[Watch the film here, or else none of this is going to make sense]
The origin of Sleep Tight, Don't Let the Existential Crisis Bite! can be lead back to this pivotal Facebook conversation:
Some time later...
It's not poetic. The idea for the short didn't come to me through some grand epiphany, nor divine intervention, but simply an occurrence of feeling oddly motivated.
Nevertheless, a script was born - sounds great! Except that after that day, I left it to sit around on my computer for about a year.
Why did I do nothing even though I had a finished script sitting and waiting? A lovely combo of self-doubt, procrastination, and fear of failure.
I had convinced myself that the script had issues and wasn't good enough:
"What if it isn't funny?"
"Does the dialogue work?"
"The ending sucks"
"Did I leave the oven on?"
I let these doubts trap me in a constant cycle of complaining to myself that I hadn't made my next short.
After a year of enduring this, I once again felt oddly motivated, and/or crippled with envy as I watched fellow friends going out and making their short films without hesitation.
If the obstacle stopping me from making it was that the script had issues, the obvious solution was to maybe I-don't-know, SHARE the script with a bunch of people to see if that was at all true??
So that's what I did. And I was totally wrong.
The feedback was positive, and some even praised the very things which I thought were flaws; people enjoyed the dialogue, and the way it film ended. It seems so obvious now, that it made no sense to keep this script to myself and assume it was unmakeable before it had even been read by others.
Getting it Done
It was important for me to find a producer I could collaborate with, instead of trying to manage everything myself. I had dabbled in the DIY approach during my film degree, and so I was determined to avoid that this time around.
Even though it was a fairly simple short to produce (one location, two cast). Having another vessel to take care of producing made it so much easier for me to focus on y'know, actually directing.
But more importantly, having a producer meant that I had somebody else to ensure that we could Get. It. Done. This short had been creeping in the back of my mind for a year because of my own insecurities. I needed someone to move things along because clearly I could not rely on myself to do so.
Megan Stewart came on-board after I sent her a lengthy and probably desperate message, asking if she was interested. We had met during my sound design days when I mixed a short film she produced. I knew she was easy to get along with, had a great taste in film, and after remembering our mutual appreciation for Tina Fey after she spotted my 30 Rock box-set, I felt confident that she would understand my weird brand of comedy too.
Megan sprung right into action and pulled some actors together for a read-through session of the script. It was a whole new world to hear my words being spoken by actual human mouths in comparison to reading it with the voice in my head.
Notably, we also tried read-throughs with the genders flipped. Therefore, having the woman being the one in the existential crisis, and the man attempting to calm her down. We instantly hated it, realising how oddly 1950's brand of sexist it felt; falling into cliches of a man telling a woman to calm down when she's in distress.
This was an incredible insight that never occurred to me whilst writing it. It didn't change the way I decided to make the film, since it doesn't intentionally comment on gender roles, but it was interesting to think about where the humour comes from, and whether part of it was the subversion of expectations about gender.
Anywho, Megan suggested that I take the feedback and use it make a final re-draft of the script. Admittedly, the script has not changed too much from the original draft; the overall arc is exactly the same. The changes were mostly minor tweaks, added jokes, and more philosophical references.
Auditions are Weird
Casting the right actors was crucial for the film to work since it's all based around one conversation. It also doesn't help that I needed a cast who could deliver my weird use of wordy-ness in a natural way.
I've always found auditions to be super weird and nerve-wracking, which I know is silly since the actors are in a much more stressful position. It's kind of like a strange speed-dating scenario, except that your date reads a couple of paragraphs of some words that you wrote and then you have to decide if they read it in the way you imagined them to or not (so maybe it's not like speed-dating at all). Auditions are weird because it's not really a test of acting ability. It's all about chemistry, and rightness (oh hey, this fits the speed-dating metaphor better).
James Gulliford, who Spoiler Alert: plays Gary, followed my direction very well during his audition. The tricky thing about the character of Gary is that he is worrisome and in full-on crisis mode, but he needs to be this way without becoming annoying. James was very good at treading that fine-line with earnestness, plus how can you be mad at that face?
Louise Hoare, who Spoiler Alert: plays Meg, had a memorable audition that had us laughing out loud. The character of Meg is tricky, as she's subtly sarcastic and witty. On top of this, I needed a Meg who could pull off the serious monologue at the end when she talks about her own happiness, and Louise pulled this off with no sweat too.
We held callbacks with a shortlist of actors from the first round, and had them in for a sort of mix-and-match speed-datey (!!!) thing, where we paired up different actor couplings together. I already knew that James and Louise were strong hitters, but pairing them together was the final confirmation I needed to know that their chemistry worked together too. For what good would it be to have two strong leads who didn't actually look like a believable couple on-screen?
Once I had my actors locked in, I felt more confidence that the film would be okay, knowing that even if all else failed, their performances would shine through regardless.
From the get-go, I had been aiming to push myself outside the comfort zone with every decision. The temptation to call upon favours from filmmaker friends was high, but I knew that this was because it was safe and familiar. That being said, I did bring some talented friends on-board, but I had to be sure that it was because of their expertise, and not because it was easier.
