In The Midst of Mountains: Vexations and Victories from Pre- to Post-Production

Posted in by Ghoff Hoffman
In The Midst of Mountains by Garrick Hoffman Photography

In March of 2020 – just two weeks before the quarantine hit – my friends and I made a short film for a class at the University of Southern Maine, “Advanced Narrative Filmmaking.”

The film was about – of all things – a virus. And as if affected by a virus, the film was plagued from its inception all the way until its completion.

But we did it.

This is a reflection on what that experience was like from pre-production all the way to post-production.

The Beginning

The class, as I mentioned above, was called “Advanced Narrative Filmmaking.” It was a 3-credit class with a 1-credit lab, and the chief goal of the class was to create a finished short film project, be it drama (or any fictional story) or documentary. The film was to be at least 10 minutes long, and we’d spend the first third of the semester on pre-production (preparation), the second on production (filming), and the final third on post-production (or editing).

Coming into the class, my friends and I had already assembled our four-person team: Angie, Cody, Hunter, and myself. We had all met in other classes and became friends as we all shared the same major: Media Studies. Since we knew we were going to make a film for the class, we were all chomping at the bit – and a bit stressed – to create what was to become our first short film, at least for a few of us.

The “In The Midst of Mountains” team – Angie, Cody, myself, Hunter. Taken in the USM production center lecture hall.

The big question we all faced at the beginning of the semester was, of course: What is our film going to be about?

One night we all met in the library on campus to discuss ideas. One thing we established was that we knew we wanted to create some kind of horror/suspense/thriller, and base it at least in part in a wintery, outdoors setting (after all, it was February in Maine at this time). While we explored several ideas, the one that stood out was about a couple driving through a woodsy area with little traffic and encountering a rather suspicious older man, when their lives suddenly become in danger.

Then I remember thinking about this thing called “coronavirus” beleaguering China and saying: “What if we make it about a virus?” The group agreed and we established that that was going to be a major part of the plot. The idea of a young couple encountering an older man stuck, so we paired that with the virus.

I remember thinking obsessively every chance I got about the story and the characters: What are they doing in this woodsy part of town? What is their destination? What are their motivations/desires? What are the motivations and desires of our antagonist? Who has the virus and how does it affect them? How should everything play out?

I frequently brought up plot points and other ideas to the group to see if they had any recommendations or approved/disapproved of anything. They also, of course, pitched their ideas. The young couple, we agreed, was on a ski trip in this mountainous area, and they were using very little technology while a virus was spreading in the area, infecting and killing many. We knew we wanted the antagonist to have the virus and somehow infect the young couple, who invite the stranger into their Airbnb after he helps them with a ride back to their spot when they somehow become stranded on the side of the road. The couple – or at least one of them – eventually shows signs of sickness (something obviously unlikely or impossible), and the film ends in some kind of violent confrontation.

Eventually, with myself designated as the screenwriter, I wrote the script with all these ideas in mind, taking some liberties along the way. I reached 19 pages and sent it to the team. Their immediate reaction was to shorten it and both add and omit some things – par for the course for the screenwriting process. Then, once we got closer to the final product, there were some logistical challenges we were facing.

Stressors Mount

With three characters included in the script, that’s how many actors we’d need. So the question is raised: Who’s going to play them?

Furthermore, with the story set in a mountainous area, another question is raised: Where are we gonna shoot this?

We were lucky to have at least one friend who was open to playing one half of the couple: Don. His name is Stephen and while I’m not sure if he had ever had acting experience, he at least had made a few short films so he had experience on set. And his girlfriend, Katherine, was open to playing the other half of the couple: Moriah. I don’t think she’d ever had acting experience or what her talent was, but we were open to “experiment,” though we did want to make a good film with good acting.

Even if we were to cast Stephen and Katherine, the question remained: who was going to play the antagonist, Bruce? We envisioned this character as an older blue-collar type man, maybe in his 40s or 50s. I particularly envisioned him having a rural Maine accent. So who were we gonna get on board to play him?

The struggle was, indeed, VERY real.

