During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic while California was locked down under Stay At Home orders I became weary. I needed to stay creative and feel like I had some hope and control in regards to my career path that had gotten ridiculously thin and precarious. I needed more than my weekly Zoom acting class and so I created this DEMO REEL movie for potential Collaborators.
I had read about quarantine film challenges going on and decided I would use one to inspire myself to make something. As with all film challenges, they come with must-have elements, strict deadlines, and rules. I guess ultimately I find these things helpful which has brought me to the conclusion I would be good at writing another person’s idea (hint, hint: writer for hire!). It takes the blank sheet of paper a creator often stares at and fills in some parameters to get the juices flowing. To be honest with all that was consuming my mind, my juices weren’t flowing.
Making “Safer at Home” was a nice distraction along with all of the “go-see” audition calls many casting directors put on during this time of forced quiet. I wrote it, directed it, and acted both parts of this film as one of the rules (not to mention of the state as well): to make it at home with what you got. Nadia, who I am happily married to and locked up with, assisted in various “departments” – as a sounding board, problem-solver, and an extra set of hands.
I decided at some point recently to continue with the process with a blog post to go along with the demo movie to share the creative process and learning I went through. I have included TIPS from what I have learned from making these kinds of Film Challenges before. The previous films were “Underwritten” for the 48-hour film festival in Toronto and “#InclusionRider the Movie” for the Easterseal’s Disability Film Challenge. We won several awards for the 48-hour film fest.
The Director’s Cut vs The Studio cut
You will see there are two versions of the movie.
One of them is just under 6 minutes, this is the movie that I created as I wasn’t concerned to fully commit to the rules and I indulged myself as an artist to let the story complete itself. The 6-minute version is The Director’s Cut if you will. I adhered to the deadline of the challenge so I wouldn’t just give up or let the project stretch out too long, although, I have to admit I have gone back a few times after the fact and tweaked the edit of the Director’s Cut.
The other is under 3 minutes, which was the length called for in the rules of the would-be challenge, which theoretically would be the Studio Cut. I attempted to cut down my original story to fit that length in the editing room. It was not easy to basically cut the movie in half and not completely lose the story. This leads me to the first and I think the most important tip. So important I expand on it later.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: Write to the length of the film challenge/festival requirements. Going over even half a page can make it very difficult to cut down especially if you are the writer and precious about your words. Also see section: One Page equals One Minute.
It is my hope you watch both and read this post.
The Creative Process
The elements involved in this challenge was the use of a hammer or a reference to the moon or a character name. I decided to use the hammer as my murder weapon. I had intended to use at least two of the elements as I like to challenge myself that way and used the character name in the script but forgot to have the other character mention that name in the film, so it wouldn’t have counted.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: If a character name is one of the “must-have” elements in the film for a competition be sure to have a character in the film say that name. It’s not enough to be listed in the credits. Do your best to use the “must-have” elements required for the challenge in a way that is clever but as clear as possible. Other Elements you will commonly come up against are: genre, line of dialogue, a prop, and a character name. Being clever is good but I have found sly and subtle is not your friend when it comes to being judged.
I had been Zooming acting classes and using Zoom to meet with friends during the lockdown. One friend had made a background of himself doing a mundane activity and would play it behind himself while we were all talking. I liked that idea and thought it would be a good way to play twins and actually have them in the same shot.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: If you don’t have a lot of money or the technology to pull off big special effects, you can sometimes make it work with planning ahead and thinking through “the how” of shooting the scene. There are tons of tricks to work around budget using camera angles and the technology you already have at your fingertips.
So armed with the elements of quarantine, a hammer, and the idea of being twins in the movie. I began to plot out my story.
The Writing Process
I started with the two basic characters: the responsible one, who has a job and a home, and the other one who is a carefree slacker, lives life with sarcastic disdain, and needs a place to be to weather the pandemic. Sort of an “Odd Couple” thing. Their history and ongoing relationship would be the source of tension compounded by being in quarantine to create the pressure cooker situation that would push one to kill the other with a hammer. “Kane and Able”-ly if you will.
