This is the second installment in a series about directing my first feature. I'm reporting as I go along. I’ll be tracking the whole journey from writing the script to raising the funds to crewing up, casting, shooting, editing, and distributing the finished film. You can read part one here.
Last summer, as the pandemic raged, I set out to write a movie.
I had one actor in mind, and this vague idea of the road. The American West. My friend Andy barreling up the highway to Montana.
Except I couldn't accept putting a male character at the center. Even a non-white male. I have proclaimed, repeatedly, on my website, and in 1,000 grant and lab and workshop and writing retreat applications, that my mission is to tell unexpected stories about complex female characters. And it is. It is my mission to tell stories about, not "strong women” necessarily, but funny, messy, smart, ambitious, interesting women.
So. What in the hell was this movie?
Seeking inspiration, I went on a short story bender, first scouring the volumes on my shelves, then The New Yorker archives, and then turning to the library, which was back up and running, albeit in a limited capacity. I couldn't go inside, but I could request books, and make an appointment to go pick them up, masking up and standing a careful six feet from the folding table set up outside the entrance, as a masked librarian or sometimes a security guard set down my selections for me.
I read Montana stories, by Richard Ford and Thomas McGuane and Maile Meloy. I studied Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, soaking in the Montana, and as I watched a Criterion interview with her, a lightbulb went on above my head.
"Travis, B.," one of three short stories by Meloy that Reichardt adapted for her film, is about a ranch hand who fixates on a newly-graduated lawyer, teaching a night class in his small town. In the story, the ranch hand is male, but Reichardt explains how she decided to experiment with making the character female. And how great. This lonely, gruff ranch hand, played by Lily Gladstone, falls for the young lawyer, played by Kristen Stewart. It works. It's all in the casting.
There was a story by Sam Shepard, from a collection I’d had for years, that suddenly resonated with me and the moment we were in. (The moment we’re still in.) A man returning to a roadside motel to find his wife has disappeared. I loved the urgency of the premise. The setting. The isolation. It was cinematic and suitable for a “COVID-friendly” shoot, if a smidge sexist. My lightbulb moment: here is this man at the center of the story, and then, a mysterious, dark-haired woman who emerges from the motel pool to speak to him.
Andy's not the jilted husband. Andy is the dark-haired woman, emerging from the pool. I dreamed up Kasey, my lead character, as a foil for him. A queer woman whose girlfriend has disappeared, leaving her stranded.
Electrified, I wrote the first draft of a short.
Yes, my goal for 2020 (slash Before the World Ends) had been to direct a feature. But at this point, I would settle for directing something.
My intention was to magnify what I was seeing in Los Angeles, the unsettling dystopia of the lockdown, and explore what the pandemic was doing to human relationships. I would set the movie not precisely now—now more than ever, there is no now—now is constantly shifting. We already inhabit that dystopian future. but a year or two in the future, in a not-quite-post-pandemic world that ran parallel to ours.
My partner, Ricky, and I encountered dystopia in spades as we road-tripped North up the 395 and found a vintage motel that was sitting empty, waiting for us. Ten minutes away was Mono Lake, a vast, otherworldly body of water that was much more interesting than a motel pool. The short was drifting off the tracks laid down by Shepard.
I revised and re-revised. I auditioned actors to play Kasey, via self-tape and Zoom. We set shoot dates for September of 2020, having been warned we'd better get it by mid-October, before winter hit the Eastern Sierras. I kept an eye on the COVID-safety protocols, which were daunting but workable, I figured.
I was getting positive feedback on the script. From Ricky and Andy. From other trusted friends. From Matt Misetich, co-founder of this site and Pied Piper of Screenwriters—leading us not to doom, but, with the Script Pipeline team, toward development deals—who came on as an executive producer to help develop the script.
Wildfire broke out in Mono County. Here I was, wallowing in dystopia, urging myself to imagine, what if things got worse instead of better? and, lo and behold, things kept getting worse.
Once again, I was in denial. I was desperate not to cancel the shoot. Every morning, I would get up and check the air quality index for our locations. Every morning I saw red.
On September 20, 2020, after reading a fresh draft, Matt emailed me:
If you’re going to make this into a short, why not just write 85 more pages and make it a micro-budget feature?
It’s one of those shorts where you’ll spend time getting great actors together, scouting a location, making all these arrangements, but then if you were able to stretch this into a meaty, compelling feature, all you have to do is expand the shooting schedule another week, and tada *makes magical motion*: an indie film.
He signed off jauntily, Or am I being production-naïve?
He was being naïve. But. You have to be naïve to make a movie, don’t you? (Yes. The answer is yes.) And do you say no to an executive producer who likes your script so much that he suggests you expand it? (No, you do not.)
Matt was telling me what I needed to hear.
I replied, I think you’re right. And, naïve x 1000, I told him, I'm determined to shoot this fall. Which—
Yeah. Reader, I do not work that quickly. I just don’t. I know that about myself.
But as fire licked the edges of Mono Lake, and the threat of winter loomed, I buckled down to write the feature.
*Feature photo by Nothing Ahead (Pexels)