The coronavirus has forced our hand.
At the beginning of the year, I was fighting a burning passion to follow my ultimate dream, to make a feature film. I've worked in and around the film industry for almost 15 years but yet had not fulfilled my ultimate dream. Every commercial I would direct felt like it was getting me one step closer to where I wanted to be, but I felt I was so far away still. The "traditional" path looked like decades of persistence with no guarantees. I was reminded of Mark Duplass' "The Cavalry isn't Coming" Speech. His main point is that if you want to make something, particularly a film, You need to do it yourself.
I took it to heart this time and started considering what I had, the resources, to make a film. Not a short film, a feature film. I had a come off of a handful of good-paying jobs that fall and had cash, not tons, but for the first time in my life, I could invest $10,000 into something I was passionate about. I also made some life choices that could free me up. I made a move from NYC, where I had been for almost four years. I moved into my parents' spare bedroom temporarily to cut my overhead and had the added benefit of being in my hometown in SC where I have an established network of friends and colleagues that are equally as inclined to make a feature film. My first concern was how can I afford to do this project and not take on any new work. I made a budget for my new low-overhead living arrangement and calculated I could live off of what I had for 3-4 months. This is where I started to think about the possibility of making a film in 100 days. Is that even possible? I did some research and found that many productions turn around a film sometimes even in 60 - 70 days. This was hopeful. However, these were fully funded productions with full teams and a coffer of cash to make mountains move when needed. I have $10,000. I was reminded of movies like Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" and Christopher Nolan's "Following." Both films were made for under $10,000 and I had access to things that they didn't, friends and family with equipment, locations, and crew. I felt that I was set. I just needed to put a plan into motion to formally move forward. I needed one last essential element to guarantee a finished film... A deadline.
Every successful project that I have produced in the past has had a deadline to work towards. If you've ever taken on a creative endeavor, something out of your own conceptualization you know how difficult it can be to know when something is done. Now imagine that the thing you're making is 90 minutes long. It would never be finished, You'd want to sit on it, revise it, tinker with it indefinitely. At least, I would. That's why I decided to create as much social pressure as possible to get it done in exactly 100 days. I put in place a mechanism that would force me to make quick decisions, to push through rough patches, overcome obstacles because I had a deadline. We are going to premiere our film 100 days from the start of the production. I bought a countdown clock that counts days down to seconds. I decided we can get even more benefits if we share the entire experience in a youtube series. Everything I could think to create as much visibility that would, in turn, create accountability, but now also new resources and an audience for the film.
It worked. Our team grew. I started meeting new folks that had popped up in the SC film industry since I had left. I connected with folks that I hadn't got to know before I moved. A lot of pieces fell into place. When we started, it became clear that even though we had a team of volunteers, I still wasn't going to be able to delegate everything that I was hoping. For a good, while I was managing not only a fresh movie concept into production without a finished script but an entire marketing campaign with a production crew producing 8-12 minute YouTube episodes about our production twice a week. This became very cumbersome, but we were figuring it out. Because we had to keep moving to keep to our deadline we rearranged and realigned quickly. We occasionally would hear world news about a virus in China that had made it's way to Italy and was wreaking havoc.
We got three weeks into the project, and were already planning an open casting call and had already had over 2,500 online submissions from actors interested in our posted roles. We had scouted more than a dozen locations. We had thoroughly researched our story and done significant world-building. We secured our equipment and some of our crew. We also had 55 pages of the first draft of the script. Then we started hearing reports of major events being shut down out of an abundance of safety to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus in the US. When it first hit home for me was when they announced that SXSW was canceled. For others, it was March Madness or the NBA. However, I still thought that was going to be all the more it would affect us for now. The big conferences and groups of thousands would have to postpone or cancel. Little did I know how far it would reach into all of our lives and down to our little production.
We were in the throws of planning a public open casting call. The idea is that we would rent a large space or find one to be donated. We'd host drop-in auditions. This was going to be great for our YouTube series and also bring even more attention to our film. We had a good amount of interest. In the background, people were starting to close down even smaller group events, small conferences, churches, schools were all suspending. It was happening so fast. I initially grappled with ways to make our casting call still happen. I justified that we could still heed the prevailing advice on "social distancing" by keeping our waiting area spread out and that would have a slow flow of folks come in to audition and then we'd turn them over quickly and send them on their way. We even thought of trying to schedule auditions to avoid too many people at once. But, I ultimately concluded that it would not be safe and on top of it our turnout would probably be pretty weak. The team went into immediate action and we devised a way for us to continue to get some attention and allow an "open" casting all done digitally. We had people film and upload their auditions to Instagram then tag us and the role they were applying for while using our hashtag. It worked we had dozens of submissions and it was a lot of fun.
