The Kids Stay in the Picture

Back in 2002, my good friend let me borrow two books that firmly placed the possibilities of true independent (see: no budget) filmmaking in my mind: Robert Rodriguez‘s Rebel Without a Crew, and Bruce Campbell‘s If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. While Campbell’s autobiography was more about his entire career up to that point, he went into great (and hilarious) detail about the events and struggles involved in getting The Evil Dead made. Combined, these two icons of independent filmmaking not only explained their own experiences in great detail, they also showed how possible it was for a group of dedicated people, with very little or no money, to actually pull off producing a feature-length film.

The problem I had in 2002, though, was that I was only sixteen, and my friends and I (in spite of how talented they were — and, thankfully, still are) had even less money and experience that could go towards such an ambitious project. We tried, mind you, but not very hard. The technology at the time wasn’t anywhere close to where it is today, nor as cheap. Our only real options at the time were to shoot digitally (which we couldn’t afford), shoot on film (which we definitely couldn’t afford), or really go for broke and shoot on Hi-8. While I had very little experience then, even I had good enough sense not to go that route.

So we put those ambitions and ideas on the backburner, telling ourselves that one day we’d come back, though I don’t think most really believed that. Despite what we told ourselves, the entire process seemed too overwhelming that I really didn’t think it was possible for us until the cost and technology changed. Fortunately, however, I took away two very important things from that experience: one, that someday I’d come back and try again, and, two, if I was going to make another attempt, we’d better have something solid to shoot.

So, almost immediately after reading those two books, I headed down to the library (that place that used to be our alternative to searching Google) and picked up another book that would shape my future writing career almost immediately: David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, a step-by-step how-to guide on developing, writing, and editing a feature-length screenplay for all writers. This would wind up being one of the best books on the subject I have ever read, and I still use it to this day for reference. I went from only being able to write, maybe, forty pages of a document that somewhat resembled a “script,” to knocking out my first, properly formatted and developed, feature in only a week’s time. It was terrible, mind you, but at the time, I wasn’t going for quality.

And I was hardly the only one of my friends to continue honing their skills over the next decade. The very talented Kasey Kempton continued with intensive, advanced coaching for on-screen acting; Kyle McKinney of McKinney Productions has spent years developing his cinematography skills, adding more and more excellent footage to his reel; Derek Webster, the assistant director, finished SCC’s extensive Motion Picture/Television Production program as well as continuing to hone his acting skills; Sean Worsley, Melody Knudson, Michael Coleman, Mandei Ellsworth, and I have continued our work on stage and screen since high school, along with the majority of the cast and crew.

In spite of these new developments, though, I still had the thought in my mind that the time wasn’t right. Apart from writing and acting, I had stopped following the independent filmmaking world so closely, resigned to the idea that it just wouldn’t be possible for us.

So I stuck to what I could accomplish on my own: writing. By 2011, I was ready to jump back into the world of screenwriting, going back to a project I had started when I was still sixteen: The Days Never Know. This was a project that suddenly seemed very relevant to my own personal life; a character study of a close group of friends all trying to come to grips with their personal demons surrounding the fatal events that took place the night they graduated high school; how, in spite of their best efforts, they could not let go of that night.

I spent the next several months redeveloping and rewriting a draft that I hadn’t touched since high school, and something incredible happened. Not only did I suddenly understand these characters in a way that I never could have at sixteen, that small voice returned in the back of my mind, quietly hinting that this could easily be the film we finally make. I specifically wrote it with a small budget in mind, and as the edits continued, I began picturing those very same friends filling the rolls I was creating. By April of 2012, I had a draft that was close to being the finished product I had always been aiming for.

Still, though, actually filming it seemed too big of a challenge, so I stuck with the usual routine most writers begin when they feel they have a solid product that could get them actual work: swallowing their pride and sacrificing some of their dignity to get exposure. I spent nearly a year going through screenwriting contests, writing groups, and having total strangers read and (more often than not) completely rip to shreds my work without any real criticism. Apart from some very good friends, and a few talented authors online, I could not get much in the way of solid criticism.

But I stayed with it anyway, telling myself it could still work out. By last July, though, I was growing tired of the routine, and a new day job began taking up nearly all of my time. I told myself I could stick with the same routine while also working 40+ hours a week, though I knew that was cop-out. In the first five months of my new job, I only submitted the script to one competition, knowing it wouldn’t get far because there was still so much that needed to be done to it. But it was an easy way to convince myself I was at least doing something.

By February of this year, though, I was sick of the routine. I knew I didn’t have the fortitude to continue the constant aggravation that came with the waiting. Mostly, though, what was bothering me the most was that I could not get an actual critique. I didn’t want or need praise; I wanted someone who knew what they were talking about to read the draft and tell me the full, honest truth. Then I heard about The Blacklist, a survey-turned-developmental-program started by Franklin Leonard in 2004. The Blacklist started as a survey covering the best unproduced screenplays written, aimed at finding quality work by authors who didn’t always have extensive connections to Hollywood. In October 2012, The Blacklist went live online, inviting any writer to upload their work to have it professionally read and critiqued (at a cost). Seeing that this was exactly what I was looking for, I immediately uploaded The Days Never Know, and then continued the dreaded wait.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to wait that long. Within a week, I already got my first real and viable critique:

This is a very gripping and well-written script. The dialogue is extremely realistic and adds to the depth of each of the characters’ personalities. Additionally, it’s compelling to see how one event completely changed these graduates and how they’re still feeling effects ten years later. In general, the subplots are fairly appropriately developed and meaningful. Kyle’s reformation is especially painful, yet absorbing.

A very well written story with compelling characters, this screenplay is fairly close to being ready for production. Though likely not to be a major box office-hit, if produced, this film could find small success with an audience that enjoys character-driven coming-of-age dramas.

To my surprise, all three reviews stressed the point that this script was damn near ready for production.

It was these critiques that suddenly turned on the proverbial light in my mind. Unlike the “critiques” written by mostly teenagers over the Internet, these readers got it! They saw what I had hoped for: real potential.

About a day after the last review came in, I called Kyle and left him a message: it was finally time!

Everything snowballed after that phone call; I began contacting all of my friends who I knew would be interested. I had been expecting to do a lot of convincing. How exactly do you approach working adults with families, full time jobs, and everything else that comes with being in your late twenties, that they should spend the next several months to a year shooting a film that has almost no budget? Well, apparently, that’s all you have to do. Every friend of mine that I approached was in before I even had a chance to to finish the question.

Which brings us to now; ten years since I started writing this movie, and seven years since we last attempted something as big as this. Truth is, in spite of telling myself otherwise, I don’t know if I actually believed we’d finally reach this point, but now that we’re in the middle of it, I’m thrilled we’re finally here.

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