Onstage, Phil Vassar is the guy who’s simply happy to be here, pounding briskly away at the piano, cracking rapid-fire jokes and displaying the boundless energy of a pre-schooler. But in a new short film, titled i only miss you when i’m breathing, Vassar takes on a role that’s the virtual opposite of his public image, playing a withdrawn, nearly emotionless man who seems incapable of expression. There’s a reason behind his character’s blank facade – he and his wife have lost their young son, a victim of a school shooting, and the grief is simply too overwhelming to bear.
The film was inspired by the story of country/rock singer Freddy Weller, who enjoyed a string of country hits during the 1970s. Weller and his wife dealt with the death of an adult son several years ago, with Weller sharing his pain in a tribute song that he wrote. The movie, shot entirely in Nashville, made its national premiere at the prestigious Nashville Film Festival, October 8th. It marked the directorial debut of Ashley Wren Collins, who served as co-producer with Vassar and Lori Fischer, the film’s writer and co-star. Vassar also composed original music for the film.
Vassar was convinced to tackle the part by Fischer, who had worked with him on other projects. “I’ve done a couple movies and made music videos, but never really produced a film,” Vassar told Sounds Like Nashville prior to the premiere showing. “This particular deal came about because Lori asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. Plus, shooting here in Nashville made it a lot easier. I loved it.”
The prospect of portraying someone so wildly different than himself provided some additional intrigue. Fans have come to embrace the singer for amiable singles like “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “Six-Pack Summer,” which speak to the brighter side of life. So, talk about going against type. “That was part of the challenge,” Vassar explains. “The character is not like me. It was tough. You really realize how good these actors who do it for a living are and how incredible their talent is.” Vassar points to some of his screen favorites as Tom Hanks, Al Pacino and Dennis Quaid as examples. “They can do anything,” he raves. “I’m just in awe of that.”
Though i only miss you when i’m breathing centers around gun violence and a mass shooting (not depicted in the film), the story avoids overt political statements. Instead, it addresses how people attempt to move forward after a tragic loss, and deal with the good intentions of friends who assure that you will pull through. “The subject matter was really interesting,” Vassar notes. “I have two daughters of my own. And I have known Freddy for years and we’ve written songs together. I know his story. So something like this hits very close to home. It’s a pretty poignant subject for the environment we’re in today. It’s thought provoking and I guess that’s a good thing.”
For a piece less than a half-hour in length, the movie packs a powerful, emotional punch. Vassar and Fischer ring true as the husband and wife, who have little to say to one another in the aftermath of unspeakable pain. At their home, newspapers remain in their plastic wrappers, unopened and unread, while their lawn is in dire need of mowing, discreet signs that the parents have given up caring about the routine of everyday life. “I don’t think you ever recover,” Vassar surmises in an empathetic tone. “You just try to survive every day.”
Co-producer Fischer planned from the outset to market the film around the country to a wider audience. So far, she’s received a bit of good news. “We found out that we are going to be in the Rome (Georgia) International Film Festival in November,” she relates with a smile. “We are definitely submitting to other festivals. Ultimately, the hope is that, because of the message of the film, it can live online to help support people who are grieving.” Fischer adds that she would welcome any interest from art house movie theaters, which often exhibit short films.
Vassar is simply pumped to be part of such a timely project, and a home-grown one at that. “We filmed it in Nashville, which, of course is my home now,” he says. “Lori is also from here. This is the fiftieth year of the Nashville Film Festival, so to have it premiere here is really special. I am just so proud of what we did.”