My roommate and I decided to produce, direct, and film our first collaborative feature-length script this past winter after several delays and questions on whether the story would be received by Christian and secular audiences. We felt that the story was original and would stand the test of time, but how would it play in the Bible belt of the South and the cornfields of the Midwest?
The synopsis: Fallen From Grace is the story of a married immigrant's spiritual separation from his Christian beliefs as he navigates the sometimes turbulent terrain of married life, immigration, and life in the metro New York City area as he pursues the sometimes elusive American Dream. Along the way, he meets and interacts with an assortment of characters that tests his emotional and physical resolve as he works a variety of jobs to remain afloat while pursuing his creative dreams and American citizenship.
The script wasn't the problem, not even the scenes calling for tasteful semi-nudity. It was our process. We were first-time filmmakers who'd jumped headlong into producing an independent feature without having attended film school or with completed projects on our resume. We thought it enough that we had faith in God and each other to make the project successful. It didn't happen as we'd thought or planned.
One of the first tests was finding a reputable producer and talented volunteer technical/production crew and passionate, not necessarily religious actors. We were too trusting (re:naïve) when we met a well-meaning older director who took on the role of mentor. What he said at Starbucks made sense, but during the filming of two promotional trailer scenes my roommate and I felt sporadically overwhelmed by chaos on the set.
My friend donated his swanky high-rise apartment on the Upper West Side for two of the three scheduled scenes intended to garner additional producers, investors, and donations. My focus was split between the bedroom where we filmed a sensual massage scenario and what was going on just outside the room. I didn't want to be a mean or intolerant director. I'd had a few of those back in my early days as an actor, but a film set with multiple personalities isn't a place for a Southern schoolmarm. I should have asserted myself and taken control of my set as the director. I had no place being a people pleaser on that set. My roommate shouldn't have allowed others to touch and manipulate his camera. We were too concerned with being nice guys and not offending any of the volunteer crew and actors.
I don't want to seem ungrateful after the fact. This isn't about naming names or assigning blame. I wasn't scarred by anyone or anything during the filming, but we were left dazed and confused when the producer announced via e-mail that she was withdrawing from the project after our second day of shooting at yet another friend's apartment in Brooklyn. We were devastated, just devastated in that stereotypical southern way. I remember staring at the monitor when the e-mail arrived and calling my roommate to stand at my side as we mouthed the words together. What had we done to deserve this? Was God punishing us in some way for airing our dirty laundry? Was the devil to blame for the producer's unexpected withdrawal?
What I know now is that we should've waited until this summer or fall to begin filming after having raised money and perfected the semi-autobiographical script. It was interesting and odd auditioning actors who were to have played us on screen. Reliving our past setbacks, triumphs, and things we said required stiffening our upper and lower lips.
Writing a story based on real people and events that just happened to be you isn't easy. Self-doubt and judgment crept into each successive draft. We constantly revised potentially embarrassing scenes from real life to make them more digestible and realistic, even though some of things we endured were unbelievable.
My roommate felt that there were too many crew members, but my thoughts were that I'd rather have too many people committed to the project, than not enough. One of my biggest mistakes was wearing kid gloves when I should've bared my knuckles. Southern guy moves to the East Coast and tries his hand at directing a feature film. It's not crazy, but I will do things differently when we restart this project.
There are no classes or books that will help on a live set. There are no case studies or mock sessions that will come in handy. Anything and everything should've been committed to memory before the assistant director calls quiet on the set.
Now that we know, we'll move forward with our on-the-set training of defined professional and personal boundaries and lessons learned, and rise again from the ashes like the mythological Phoenix.