For the location, we all were on board to be a little adventurous and rent an Airbnb somewhere in a mountainous setting, whether in New Hampshire or somewhere in Maine. We scanned through listing upon listing to try to find the best spot. Eventually we came upon one listed in Jackson, NH, but it came with a fairly significant price tag: about $850 for 10 people. And while we estimated that’s how many people we’d have with us for talent and crew, it ended up taking an obnoxious amount of time to ascertain that exact figure.

For casting, we were in a tough spot. First, because of all of our busy schedules, including sports, work, vacation during spring break and more, there were very select few days we could shoot. We eventually agreed that the beginning of March was the only time to do it because our raw footage would be due at the end of the month and we were battling too many busy schedules. So we finally decided on the first (sort of) weekend of March, specifically one day to shoot: Friday, March 6. We’d arrive at our Airbnb the night before and shoot all day Friday, then leave Saturday. Now we just had to hope (pray) that our cast could swing this.

Furthermore, we were in a tough spot because for a while we still weren’t sure whether Katherine was 100% on board to play Moriah. There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of back-and-forth, and a lot of what seemed like ambivalence. Because of this, we were in a position in which we had to finally put out a casting call – something we thought we didn’t originally have to do because of our limited characters and potential talent. However, although I ended up designing the flier to put out, we didn’t even up advertising it. At this point it was near the end of February, and we were only about a week or two away from shooting. The prospect of getting the right actress to play Moriah now seemed highly unlikely, at the very least because her schedule would have to accommodate ours – and in a very last-minute fashion. Not only this, but when we began to think about it, we weren’t totally thrilled about the idea of having a stranger stay with us at the Airbnb. It surely would have been a bit awkward and uncomfortable for all parties involved.

So eventually, due to the lack of certainty of Katherine and the unlikelihood and now-undesirability of a different actress, we decided we had to ditch this character. This meant re-writing the script.

Now, what about our antagonist, Bruce? This meant getting an actor in his 40s or 50s, and again sharing an Airbnb with us only a week or two out. This wasn’t gonna happen. Consequently, either myself or someone else in the group elected for me to play the character. I confess I didn’t really want to. Even though I’ve always had an affinity for acting and have wanted to act for films or skits, I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to play the character because I wanted to be on the production end of operations. I wanted to help with all the logistics: camera, sound, directing, script supervising, or anything like that. That was why I was taking the class: not for acting, but for learning the elements of film production. I also didn’t want to have to think about my performance or anything; I simply wanted to help my team with shooting the film. But with our backs against the wall, and now at the eleventh hour, I reluctantly agreed to play Bruce. While part of me was nervous and didn’t want to do a poor job – not only for my own standards but for my team’s, as well – I also was sort of excited to play him because it meant acting. I could have fun with this, theoretically.

Now back to the conundrum of re-writing the script. This already was a stressful situation to be in, but exacerbating the stress was what eventually became conflict within the team. One of our members agreed to re-write it over the weekend before we were to shoot. By the time Sunday came around, I had sent a text to say if this person needed me to re-write it instead, to let me know. Then night time came, and in a group Snapchat text this person said s/he was in Boston and wouldn’t be back until 11pm, and hadn’t started the re-write. This was frustrating because we were less than a week away from shooting and still needed to create our shot list to hand in to our professor. It was also frustrating because this person said s/he wasn’t able to meet that night because s/he had work early the next morning – and yet here s/he was, in Boston, and not returning until 11pm. It didn’t seem like a testament to being a good team player. Consequently, the rest of us were deeply frustrated and aggravated and we expressed it, resulting in some turmoil between this person and the other three of us. That night I took it upon myself to do the re-write. I got it to 12 pages, which seemed like an ideal length.

The pre-production phase was now nearly complete, despite the headaches.

But the stress still wasn’t over.

This moment was unrelated to ITMoM, but my facial expression perfectly embodies the stress I was feeling at the time. Taken at the USM production center lecture hall.

