Black Creek originated as a writing exercise during quarantine. Now, it’s an independent TV pilot with network actors, Sundance Fellows, and a cutting-edge health and safety solutions company attached. Michael Goitanich and Connor Pannell, the Canadian/American co-production duo behind Black Creek, discuss what they learned throughout virtual development, pre-production, and their plans for on-set protocol in August.
Michael - At the beginning of the pandemic, like most of us, I was suddenly rich in the commodity of time. For some friends, this proved difficult. But writing is its own form of isolation, so this seemed to play into my hand. One morning, I jotted down some thoughts and posted them anonymously across my socials.
My friend Connor Pannell, who I’d met at Catalyst Stories in October of 2019, responded with a scene for a new concept he was developing. I immediately connected to the material and wrote a scene back. Five pages for a short film evolved into a fifteen-page minisodic TV pilot with a series treatment in the works. The lesson here is simple: Always be writing.
If you’re finding it hard to write screenplays right now, that’s okay. You can journal, send emails to friends and family, write poetry, monologues, or dabble in new forms like short stories or essays. You never know when something small might inspire something big. At the end of the day, writing is resistance training. Even on the off days, you’ve got to find a way to sit down and get to work. So just keep writing, in whatever way makes sense for you today.
Inspiration for Black Creek: The poem Michael posted across social media in early March.
Connor - Despite Michael being based in Toronto, Canada and myself being based in Atlanta, Georgia, our North-South collaboration flowed naturally. Living in the digital age gave us plenty of methods to communicate - phone, Zoom, and let’s be honest… memes. Living in the same time zone was a plus as well. Oftentimes we would find ourselves on a morning/afternoon call and text ideas throughout the day. The conversation was always open.
Once the script was finished, I began sharing it around my inner-circle to find crew. I’ve been lucky to have gone to school with incredibly talented people and have been mentored by some of the best as well. When it came time to find a great composer, cinematographer, editor, etc., I asked myself: Who is wiser than me? Who do I trust? Who do I know that will connect with this material? The answers to those questions told me exactly who to call.
Working with people who not only empower the story but believe in the creators is key. I called on an old mentor of mine, Brain Redding, to take up the mantle of cinematography. I reached out to Jesi Nelson, a wildly talented composer, and Sundance Fellow that I met in an airstrike shelter in Israel, to work on our score. My college friend and go-to editor Vivian Zingleman immediately signed on. One thing became resoundingly clear. First, find like-minded people who connect to your story. Second, find a way to allow them to work safely. Despite the pandemic, filmmakers want to be creating right now. We just need to figure out a way to produce safely.
From left to right: Brett Pedersen, Connor Pannell, Michael Goitanich and Daniel Pfeffer at Catalyst Stories in Duluth, MN.
Michael - We didn’t do this intentionally, and I’m not sure if it would have worked if we had. But the first scene for Black Creek clearly took place amid a global pandemic. This made my job a lot easier, especially from a production standpoint. I’m not saying all current productions need to take place in post-pandemic dystopias, but I’d certainly recommend writing for the times. Plus, I think you’ll find that many of the themes at play in the current climate lend themselves to the types of stories that can be produced with minimal actors and limited locations.
Do you have a concept kicking around that takes place in one location with limited characters? Maybe it’s time to revisit that script. Do you have a friend with a farm that you can use as a hero location? Fantastic. Brainstorm ideas that would make sense within the current climate and write to those concepts. If you’re looking to film a chase scene through a bustling city center or a sex party in Ibiza, you might be in a pickle when it’s time to jump into production.
Location scout for Black Creek in Athens, GA
Our group is an incredibly well-curated bunch both in front of and behind the camera. We scoured our respective networks and utilized online casting resources to find the right fit. Together, Mike and I went through hundreds of auditions and profiles to find the right people for the right roles. We hired most of our cast and crew from Georgia as a great deal of unsung talent resides in the lush state. We wanted to put them in the spotlight they had earned.
As a Georgia-based production hiring a majority of Georgia-based talent, getting the community involved means you will have champions in your court when the production begins. It also amplified the authenticity of the story itself. Locals know the soul of the land better than anyone. And from a health and safety standpoint, hiring local talent is a win-win.
Stand-in for ‘Lucy’, Black Creek principal, on location in Athens, GA
Michael - Filmmakers: If you haven’t figured it out yet, Zoom is your new best friend. So is Google Drive, FaceTime, Backstage, Stage 32, the list goes on. Early in the casting process, we were jumping onto phone calls with potential actors. When we finally bit the bullet and began using Zoom, we had an Amazing Grace moment, and we haven’t turned back.
I’ve learned that every aspect of pre-production, from budgeting and scheduling to table reads, safety meetings, auditions and rehearsals, can be done with the use of these technologies. In many cases, it’s actually more efficient than in person. You cut through the noise and immediately get to work. Everyone is focused. Everything is streamlined.
One of the silver linings of this pandemic is it’s forcing people to connect from around the world, to find simple solutions to complex problems. Historic moments like this create inflection points, which allow us to reflect on our needs, our values and our processes. I think we’re reaching that inflection point with production. Just because I’m in Toronto doesn’t mean I can’t produce a pilot in Georgia. Just because you want to work in the entertainment industry doesn’t mean you need to live in LA.