That same weekend, everything hit all at once. Restaurants closed down their sitting rooms. Several cities went on lockdown and I had a full-blown cold. I felt awful. Thankfully I wasn't running a fever and wasn't showing the other symptoms of Covid-19, but I couldn't help but think I had it and was going to spread it to my team. We had just moved into a temporary office space no less than 48 hours prior and we were gearing up to hit preproduction hard the next week. All I could think is there is no way I can meet and work with the team in person. I'm sick, even if it's just allergies or a cold I have to get better and I can't infect the team that I am leaning on so much to make this already difficult challenge possible. We decided to try to work remotely.
I am not good at home by myself. I am best suited to a team and a dedicated place to work. Otherwise, I am deeply tempted by distractions. Plus, I was still fighting a cold. My doctor cleared me from Covid-19 with instructions to rest (yeah right). We still could make progress on selecting our cast, writing our script, locking in locations, and designing props and our key set piece. But, in the background restrictions nationally were getting stricter by the day. No groups of 250 or more, 100 or less, 10 and now police have been instructed to break up groups of more than 3 or more people. In that one week since casting our whole world got flipped upside down. Every American was in the same pickle. Globally, the pandemic had taken hold and the world was on pause. Can we move forward from our homes? How long is this going to last? Should we press on? Is it even possible?
I was resolute but weary. I wanted to find a way no matter what to deliver a film in 100 days, come hell or high water... or global pandemic and national economy crash. We turned over every rock we tried to write a new outline with our existing characters and premise that would take place primarily in one room and would a cast of 2-3 at a time. We would reduce our onset crew needs so we would have less than 10 people as prescribed at the time. The vast majority of films that take place in one location are very dialogue heavy and lean toward the thriller and horror genres. Our film is a lighthearted adventure story and no matter what we tried could not fit it into this new trope.
I was starting to realize as were many others. This pandemic was here to stay for now and we were not going to be filming anytime soon. All our plans were going to be on hold. Everyone across the nation was impacted. My brother made a point that finally gave me the perspective I needed to let go of our deadline and to find a new solution. The whole point of this thing was to have a finished film that everyone that participated, would be proud of and would be a stepping stone in their careers. We would build a community of filmmakers around this project. With every new restriction, I was having to make creative concessions and our days were getting shorter. The integrity of our project was now in jeopardy. Every person that signed on to be a part of this project entrusted me with their investment. As the Executive Producer and Director, it is my duty to collect those investments (whether they are time, money, gear, props, food or other resources) and to make something bigger and better than the individual contribution. As the trustee of these investments, I realized what we needed to do.
So what now?
So, that brings us to now. How do we move forward in a pandemic-laden world? Well, we do it circumspectly with constant attention all of the daily changes, but foremost, we have to stop the clock. I can not in good conscience attempt to move forward as a responsible citizen trying to move a film crew around and not expect people to get ill. Also, it's being enforced by the government, so our hand is forced anyway. Even more important to me is that we maintain the integrity and spirit of the initial challenge. So we are freezing the clock where we dropped off Day 25. We have frozen the clock with 75 days remaining and will resume when the coast is clear and people can resume work and other film productions get back into action (we'll specifically be keeping an eye on Netflix as our groundhog; when they start back up we'll be comfortable to get back at it too).
In the meantime, the days of furlough will not be wasted. It may be several weeks, and I can't just turn this off after all the work of our first 25 days. We'll be working on our script as well as our preproduction elements, production design, wardrobe design, props, etc. We will have a production schedule in place to put into action as soon as we decide it is safe and efficient to move forward. Even though we are quarantined there are more and more people available and interested to work remotely on this production and as a scrappy filmmaker, I couldn't be happier for that.
We are going to make a feature film. It's not going to happen the way we planned. I am so thankful for the committed team that is sacrificing alongside me who are passionate about filmmaking and want to make something bigger than themselves. If you want to join the team, we could use your help in the next several weeks. Please reach out. firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Write what you know," is a famous adage usually attributed to the great Mark Twain. To some, it's writing gospel. To others, it's nonsense and shouldn't be listened to. Whether you agree or disagree, some weight should be given to the idea. The story we decided to tell is filled with subjects we knew little about -- portals, picking, and Einstein. We liked the story and the direction it was headed, but since we knew nothing about these things, we decided to find people who did.
