There is a place where everyone is a superhero with paranormal abilities—super strength, flight, laser eyes, you know the drill. Everyone is endowed with something astonishing, and their powerful skills are taken for granted. Everyone is extraordinary. Everyone, that is, except Stan. Stan is the lone member of humanity all the others are defending against ridiculously motivated super villains. But Stan doesn’t want defending; he wants super powers of his own, like his blissfully arrogant brother, Captain Ultra. Alas, he’s doomed to be an endangered, powerless schlub.
There is a place where decorative silver confectionery balls are illegal to own and sell. But a suburban dad driven to make his young daughter’s birthday cake the best ever—those silver dragées are essential—finds himself navigating a seamy underworld of contraband confections to make his daughter’s dream birthday cake come true. The noose of civility tightens around his neck as he spirals down into uncharted depths of illicit trade—and madness.
There is a place where kidnappers successfully capture their unsuspecting prey only to find out too late they have nabbed a struggling economics professor instead of a far more well-heeled—and valuable—victim. Not to waste a captive possibly worth something, they find themselves in negotiations with the professor himself, who seems to become complicit with their scheme as he attempts to calculate the correct dollar figure they should be asking for, and from whom. But not everything is as it seems …
Those places are actually the plots of three projects filmed by Meredith and Austin Bragg—aka Arlington natives collectively known as the Bragg Brothers. If you have about an hour, look for The Defenders of Stan from 2006 on YouTube and try to watch just one of the five-minute episodes. The other productions, the 15-minute shorts called A Piece of Cake, from 2020, and Demand Curve, made in 2019, are in circulation at film festivals but are unavailable, as of yet, for public streaming.
The films are impressively consistent in their quality, enough so that a talent incubator, New York-based Moving Picture Institute, took notice and even helped produce Piece of Cake. The scripts are brisk and twisty, the production values are remarkably advanced given the woefully low budgets, the acting is polished and professional, and the stories are compellingly clever. It’s no wonder the films win accolades from critics and awards from film-festival judges.
The Bragg Brothers might be the most promising filmmakers to come from Arlington’s Taylor Elementary, Williamsburg Middle School, Yorktown High and James Madison University.
“I wanted to go into advertising, copywriting, and during my senior year at JMU, I took a study abroad class that was film directing,” says Meredith. The summer term in Ireland, full of creative people doing fascinating things with film, “was great, and I loved it, and so I basically changed my focus after that.”
Austin, a few years behind his brother, was a theater major “with a brief detour in history and political science,” he says.
With a year left at college and inspired by the experience in Ireland, Meredith “started playing around with a camera,” he says. As it happened, that was Austin’s freshman year in Harrisonburg, and the two began collaborating on sketches. “We were always big sketch-comedy nerds,” he says.
When college was over, Meredith landed a job at what was then Arlington Community Television, the public-access broadcast outlet with studios in Clarendon. (In 2004, ACT rebranded as Arlington Independent Media, or AIM.) He also worked as a desk assistant at ABC Radio’s DC bureau during that time period. Meredith spent his working hours at ACT helping teach others how to use the video and audio equipment and then spent his downtime there as well.
“They were foolish!” Meredith says with a mock laugh. “They gave me a key and permission to come in after hours and do whatever I wanted with my friends. We would go in, and we would shoot some really ridiculous, terrible comedy stuff. I mean, we really learned just by saying, ‘Let’s make something,’ and making a ton of mistakes along the way. That’s the best.”
Eventually Meredith departed AIM for The Washington Post’s Live Online platform as a producer, and, fresh out of college, Austin eventually took his place at AIM. And his after-hours key.
Today, their day job is creating videos for Reason.TV, the video arm of Reason magazine, about civil liberties, economics and the news of the day.
When it’s pointed out that the festival shorts—A Piece of Cake and Demand Curve—each have a surprise twist in the end, Austin says it’s not a sustainable trademark—even feature film director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) hits bumps in the road. “But I think you always want to have an ending that’s surprising and satisfying, right? I don’t think you ever want to see the end coming a mile away because, why are we watching? You need something punchy at the end to really send it home.”
Austin is the bearded one, slightly stocky—you can see him on screen in any number of their productions—and he looks world-weary and cautiously wary, elements he brings to his characters with reliably comedic effect. Meredith is the thinner, bespectacled brother who is far more loquacious and higher-strung, and with a quicker laugh.
“Oh, I know,” Austin offers with a hint of resignation about the not-brothers comment. “I know. And he looks younger; that’s the other problem. But we all know it.”
Meredith is 44 to Austin’s 41. “I think I’m 41,” Austin says, falling just short of counting on his fingers. “Don’t make me do math.”
OK, so far so good. We have a pair of brothers who have trodden the same path from elementary school to high school to adulthood and parenthood (Meredith has two children, and Austin has one).
It’s a nice story. Inspiring, even. But as anyone who watches movies knows, there has to be some “dramatic tension” to keep the viewer’s interest. Quite frankly, while the brother’ movies have it, it’s missing from their real lives. So, we have to manufacture it.
Indeed, what this story needs is … a twist! Maybe more.
