"My Adopted Little Baby From China"

This is part of Ryan’s series of posts telling the story of how the film came to be. If you missed them, you can still go back and read the earlier posts in the series.

Having received and reviewed all the audition videos and reels from actors in round one of casting, I made a series of not-so-tough decisions about whom to invite to callbacks. As I’ve mentioned before, this part of the process is probably harder with a budget, but in the absence of money far fewer actors submit themselves for parts, so most of the roles only had a few quality actors to consider. These all got invited to callbacks, which I now had to schedule. Hampered once again by my unwillingness to part unnecessarily with any of the movie’s extremely sparse budget, I at first tried calling Chicago-area colleges and universities on the advice of my friend Shawn Victa, who used to produce a lot of TV series and commercials but now works in the orthopedic industry, and who guided me through most of the pre-production process.

Having struck out at all the local schools, which either had no space available in the near future or reserved the use of their open rooms for students only, I eventually stumbled upon Gorilla Tango Theatre, a small, scrappy, independent theatre focused on helping even smaller playwrights and companies mount their still tinier (but much scrappier) productions.[1] The theatre rents out rehearsal rooms for, if I remember correctly, $12 per two hours, and they don’t care what you do with those rooms as long it doesn’t involve drums or amplified sound. I booked a six-hour block one Saturday and planned to drive up with Sally early in the morning, heading back to Warsaw in the evening so as to avoid paying for a hotel. I also asked my friend Jon Wilson, a seasoned actor from the Chicago theatre scene, to join us and give me the benefit of his experience on both sides of the casting table.

Meanwhile, Joyce had struck out in all her attempts to entice older Asian talent into auditioning for the part of Maria. In one of my frequent meetings with Shawn, while going over all the outstanding tasks remaining in pre-production and prioritizing the most immediate, I mentioned the dilemma I faced in trying to cast Joyce, and he said, “It’d be great if you could get Ivy.”

Ivy was the wife of Greg Francis, Shawn’s best friend and the only other member of my on-again, off-again writing “group”. The Francises lived in Los Angeles, where Greg was also in the process of putting together his own first film after over a decade of writing, producing, and directing TV content.[2] Ivy had never acted professionally, but Shawn had always praised her natural ability, and as Greg’s longtime producing partner, he would know better than most. Even if I could get Ivy to the other side of the country, though, persuading her to agree to the part would be much harder, as she rarely performs publicly in any way. On the other hand, the character of Maria, who manifests all her emotions through the screen of a deadpan snark, was partially inspired by Ivy’s interactions with her own children and husband—so the mere idea of being able to actually cast her seemed almost too thrilling. And, crucially, Ivy is Filipina, which means a person with a liberal imagination could engage in sufficient suspension of disbelief to accept that she might have given birth to someone who looks like Joyce[3].

Shawn and his wife, Laurie, decided that their contribution to the film’s budget (ignoring the copious amounts of time Shawn had already poured into baby-stepping me through pre-production) would be to fly Ivy out for the shoot, if she would agree to the role. Shawn even called Ivy for me, since he knew her better, and talked her into at least reading the script and thinking about accepting our offer.

I had some dialogue with Ivy over Facebook a day or so later, at about 1 a.m., which is when she tends to be awake and in a chatty mood. After I had steamrolled her objections about lack of experience, she eventually agreed to do the movie if I decided to cast Joyce—which at that point became almost a foregone conclusion. I sent her Joyce’s headshot, and she responded, in her usual tone: “My adopted little baby from… China?” I laughed this off, but it did make me nervous—and still does. While even large-scale Hollywood productions frequently cast East-Asian people in parts for which their ethnicity is incorrect, they don’t usually cast two of such disparate backgrounds as members of the same family. Even apart from the afore-mentioned question of suspension of disbelief, such a move might smack of “they all look the same, anyway”, which is not what you want anyone thinking about your production, or while watching your movie. After talking it over with Joyce and Ivy, though, neither seemed troubled by the issue, so I made my peace with it. (I really, really wanted to cast both of them.)