The Week Of

With just days to shoot, we were feeling much better about where we were at: we had the completed script, shot list and schedule to hand in to our professor. The Airbnb in Jackson, new Hampshire was booked. Stephen was on board to play Don, and Katherine was no longer going to be involved. Our buddy Steven (yup, another Steph/ven) was going to serve as our boom operator. Angie was going to be the DP – the director of photography, since she had the most consummate skills with the camera. She was also going to edit the film, something she is also very skilled at. Cody was going to be the director since he had the most experience working with talent and bringing out the best performances. Hunter was going to be the “second camera,” or DP’s assistant, and aid with anything else (she was particularly helpful with wardrobe selections). Her boyfriend was going to come and help with the slate. I was going to play Bruce, and simply stick to that role, and try to get some BTS (behind the scenes) photos when I can. My friend Conner even agreed to come up and capture some drone footage of the area that we could incorporate into the film. His wife Hayley joined him and they used the opportunity to have a little get-away for the weekend. This brought the film’s crew to a total of eight people.

Despite us feeling better about where we were at, the conflict within the group hadn’t been extinguished.

Three of us came to the conclusion it’d be best to not have the troublesome member involved for a myriad of reasons I won’t even get into. We got to the point where we had to address this to our professor because we felt strongly about it. But after a conversation with him, as well as the member him/herself, it was evident that this person was irrevocably going to be involved. All four of us agreed that we’d nonetheless still try to create the best short film we could, work hard, and act professionally. And I still like to think that’s what we did.

The shoot was on Friday. We were just days away. The nightmare that was pre-production was officially over.

The Shoot

We all arrived at our Airbnb Thursday night. We were in generally good spirits. Here we were, all of us friends, two hours away in the mountains, at a place we’ve never been before (and a pretty sweet spot, at that). It even had a freakin’ hot tub – something I confess we were actively on the look-out for as we shopped around for our Airbnb. We listened to music, had a few beers, played some games, danced around, and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

Conner and me the morning of the shoot.

The next morning, we were all up fairly early to get ready. The usual morning routines: coffee, breakfast, awkward greetings. I felt bad for Angie because she wasn’t feeling well; go figure, for such an important weekend. The gods of irony can be cruel.

The Steph(v)ens troubleshooting gear.

As we were getting ready to go shoot – ideally by a 9am start time – we faced a few difficulties that caused delays. It was all technical. First, the boom pole we were using wasn’t functioning properly. I think it was missing a part, if I remember correctly, and it required us to create a crudely-rigged, MacGyver-esque solution with lots of tape. The Steph/vens tried their best to make it work, and eventually it did, albeit with some difficulty at first. Second, we were having issues with the camera battery. Despite being fully charged, it simply was not powering the camera – a nice Blackmagic that we were excited to use. We discovered we were missing a part to make it work. This is again something I can’t completely remember the solution to (or if this was even the exact problem), but if I’m not mistaken, we ended up having to use batteries that went directly into the camera (rather than our more powerful, external one) that would die much quicker, thus requiring frequent charging.

 

Eventually, after surmounting these obstacles that seemed like the harbingers of an inauspicious day, we packed up our cars with our gear and selves and hit the road.

Thankfully, our first scene didn’t require much driving at all. It was to take place on the side of the road, which meant scouting the geography for the best – and most importantly, safest – spot. We drove for a few minutes, but the feeling of time fading with a 10am start time already was putting pressure on us. So even though one person elected to keep driving to find something “more ideal,” there was one spot we already discovered that seemed fitting enough. We turned around and returned to this spot, which was only about a two minute drive from our Airbnb, if that.

This shoot location presented a few challenges we didn’t quite expect. The biggest and most obnoxious, seemingly unending one, was the issue of traffic. Sure, we were on a major route, but it being a weekday in a rural part of New Hampshire, we didn’t quite think traffic would be this bad. The scene for our film was supposed to suggest to the audience that our protagonist was stranded on the side of the road with a broken-down car, and since the virus was heavily impacting the area, there was virtually no one on the road. This meant we couldn’t have any vehicles but our own in the scene. Not only this, but the vehicles constantly interrupted our sound, which was almost all dialogue. So any time Cody would announce, “Action!” and the shot began, we’d immediately have to cut it if a vehicle was turning the corner and threatening the shot.