Having the quarantine and the CDC guidelines of living in a pandemic, and the opposing brothers take on the seriousness of the situation gave way to a certain ease and flow to the dialogue.
Another factor of being in lockdown, and would help differentiate the characters, I had let my beard grow, so I decided one brother would have a beard and the other clean-shaven. I also then saw it as the point of contention that puts the situation into overdrive, the “visiting” brother shaves his beard off leaving a mess in the “home” brother’s bathroom. And, of course, then they look identical. You know, like in “Single White Female” when the roommate intentionally makes herself look like the other.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: Don’t be afraid of influence. Allow for all the movie stories you have seen to connect your story dots, the camera angles that your favorite director used that made you perk up and go “ooo”, edits that did the same. If someone calls you out on being derivative just tell them it’s an homage.
In order to have the twins appear in the same scene, using the idea that my friend gave me, I needed to use my computer’s camera to capture certain scenes and so decided a narration style would be best and devised a pre-existing incident that required the “home” brother to journal/check-in with a court-appointed social worker. I quickly realized this incident was from something he took the fall for because of his “visiting” brother.
I wrote out the idea by story points and then more specifically by beats. I then walked away from it for a moment (literally a few hours of not consciously thinking about it). When I was ready to dive back into it, and before reading any notes or the outline I had so far, I wrote out the movie in longhand in reverse order. I wanted to see how much stuck in my mind that I subconsciously felt was important and critical to the story.
I then typed out the beat/scene outline from beginning to end using the backward notes and the previous notes I had created. I did this stage in Final Draft creating the Scene Headings and a paragraph of action for each beat in the scene. I had done an improvised TV show many years ago called “Train 48” and this was how their shooting scripts looked. Scene Headings and a paragraph of action describing what happened and what was talked about. I had logged this away in my mind as I thought it was a great way to create an improvised script that could be shot into a film (I still want to make one of these) but also as a step in the process toward writing a final script. And so to write the script, I just took it up from that document and filled in the dialogue between the action lines.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: Most film challenges have a really fast turnaround and so you only have a few hours to write the script and get to shooting. Editing will take a lot of time unless you have a real pro on the controls and a director who doesn’t shoot too much coverage. You will probably already have a few locations to think about and actors that you can slot into the characters in your story. Using the scene headings and beats that include the elements required to not get disqualified gives you a solid framework to hang the dialogue on to tell the story to the audience succinctly. This format also allows you to share with others on your team early in your process to show them the direction your story is going. The director can begin choosing the casting, locations, coordinate with the costume department, and others.
One Page of script equals One Minute on the screen.
As I mentioned, one of the other rules of the challenge was that it had to be 3 minutes long. I ignored this limitation until post-production. My script came out just under 6 full pages. I tried to be sparse with my dialogue and relevant scenes however my script was still too long for the challenge I had chosen as inspiration, however, I wanted to tell the story as it naturally came to me. Anyone who has shot something they have written in the proper screenplay format knows one page equals one minute of film, give or take a few seconds/8ths of a page. And when you are dealing with short films which are only a few pages long each page is a heck of a lot of story.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: Don’t write your film any longer then the challenge you entered says it should be. You give yourself a nightmare in the editing, especially if you are editing it yourself. Now as you are crunched in your postproduction phase you have to make difficult story decisions beyond what take of the performances is resonating and serving the story best. What scene has to go that doesn’t impinge on the audience understanding the story?
Internal Film Department Struggles: Collaboration with the Self
Needless to say, my writer-self told my producer-self to shut up and indulge the other artists in me and didn’t edit my script down to fit the requested length of the film. I had my actor-self reading over my writer-self’s shoulder deciding how each character would be played for each moment as I wrote and refined the script. And both the actor and writer were pleased with what was left on the page. My director-self was outnumbered and my producer-self just shrugged as there was no budget to really fight about anyway.