It turns out their father is a bootlegger! Randolph Bragg, a retired Anglican priest who currently serves as a part-time assistant at St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Catholic Church in Alexandria, raised his kids in the leafy, law-abiding North Arlington enclave of Cherrydale, makes whiskey, frequently in front of people. It’s true! (Note: The elder Bragg is a historic interpreter at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and, when he is not helping the blacksmith, he demonstrates, while wearing a period costume, how Washington became the nation’s largest alcohol distributor at the re-created distillery on the grounds.)
Their mother is in Lorton Prison! It’s true! Gwendolyn C. Bragg is an artist and watercolor-painting instructor at the nonprofit Workhouse Art Center in Lorton, the former DC Department of Corrections penitentiary that was converted in 2008 to an exhibition and teaching center for more than 100 professional and emerging artists.
Meredith’s wife is a terpsichorean! It’s true! Cynthia Calgaro Bragg, who met Meredith at Yorktown High, is a former school teacher who now teaches dance (a much less compliated word for terpsichorean) and ballet to youth in Northern Virginia.
Austin’s wife is in a gang called Shakespeare’s Skum! And she manages an underground sports franchise! It’s true! Liz Demery, Austin’s wife, is the regional franchise manager of ComedySportz, a national chain of competitive improvisational comedy theaters; she also performs at the Maryland Renaissance Festival and is currently in the comedy troupes the O’Danny Girls and, yes, Shakespeare’s Skum.
How’s that for twists?
“Ask us about our other brother,” Austin says, as if making a dare.
Other brother …?
“He’s a, what? Neurosurgeon—a neurologist—in Atlanta,” Austin says. “His name is Alex. He was a National Merit Scholar; he got paid to go to medical school. He’s the one our parents can point to and let Meredith and I do whatever we want. He takes the pressure off.”
So, he’s saying they’re the black sheep of the family!
But we wonder if someone really gave them a key to Arlington Independent Media’s studios with permission to use the expensive gear to shoot whatever they want. Sounds fishy. But they did manage to make 20-plus five-minute The Defenders of Stan episodes that won prizes and eventually sold to Warner Bros. as a possible television series. (It died in development, says Meredith.)
Let’s bring to the stage Jackie Steven. She’s the director of community programs for Arlington Independent Media who hired them both—Meredith first, and Austin after Meredith left. Let’s see about those keys.
Please tell the jury, if you will, that it was you who gave these rogue filmmakers the keys to the studio for after-hours use.
“They’re incredibly talented,” Steven says. “I knew who they were; they had the keys. It was fine, but I was not there for the ‘incident.’”
“Somewhere,” she says, “there’s actually videotape of this.”
“You hear one of the actors [on the The Defenders of Stan set] say, ‘Hey, there’s smoke! No, like, there’s really smoke!’ And then there’s just kind of running …”
Do we have enough dramatic tension yet? They’re burning the place down with their superhero fantasy!
“An exhaust fan in the bathroom had shorted and caught fire and was putting out a lot of smoke,” she says. (Sound effect of deflated dramatic tension.)
The building was cleared, and the Arlington County Fire Department rushed to the scene only to encounter a surreal tableau: a gaggle of panicked amateur actors dressed in superhero costumes.
“The fire department sucked all the smoke up into a fan,” Steven says, “but the fire person who is cleaning up says, ‘So, let me get this straight …’ Yeah, they’re all in capes and Spandex and painted blue.”
Steven has seen a lot of newcomers learn how to operate studio equipment at AIM, and if the Bragg Brothers should do a feature film of note, she says, “it really wouldn’t surprise me at all because they’re just that good. They know how to get in, make a joke and leave; they don’t fall into that trap of explaining the entire thing.”
Careers fueled by award-winning shorts often lead to larger productions, with the top of the heap being feature films. Surely, they have a few ideas to get to the next level.
“I think our goal is always just to entertain people,” Meredith says. “We’d really just like people to like the stuff we create. I don’t think we’re precious artists in any sense. But that’s kind of the goal: Make something good so that we can make the next good thing.”
“With the next thing being bigger and better, whatever it is,” adds Austin.
Film Festival Resume
Having a short feature film accepted at a film festival is kind of a big deal. The Bragg Brothers’ two shorts have done very well, winning many awards along the way. Demand Curve and A Piece of Cake are still in festival circulation. Below is a sampling of where they’ve run (and won!) so far. Both films will also run at the Film Pittsburgh Fall Festival, presented virtually Nov. 11-22.
A PIECE OF CAKE (2020)
• Chesapeake Film Festival (Won for Best Comedy)
• Edmonton International Film Festival (Won for Best Comedy Short)
• Indy Shorts International Film Festival (Won for Best Comedy and Audience Choice Award)
• New Hope Film Festival (Won for Best Short, Nominated for Best Overall Short and Best Director)
• Tribeca Film Festival (Nominated for Best Narrative Short)
DEMAND CURVE (2019)
• Alexandria Film Festival (Won for Best Regional Film)
• Anthem Film Festival (Won for Best Narrative Short)
• Dances With Films (Won for Audience Award, Grand Jury Honorable Mention)
• Dam Short Film Festival (Won for Best Comedy)
• DC Shorts International Film Festival (Won Audience Award)
• San Francisco Indie Shorts (Won for Best of the Fest)
• Sedona International Film Festival (Won for Best Short Comedy)