Today I welcome screenwriter, director and friend Erik Linthorst to the Stage 32 Blog to share his personal experience making his short film Turkey, which is being screened at the Sunscreen Film Festival West this weekend in Hermosa Beach, CA. Erik has written scripts for Radar Pictures, Parallel Media, Anchor Bay Films, Zidefilm and others, but Turkey was his first self-produced project.
In this 2-part entry, Erik recounts his experience writing and filming his low-budget short film, including hosting a full film crew in his home for 4 days with no permits in a neighborhood full of houses under construction. What could possibly go wrong, right?
I thank Erik for his contribution to the Stage 32 Blog.
PS - We will be running Part II of Erik's blog later this afternoon.
Trying to stay competitive as ‘just a screenwriter’ in a world of multi- hyphenate writer-director-producers or the trans-hyphen ‘content creators’ is kind of like an old school boxer competing against today’s mixed martial artists: Even if the boxer is a straight-up brawler he’s still going to have a tough time in the ring.
But over a decade ago, when I was starting out, being a spec screenwriter with a knack for concept-driven comedies was a viable thing. I sold my first script, landed an agent, got meetings, sold another, landed a multi- step writing assignment, premiered my first film at Sundance, and felt like I was on my way. I’ve had some good years, some lean years, some non- years, and although it has never been easy, I’ve been able to piece it together.
But times have changed. Now, instead of selling, my scripts get “set up”, which is another way of saying optioned...for free. My last few development deals have all been “on spec” with companies that used to pay. I’m writing at the top of my game, I’ve never had more fans in the business, and I’ve never had such a tough time getting paid. So I decided I must change with the changing times.
Making a short film that I would write, direct and produce felt like the right move. It was a way to stretch myself and re-brand as a multi-hyphenate. But I needed to learn how. I decided to look for a director’s program, with an eye for making a substantial short film. This, I hoped, would be a stepping stone to directing a feature.
Erik directing on the set of his short film Turkey
I looked at many film schools, local workshops and intensives, and tried to make them work logistically and financially. But I’m not a bachelor anymore. I have a family. I can’t do a full-time program, I can’t be away nights and weekends and I’m limited by my location. In the end, I decided to create my own director’s curriculum from books, DVDs and online resources.
As a natural self-learner, this turned out to be perfect for me. After my son and wife went to bed most nights I’d study for a few hours. I read books and watched DVDs like Pier Holmes’ Masterclass in High End Blocking and Staging, the eight-hour Sanford Meisner’s NYU class, Nina Koch’s USC course, and many more. I watched movies with the director’s commentary and I watched a ton of short films. Pretty soon, I was debating my filmmaker friends about the merits of shooting a scene using a ‘oner’ vs standard coverage, and talking with DPs about aspect ratios, LUTs and their preference for using practicals. I was starting to feel ready. As an experienced screenwriter, I knew how to tell a story, but now I was beginning to understand how to collaborate with other artists to tell it visually.
It was time to start thinking about what short film to shoot. I picked the brains of several filmmaker friends and development executives, and here’s a breakdown of the advice I got:
All of this is great advice. Really great, in fact. But it made me over-think the whole enterprise. I spent months going around and around in my head about which scenes from my various specs would work as a stand-alone short film. I wanted to have a full meal as a director. I wanted to create a full experience for an audience. I wanted three acts, interwoven storylines and arcs. So as much as the advice above is rock solid in every way -- and I advise you to take it -- I decided to kick most of it to the curb.
My short, I decided, didn’t need to be a wildly original tour de force, six-minute microcosm of a high concept feature starring a name actor. If I held myself to that standard, I’d still be spinning my wheels. So instead I told myself to shoot from the hip and just write something, anything, without over-thinking it, and let the chips fall where they may.
I started with what I had: my house. I liked the idea of shooting in my house because I could spend months in the space planning in advance. So I asked my wife if she’d be up for a trip back east with my son for a week to visit college friends so I could turn our abode into a film set. Then I ducked. But to her credit, she didn’t bat an eye.
I wanted the film to be about a dysfunctional family, so I thought it should be set during a holiday, as that’s when families gather, and all the crazy comes out. I decided Christmas required too many decorations, but Thanksgiving...not that many decorations! Plus, it’s rife with family dysfunction. It has a gratitude theme built in, and something about it – the cranberry sauce, the Pilgrims, the turkey itself – is funny to me. I told my director friend I was going to do a Thanksgiving short in my house and he stopped me mid-sentence, “-- Don’t. You don’t want a movie crew in your home, and anyway, the hardest thing to shoot is people sitting around a table talking and eating. The food styling, continuity, the eye-lines...pick something else.”
Actress Priscilla Barnes playing the lead character Sue.
