We all want to make movies. We wouldn't be here if that wasn't the case. But making any movie, even a short can feel daunting no matter how much experience you have. Here's how I made my hopefully triumphant return to directing.
I'll start from the very beginning...
The Script - How did I write my script for a short film?
A saying I picked up at the UCLA Professional Producing Program is "make is the shoe fit the foot". I think it's something that applies to all aspects of production starting with writing. If your goal is to make a short film, it better be a story that can fit in that format. I frequently see students and I'm certainly guilty myself of having a big idea and trying to cram it down into 15 minutes. Sometimes it can work if it's a simple enough idea, but often it doesn't.
Thankfully, I had a story I'd been sitting on that I knew from my previous experience working on shorts would fit the bill. It's a romantic comedy about two friends who get drunk together and find the resident pet goldfish dead in the bowl the following morning. Simple. Succinct. Unique. And 100% a true story. This time around the right story was something I'd had in my back pocket for a few years now. I wrote the script fairly quickly because I had already written a version of it as the opening teaser for a pilot. I expanded it slightly to develop the characters more and enhance the dialogue for a short, but it didn't need much else. The production script was just over 11 pages and only 2 locations.
Pre-Production - AKA my own personal hell.
I started pitching the short to friends of mine who I wanted to crew back in September. At the time, I wanted to leverage a famous local photographer who wanted to DP a short into raising a hefty crowdfunding budget. Life, work, among other things got in the way of those plans. But the seed was planted among my gaffer, key grip, script supervisor, and some other key positions. They would occasionally ask for updates about if it was still happening. In the beginning of February when I found out I would not be accepted to UT-Austin, something clicked and I charged into pre-production without the bigger resources. Because fuck it; I wanted to make a movie.
My background as I've mentioned in previous blog posts is in physical production as an Assistant Director. I've also worked as a Production Coordinator which came in very handy on this project. I started by breaking down my script myself. 11 pages, 2 locations; a bar and a house, 5 sets total; bar and bathroom, bedroom, living-room and backyard. The script consists also of only 2 actors. If I could get the right team in place and call in a number of favors, I knew I could theoretically I could shoot the entire project for only the cost of supplies like craft services and meals. I made the decision to finance things at this point on my credit card.
Although the Detroit film community has dramatically shrunk in the last few years I have a lot of my closest friends still in town and they were eager to work with me as long as no paid work was going to interfere. This terrified me to no end. What if I was ready to shoot the following day and half my crew was called to work on a commercial? My initial plans of a bigger budgeted project included paying crew for a number of reasons. 1) I respect the hard work my friends do on set. 2) As a professional, I would not take unpaid work unless it was for a dear friend so I certainly wouldn't ask someone else to work for me for free. It wouldn't be right. A few life changes are really what made me go forward with the smaller crew that wound up working on the project. It wasn't an active decision and once those situations are resolved I plan on my next short including some of the strategies.
My first key 'hire' was my DP, Chris. He had already been signed on to be the Gaffer. Full disclosure, in the time between my first offer for him to Gaff and the time I started pre-pro, our long time friendship had turned romantic. I had some reservations about hiring my boyfriend as my DP, but after 5 years of working together we knew we were a great team. I consulted him frequently about what he thought about my schedule and how to best get the rest of the crew locked down. Those conversations are what led to my decision to crowdfund the short and pay my crew significantly reduced rates. The strategy being even a small promise of financial compensation would keep them on the project even if another paid job came along. This proved to be true with one exception which I'lll touch on later. I had my DP locked in.
At this point I felt completely overwhelmed. I tried to find a producer to get involved and help with the crowdfunding but no one was available whom I trusted. More money started to go onto my credit card. **Disclaimer, I'm not saying this is a the smartest way to finance a short film or any film. I had very managed credit card debt before the short and no other debt. It was not a big risk for me to pay for things this way.** I decided quickly that running a crowdfunding campaign on my own was too much while prepping as a director. Everything during prep was put on my credit card.
We started to gather our resources. The camera was donated by my boss - Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Chris and I both really like the look this camera gives but we were also flexible to work with the gear we were able to secure cheaply or for free. I sunk a good bit of money into building out a camera kit for us. We only had the body and a few lenses donated so I spent a lot of time researching and investing money into what sort of rig we would use. Because I was paying for it, Chris gave advice about it but let me choose the exact pieces because they would be my assets after the shoot. Other gear came from friends who worked on the shoot as electrics, grips, and from our script supervisor who had access to the gear from a local university. I also used a few camera rig items from my roommate.
Locations were relatively easy. I was able to use the bar my friends and I go to every Wednesday. And my post-production producer and former classmate from U of M offered to let me shoot at his house after my original house was feeling hesitant. Rick's house turned out to be a much better situation because the rooms are larger and I didn't need to do much set-dec either.
The hardest part of prep was casting. With only two characters in the entire film, their chemistry and acting ability would make or break the entire project. I reached out to friends who act and I posted in several local actors/filming pages on Facebook. To be honest, this wasn't my favorite way of casting. I hated it actually. It varies by community and personal preferences but I didn't find FB to be a reliable source. Interest was limited by many factors, including my own reluctance to promote myself online. In the end I had two locals come for chemistry tests. In a pinch, I could have used those actors. The male lead was lovely and the female lead could have pulled it off with some work, but I had a gut feeling they weren't the right choices. I wound up being right. A writer I met at the Columbia University TV Writing Workshop last summer was excited and interested in the part. Daniel was familiar with the story and the pilot. He said he had a great actress for his co-star as well, so I asked them to send me a tape and bingo. They had it. And more money went on the credit card to book their flights to Detroit from NYC.
At this point we were about a week away from the shoot dates I had set. Chris and I came about them in a de-facto sort of way. We knew it should be shot in March to maximize crew availability. We knew I was already going to be taking a week off from work because of a weekend student project I needed to supervise. Really the dates picked me, because I only had two weeks to do it in. By coincidence my actors had the spring break the same week. I chose to shoot during the week because often commercials and other projects in Detroit shoot towards the end of the week - especially if they're from out of town because a company would generally fly in on a Monday or Tuesday and prep for a few days and then shoot Thursday/Friday. And most other small home-grown projects have a habit of shooting weekends. We settled on Tuesday 3/14 and Wednesday 3/15.
Scheduling for two shoot days was based on three factors - I knew I could shoot roughly 5 pages a day. This is fairly standard timing in the indie film world I come from. With a company move from the bar to the house, plus the need for shooing day and night scenes, only shooting 1 day would be unacceptable. I figured I could afford two shoot days vs more shoot days. And Thursday could serve as an emergency pick-up day if needed (contingencies are always important) before I flew my actors back to NY on Friday morning.
In the few days before the shoot, I ran around and picked up costumes and some set dec I wanted. Then I worked the entire weekend and crashed, panicked, and cried the Monday before production....
But more on that in the next post! I hadn't realized how long of a post this would be but it's gotten quite lengthy so I'll continue talking about the shoot itself and how we are handling the post-production process and crowdfunding in post production in the next installment!
As always if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask! And thank you everyone for your support and curiosity about my project. I can't wait to share more with you.
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