several classes in the school. I asked a yearbook editor if he could reserve a page for our video class in the yearbook for some still photos from the shoot and a blurb about The Shortest Straw. I was told he would. When the yearbook came out, I flipped through a dozen or so pages of our football team playing games on Friday nights, but the page on my movie was nowhere to be found. I’m not gonna lie, it kinda stung at the time. I realized later that it was only a couple short months after Columbine had happened and the school likely didn’t want photos in the yearbook of teenagers holding guns.

To this day, I don’t know if my parents knew beforehand about the college offer from my uncle. Part of me feels like it was not rational or sane for a 17-year-old to reject something that significant. But I did. And I made my epic WWII “film” (on videotape) instead.

Scott Haze and Robert Patrick in Vincent Grashaw’s new film, What Josiah Saw.

There’s a line in my new film, What Josiah Saw, where the character Eli (played by Nick Stahl) says, “23 years later and I’m still trying to get rid of the past.” Well, it’s been exactly 23 years since I made The Shortest Straw and I think of my past often – I need to hold on to those memories. I think about those friends, those movies I watched growing up, and how badly I wanted to do this shit. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as passionate about moviemaking as I was during that period of my life. What Josiah Saw, which is my third feature, was released on Shudder earlier this month and as I get ready to begin my next one this fall, I can say I’m doing what I love and I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had.

Vincent Grashaw‘s latest film, the horror thriller What Josiah Saw, starring Robert Patrick, Nick Stahl, Scott Haze, Kelli Garner and Tony Hale, is now streaming exclusively on Shudder. Grashaw made his directorial debut with Coldwater, an intense juvenile reform drama that premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and was released theatrically in 2014, and followed it up with the intense high-school drama And Then I Go, starring Arman Darbo, Sawyer Barth, Melanie Lynskey and Justin Long. Grashaw produced Evan Glodell’s critically acclaimed Bellflower, receiving an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the John Cassavetes Award, as well as the forthcoming Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins, starring David Arquette, Troian Bellisario and Olivia Taylor Dudley.