But I couldn’t shake the idea of a Thanksgiving dramedy. Then I had an idea. If shooting people talking and eating around a table is a nightmare for continuity, what if by the time the family sits down to eat nobody’s talking? My friend looked at me with an expression that was either, “That’s clever” or “You’re an idiot”. I tend to think it was the latter, but I liked the idea, and so I sat down to write Turkey.
The pages flowed, and in a week I had a 35 page short film script. I told another friend who’s directed four shorts about it and he said “Dude, that’s waaaaaayyy too long.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “It’s gotta be six minutes, blah blah. But I don’t want to make a six minute movie.” I pleaded. He countered with twelve minutes. I countered with fifteen.
He said “Cut it to fifteen and let me read it.” So I did.
But I was scared. The thing about writing is you can succeed publicly, but you get to fail privately. If I write a script and it’s a mess, nobody needs to know. But directing is different. The cast and crew, most of which probably think they could do a better job, are watching every moment. When you fail, you fail publicly.
I had about three months before my August 5th shoot to prepare, and I got to work by hiring a line producer to create a budget for me. When she asked how much money I had to spend, I thought she’d be impressed when I said I had 20 grand. But she wasn’t. There was a pause, and then she said there were ways to make it work. And I was thinking Ways to make it work??!! That’s a pile of cash!! That’s Europe in style for the whole family! That’s a new car! But unless you’re fresh out of film school and you can get your eight buddies to crew for pizza and beer, plan to use non-SAG actors and shoot handheld on your 5d with available light, you’re going to spend money. Now I know there are fifty people reading this who made their short films for nothing, or their feature for 20 grand, and scoff at the notion that anyone needs to spend money making a movie. All I can say is, awesome for you, but I couldn’t.
The first budget from my line producer came in at over $40,000 for a four-day shoot. We worked on cutting crew positions, getting a deal on insurance and a few ‘in kind’ favors, and got it to around $30K. It never got lower. Every time I’d get a deal on one thing, an expense would crop up elsewhere. But at the end of the day, this budget afforded me a superbly talented crew of fifteen professional filmmakers and a cast of seven known or working actors, an Alexa package with Zeiss Ultra-prime Lenses for the week, a ten-ton grip and electric truck and two catered meals a day for everyone.
My line producer found me a great DP and a first AD. I hired a friend to edit and storyboard. I posted a slew of jobs on Stage 32, and sat back as my inbox filled with willing candidates. One by one, jobs were filled, and to-do items were checked off the list.
Next I hired a casting director, Robert Enriquez of Red Baron Entertainment, to put out breakdowns and arrange auditions. I gave him my talent “wish list” which consisted of working, no-name actors, and he promptly called me and said, “Think bigger.”
“It’s a SAG ultra-low-budget short!” I reminded him.
“Actors need to work,” he said, “you live in LA. Don’t think Angelina, but think bigger.” So I did. And with his help and connections, pretty soon I was in talks with several name actresses for two different roles. Not A- listers, mind you, but people you’d know, and in some cases with Oscars and Emmys and Golden Globes.
To my surprise and delight, Priscilla Barnes showed up to read for Sue, my lead. As a kid who grew up on Three’s Company, I was thrilled she wanted to be in my little film. What’s more, she was hilarious in the audition. She totally nailed it. I went home and told my wife about Priscilla showing up to audition, and after watching her tape, my wife, a latch key kid who also grew up on her show, made me swear I’d make an offer to her the next day. So I did.
With my line producer jumping ship two weeks before the shoot, the final sprint to the starting line was more intense than it needed to be. But it was also exhilarating. One thing I hadn’t fully accounted for is just how much more exciting it is to be making anything than it is to sit alone in a room day after day, talking to myself (i.e. writing). By contrast, the actual making of something I’d written -- from the production meetings, storyboarding, auditions, walk-throughs, tech scouts, hiring – felt empowering and energizing.
My wife and son left for the east, my production manager moved into the guest room for the week, and everything was set. I remember I had a moment with myself before the shoot. I sat myself down for a little talk that went something like this: “Things will go wrong. At times, it might feel like everything is going wrong. In fact, most likely at some point during this shoot, something will happen that threatens the whole enterprise. But as much as this is an exercise in where you put the camera and how you work with actors, it’s also an exercise in how you’re going to handle yourself when the dooky hits the spinning blades."
I know, good talk, right? And there it was again: the anxiety of failing publicly. Of making a big bet on myself and having it be a total loss. Turns out I might be at least partly psychic. But at that moment, I had no idea...
...To be continued - Part II of Erik's journey will be posted at 1pm PDT today, be sure to check back to see the exciting conclusion!
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As always, Erik is available to respond to questions and remarks in the Comments section below...
|Part II: How To Shoot A Turkey|
|Sharing Some Amazing Stage 32 Success Stories|