Writing Through Things

Recently, many people have been asking me to describe what my upcoming short film is about. As I struggled to find the words to describe it, I realized that, at its core, it’s a home invasion story. Once I realized this, I looked back on my previous short film 3:03. I realized that my past film was also a sort of home invasion story.

Suddenly everything clicked together for me.

A couple years ago, I had an experience. I was living in an apartment, and one day, while I was alone in said apartment, one of the maintenance workers just walked in. He didn’t knock. He used his own key. I had no advance warning. I was at my most vulnerable. I no longer live in that apartment, but for the rest of my time living there, I never felt safe.

While I was processing that immediate fear I was feeling, I wrote the script for 3:03. It was filmed in the apartment where the event occurred. The film was about a woman who woke up in the middle of the night to a disturbance in the hallway outside her door. It was heavily based on a nightmare that I had.

At the time, I took that at face value. I thought it was just based on a nightmare that I had. It’s only now, in retrospect, that I’m realizing that my scripts are reflecting the fears that I’m working through in my own life.

I guess it makes sense. Every film that I’ve written up to this point has been based off of real experiences I’ve had. From a creepy public restroom and streetlights turning off around me, to a sort of home invasion, it’s all been based on true events.

Maybe that’s why people say my films creep them out. Maybe it’s because the feelings are genuine. For me, it’s very real.

Of course, this got me thinking about the horror genre. I started thinking of all the recurring themes that come up in horror films. Good horror films reflect real life fears at their core, and this is why the genre has such a loyal fanbase. Watching a good horror film can allow the viewer to process fears in a safe setting. In that same way, horror films can be therapeutic for their creators as well.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be done with my phase of writing home invasion films. I’m not even sure yet what my next project will be. Since I don’t have anymore home invasion stories up my sleeve at the moment, perhaps you could say that I’ve worked through the fear at this point? I guess we shall see.

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Return to Sender: Set Design

Before Return to Sender, I had never really put much attention into set design. I just used whatever was in the location I was lucky enough to get. If it wasn’t actively at the location, I didn’t really think about it.

For this particular film, that changed because one of my locations didn’t have any furniture. We had to make it seem like someone lived there. We had to start from scratch.

We hatched an idea that our main character was an artist, a painter to be specific. We had a lot of props at our disposal to work with this idea. We set up enough furniture to make our shots look lived in. We had canvases and paintings on the walls. I think we successfully made it look like a painter lived in the space we had to film in.

This character was curious and outgoing, so we used a lot of bright colors and creative ideas. We had the actress dress in red to work with this theme as well.

Our second location had more furniture already. We just had to cater it to our character. We didn’t want to overuse paintings on the walls again. We wanted to do something different that worked with the furniture and such. We ended up going with more neutral colors, photographs, and flowers.

This character was the more reserved of the two. If our lead character was the type to be the first one on the dance floor, this character was the type who needed to be coaxed out with her. I decided to make her a cat person with a photograph of my childhood cat. We had flowers around the set and a photograph of a beach. They were very subtle things, might not be very noticeable in the final cut, but the thought is there.

I think my favorite aspect of the set design that we chose to do was to add matching paintings. My production assistant Sarah Sofia Serrato and I had been to a painting class together in the past, so we both had different versions of the same painting of an owl with pumpkins. Sarah’s painting is in the background of one of the shots at the lead character’s house, and my version of the painting is in the supporting character’s house. We aren’t sure if anyone will really see it and make the connection, but we liked the thought behind it.

I’ll definitely be taking this experience with set design into future projects. Even if it doesn’t really show up completely within the shots of the film, it really helps solidify the character and their motivations. It created a mood on set. I liked that fact.

Of course, other elements that came into play with this project had to do with prop design. I’ll discuss those in another post.

Return to Sender: Shoot Day 2

On Sunday, March 18, 2018, we had our second day of shooting for my upcoming short film, Return to Sender. After our first shoot was so immensely successful, I was really looking forward to another day of filming.

At the first shoot, I felt that it took a bit for me to get back into the director’s chair, at least to sit there comfortably again. By the end of that first shoot, I had gotten the swing of things again. I was hoping that I’d still be ready to go for this second shoot as well. I think I can safely say that I did well.

This shoot had the same crew as before. I definitely had more actors to work with this time around though. I was working with three actors at this shoot. Two of these actors were playing minor detective roles. They clicked together very easily. I’m very happy with my casting choice for them. The other actress was playing my supporting character. She really embodied the role, just as I knew she would when she was cast.

