Today's guest post comes from two emerging filmmakers, Sam Rosen and Nat Bennett, who had a screenplay that caught my eye back when. Now they have their first film in the Tribeca Film Festival. Their path to getting it made revealed some lessons, ones that are applicable to all of us. You can boil it down to don't wait or seek permission; find good collaborators and get going. But it always more than that too -- and they know that. When you’re a young aspiring filmmaker you hear a lot of stories about how hard it is to make films, how many years people work to finally put something together, and how often projects fall apart. And if you’re like us, you think, they must have been doing it wrong. It’s a naïve thought, but until you’ve made an independent film, it can be difficult to understand how amazing it is that any of them ever gets made.
One of us, Nat, went to school to write fiction. The other, Sam, has been acting since early childhood. Both of us grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, dreaming of the potential on the coasts. Together, we write screenplays. The two of us moved to New York a day apart in 2003, both hoping to launch artistic careers in the big city. But we hadn’t known each other in Minnesota, and only began to hang around each other because we had a mutual friend who told us we’d get along. Before long we were talking about working together on something. In 2005 we wrote a play, Ham Lake, that one of us, the thespian in our actor-writer partnership, eventually performed in a fifty-seat basement theater in Soho. We were convinced we had something great to share with a wider audience. The few critics who attended gave us good reviews. We extended our short run and a theatrical producer offered us a deal for a more substantial production. A legitimate run for the play sounded great, but we were already refocusing on adapting the story for a screenplay because we knew how much potential our story had if we could get it off the stage and onto film.
In Ham Lake we envisioned the kind of quiet indie movie we loved, like You Can Count On Me and All The Real Girls. We knew what we wanted, we knew what it should look like, and we knew some people who could help us. How hard could this be, we thought? Still naïve, we sweated over an overflowing screenplay that showcased everything we could think to share about what it’s like to come of age in Minneapolis. We were sure that our careers were off and running.
What followed was a pretty typical story of lost opportunities, impatience, miscalculations, bad luck, endless rewrites, and important lessons learned the hard way. A lot of people, including Ted Hope, did their best to help us. Our script was optioned, twice, but for one reason after another, our story always remained stuck in pre-production and our big Hollywood careers never took off.
Frustrated with the slow pace of progress, we wrote a new script in a few short weeks, creating a simple story with a few clear concepts and (we thought) vivid, lovable characters. All the locations we imagined were places back home we knew we could beg, borrow, or steal. The plan was to make a movie quickly, on the cheap, on our own, back in the town where we grew up.
What followed is also a pretty typical story, but this one has a happier ending, because instead of trying to find people who would give us permission to do everything our way, we found young filmmakers like ourselves who had their own contributions to make to the project. In particular we found Brady Kiernan, who along with his brother Spencer and friend Todd Cobery, wanted to get to work making a movie out of our script. And three months after we first sat down to talk with him, Brady was directing Sam in the film that will premiere later this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Stuck Between Stations. To find success in New York, we had to go home. It turned out WE were the ones who had been doing it wrong.
Making SBS was no cakewalk. A ridiculous number of people have contributed time, money, and talent to the production, and we can recall more than a few times when we weren’t at all sure if it would all come together. We still find ourselves in the position of most indie filmmakers, searching for a distributor and hoping for a wider audience. But at the moment, none of that matters as much as the film itself. It tells a story we believe in and it tries to reward viewers for paying the kind of attention we paid when we watched our favorite quiet movies over and over, still dreaming about making any movie at all. SBS is not flawless, but we are as proud of its quirks and kinks as we are of the moments that we’re pretty sure we all nailed, because taken as a whole, Stuck Between Stations is the kind movie we want to watch.
If we had to do it all over again—and maybe some day we’ll get a chance —we’d do things differently with Ham Lake. But we definitely needed to fall down before we could dust ourselves off and get to the real work. And that, at least at the moment, seems like the essence of independent filmmaking: finding a way, one way or another, to do the work you need to do to tell a story that other people want to tell with you so that, together, you can offer the world something it’s never seen. That’s a little naïve too, probably, but it’s naïveté we can live with. At least for now, until we get back to work and make the next one.
-- Nat Bennett and Sam Rosen
Watch the trailer here: