How to Make an Indie Mockumentary: The Making of "Marathon"
How to Make an Indie Mockumentary: The Making of "Marathon"
Howdy, Stage 32ers!
My name is Keith Strausbaugh and my partner and sometimes-friend is Anthony Guidubaldi. Together, we write, produce, direct, and edit under the banner of Hot Tub Mimosas, a loveless marriage of comedy filmmaking. But we began as writers.
In 2017, we won Stage 32’s 2nd Annual Comedy Screenplay Contest with a script called, Shore Break. It’s basically Caddyshack with Jet Skis. Or Dodgeball with Jet Skis. Or Out Cold with Jet Skis. Growing up, I worked at my uncle’s ramshackle – that’s right, Jet Ski - rental business for seven adventure-filled, alcohol-drenched summers.
Stage 32 set us up with a wonderful round of meetings with production companies, managers, and agents, but we suspected these executives weren’t going to cut a check to two nobodies for a big-budget comedy that involved Jet Skis flying off of ramps. EXT. OCEAN – DAY isn’t exactly a popular slug line among money people.
Keith and Anthony Behind the Scenes of "Marathon"
We also sensed studios were shying away from comedy in general as all of our favorite directors were switching to darker subject matter. Why so serious, Todd Phillips? (Thank God for Taika Waititi.)
Up to this point, Anthony and I had twice finished as finalists in the Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition and twice had the top-ranked comedy script on The Black List website… all to no avail. If that sounds bitter, well, good.
Stage 32, to their credit, got us the week of meetings (and has continued to support our filmmaking careers). So, we decided to write a script that we could produce and direct ourselves.
The goal was simplicity. The mockumentary style lent itself well to low-budget filmmaking and it also showcased our strengths – story, jokes, and character. Nobody’s watching a Christopher Guest film for the cinematography. Plus, I don’t have the patience for traditional coverage (wide shot, mediums, close-ups, reverse cowgirl, etc.). It always seemed to suck the comedy out of the room and deaden a performance.
So we had a genre, but what story to tell?
Still from "Marathon"
In high school, I was the cross country captain and MVP for two years… completely against my will and better judgement. I was apathetically fast. And a basketball player. But the track coach taught PE with my mom, so together they guilt-tripped me into trying out for the team. Nowadays I enjoy jogging, but back then I thought runners were nuts. Because they are. It’s a world and culture perfect for satire/parody – big personalities, weird outfits, and a variety of goals and motivations. Everybody runs for a different reason. It’s also a community that takes themselves way too seriously at times, so we thought it’d be fun to twist the knife. Or bluntly stab.
But again, simplicity. Filming runners is easy. No elaborate lighting setups. No expensive wardrobe. No hard-to-get locations (mainly just public parks, neighborhood streets, and Airbnbs). Basically, no Jet Skis flying off of ramps. I don’t want to say, “Point and shoot” because we worked with incredibly proficient DPs (Heather Aradas and Sean Gearing), but we did try to distill the filmmaking process into its simplest form – write a solid script, cast it with talented performers, and then get the hell out of the way.
We also made an early story choice that helped with schedule flexibility. Anthony and I decided the five main storylines wouldn’t overlap until the third act. This meant most of our shooting days would be one-on-one with individual actors.
Now for the big challenge... Casting. We knew from the get-go that every mockumentary lives and dies by its company of players. There’s a reason you see the same faces in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and Waiting for Guffman.
Still from "Marathon"
Anthony and I went to graduate school in Las Vegas, so most of our film contacts are based in that city. Luckily, Las Vegas is also home to wildly adept theatre actors in shows like Cirque du Soleil, Absinthe, and Blue Man Group. (For whatever reason, these local comedic stars don’t get offered many screen roles. Hopefully, that changes. If you’re a director or a casting agent, call ‘em.) But we wanted every funny person in town to be in this film. And then we’d fill in the gaps with LA performers from The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade.
At the time, Anthony lived in Las Vegas and I lived in LA, so between the two cities, we scouted as many improv shows and open mic nights as possible. We operated like GMs of a sports team preparing for a draft. Each main character had a list of ranked actors under its name. Thankfully, or amazingly, we landed all of our top choices across the board. A simple, kind email can go a long way. It’s true. There’s no punchline.
During auditions, we also threw every actor a curveball scene or monologue to see how they handled improv and quick adjustments, knowing our intended shooting style.
We filmed for fifteen days over the course of a month, purposely building in gaps into the production schedule to give us time to learn and grow as first-time directors. Plus, we didn’t have any PAs. The off days allowed me and Anthony to catch up and stay organized with craft services, emails, props, etc. I’ll admit we were fortunate, though.