Callbacks went off quite well, but none of the other women auditioning for the part of Amy presented much of a challenge to Joyce, talented though they were. She had, by this time, spent so long dialoging with me about the character and incorporating that research into her rehearsal that she had a clear advantage over everyone else in the room. I asked her to come back later in the day and read with the men auditioning for the part of JJ, just to see which of them meshed better with her. By this time she had more or less guessed that I was going to cast her, so she didn’t balk at the additional time commitment. At the end of the day I was able to tell her the part was hers, and I messaged Ivy to give her the news shortly thereafter. Satisfied that I had at least two important roles filled, I drove back home with Sally and Jon to watch callback footage and choose the rest of the cast.

Next time: rounding out the cast and starting rehearsals.


  1. Gorilla Tango’s most frequent productions are from a series of comedic burlesque/striptease adaptations of pop-culture properties that nearly always include the word “BOOBS” in the title. Current examples as of this writing: BOOBS and GOOMBAS: A Super Mario Burlesque, TEMPLE OF BOOBS: An Indiana Jones Burlesque, and A Nude Hope: A Star Wars Burlesque. No one said indepedent production was pretty.  ↩

  2. Poker Night, which had a much bigger budget, much more high-profile cast, much longer shoot, and most importantly, a much more talented director at the helm than this movie, is currently in post-production and will hopefully be finding its way into theatres in late 2013 or early 2014.  ↩

  3. (More or less)  ↩

Finding Amy

This is the fourth part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Getting my Documentation in Order

As soon as I had locked the location, I started casting. By this time, I only had a few months left in which to do pre-production, and finding good actors, more than any other project, made me incredibly nervous. Shooting a no-budget movie in the middle of Northern Indiana doesn’t give you access to the biggest talent pool in the world. I had already planned to search nearby Ft. Wayne and South Bend for actors, and the more I thought about the number of important roles I had to fill, the more I suspected I would eventually have to look as far afield as Chicago.

While attending the River Bend Film Festival I had met a young actor and producer named Stephen Bailey, who proposed taking on some of the pre-production responsibilities for the film. Although we didn’t end up working together for very long because Stephen accelerated his plans to move to Los Angeles, he helped me get the casting process started and suggested using Actors Access to solicit reels and organize casting calls. Actors Access offers producers the ability to accept auditions via video submitted by the actors. Since driving to Chicago costs time and money—both of which I had in only very limited supply—knocking out one round of auditions without ever leaving town sounded like a great idea. First, though, I had to write some sides.

“Sides” is what Merlin Mann refers to as “a term of art”. Sides are short scenes given to actors—either in advance or at the start of the audition—to read for the producer, director, and casting director, often with another actor, but usually alone, while one of the production team reads the other parts in the scene. Some independent productions just steal scenes from the actual screenplay for the film to use for auditions, but John August recommends against this. As he points out, the regular scenes may not be particularly useful for the purpose of evaluating actors, and hearing the same lines read over and over increases the likelihood that you, the director, will eventually tire of hearing them and be incapable of imbuing them with any actual meaning.

Anyway, I spent one night at my boring third-shift job pounding out a few quick scenes that covered all the speaking roles in the movie. It was fun; writing scenes whose only purpose is to give actors something to read that resembles the characters in question—and therefore don’t have to contribute to moving the story forward or making it more coherent—relieves most of the pressure from the creative process.[1] I also had to provide Actors Access with a casting breakdown: a list of all the parts I was auditioning and some basic data about the requirements for those actors. If you’re curious about what a casting breakdown looks like, I’ve included a link below, along with a link to the sides (SPOILERS).

Casting Breakdown
Sides

Auditions: Round One

Once I uploaded these documents, I was ready to accept video auditions through Actors Access. I gave pretty specific instructions in my casting call: I asked the actors to read the sides for the part they wanted, using a friend or fellow actor to read the other part for that scene. Some people, as I suppose always happens, ignored this and read the lines on their own, just leaving small pauses where the other character’s lines should have been. Unsurprisingly, none of those people were any good[2], so I didn’t have to decide whether to reject them because of this technicality.

Submissions varied pretty widely. Most came through Actor’s Access, and many submitted not only their reading of the sides but links to their resumes and reels, so I had more material to use in evaluating their acting chops. I had also posted casting calls through Mandy, on the Indiana Film Commission Website, and at some local and regional theatres, so I got a few submissions through YouTube as well, and a few people even sent in DVDs and hard-copy headshots, including an actual high-school girl who was also a director of short films. One actress turned out to be from North Carolina, and expressed herself willing to bear the cost of driving to and from her hometown in order to play the part. She was good, too, and I might have considered her if someone else hadn’t pretty much blown me away.