Our first big break in research came when we found out that Mark Watkins, our fixer/producer, just happened to have spent the last twenty or so years picking in and around South Carolina. As it turns out, he had dozens of connections spread all across the Upstate. Our first stop was the Pickens Flea Market. We learned all about the recent floods that caused a lot of damage and logistical issues for the market and its sellers. We talked to locals, pickers, members of the Liars Club. We learned the history behind specific merchandise, how it was acquired, stories from days of picking past.
A few days later, Mark had scheduled us several interviews with local business owners who dealt in picking, junking, auctions, and antiques. They opened their doors eagerly and offered their time and knowledge freely to the project. We saw some amazing collections, heard some strange stories and overall, got a great sense of this fascinating world. We immediately started incorporating these characters, the lingo & dialogue, and the real-life locations into our script. This was beyond helpful in bringing our script a more authentic and honest feeling. In addition to these people being helpful in the writing process, these real locations and people are going to bring increased production value to the final movie as well. Set design is hard, and these places already look amazing.
Albert Einstein is not a character in our script, as it's set in the present day, but a fictionalized version of him and a technology he had a hand in creating are central to our narrative. This was added to the story early on when a myth about Einstein having ties to Greenville was learned to be factual. We connected with a Furman History professor who knew all of these details, and we were fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with her, asking questions, getting historical reference and setting, so our story was plausible, despite it being historical and science fiction.
All of these interviews and conversations were so helpful in shaping and improving our script, and we want to thank all of the people that were generous with their time and resources during this process. Our research isn't over, either, so if you happen to know a lot about portals, let us know -- we're still trying to figure out that one.
Instead of finding a script of a story we wanted to tell when we set out on this 100-day journey, we decided to make it even harder on ourselves and start with nothing. We had a vague idea about portals as a plot device, but there were no characters, no plot, and certainly no definitive idea of what movie we were making. We had a seed, and we had to bury it deep and see what came from it.
The process was unconventional but very creatively rewarding. We sat in the writers' room for the first 50 or so hours (except for sleep and food breaks) and hashed out every idea we could come up with, good and bad. We hit several creative and logical walls in the process, and the story got the best of us many times. It went out of control. It got boring. It started following characters we realized we didn't care about. It quickly got too expensive on several occasions.
At a certain point, we all landed on two ideas that focused our story and the direction of the film as a whole. Those ideas were the lifestyle-hobby of "picking" and Albert Einstein's relatively-unknown history in Greenville. These two ideas shaped the conversation and the film dramatically. We've settled here and continue to develop these ideas as we build the blocks of the story and production.
The script is not complete, and the ending is still unclear to us. But we know who we're following, why we're following them and a lot of pieces that shape their journey. We're learning as we go, about the characters, about this world, and about our story. It's an exciting, challenging process.
Episode 4 is about the initial story breaking process as well as revealing our story idea:
A scrappy picker, always on the heels of his bully rival, steals an antique, which happens to be lost Einstein technology that allows the user to instantly travel between portals.
When we set out to document the filmmaking process in the 100 Day Movie Project YouTube Series, we had a very specific vision for what we wanted that to be. We wanted to offer a real-time, behind-the-scenes look at what we were doing. We wanted to give transparency to the process, converse with the audience and develop a relationship.
We started with nothing at all. None of us had ever made a YouTube series. Or a feature-length film for that matter. But we dove right in. We had ideals for the first two episodes, but we were also under a self-imposed deadline. We wanted real-time content, and we wanted two episodes released in the first few days so our followers would have something to watch since we'd just gone live.
When we finished the first two episodes, there was a sense of relief. We finally had the content we were talking about for so long. But when we watched them, there was no spark. We missed our mark in a lot of ways. They didn't feel conversational. They didn't strike the tone we wanted. They weren't what we envisioned when we started. The information was stiff, and it wasn't engaging. We uploaded them because it was time, and we wanted something to point new followers to.
In the hours after posting, we considered taking them down. The videos were posted at 6 AM, and only a few had viewed them. While we seriously considered this, we thought that went completely against the heart of our project. We wanted transparency, not a polished, edited history of our project. So we kept them up. And immediately started filming.
The very first shot of Episode 3 is what we filmed right after we decided to leave the videos up. The idea behind Episode 3 was to re-imagine Episodes 1 and 2 with the benefit of hindsight. Why didn't we like them? What could we do better? Episode 3 is both a retelling and a reflection. We went back to our vision and tried again.
YouTube is hard. We're learning that very quickly. This whole project, both the film side and the YouTube side, is full of lessons in learning by doing and making mistakes assets. We still don't know what we're doing exactly. We like the direction we're going. And we know more than we did 13 days ago. We're excited about the lessons we're going to learn and the mistakes we're going to make in the next 87 days.