A short film co-written and directed by a 2003 North Medford High School graduate is coming to the Ashland Independent Film Festival as an official selection.

The central characters in the film, "The Stairs," are a male escort and one of his clients, but filmmaker Zach Bandler says the half-hour story doesn't go where you'd expect. It's about a lonely man, the escort he contacts —  just to talk — and the relationship the two forge.

"It's almost like this very unconventional therapist," says Bandler, 31. "Intimacy and loneliness is something I find very interesting, and how people deal with loneliness, because we're such social animals as human beings, and we desperately need other people. It's two lonely characters finding common ground."

The film, which stars Anthony Heald, is also an official selection at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, where it's a finalist for best short film.

"I'm really excited about these a lot, particularly Ashland," Bandler says.

Bandler has written for much of his life, but his original career path was performing.

After he graduated North Medford, he went to Northwestern University in Illinois, where he studied theater. He graduated in 2007, then headed for New York City, where he performed in several off-Broadway productions and landed some small roles on TV shows, including "The Good Wife" and "How I Met Your Mother."

But over time, he spent more time writing, and eventually directing, gradually shifting from actor to filmmaker.

"It really did just kind of happen," Bandler says. "It's always kind of been there. I just wasn't pursuing it. Writing found me. Writing and directing is my life now. I love it."

The idea for "The Stairs" began to form in 2008, just after the U.S. economy tanked. Bandler and his writing partner, Max Spitulnik, ran with that theme of economic woe. They created a series about several roommates who got laid off and formed an escort business to try and bounce back financially.

The series died in the editing room without seeing the light of day. But a similar theme emerged with the pair's next project, a TV pilot about an escort and the relationships he formed.

"We didn't want any sex in the show. We just wanted to explore these different sides of humanity," Bandler says.

They shopped it around, but it went nowhere. Then they showed it to friend Kelly Blatz, who took a shine to one of the vignettes in the script: a story about a lonely man on Christmas Eve and an escort named Johnny.

"They're three generations apart, but they really end up connecting over this particular story of love lost," Bandler says.

Blatz, who has appeared in about a dozen movie and television shows, went on to play the escort, also stepping behind the camera to co-direct. They shot it in three days at Bandler's home in West Hollywood and around the city, then they spent three months editing. Bandler says he was grateful Heald, a familiar sight at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, agreed to work on the film.

"He's a phenomenal actor," Bandler says. Heald has played numerous roles in television and movies, including major roles in "The Silence of the Lambs" and TV's "Boston Public."

The film will screen at 3:40 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and 6:40 p.m. Sunday, April 10, at Ashland Street Cinemas.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.