Before I get to that, though, a word about Casting360, for anyone who might find themselves casting a film soon.

Casting360 claims to provide a service to actors similar to that offered by Actors Access: the ability to view and respond to casting calls and upload headshots, resumes, reels, and video auditions. You’ll notice I don’t link to them, though, and that’s because they scam actors by accepting their credit card information as payment for submitting to casting calls, then add spurious charges to those credit cards which they will consistently refuse to remove, forcing their victims to register complaints with their credit card companies. They prey on the desperation of inexperienced actors, and they list auditions by scraping genuine sites, such the ones I mentioned above. When I spontaneously began receiving emails through their service, I at first watched some of the auditions, but I quickly grew curious about how they had even found me. A little Googling confirmed that Casting360 should be avoided by anyone hoping to run an ethical production, so I requested that they remove my casting call from their site. This was eventually done (I think), but I feel bad for all those actors, who could have paid Actors Access’s very reasonable $2.00 fee to submit their audition through a legitimate and helpful service.

Anyway, many of the auditions I used were pretty terrible, but a few stood out, and one audition in particular caught my attention: an actress by the name of Joyce Hshieh.

If you’ve heard anything about the movie or have read the rest of this site, you already know that I ended up casting Joyce in the lead role, but almost no one knows that she essentially had the part in my head from day one. More than anyone else who read for the part, she “got” the character almost immediately, partly, I’m guessing, because she was just a good fit for the role, but also because she asked questions about the part in advance.

Now, usually auditions don’t work like this (as far as I know) but Joyce emailed the single-purpose gmail address Stephen and I had set up to cast the movie, asking me to elucidate certain lines in the sides. I suppose if I had been casting a movie with an actual budget and thousands of actors clamoring to audition, I would have ignored this as an unnecessary drain on my time, but she was literally the only person who tried it, and it didn’t take long for me to write quick responses to her questions. Because of this, watching her audition was only a couple steps away from watching the character of Amy actually come to life. She went on the callback list immediately, along with most of the other actors who eventually made it into the movie. While a few other women who auditioned for the part of Amy also turned in good performances on their audition videos—and received an invitation to the callbacks, just in case—I had to constantly resist just handing the part to Joyce.

The one drawback about Joyce, of course, was that she was Taiwanese, and one of the other major characters in the story is her birth mother, so casting her meant I needed to find an Asian actress to play Maria. I felt comfortable enough with Joyce, after our exchange of emails, to tell her that I was considering her for the part, and that it would make it easier to cast her if she encouraged all the middle-aged Asian actresses she knew to audition for the part of Maria. She promised to do her best, but I was already worried that the talent pool was so small I wouldn’t be able to find a competent actress of any ethnicity for Maria; what were the odds that I could find one who would pass for Joyce’s mother?

Next: Callbacks, and how I found Joyce’s Filipina mom.


  1. If anyone finds out about a job that exclusively involves writing disparate scenes that never have to make sense together or in any other larger narrative, please let me know.  ↩

  2. It’s not a universal rule, but I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that if someone can’t be bothered to read and follow simple instructions, odds are high they’ll cause some other kind of trouble further down the line.  ↩

Single Location, Multiple Owners

This is the third part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Making Contact

So we rolled on back into Indiana with our cats and our stuff and set about reconstructing our life. It took a little time, but by November 2010 I was ready to start pre-production on the movie.

If you’ve been following along and know anything at all about making movies you’ll no doubt have realized that the lynchpin of beginning pre-production on my single-location movie was securing that single location. I hadn’t bothered doing anything about this yet because I didn’t think phone calls from the West Coast were the way to go; I was much more likely to get permission to shoot in Westminster Hall by talking face-to-face with the people in charge at Grace College.

I made some phone calls and determined that the person on whom I should begin working my magic was Paul Derenzo, Director of Special Events. He’s the one in charge of scheduling the use of Westminster Hall, and he has his office just off the lobby of the hall. As I mentioned, I wanted to talk to Paul in person rather than over the phone, and I’m the sort of person who will avoid picking up the phone even to schedule a meeting if I think I can just drop in on someone randomly and conduct the meeting on the spot. “Ambushing” is, I think, the technical term for this behavior.