FILM CHALLENGE TIP: Hopefully your team will have done some prep before the weekend hits where you write, shoot and edit your film. A good thing to do is to check all your tech and equipment, even do a few dry runs of transferring footage from camera to editing software. You will be best prepared to already have a stable of actors gathered ready to show up on the day and a few flexible locations.
I changed gears into the director-self and went forward to breaking down my script – how I was going to shoot each scene. I made specific notes and scribbled diagrams of camera and actor blocking on to my director copy of the script. If I was going to shoot and direct each shot and act in both sides of the scene and keep continuity I wanted a solid blueprint.
Since I was going to have scenes with me playing both characters and wanted them in a two-shot, and one of them had a beard for the first half of the movie I had to plot the shooting schedule very carefully. Not only because I wanted the hair from my face to “dirty” the sink for the bathroom shot where the “home” brother discovers the mess which sets him off but if I shaved off my beard before I absolutely shot everything with a beard the continuity of the movie was down the drain.
This was the most Memento-like challenge of making the film. In fact, I had seen a making of “Memento” with Christopher Nolan, how he had said the story was circular and that is how he described the film to other departments. My story wasn’t that complicated, but my shooting schedule felt like it was.
When shooting I kept questioning myself about crossing axis and what side of the frame each character had to be on. Fortunately, I had the story down pat for the actor-self and it was only my director-self and cinematographer-self who had to argue through the logistics of each scene, having my camera doodles and notes on my script really helped keep everybody… I mean me… on track.
Technical setbacks, hurdle…
I quickly discovered that my hardware and software on my computer couldn’t do the background on ZOOM. This was a blow as it was the lynchpin to the whole movie I had envisioned making. So after some research aka googling, I discovered that I could do it with an old program on my computer. Sadly, it wasn’t as clean as my friend’s Zoom joke and was very difficult to completely get away from some distortion of the image. I could have also attacked this problem with a green screen but I didn’t have one and wasn’t about to order one on Amazon. My producer-self assured me there was no budget for that. So I had to use what was available to me now. Like the hammer.
I shot everything on my GoPro Hero Black 7. I had planned to use two cameras. The other being a Lumix G but when I got it out of the case I noticed the focus ring on the lens had come loose and eventfully came completely off in my hand. The upside to using the GoPro was that it has an app for the iPhone. So I had a ready-made monitor and roll button at my fingertips. The only other thing I had to do was figure out a camera mount for the Go Pro to a standard tripod. The little self-stick/Go Pro tripod wasn’t going to cut it when I was the only one on set for the majority of the shoot. The selfie-stick/Go Pro Tripod did get utilized for the strangling sequence.
Once I had my shooting schedule and my shot list ready I could begin to roll.
I didn’t worry about makeup, I was already consumed with beard continuity.
I left wardrobe to the last decision before shooting and this actually changed a few times during shooting. I had 5 script days, the story takes place over five days in the script. The final day only one brother is left, one shirt. “Home” brother had 4 changes/shirts, and “visiting” brother had 4 changes. By the end of two and a half days of shooting, I had used 9 of my shirts, 2 pairs of pants, and 2 pairs of shoes.
I used the natural lighting of the house inside and out. I was encouraged by my landlord to use her funky van that sits on the lot… so I did. The kitchen on the west side of the house got very bright by 2/3 pm. This also had to be thought through as well for script time of day. Being in California I didn’t have to worry too much about weather days, everyday is pretty much sunny. The only thing to worry about is the marine layer. I kind of feel sorry for the weather forecasters in this part of the world, their job must be quite boring.
