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Making a short film  – The Triangle

A few weeks ago, I went home and directed a short film that I’d written.

I’d say it was the first one I shot, but it wasn’t. It was, however, the first one I completed. Geez Louise, remembering all the times I’ve attempted in the past: so many happened before I’d received any meaningful training in writing, the ball of anxiety I was in high school trying to direct — something I knew nothing about — the chunky blocks of chicken scratch I called dialogue, my friend Matt coming in from Long Island to shoot the train wreck.

Matt was usually the one on the camera and sound; I knew even less about technology than I did directing (believe me, that didn’t stop me from trying to boss him around). I met Matt in 2016 at a New York Film Academy camp, when I was around fourteen years old. After we showed our films – mine was not great, but you have to start somewhere – I went straight up to Matt and blurted out, “I want to be friends and we should work together.”

The two actors I had for this short, Rylan and Hannah, I’d also known for a while, and they had also been a part of most of my incomplete projects. Rylan was actually the first person I ever had to lookhad look at my writing. I’m proud to say he played the final person to be killed by Jon Bernthal’s Punisher in the titular Netflix show. Rylan went to the same acting conservatory I’d studied at with Hannah, but at a different time. I knew him from when I always used to ride my bike into Red Bank, NJ, and hang out at Kevin Smith’s comic shop The Secret Stash, where I spent most of my time between the ages of 12 and 16. He worked in the Starbucks across the street, so over the years I always talked to him. We eventually started hanging out and became great friends.

I met Hannah at the acting school I went to, where I learned a bit about the Meisner method of acting. She’d been going there for years and continued to go for a while after I left. Sure, I learned some stuff about acting that definitely made me better, but she really knew how to turn theory into practice — Hannah is one of the best actors I’ve seen. The fact that I wasn’t one of the most successful pupils of the school actually made the experience much more enjoyable. I got to hang with actors my age who were on sitcoms, had small roles in notable films, and were actively preparingprepping to audition for Netflix shows. I learned that they were regular people just like me, and I (like to) think some of their talent may have rubbed off on me.

The last piece of the puzzle for the short film’s talented ensemble was Nolan, a director of photography whose contact I’d been given by someone in recovery. She said she knew someone who was a DP; little did I know that exchanging of numbers would result in me finding a new creative partner, one who I’d work with closely in the following months honing in on the look of the short. Nolan also brought along a friend of his, Nico, who assisted with lighting and also kept my bulldog calm for a while (she kept laying on the light because she thought it was a fire, and she was always barking during takes). A special round for Nico.

One last note. Between Nolan’s fee and the cost of renting a Blackmagic camera from the city on ShareGrid – don’t sleep on the look of the film – I had about $730 to cover, and that’s before buying food for everybody, something that in hindsight you should definitely factor into the savings. God, was I lucky that Matt had his own sound equipment. How did I cover this? Long story short, dog sitting. My parents had some friends that were going away for a week and needed someone to watch their dogs from Christmas through New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know how much I was getting paid, and I didn’t want to ask, but I knew I couldn’t make this film happen drawing on existing funds. It ended up covering $600 out of the $750.

I go through this lengthy prologue and outlining of context – bear with me – to show that putting together a short is by no means a formal, refined process, at least when you’re starting out. You try to cut the corners that can reasonably be cut, draw on people you know, and save up some cash where you can. In the beginning, that’s how producing something is. You’re not getting any blank checks from Paramount, there aren’t any due dates for drafts, it’s all up to you. Doesn’t matter whether you wrote it or not, when you’re taking ownership of a project, that’s what it entails.

Why the hell was I even trying then? I write, I like it, I’m sort of good at it, shouldn’t I stay in my lane? Matt was probably more of the director on all the other projects, even if I didn’t admit it at the time. But Matt told me that I’d need to get around to it eventually, because he knew that deep inside I wanted to be able to direct my own work. I guess he saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. I reasoned with him that this was the first thing we were really putting some money into, and the rest of the team were pros, I didn’t want to be the one to fuck it up. He should do it instead. But I couldn’t deter him, so I figured I would just do it.

Being both the writer and director, I sort of went in with the notion that the short film would come out the best if I made sure every line was said exactly as it was written. I was so wrong, and I am so grateful I didn’t stick to my guns on keeping every word the same.

I learned that actors perform the best when they say the lines in the way that feels most comfortable for them, being open to their input. More often than not that means slightly tweaking some of the phrasing and even improvising at some moments. Those gave way to some of the best takes we got. To let the actors do their work and facilitate their performance rather than block it up, I had to do two things that were hard for me: exercise trust and let go of control, control that manifested in wanting to keep the writing the same. It brings me back to those old projects where I’d give notes because I felt like I needed to. Worst case I ended up being a bit hands off, and I’m sure my self-doubt came more to the surface than I would have liked at points, but I’d take that any day over the possibility of stifling the actors’ abilities to mess around and try things out. In the beginning of the first day, I was still a little rigid, inquiring distrustfully about why Rylan or Hannah wanted to rephrase a line. I had this instinct deep inside — one I still can’t explain — that if I let a word of the writing change things would fall about.

To change such a long-held, rigid belief was equal parts jarring and freeing.

It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with my writing, that’s not what it’s about. The thing that needs to be acknowledged — that I forgot — is that your script is a blueprint. I’m not trying to paint in broad strokes, it probably wouldn’t be good idea to have your script drastically reworded on the fly, but if the changing out of a verb, the tweaking of intonation, or — most often — cutting out a few words is what helps an actor feel more comfortable, it’s usually the right call to let that change occur.

Hopefully this piece helps writers, creators, anyone wishing to direct when it’s not their strong suit. I also have the instinct that a lot of you writing these films or shorts often take on the producing and or directing roles, so I’m hoping that my touching on how I came to know these people — and get the dough to make the damn thing — was of some use. I want to repeat again that starting out, it’s not the most calculated process. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you acknowledge neutrally what you do and don’t know. Also, take input from the people who do know what they’re doing, whether it’s the actors or your friends behind the camera. The title of “Director” ultimately doesn’t matter as much as knowing that all of this is a team sport. Lean on your collaborators, be nice to them, make them feel seen, and make them feel heard. The film world — and, just, the world — already has enough a–holes.