I tried on several mornings to just saunter into Westminster and catch Paul—or Tina Keaffaber, his assistant—at their offices, but no luck. Their schedule was obviously incompatible with my impromptu-meeting idea, so I decided I would have to make that phone call I so didn’t want to make.

Picking up one of Paul’s business cards from the front desk, I dialed his number on the spot. No answer—unsurprising, since I was standing right there and could see that he wasn’t in. I left a message, including the reason for my call. Then I went home and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Things move at a slower pace in semi-rural Indiana than they do in LA, so I wasn’t surprised or alarmed when my call was not returned the next day, or even the one after that. In fact, I let a week go by before I thought I could call back without seeming pushy. I made the call, left another message, and waited again.

Then the holidays happened. After a certain point somewhere in December, you know you’re not going to be hearing back from anyone, so I let my brain run off to deal with other things for a few weeks while I shopped, decorated, reconnected with family, and ate too much food. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened to recall my brain from its holiday, so I continued to enjoy my own.

Come January, I made another call, which also received no response. By now I was getting very mildly panicky. Pre-production takes time, and I didn’t want to start any of the bigger tasks in that process until I was sure I had my location.

Fortunately for me, Westminster Hall isn’t the only building for which Paul Derenzo schedules the events. Way across campus from the Hall is Grace College’s new Orthopedic Capital Center, which holds their basketball court. The court converts into a large-ish (for Warsaw) convention space, and in late January 2011 it hosted the first ever Warsaw Premier Bridal Expo.

I happened to be acquainted with one of the exhibitors, so I attended this event.

As the Expo was winding down I saw Paul Derenzo darting about with an underling, accomplishing some post-event chores. I seized my moment to talk to him, and very quickly explained what I was trying to do. Anticlimactically, he told me he’d have to talk to some of the Grace higher-ups and call me back.

And he did.

The Pitch

Apparently Paul is the sort of person who is really difficult to make contact with but very responsive once contact is established. He called me back in fairly short order and asked me to come down to his office to chat about the movie.

I showed up a few minutes early to the meeting, and Paul was running late, as I was informed by Tina Keaffaber. While I was waiting I told Tina what I was up to, and she got very excited. She had previously worked at a different event center that put on stage productions, and she had a filmmaker friend based in Los Angeles. Tina is obviously the sort of person who gets a big kick out of complex productions and watching disparate elements come together for a single event, which is probably why they put her in charge of scheduling all the wedding events for Westminster. We chatted for some time about the movie before Paul arrived and invited me into his office.

Unlike Tina, Paul was a stranger to moviemaking, so most of our conversation revolved around explaining how a film crew works and the needs of production. For example, it might seem obvious to someone who’s used to working on sets, but regular folks are often unaware that a crew includes more than just someone with a camcorder.

With that conversation out of the way, we moved on to costs. This was the part that made me nervous. I had a strong feeling that Westminster Hall was way outside my price range (next to nothing), and this proved correct. The building usually rents for several hundred dollars a day, which I definitely couldn’t afford. Moreover, I was asking for something unprecedented; usually the college just rents out the main floor, which includes two banquent halls, the main lobby, the courtyard outside, and sometimes a few rooms that still function as a conventional hotel. I wanted access to all those spaces, plus the upper floors the college uses as dorm space, the kitchen, the office area, part of the basement, and the attic.

I had explained before, and repeated now, that the production was very small in scope and that we were trying to keep the budget under a few thousand dollars, most of which I was planning to spend on food and housing the actors (who would have to be brought in from Chicago). Then I did the thing I’ve always heard you should do in these situations, which is shut your mouth and wait.

And Paul said he’d have to think about it.

He said he call me, we shook hands, and I went home to wait for his call. It came a few days later, and while he didn’t give me any actual numbers, the response was generally favorable. He asked me for specific dates and an estimate of the number of people who would be in the building, which I supplied. Then it was time to wait again.

Unanimity

I found out later that sometime during this interval Tina Keaffaber went to bat for the movie and persuaded Paul to let us shoot at Westminster even though he was skeptical about the prospect. She told me part of her pitch was that using the building for production might become a trend and a future source of revenue. Whether potential revenue played a big part, or whether he just wanted to be able to cut me a break because I was an alumnus, Paul eventually told me that he was open to having us shoot at Westminster but would need me to meet with him and two other Grace College staff to allay some of their concerns.

