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How to (almost) Make a Movie

Originally published to my Medium: head there to see the original story

I spent the only normal months of 2020 trying to produce a short film of a screenplay I’d written. Two acquaintances had approached me rather suddenly about wanting to make a film in time for festival season, which began a mere two or three months later.

I, being the only writer in the group, was the first person to get the operation moving by writing a short script. (Naturally, everything I’d written before that point suddenly seemed like hot trash.) My two colleagues were going to be the director and director of photography.

I managed to write a 20 page script by mid-February, and even managed to edit a few drafts while in pre-production. My hard work done, I then stood back to await instruction: I thought my job was over and that I would merely assist in the mysterious process of “production.” And here’s my advice to you: screenwriters, NEVER. STAND. BACK.

(Unless you’ve sold the rights to your work, of course.)

It became very clear, very quickly that my director was about to make all the decisions and do none of the work. I was quickly made in charge of marketing and contacting potential actors. Among the three of us, each was responsible for securing a location. Mine involved a long term communication with the owner of a bar, the lovely and legendary Henrietta Hudson, and the DP found an awesome auditorium that we could dress up to look like a theater.

The last place we needed was a cafe. Mr. Director Man asked me to call a few places about this myself — he presumably had done the extreme heavy-lifting of finding these establishments on Google — because “they’re more likely to listen to a woman.”

Now, I was in the process of trying to shed my association with womanhood. A thing he knew, but perhaps did not understand. Asking him not to use my deadname was embarrassing enough (“I’ll try” he said) but the idea that I was now being asked to fulfill a feminine stereotype of doing emotional labor and handling logistics so the real auteurs could focus on their craft… Granted, that would have sucked even if I was a woman.

But, about that grueling artistic labor he was busy with: he proceeded to not undertake any of his directorial tasks prior to shooting. We finally came to words over this in a conversation that was very illuminating.

I didn’t know how bad things were until the night before the first intended day of shooting. When I had him on the ropes, he revealed a pretty perfect list of not-okay things for a director to do. Eh-HEM, pay attention because the T is piping hot and there will be a quiz:

  1. He had not composed a shot-list. In a three person team where one person claims to be the director, it is not cool for that person to not have a shot-list the night before the beginning of shooting.

  2. Against my explicit wishes, he asked an actor to audition with a line in a completely inappropriate way.

  3. He demanded an actor change her personal schedule to make a shooting time. Correction, he demanded that I demand the actor to change her personal schedule. His reaction to my refusal belied no understand of the fact that none of these people were being paid and that I was the only one in the group with intellectual rights to the project.

  4. When I threatened to take him off the project, he told me that he had spent thousands of dollars on equipment for the shoot. I was shocked by this as no one had consented to anyone paying that kind of money. I figured out later that he was referring the amount of money he would have charged a client for him to use his camera. I was the only person to spend money on the entire project, and this person thought it was acceptable to hold theoretical money over my head as though it entitle him to greater influence over the project.

  5. He also threatened to “take” the DP with him. The DP was a grown man with every right to make decisions for himself.

Now, I won’t say that I’m not a bit salty about what happened. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I got the director off of the project the night before shooting was supposed to start. The incredible DP stepped up as the director and did a phenomenal job.

We found the equipment. We fed and directed the actors. We transported all our junk to the locations and got our shooting in.

I swallowed years of social anxiety and yelled for quiet on set. I gently asked actors to deliver their lines differently. I did my best to make people feel comfortable and safe.

In the end, we only finished about 75% of the necessary shooting before a certain virus made the outside world completely inhospitable to mammalian life. But we made a film, dammit! And if the Lord had only deemed my success acceptable and not unleashed a plague in retribution, we could have finished a film.

Writers out there, know your worth. I don’t just mean your rights, though absolutely know those too. My biggest mistake during that whole situation was agreeing to work on someone else’s time frame, with someone else’s preference.

Producing a film is hard. It’s real hard. But if it’s worth it, you’ll do it. And you’ll do it your way.

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About Me — Shain Slepian My review of Over the Garden Wall (2014) on the website Animation for Adults https://www.animationforadu


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