Black Creek table read held via Zoom
Connor - Studio Health & Safety Solutions was founded in response to the industry freeze created by COVID-19. There was so much loss in the film industry that happened before my eyes. Companies were hemorrhaging, and so was I. I was uniquely positioned to make a difference given the professional contacts I had in the world of infectious diseases.
My goal was to create the gold standard for the health risk mitigation of COVID-19 for film productions that was backed by authentic science, not fear. The experts we reached out to had outbreak response experience from the 2001 Anthrax Attacks, HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, West Nile, Influenza, Zika, and even Ebola, so I knew they were the right people to call. Together, we were able to design custom solutions for any project that didn't compromise on science or hinder workflow in an industry where every second is money spent.
The result was an innovative business that will make a return to normalcy on the set of Black Creek (and major productions at large) a safe possibility. As of now, all solutions are intended to keep workflow efficient, eliminate unnecessary expenses, and keep personnel safe. Will the set look slightly different? Sure. Will we be able to tell stories again? Absolutely.
Safety Briefing for Black Creek from Studio Health and Safety Solutions
Michael - About halfway through pre-production, which began in late March, it became increasingly clear that our little production had evolved into something bigger. We had laid initial tracks for a production framework with a skeleton crew, local talent, and a minimal post workflow. That quickly evolved into one key actor flying in from Los Angeles, which led to flights, lodging, and a more robust flight and safety protocol. This reinforced the need to scale up production. As the scale of the project grew, so did our budget. We decided it was time to raise some funds.
Having never crowdfunded, I was reticent to lean on my network, especially in such uncertain economic times. But after launching our campaign, we were amazed by the positive feedback we received. Not only were people contributing, but they were also actively sharing our campaign. It’s easy to assume that people will refrain from giving in times like these. When in reality, we’ve experienced the opposite. People need community now more than ever. With news feeds and TVs inundated with stories of fear and division, we could all use some more good news stories. We all want to be a part of something that we believe in. And right now, good will is a currency in high demand and short supply. We took a leap of faith, and our network delivered. Don’t be afraid to lean on your network. You might be surprised by how willing they are to back you up.
There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the freeze in the industry and “the changes” to come. But as independent creators, we understand that tight schedules and small budgets often give birth to the best stories. Restraint leads to creativity. And for independent filmmakers, the inevitable scaling down of productions will play to our strengths. The emerging landscape will favor the multihyphenates. The actors who do their own makeup. The cinematographers who light their own setups. Instead of stressing about the “end of the industry” as we know it, let’s view this as an opportunity to make films the way we know how. Because sometimes, the problem is really just the solution in disguise.
Michael Goitanich is an award-winning writer, producer, and graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Screenwriting and Creative Producing. Originally from Toronto, Canada – Michael's official foray into the industry came when he was hired as a story editor at MUSE Ent. He then gained invaluable on-set experience assistant-directing the Canadian indie, THE HEXECUTIONERS.
During his MFA, Michael worked as a development intern at Stick Figure Studios in New York, and the Montecito Picture Co. in LA. Michael lead-produced the indie feature THE LAST between jobs during his second year at Columbia. THE LAST stars Tony Award-winning actor Reed Birney and received theatrical distribution across North America with Glass Half Full Media and worldwide through Amazon Prime.
Michael's first project out of the gate at Columbia was CHOSEN, an independent TV pilot for a supernatural drama series that Michael wrote and produced. Chosen premiered at the Catalyst Stories Content Festival in Duluth MN where it was awarded Best Dramatic Actress and Best Cinematography and went on to screen as a finalist at Austin Film Festival and SeriesFest, where it received an honorable mention for Best Drama Actress.
Michael is a member in good standing of the Producers Guild of America and an active community- facing volunteer with a specific focus on self-improvement, psychedelic psychotherapy and mental health. To learn more about Black Creek click here.
Connor Pannell is an American filmmaker and entrepreneur. During his childhood, Pannell frequently moved between Georgia and California, until his family made a final move to settle in Athens, GA in 2002. In Athens, Pannell attended Athens Academy and North Oconee High school. Connor was admitted to The University of Georgia and graduated with a degree in Entertainment Media Studies in 2016.
While Pannell was officially trained in filmmaking at UGA, his education in film came long before. A voracious child with a love of video games and movies, Pannell’s fascination with grounded science fiction, thrillers, and fantasy came at a young age. Pannell began writing and directing films in middle school; a passion that would inform his education and future career. He set foot on his first real set in the 7th grade as a production assistant.
Pannell attended the 2014 Cannes film festival during a study abroad through The University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism. He would go on to produce and direct short films and TV pilots from Athens to Israel, form his own production company, Midnight Rooster, as well as his own camera equipment company, New East Rental, in addition to Studio Health & Safety Solutions. With deep roots in Georgia, Connor’s stories often play on the juxtaposition of the down-home aspects of the South and the emerging technologies and anxieties of the future
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