Those two staff were Mike Yocum, head of the drama department, and Steve Grill, who runs The Reneker Museum of Winona History. The Reneker Museum has its space just off the main lobby of Westminster Hall, which explains Steve Grill’s involvement, and I could only assume that Mike Yocum would just have some general questions as someone familiar with stagecraft.

As it turned out, both had previously been involved with movie production and knew about the kind of physical toll it usually takes on a space. For those who haven’t spent significant time on a set, I can tell you that heavy gear, dirty cables, hot lights, hurried art departments, and careless grips conspire to do damage to just about any location. Since Grace College had spent over $4 million renovating the historic Westminster Hotel, they were naturally concerned about the liability of inviting that sort of chaos.

I wasn’t nearly as concerned, for two reasons. Firstly, my crew were all going to be relative novices to film production—people with some experience in their respective disciplines who had nonetheless infrequently or never used their skills to make movies. Not having become jaded about such things, they were therefore much less likely to treat the building with contempt. Secondly, since we were shooting with modern dSLRs, which require much less light than conventional film cameras, we would not be bringing in nearly the volume or magnitude of equipment that Mike Yocum and Steve Grill were picturing. Our gear would be much more manageable.

I communicated this to the group, which seemed to assuage some of their fears, but I ultimately had to offer to take out an insurance policy in order to truly make them feel comfortable. Having heard over and over by this point how much money Grace College had invested in the building, this only seemed prudent to protect myself as well as the Hall.

I had two other entities to persuade before we would finally be cleared to shoot: Student Affairs and The Physical Plant (what Grace College calls their maintenance department). Paul Derenzo is only responsible for scheduling the public areas of Westminster, but I wanted to disrupt the dorm space, basement and attic, so I had to ask permission from the people responsible for those areas. Fortunately, they were all pretty indifferent once they heard that the Special Events team was on board.

And that just left the question of cost. Paul had spent several weeks by this time trying to decide how much to charge us for a whole week’s (really nine days’) use of the building, and not long after I had finished convincing everyone that we wouldn’t burn the place down if we shot there, he arrived at a figure: $600. Considering the usual cost of renting Westminster Hall, this was quite low and reasonable. With the $660 quote I had already gotten from a Chicago-based insurance company, this made the location our biggest single cost, but not out of reach.

I wrote two checks, and now we were in pre-production.

Heading East

This is the second part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Practical Education

When we last left our intrepid hero (me), I was on my way to Los Angeles, having abandoned my plans to produce a movie in my college town of Winona Lake. You may remember me mentioning a stack of index cards with all my ideas for the script, possibly the world’s worst cliffhanger image.

I’ll skip pretty lightly over the two years my wife and I spent in LA. Here are the two things you need to know:

  1. The number of feature movie scripts I’d written increased to nine. Looking back over the progress I made as a writer during those two years, it turned out to be a very good thing that I didn’t write Murder! A Love Story in 2008. When I finally did write it (more on that later), it was much better than it would have been two years earlier.
  2. All the money I made in LA came from working in production, mostly as a Production Assistant, although I also worked quite a few gigs for an Art Director and three or four as an editor. The vast majority of my jobs were for non-union companies, where they let the PAs join in the work of any department that happens to need help at the moment, so I picked up experience in nearly every aspect of production.

As Sally neared her last few quarters of fashion school, we started to talk about the transition back to Indiana. We had always intended to return home once she was done with her education, and the plan hadn’t changed.

Since we would be moving back in the fall of 2010, the summer of 2011 seemed like a great time to shoot a movie. If you remember, I needed production to happen in the summer because at any other time, the building I wanted to use would be full of college students. Also, warm weather is easier to shoot in, and summer is a time when you’re more likely to persuade people to take a week off to act in and crew your production.

But before you can do any of those things, you need a script.

Picking a Genre

Remember that stack of index cards? In November of 2009, almost a year in advance of our return to Winona Lake, I dug them out of their box.

