Calling Jason Willis an overnight success may be a bit misleading. At the age of 43, he has spent the better part of his adult years as a graphic artist, a musician and a practitioner of "any kind of artistic endeavor."
He was a member of Tucson punk bands The Weird Lovemakers and then The Knockout Pills, both of which had moderate success, recording albums and touring. But after those bands fell apart, Willis gravitated toward filmmaking.
"Technology has made it so easy to get started," WIllis said. "All you need is an iPhone and some simple software to get rolling."
Willis started out making animated shorts and stop-motion films on his website (www.jasonwillis.com). Mostly Halloween-themed, they were a creative outlet and a chance to grow artistically, but were little more than a hobby.
In the past year, however, his amateur filmmaking has begun to garner offers for freelance work. Most notably, it got him a job as director of a music video for The Heavy, a British soul-rock band that hired him to create the stop-motion video for "Can't Play Dead," the first single on their latest album.
But, yes, it was still a shock when Willis found out that a short film he made last year landed him a slot at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
"Obviously, this is quite the shock that this is happening," Willis said.
The film that got him there is called "Catnip: Egress to Oblivion?" The seven-minute short is a send-up of the ham-fisted, highly paranoid anti-drug films that are instantly familiar to almost anyone who endured adolescence in the public school system.
Using psychedelic images of ecstatic cats and somber voice-over narration, the film is a sort of "Reefer Madness" aimed at felines, working under the pretense that catnip is a dangerous and addictive substance.
Willis first had the idea for the film last June.
"It was early June, I think, and by the 26th, I had finished it," he said.
"It was so fast and easy, it almost felt like I was cheating."
The film may have been partly inspired by Willis' childhood. He grew up in Lawrence, Kan., which was also the home of Centron Corp., a company that made countless industrial and educational films from 1947 up until it was sold in 1981. Some talent scouts from Centron visited Willis' school when he was 7 years old, and he wound up making his film debut in an educational short called "Halloween Safety." Willis recently tracked down a copy of the film, which was made in 1977, and posted it online.
"I was in it for just a few seconds," he said, "dressed up like the Creature from the Black Lagoon."
That childhood experience and a well-seasoned love of the educational film genre helped speed "Catnip" onto the screen.
"I went from having the idea to writing the whole thing in what felt like five minutes," Willis said.
And as fast as "Catnip: Egress to Oblivion?" was to make, success for the film came nearly as quickly.
Shortly after finishing it, Willis entered the film in the First Friday Shorts competition at the Loft Cinema and won.
"Tied, actually," he said. "The crowd voted by applause, and it was too close to call when it got down to the final two. We played rock-paper-scissors and I ended up winning."
Willis posted the video to his website and began submitting it to festivals. Soon after, he was getting positive feedback from all corners of the Internet.
And then, last November, it made the cut at the American Film Institute's 2012 AFI Festival.
"We went to Los Angeles for the festival, and it was just a very strange experience," Willis said. "I had a lot of people approaching me to tell me how much they liked it.
"And, to kind of illustrate how strange it was, at one point I went into the bathroom, and I looked over and Steven Spielberg was at the urinal next to me. Baseball cap and all. I just thought 'wow.' "
Willis may find himself in close quarters with a few more familiar faces starting today at Sundance. His film will be screened five times over the course of the 11-day festival, accompanied by "Virtually Heroes," a new feature film that was directed by G.J. Echternkamp and produced by Roger Corman.
"I'm basically like the little animated short that leads into the latest Corman film," Willis said, "which is unreal. I mean, Roger Corman? I think the world's a better place because of his work."
And no matter what success comes along after Sundance, Willis will still be creating. Just like he was a year ago. Just like he has been doing for 40-some years.
"There's so much good stuff still to be done," he said.
Sundance at The Loft
Even if you can't make it to Park City, Utah, for this year's Sundance Film Festival, you're in luck. The Loft Cinema is one of 10 independent cinemas nationwide taking part in Sundance Film Festival USA.
On Jan. 31 at 7 p.m., the Loft will be screening "The Spectacular Now," just a few days after its world premiere at Sundance. Director James Ponsoldt will be present at the screening. Tickets are $15. For more information, go to www.loftcinema.org or call 795-0844.