Not only was traffic a threat to our shoot, there were times it felt like a threat to our safety. This was particularly felt every time a massive semi-truck flew by, the audible and visual cacophony of such offending our senses and making us feel uneasy.

One time, a semi barreled by with seemingly no regard to our presence. The driver didn’t make any attempt to inch closer to the median or other lane, despite zero traffic coming from the opposite direction. Consequently, the semi rattled us and, more specifically, Zach and Hunter since Zach was the closest to the side of the road when it whirred by. The truck was far too close for comfort, and as a result we really wanted to get this scene over with.

Other complications during this scene included:

  • Getting the angle just right for a mirror shot, exposing the camera properly while shooting inside a vehicle
  • Me forgetting a prop – the whiskey bottle – back at the Airbnb (thankfully we were right down the road so this wasn’t a major issue)
  • And since it was the beginning of March, freezing toes and hands.

I also remember that we had experienced issues creating realistic-looking blood – in addition to the proper quantity of it -which we needed for two different scenes, including this one. I can’t remember all the ingredients Hunter ended up using to create it, but it looked realistic enough for an amateur film. I had to personally sip from a bottle of the heinous concoction for this scene specifically, and it was pretty gnarly. I think it had a Southwestern or Mexican flavor to it – maybe hot sauce – but one that I assure you would not win a Best Sauce award, and would absolutely piss off Gordon Ramsey. But I like to think I took it like a champ for the sake of the film. And every time I took a sip from it (before the scene started), I had to spit it back in the bottle (during the scene). I estimate I did this between five and ten times, making the whiskey chaser in the scene – yes, real whiskey – a rather necessary answer to the nasty taste in my mouth.

Eventually, after about two hours, we wrapped the scene and moved on to the next location: our Airbnb.

Again, we were experiencing troubles with the noise of traffic here, although we at least felt safer being in the driveway instead of the side of the road. We went through the familiar motions of “Action!” and the near-immediate “Cut!” as we ran through the lines.

We’d legitimately only have about a minute or two window to capture each shot, since vehicles were driving by about that often.

We also experienced issues with direction here, as well as problems with the microphone that took quite a bit of time to diagnose and resolve, and then finally some logistical complications since we were shooting in and out of a car. It was a fairly quick scene that took quite a bit of time to shoot, just like its preceding scene.

Finally, we completed this scene and moved indoors for the last scene. First we had some lunch and rested a bit since at this point we had already been shooting for about four hours or so. We also went outside on the deck of the house and took some photos of each other for fun.

I remember when we were on break, I expressed that we should all find some solace in the fact that this last scene should be much quicker since we wouldn’t be so delayed by traffic. This ended up being a statement rich with irony since it didn’t at all turn out that way, and in fact turned out to be the longest and maybe most grueling part of the entire shoot. I estimate it took about six hours.

For this scene we got to be a little bit more experimental, using a sliding device for a “master shot” that opens it, as well as an aerial, bird’s-eye-view shot. We also had a Jenga tower for this scene, which was exciting, but it didn’t go anywhere near according to plan in my opinion. It was still cool, but also totally unrealistic as my character continues to pull out a block that any normal person clearly would have avoided attempting to extract any further beyond the initial pull. In my head, I wanted my character to begin to pull a block that seemed reasonable to extract, and then have the tower collapse. I must have just chosen the wrong block, or we didn’t destabilize the tower enough, or both. But we weren’t going to reassemble the tower after one attempt because we simply just needed to get this scene done. We needed to shoot the Jenga scene and move on. Nonetheless, I think we did an overall good job at creating suspense and inducing anxiety for this scene, which was the intent. The point of the Jenga game and my character collapsing the tower was to serve as a metaphor (and harbinger) for oncoming destruction by the hands of my character. It’s something I hoped the audience would pick up on.

(Side note: One of the fun parts of doing this scene was actually being able to drink real Founder’s All Day IPA…heheh.)