Now, just because I’d been writing other things and working on other shows this whole time doesn’t mean I hadn’t spent any time thinking about this script. I’d been bouncing ideas around in my head for two years, trying to find the right way into the story. All I really had as my starting point was a location and a character. The story itself could be pretty flexible, as long as it all took place in a hotel and the main character was a high school girl who loved photography. I wanted it to be a mystery because the thriller genre is a good one for independent films, being easier to market overseas than comedies, which don’t translate well into foreign languages.

Unfortunately, one of the things I had learned in the last two years was that I very definitely write comedies, and pretty dialogue-heavy comedies at that.

In fact, the thing I write best is romantic comedy in which the humor is largely based on wordplay between intelligent characters with lots of spare time to stand around and impress each other with their wit. You can begin rolling your eyes whenever you like.

The more I thought about this, though, the more it made sense. Thrillers are pretty low on dialogue and heavy on action, but this actually makes them longer to shoot. Dialogue is the way to go if you want to shoot 12 pages a day, because once you get the scene lit you can let the actors crank through the lines over and over, just moving the camera every few takes to get a different angle. In this way you can shoot several pages in the space of just a couple hours.

Also, doing a light-hearted, dialogue- and character-driven mystery played not only to my strengths as a writer but to my tastes and references as a film lover. I grew up watching lots of ’30s and ’40s movies, and I still love movies like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, which rely heavily on dialogue to push the story forward.

All these words just foreshorten a process that took place in my brain over the course of several months. By the time I actually sat down to start writing the script, I’d already decided: I was writing a romantic-comedy/murder-mystery hybrid, heavy on the rom-com.

Writing

I’ll spare you several paragraphs of writing about writing and note just a few things that will be totally boring and irrelevant to non-writers. Feel free to skip to the next heading if you’re not interested.

Thing One: During the course of writing this movie, I switched from being the kind of screenwriter who uses lots of neatly-marked-up index cards to being the kind who scrawls illegibly in notebooks. I’d always had cheap spirals lying around and used them to do mind-mapping and general note-taking about my ideas, but while I was writing Murder! I also churned out pages and pages of plot points, dialogue scraps, character ideas and structure maps. I write multiple directions on each page to separate the various types of notes from each other. I also write upside-down on alternating pages to keep the spiral binding on the right side (I’m left-handed). You can see an example here, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Thing Two: I use a character worksheet to create personalities, histories and specific traits for the major characters in my scripts. This is the kind of thing that I shunned when I was a beginning screenwriter, thinking that such mechanics were artificial and unnecessary. Of course, the real reason I wanted to believe that was laziness. Who wants to actually do all this thinking and work before actually getting to the fun part: writing the script? Me, if I want my stories to be good, that’s who. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer who doesn’t use such a thing, think about it again.

Thing Three: After I had a first draft of this screenplay done I sent it off to a couple friends of mine for notes. Every writer should have note-givers in his or her life. Mine are David O’Donnell and Greg Francis. Also, my mother, who is by far my severest critic. They’ve suffered through quite a few of my scripts, and they always come up with something valuable to say about them, even when I secretly wish they wouldn’t because I want to be done with that particular project. And that’s the point of good note-givers: they push you to be better even when you’d be ready to let something be less than excellent.

Up Anchor

Anyway, the point is: I wrote the screenplay. It took a couple months (work was pretty sporadic at the time, so I had plenty of empty days) to knock out the first draft, and another few days to do rewrites once my trusted readers had given me their notes. I would ultimately do other small adjustments and polishes later, but two drafts got me to the point where I was sure that I had a movie on my hands and could start pre-production as soon as I returned to Indiana.

Which, a few months later, is what I did. Sally graduated cum laude from FIDM, and we packed up a truck to transport our now-larger quantity of personal possessions across the country. Then we saddled up with the cats (oh, yeah… we have two cats) and started the three-day drive to the Midwest.

Next Time: Securing the Location, and How Nothing is Ever as Easy as you Hope.

False Start

I’m deep into post-production now, and there’s not much to say about the progress of the movie, so instead I’m going to go back to the beginning and do a series of posts about how Murder! A Love Story came to be.

Some people would probably use lots of video to do this, and they would do interviews with their cast and crew, and it’d be flashy and bite-sized and easy to consume.

But that’s not how I operate. I like the words.