On a low-budget level, it's easy to dismiss roles that are seemingly unimportant. At the time, I was working in sound and had often been a personal victim of such rejection (which led to the demise of that career, RIP Riley the Sound Designer), and so I aimed to be more thoughtful about who I needed on set, and how it would effect the overall quality of the film.
I often think about the moment the hair & makeup artist Basia came up to me on-set and asked about Gary's hair; since he would have been in bed for hours, his hair should stick up to reflect that, and we discussed which side he might prefer sleeping on (FYI, I still think Gary's a total back-sleeper). This interaction stood out to me because admittedly, I had not valued the importance of having a hair & makeup artist until this shoot. Having one person dedicate their entire thought process to one department, allows them to think about small details like this that would otherwise be forgotten. It seems miniscule, but these tiny nuggets of info add up to a bigger, tastier dish full of flavour (am I hungry?).
This was just one instance, but everybody played the part. The super sound recordist Chris was unafraid to flag me on the danger of overlapping dialogue. The keen-eyed script supervisor Sara made me think about what time of morning it was. None of this is groundbreaking or new at all, these people are just doing their jobs. But when freshly-out-of-uni filmmaker me is trying to scramble together something on a low-budget, it could have been so easy for me to dismiss these roles, but at the cost of quality.
Set Anxiety and I
Have I made it clear yet that I am an overly worrisome person? Being on set always sets me off, the high-tension and pressure is like being at the height of a rollercoaster ride, except for 12 hours and with a tight 30-minute on-the-go lunch break.
I had pretty bad case of The Nerves™ for the weeks leading up to the shoot. However, I've noticed that the things that make me feel this way are also the most gratifying.
Everything leading up to that day was physical anxiousness, but the moment I walked through the threshold of the set, anxiety turned into drive. There were too many important things to think about than to worry.
Having rehearsed the film with the cast days before, we were able to shoot everything we needed in one day. It was a long day, it always is. Yet there is nothing else in the world quite like calling "It's a wrap!", knowing we got everything we needed in the can. After being a nervous wreck for the weeks prior, I felt an exhausted relief sitting on the tube home that day with the laundry basket prop I had taken (with permission).
It's not over yet
There's a common yet inevitable thing that always happens after film shoots. The adrenaline dies down, and with all the footage shot and no incoming deadline, we enter the Never-ending Post Production Zone of Despair.
We make promises - "Oh yeah the edit will be done by next month!" but it's all lies, it's ALWAYS A LIE!!!
I was blessed to have the incredible Kimmy to edit the film, and I will sing her praises forever for all the time and extended effort she put into the film. Despite being an arduous process, editing is not always an exciting story to tell because most of it is constant e-mails to and fro, with comments like "I just wasn't keen on the cut exactly at the 'poo' but now it works better" (okay maybe that one is a little bit exciting).
One major change, was the 40 seconds of complete darkness in the beginning. This was suggested by Megan as a way of making the first part of the film feel more dynamic and engaging. I also love the idea of it being a tiny prank to festival audiences who might question whether the projector had stopped working - HA! It's weird, intriguing, and perfectly sets up the tone of the film.
I made the decision to not include a score for the film as it never felt necessary, and I didn’t want it to distract from the dialogue – which is very much the melody of the film. I did, however, search long and hard for a song to kick in when the credits roll. For the hard-cut to work, I needed something as upbeat and exciting as possible. Lack of Afro is an artist I’ve enjoyed for some time, his music is funky and catchy and everything I could have wanted to end the film on. It was a shot in the dark to get permission to use his song ‘Back in Business’, but I went for it anyway. After sending through my desperate plea, I soon received blessing from the man himself to use it in the film. I guess I learned that it’s worth taking a chance sometimes, even if it’s unlikely, ‘cause things just might work out.
After sound design, and a colour grade by the stunningly talented Michael, the film finally reached completion on the 26th June 2018.
Even though the film had technically reached its end, this was very much the beginning of its journey into the real world – the world of film festivals that is.
For the most part of the year that followed, I didn’t hear anything back. Alongside this, my adrenaline had died down and I was feeling the inevitable, self-deprecating dread of “ooh, I’m not sure I like this thing I made anymore”.
After a solid 9 months of hearing nothing, a sudden baby, I mean burst of festival acceptances came through all at once in a very bus-like way.
The festival screenings were surprisingly enlightening (despite the pain of watching my own work without thinking of ways I could adjust it).
In the time that had passed since the film’s completion, I had began to forget the reasons for making it in the first place. It wasn’t until I watched it again with an audience that it became clear; there’s no greater joy than hearing people laugh at a joke you made. More than that were the responses I heard; people who came up to me and said that they’d felt the same way, or that it reminded them of their own relationships with their partners.
It’s often easy to forget why I put so much time and effort into something like this, especially when it gives me so much anxiety. But when people say these things, it reminds me that it’s about not feeling alone. The weird thoughts and feelings I have can sometimes make me feel incredibly lonely. The film, in some way, is a piece of this, and the way I view the world. So when people come up to me and say they feel the same way, or even if they just laugh at one of the jokes – it’s also saying that they share that worldview in some way, and that maybe I’m not so alone.