I shot everything with the beard first of course. Because of the beard, I couldn’t just jump back and forth between characters or sides of the scenes. I marked down time-of-day after I was satisfied with a few takes of the bearded “visiting” brother’s side of each scene. I tried to stick to the scripts chronological order as much as I could but I had to also pay attention to time-of-day that was important in the script. I had planned to shoot beard brother scenes one day and the next day shave, shoot the bathroom scene with the dirty sink and then shoot the rest of the film that day. It didn’t quite work out that way.
After the beard “visiting” brother shooting day, I was kind of exhausted by the mental game and didn’t want to miss anything in my script that required the actor me to have a beard. I was frustrated having worn so many hats and wanted to throw in the towel but Nadia said don’t give up, keep going, it’s a cool story. So after my producer-self talked my director-self down I continued, it took an extra half-day then I planned.
A couple of scenes have the “visiting” brother appear in background footage behind the “home” brother reporting to his social worker. That meant I had to make a placeholder of narration to time the appearance of the background “visiting” brother footage. This combined with the technical issues I was having with video distortion when creating the effect is what was so mentally exhausting and frustrating on day one.
For shooting the foreground action, I had to make sure the background matched the previously shot background, for continuity, which Nadia helped with considerably. I also realized as part of the technical issues in shooting theses particular scenes I had to flip the image so the foreground shot matched the background footage previously shot, so the character would enter on the same side as it appeared on video when I wasn’t using the background footage in the same scene. Also so that the room geography made sense. I had already established that the office area was to the right of the kitchen so the brother entering from the kitchen had to come into view on the left side of the brother at the computer. (I discovered later that I can also do the flip in the editing software.) It was all very mind-bending. What I didn’t know at the time was to leave some time of just rolling footage before and after each bit of action that took place in the background, it just happened that way and I was lucky I hadn’t started the action to soon or cut too soon after the action as it would have ultimately given me less in the shooting of the foreground and the editing of the scene.
The most fun was working out and shooting the strangling scene outside. The only Exterior in the film. I decided the best way to tackle this was a series of POV shots. I had Nadia hold the camera in place for the “visiting” brother and it was her idea to have him sitting in the camp chair which eliminated the whole falling to the ground issue.
The most takes were done during the killing scene. The timing of the smack with the hammer blow from the background “visiting” brother and not blocking the weapon with the head of the “home” foreground brother. I literally had a piece of beef under the desk I was punching then slumping forward in the foreground shoot while timing the hit from the background action. That beef was good and tenderized for that night’s dinner. I was quite proud of my Foley work by the end of it. I would like to do that more.
I did the rough cut and watched it through several times and quickly realized I am not an editor. However, there were beginnings or endings of script and shots that I didn’t actually need to tell the story. I thought I was quite sparing with the scenes yet still more could be cut away to tighten it up.
When it came to the 3-minute version, it was very difficult to take away half of the film and still tell the story but I tried. It started to feel like I was making an extended trailer and that might be what it came out as. I don’t know. I was chopping something I was really happy with in half. I won’t say it again that the big lesson is to write the number of pages you want the film to play.
In the software that allowed to shoot the foreground sequences with the background footage playing in a loop, only the foreground sound was captured. I had to take a copy of the background footage and strip the audio in the editing software so I could combine the sound from the background and foreground action in post. Obviously, this sound was particularly important in the scene where the “visiting” brother speaks in the background before the foreground brother answers. Timing the lines and reaction we’re also tricky.
I didn’t bother with a score, I didn’t have a keyboard or synthesizer at my disposal and I wasn’t particularly happy with any royalty-free music I could find. I wanted to put in some creepy cream ice cream truck music in but will save that for something else.
I hope this post sheds some light and answers some questions on the process behind the making of my quarantine project, Safer At Home, and that showing the two cuts of the movie combined with this post helps inspire and highlights the pitfalls I didn’t manage to avoid in making it. I hope that the tips help anyone looking to make a film challenge movie be more prepared. And lastly, I hope casting directors and fellow creators contact me to join their projects.