Behind the Scenes of "Marathon"
I’ve heard directors use the expression, “The film wanted to get made” and I think it’s apt. Luck plays a major role in any film production. We got lucky. Anthony and I were always prepped for disaster, but it never materialized. No lost locations, no lengthy weather delays, and only one minor actor no-show.
I’m sure our second child will be a monster.
Our two-person directing style was fluid, but generally speaking, I worked with the actors and Anthony collaborated with the DPs… and then we used baseball signs to communicate with each other.
For comedy, I don’t believe in rehearsal. What’s hilarious in a run-through, loses its bite by the time the camera rolls. We weren’t reckless or rudderless, though. Anthony and I always crafted a shot list before shoot days. Then on set, we discussed and blocked each setup with the actor and DPs and then immediately filmed, usually getting the scene in 3-5 takes. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
After we had a usable take of the scripted pages, we’d then open it up to improvisation. A good idea can come from anyone, regardless of their role on set.
Still from "Marathon"
For example, the doggie door bit was spawned from Alfredo Montenegro, our Assistant Camera, who pointed out the pet entryway as we unloaded gear into an Airbnb. The memorable arch collapse came from Tim Rainey, one of the race day equipment lenders. It wasn’t even in the script. And the hilariously gross Lady and The Tramp banana make-out gag was the brainchild of Heather Aradas, one of our DPs.
Film’s a team sport. Surround yourself with talented teammates.
After we shot, Anthony and I spent 22 months cutting the footage. He still lived in Las Vegas (with the editing station) and I was back in LA. We both had full-time day jobs, so I would drive to Vegas on a Friday and then we’d edit on the weekend. Rinse, repeat. I made that trip 35 times over the course of about two years.
We locked picture right when the world locked down, March 2020.
SXSW canceled first and then the other film festival dominoes fell, so we used the limbo period to add elements to Marathon in hopes of increasing production value. For example, a claymation sequence and a poster insert for the faux Netflix show, Benched.
During the shutdown, I also created a massive list of sales reps, producer’s reps, and domestic distributors. The aim was to find a reputable person or company with a filmography that matched our comedic tone. We crafted a strong pitch email that included a screener and then started contacting the best fits.
Anthony and I weren’t sure of much, but we were positive we wanted no part of a virtual film fest, especially since they were still figuring out the technology.
Fortunately, we drew interest from a producer’s rep, Glen Reynolds of Circus Road Films, which led to a distribution deal through Gravitas Ventures. Marathon recently premiered on VOD platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play. (For more info, check out Marathoncomedy.com)
All right, I’m exhausted. I hope this was helpful. Go shoot something.
I’m gonna go drink a beer.
Keith Strausbaugh and Anthony Guidubaldi write, direct, and edit under the banner of Hot Tub Mimosas, a loveless marriage of comedy filmmaking. They both hold MFAs in Screenwriting from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Keith also holds an MA in English from Old Dominion University. In fact, he’s holding it right now to taunt the lesser-educated Anthony.
They’ve twice been finalists in Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition and twice had the top-ranked comedy screenplay on The Black List’s website. They’ve also twice loudly ranted about the worthlessness of these screenwriting contests.
In 2015, Pangaea Pictures hired Keith and Anthony to write a Chinese version of The Hangover, directed by Andrzej Sekula (DP for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) with a 1-2m budget and starring Billy Zane. This proved slightly troublesome as Keith and Anthony don’t speak Chinese. However, the producers paid in cash-stuffed envelopes which helped quell the writers’ concerns.
Hot Tub Mimosas was later commissioned to adapt American Coin: A True Story of Betrayal, Gambling, and Murder in Las Vegas by the widow of Frank Romano, one of the businessmen “allegedly” responsible for the largest slot machine cheating scandal in the 1980s. Once again, the illicit cash allayed the filmmakers’ reservations.
In 2017, Keith and Anthony won Stage 32’s Comedy Contest and met with Art/Work Entertainment, Panay Films, Romark, Amasia Entertainment, LOL Network, and Big
Beach Films. One of these companies was kind enough to offer Hot Tub Mimosas an opportunity to write them a script... for free. At least the crooks paid cash.
Tired of writing screenplays for organized crime syndicates, Keith and Anthony have since focused on directing their own projects, beginning with Marathon. It’s much safer.
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About the Author
Height: Big in Japan Reach: Exceeds his grasp Birthplace: Bethlehem Style: None Known for: Low blows, sweet talk, and the ability to be bought Wins: MA in English - Old Dominion University 2009 MFA in Screenwriting - University of Nevada, Las Vegas 2013 Losses: Hair ChapStick o...