So this is not going to be a “Behind the Scenes” or “Making Of”; it’s going to be me telling you the story of this movie. With words. Some of these posts might get really long. There will be sections. With sub-heads. It probably won’t be for everyone, so if you’re not into this sort of thing, feel free to duck out now; I won’t judge.

Still here? Settle in.

Taking Charge of My Own Destiny

Back in 2008, I was getting tired of writing screenplays no one wanted to read. I had four under my belt, which I considered a pretty good number, but I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or getting produced. Since I lived in Northern Indiana and knew literally no one in Los Angeles, this should not have been very surprising, and it wasn’t, really. I knew the odds were long when I got into this business, but that didn’t make it any easier to keep sending my work out into the cosmos unacknowledged.

At this point I reminded myself that I only got into this screenwriting business so I could have good scripts to direct. In other words, Self, now that you’ve gotten pretty good at the writing, maybe it’s time to turn your attention back to what you really want to do.

I couldn’t help but agree with myself. If you’re a would-be screenwriter who has any interest at all in directing, writing something to direct on your own is a great way to take control of your career. The only gatekeeper is yourself, and you want you to succeed.

Now, the thing to do when you want to make your scrappy little ultra-indie movie with no budget is to figure out what you can get for free and build your story around that. And I had a fantastic free location already in mind.

Pre-Pre-Production

I live in a town called Winona Lake, home to a small Christian college called Grace, my alma mater. The college owns an old hotel called Westminster, which they use as a women’s dormitory. Consequently, it stands empty for much of the summer, and I figured persuading them to let me shoot there for free would be pretty easy.

I called up the office of the Vice President of Operations and ran the idea by his assistant (hereafter known as Assistant). If I’d had then even the tiny amount of small-town-producing savvy I have now, I would have just asked for a meeting with the VP and pitched the idea to him in person, but I at the time that sounded too formal and, quite frankly, terrifying. Instead, I got a promise that Assistant would talk to her boss and get back to me; I then didn’t hear from her for two weeks. That was OK, though, because I had to script the movie first. I got out my trusty spiral-bound notebook and went to work.

Having decided to do a single-location movie set entirely in a hotel, I thought it would be cool to do a contained murder-mystery. The movie-biz way to say this is: “It’s Murder on the Orient Express in a hotel!” I also had a character I’d been saving for this story: a high-school girl who solves mysteries using photography as her primary investigative tool. Putting these two ideas together would allow me to combine two powerfully non-commercial elements: mystery stories and female leads. I couldn’t resist.

I spent several hours over the next week making notes about the story, sitting across the room from my wife Sally while she taught herself patterndrafting in one of our empty bedrooms. I batted around different characters and plot points, and after a while I even got out the screenwriter’s favorite tool: index cards. I started writing down the different beats of the story on the cards, rearranging or discarding them as I changed the story.

By the time Assistant called me back, I had a glorious, disorganized mess of story ideas swimming around in my head. But that didn’t matter much, because something else had happened in the interim.

Leaving the Aquarium to Swim with the Big Sharks

Sally and I had talked off and on for some time about moving to Los Angeles so she could go to fashion school, a lifelong dream of hers. I wasn’t wild about the idea, as I had no interest in leaving our tiny little town where our families and all our friends lived. Sally, being the generous, supportive person that she is, decided that she could do without a formal education and teach herself how to design and make clothes.

We’d bought her a dress form and a number of supplies, and she was spending all her spare time wrestling with paper and scissors, trying to turn some of her sketches into real live garments. Unfortunately, just as I started to dive into pre-production, she realized she’d hit a wall.

We re-opened the question of moving to the West Coast, and this time we decided to do it.

She applied to The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and they accepted her for the Fall Term. My friend Greg, who at the time was Executive Producing for the production company that does all the Proactiv Skin Care Commercials, told me if we could make it out by August he would hire me as a production assistant on a three-day shoot he had scheduled.

I took a slightly sheepish phone call from Assistant which went something like: “Ohhh, thanks for looking into that. Yeah, um… I’m not doing it any more.” We found renters for our house so we wouldn’t have to sell it, packed up our most vital belongings and put the rest into storage, loaded up a trailer, said good-bye to all our friends and family, and headed for the horizon.

In one box, buried under empty spirals and printouts of some of my scripts, was the small stack of 3x5 cards with the beats of my murder mystery.

I wouldn’t touch them again for nearly two years.