We filmed the bulk of the story at our first shoot, so this time around was definitely much more simple. It was a smaller location, so there was less area to appropriately light. It was actually my own house, so there was less space that needed to be decorated. I mainly had to focus on empty wall space. I’ll talk more about set and prop design in another post.

It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be to direct three actors at once. Either I just got lucky or I was adequately prepared. In any case, I’m happy that it went well.

For this shoot, half of the day was spent finishing up the visuals for the end of the film. Once this was completed, the majority of the cast and crew were able to leave. Our supporting actress stuck around for a while longer in order to fill in some of the audio gaps from our first shoot. Despite it being her first time recording voiceover, she got the hang of it very quickly. She did a fantastic job.

It all went very smoothly. Everyone got along really well. There was lots of laughs. This made for a really great energy throughout the day. I think the food at craft services went over well. I almost wiped out and dropped the camera rig at one point while attempting a handheld shot that won’t even make the final cut, but I think it went well!

We’re officially in post production now. I can’t wait to see how this all turns out.

Return to Sender: Shoot Day 1

It finally happened. The first shoot day for my latest short film Return to Sender took place on Sunday, March 11. After holding auditions and weeks of planning, we were finally ready to go.

I needed to be on set at about 8:00am, so before that we needed to pack the car. Then, we had an hour commute to the shooting location. We got there early to begin setting up and make last minute decisions for set design. Luckily, we had a lot of this done days in advance so there wasn’t too much to do.

Crew time was 9:00am. This is when we started working to set up lights, balance the steady cam set up, put markers on the floor, get the boom pole ready. About 30 minutes before the cast arrived, we started setting up the craft services table.

10:00am was the talent call time. I was very glad that we had everything set up and ready to go before our actress arrived. It really saved a lot of time, and I think it made a good impression. It looked like we had our stuff together.

Overall, I think the shoot went really well. The actress we cast as our lead was just as impressive on the shoot day as she was at the audition. I’m really happy with the performance she gave.

There were some pretty tricky shots that we wanted to get for this part of the film. We had spent a lot of time leading up to the shoot practicing them, but they still required a lot of time on the day. These shots included a bit of gear. We had a steady cam rig, a slider, monopods for tighter spaces. I’m very grateful for all of the prep we did for those shots because it helped us be more prepared on the day. I’m always happy to be prepared.

I did end up making some decisions on the fly that diverged from my plans. I was a bit worried about how that would work out in the edit, but based on our rough edits after the fact, it all seems to be working out perfectly.

I’ll talk more about the editing process when we are officially in post production.

As for directing, this is the first time I’ve been in the director’s chair since we filmed 3:03 in 2016. It definitely took me some time to get back in the swing of it. There were a lot of mistakes I made at the beginning of the shoot day that I find pretty embarrassing. By the end of the day though, I think I was good. I think I was back to normal.

Hopefully I’ll still be ready to go for the next shoot. This shoot will be on Sunday, March 18. The upcoming shoot will be in a smaller location with three actors instead of one. It will be a different experience for me. I hope it goes well.

Return to Sender: Prep Work

It’s been a long time coming, but I can finally say that filming for Return to Sender is right around the corner!

With principle photography beginning in a matter of days, there are quite a few things that we’re working to finalize and prepare.

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We have some intricate camera shots planned for this first day, including many that are done with a steady cam rig. We have been meticulously planning these shots for a while now, but there is definitely a benefit to actually, physically, practicing them ahead of time. There were several things that we figured out about our rig set up while actually running through the moves that caused us to recalibrate the entire thing. I’m very glad we didn’t stumble upon those issues on the day of the shoot.

Since we were on a roll with those shots, we figured we’d test out some of the other shots too. This led us to have a much better idea of how everything was going to work out on the day that we filmed. I know I definitely got a better idea of how I wanted to block things and direct my lead actress by running through the scenes myself.

I really can’t stress how much prep work really helps with my work flow. There is always an element of uncertainty to film shoots, but with enough prep work, I can eliminate so many potential problems from a day where time is very limited. I don’t want my cast and crew to sit around all day because of issues that could have been easily prevented.¬†They’re volunteering their time for me, and I want to respect their time as much as possible.

We’re also working on set design and prop design, but since that’s still in progress, I may reflect on that process more at a later time. These are both new things for me that I haven’t paid much attention to in previous projects. We’ll see how much I have to say about it by the end.

Return to Sender: Casting Decisions

As I mentioned in my previous post about the audition day, there was a ton of talent that came out for Return to Sender auditions.

