This is one in a series of posts for HuffPost Culture's "The Sundance Diaries," a month-long multimedia diary kept by the international filmmakers whose 64 short films were selected for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Jan. 27, 2012
Most people get sensitive or pissy when they sense they're being used...but if you tell them it's for a film, they'll be real eager to "help out" / get raped of their resources. When Brie [Larson], Sarah [Ramos], and I asked a bunch of our friends and family to dress all in black for a teen's funeral we were creating, they were totally gung-ho to show up at the Seal Beach pier at 5am. And when we asked Brie's mom, who is a party planner, to design a funeral brochure for the funeral of the character that her youngest daughter was playing, she did it happily. And when we asked Sarah's family and extended family if we could use their homes for a weekend to shoot in, they were fine with it...well, we didn't really ask.
That's an important part of it too: don't ask if you don't have to. For instance, steal your 13 year-old sister's slutty clothes to use as costumes. Her distressed American flag bikini is funny, everyone will agree. I'm not saying you should blatantly take take take...but when these resources present themselves and you're trying to make a movie for free, DO IT!
We filled our cast with friends, family, and friends of friends and family. Miles Heizer, our story's hero and our real-life hero, had a couple friends he suggested that were spot-on fits and meant he was surrounded by familiar faces while shooting. Because we had never been in charge of anything before, we wanted to insure ourselves with as much ease and comfort possible. Working with people we're used to hanging out with or having Christmas dinner with made our set's atmosphere much more casual.
As we reminded people of their 5 am call time, we kept giggling in amazement, "We just came up with this idea, and now we can get people to do what we want? We can do that?! And people are gonna come? Are they actually going to come? Fuck, what if no one comes?!" I was worried the way I was worried about my 9th birthday party. Oh god, my 9th birthday...ice skating. My classmate's mom called a few nights beforehand to inform us that she too would be having an ice skating birthday party, on that same day, at that same time. She also extended an invitation and asked me to RSVP. People are psychotic.
But unlike my 9th birthday (thanks, Mom, for skating with me), everyone came!! Sure, there was some arm twisting and bribery in the form of breakfast burritos...but we got a cast and crew together and successfully shot our entire film in two and a half days. Which is also key: don't make people commit to long periods of time. Trick them into thinking it's not going to take anytime at all, and then make sure it actually takes very little time.
We wanted to cast people who would immediately make the audience recognize the character; we needed to fulfill stereotypes. Part of the process of directing as a threesome meant we needed to be entirely on the same page. We fleshed out how we felt about each character, who they reminded us of, who would play them in their bio-pic...and then tried to fill spots with our friends and family. In a few cases we were writing the characters with the friend in mind.
When it came to the mother character, we joked about the moms at my high school. I went to a very progressive and nurturing private school in Santa Monica where fake tits, Berkin bags, and BMWs crowd PTA functions. The mix between "finding yourself" and "get rich quick" is intoxicating. But casting a woman nothing like them was key in getting the right performance. Jessica Hecht, a very strong actress and mother to two sweet kids I baby-sit, was pleased to be asked to do it. And I was a bit surprised..but thrilled and very thankful.
Then the dynamic and negative elements of casting friends started to show themselves. People felt so casual about the whole thing that they didn't feel too bad dropping out a few days before we were set on shooting. I'm talking about one person in particular. Her role was pretty much to look cute and young and make-out with a stranger for an hour or so. Those were the requirements. And we were running out of friends. I was frantically asking everyone and leaving the bit out about the kissing. "She's a sassy, young, popular girl. The boys love her" Did I want to flatter them? It wasn't working. No one was free. I called my friend's younger brother in a panic and said, "Joe, I need your help. I'm shooting a short film in a couple days and I need a young girl who is obviously hot. I need a sexy baby." He sent me a bunch of numbers and I felt sick.
With the film cast, we realized we were going to need the actual equipment and brains to MAKE this thing. We started calling everyone we knew, searching for a Director of Photography and a Sound Engineer. Sarah coincidentally met Blake McClure at a party a week before we were planning on filming, and he said he'd be willing to be our DP and he had his own Canon 5D that we could shoot it on. We rented a few lenses and illegally borrowed sound equipment from a family member who works in film production for a popular chain restaurant (they make instructional videos for their staff so that the business's kagillion locations have a uniform taste and atmosphere).
But it's not over! I've realized that even people I don't know want to be my friend via the internet. That's cool? Maybe not safe..but I can use it to my advantage: INTERNET FRIENDS EVERYWHERE! The Arm is in this yahoo competition for $5000 and needs your votes! We made The Arm on $800. With this prize money we could make The Arm x 6.25!! PLUS, you're my friend and I need your help. IT'S FOR MY FILM!
Vote away! Voting closes tonight.
WATCH a preview for Ennis' "The Arm," a short about love and texting, at prescreen.com.