This is the first time I’ve actually had this many good options for people to play my characters. There was so much talent that I actually had to make decisions on who would be in my film and who could not be in my film. I guess in the broad scheme of things that’s a good problem to have, but it didn’t make it any less difficult to make the cuts I had to make.

One thing I learned through this process is that there is so much that goes into casting. It’s not just about the level of talent. Everyone that came in for auditions was talented. It’s also about chemistry with the rest of the cast. This is where my puzzle really started.

For my lead character, the actress we cast completely blew me away. She walked in and she was able to deliver exactly what I was looking for. Casting her was exciting. The project felt like it was finally coming to life.

When it came to my supporting character, I had many more options. There were so many actresses who came in and could do the part in one way or another. This was a more difficult decision to make. It came down to two actresses, and the casting team was torn.

We ended up having to go into extreme detail, cutting together their auditions with the audition for the lead actress. After that, I wanted to go a step further. Since a lot of the supporting actress’s lines are spoken over the phone with no visual reference, we needed to take out the visual aspects of their performances. We needed to judge based on the pace and feel of the phone conversation.

That process helped us to make a decision that was best for the film, but since this was my first time having to make a cut like that, I felt guilty. I still feel guilty in a way. I’ve been told that actors know not to take it personal, but I can’t shake the feeling.

The other actors that we were casting for were minor characters, detectives for the final scene of the film. They didn’t have many lines, but there was a level of emotion to the scene that not a lot of the candidates were able to convey. I had a few that I felt I could work with, but that all changed when our final candidate for that role came in.

This actor didn’t just read the lines. I could tell that he was feeling the lines. He was able to portray that emotion that I’d been struggling to find throughout the day. I was very moved by his audition.

However, this success unlocked another issue that was very similar to the one I described above. With this actor’s performance, I was having a hard time finding a good chemistry with the others who had come to audition for the detective role. I needed two detectives who could portray a good partnership. My other top contender had a performance that was too similar. There wouldn’t be a good contrast between them.

I was lucky enough to have an actress who had auditioned for the lead roles, but had indicated that she’d be open to the minor role as well. We managed to get her back to read for the detective role, and I could immediately see that chemistry I was looking for.

All of this came together in a way that I’m really happy with, but I honestly had very little idea going into this how much chemistry actually played a role. You can’t just cast based on performance alone. There are way too many other factors that you have to consider. Casting is such a big job, and I’m definitely finding that it’s not easy. It may be rewarding, but it’s not easy in the slightest.

Hoping to have my lead and supporting actress meet up and get a flow down before filming starts, but if that doesn’t come to pass, I’m confident that they’ll be able to pull it off.

Production starts in March! Look forward to more updates!

Return to Sender: Auditions

The auditions were held for Return to Sender this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that, despite all of my worries, they went incredibly well.

Leading up to audition day, we had a good amount of responses. We received about as many responses as I was expecting to get, so that’s a plus. I’ve heard on many occasions that there’s a sliding scale between confirmed responses and how many people actually show up for auditions. That proved to be true.

We had a few people cancel the day before and the day of. There were a couple of people who confirmed their time but never showed up. Of course, there were also people who we assigned an audition time to, but they never confirmed and they didn’t show up. From what I can tell, this is pretty normal.

Even with these drops, we still had a great amount of talent come in front of our casting table that day. My whole idea of holding auditions was to be able to have options. I’m very glad to say that I definitely had options for my characters at the end of the day. That’s an entirely new and very pleasant situation to be in.

I really wanted to make a good impression on the actors who came in, and I really hope that I did. I tried to make them as comfortable as possible. I tried to put myself in their shoes on many occasions. This led to the decision to leave the tablets at home and take handwritten notes on paper.

I figured if you’re already nervous, a line of people sitting behind tablet screens wasn’t going to make you more relaxed. For all you know, they could not be paying attention to your audition at all. They could be on Facebook. I didn’t want people coming in to feel that way. I have no idea how they do auditions through more official channels, but I’m happy with the decision that I made. I think it allowed me to really be present in that moment.

Chicago-area weather definitely didn’t help us out that day though. As the day approached, I was really upset to see a foreboding snowflake in the forecast. On the day, I was even more upset to see that the snow was set to hit during the exact hours when my potential lead and supporting actresses were scheduled to come in.

The snow did end up coming, and it was much more than some basic flurries. The roads got pretty awful. I’m so thankful for all of the actresses that braved those roads to come out and audition anyway.

So now, the next step is to review the audition tapes and our many notes in order to make the best casting decision possible for this project. We started this process as soon as we got back to the studio, and I’ll write more details about that later.

This is all a learning experience, and I’m happy to be learning it.