The cast and crew in between scenes toward the end of the day.

After this part of the scene, we had a few more shots left before we were to wrap production. At this point we’d been shooting all day, and thus most of us were becoming a bit weary and worn out. And then we experienced another obstacle: the battery on the camera died. So to resolve this, we plugged it directly into a nearby outlet while still attached to the camera so we could keep shooting.

This part of the scene ended up disappointing some of us later on. Stephen’s character Don sits on the couch to watch the news when he discovers there’s a virus spreading in the community he’s in. This is a bit of a breaking-point moment in the film because he realizes Pete is infected, which alarms him. So to create another suspenseful moment, we had envisioned a slow zoom onto him as he watches and listens to the nightly news, realizing the threat just down the hall from himself. Instead, with the camera in different hands, the shot ended up being static close-up of Don, which took away from the kinetic energy (and thus suspense) we had envisioned. It ended up falling a bit flat. It really disappointed me since I’d had this vision since before pre-production, and it didn’t end up materializing. Eventually we were able to work around this issue in post-production (editing), but it still wasn’t the same. I suppose I didn’t initially catch it since I was so focused on my role and not the direction or cinematography.

Finally we were reaching the terminus of the production process. We had a few more shots to go. One excited me because I imagined it being similar to the moment in The Shining when Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is intimidating his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) as they ascend a flight of stairs. If I’m not mistaken, this scene was a bit of a seat-of-our-pants, improvisational moment, because even though we’d had the script written, we wanted a different ending than I had in the script. So we had been discussing it throughout the day, and eventually came to a conclusion.

At this point all of us were at the end of our ropes – both hungry and exhausted. We desperately wanted to finish the day. We had been shooting since 9 or 10am, and it was probably 8pm by now.

First, we experienced issues with the shot because the boom kept getting in the frame, but it was seemingly the only place we could place it to capture the sound. I think we eventually solved this by placing Steven – our boom operator – behind Hunter, who was operating the camera at this point and having him follow behind her.

We did multiple takes, and then things got a bit scary – but not because of the mood of the scene.

As I followed Stephen up the stairs during the scene, we were almost at the “Cut!” point when he suddenly fell backwards at the top, hitting the back of his head on Angie’s leg. Stephen had had multiple concussions before, so instantly he was in a bit of a panic. We stopped shooting immediately and paused to check in. We were all worried about him. Panic mixed with paranoia for him as he speculated whether he may have triggered another concussion. After about 10 or 15 seemingly breathless minutes, he recovered and said he was ready to continue. We were all relieved that he was okay, and we made sure to check in with him in the days that followed to ensure he was in good health, which he was.

We got the shot we wanted, and now – especially after the episode with Stephen’s tumble – we were really at the end of our ropes. We were all eager to finish the shoot. Finally, we shot the very last part of the scene – at the bathroom door – which was a bit improvised, and probably more complicated than it needed to be in some ways. I think I must have been in such a bizarre mental state at this point that I still feel like I messed up my character here, changing the way I delivered lines since I lost the deep, rugged Mainer accent I’d been using all day. After completing this shot, Hunter took some sliding shots of the house to use for the very end of the film, which worked really well, and that was it. We were done.

That’s a wrap.

We were still hours away from completing the production at this point, but this photo nonetheless makes for a great “that’s a wrap” finale photo. Credit: Conner Olsen

Quarantine & Post-Production

We had about a month until we needed to submit the “raw footage” to our professor, which was plenty of time for us. And then we had to begin editing.

We were way ahead of the curve compared to the other teams in our class, but that’s only because it was the only weekend we could all feasibly shoot. Still, it felt good knowing the stress of the production was now behind us, since it seemed that the pre-production and production itself in some ways were more stressful than fun. It felt like not just some weight but an entire anvil had been lifted off our shoulders.

But we had no idea what was just around the bend.

Two weeks after filming our movie about a virus, we began to hear news that threatened to keep us away from campus and from completing the remainder of our semester at home.

Nah, that doesn’t seem likely, some of us thought, including myself.

One day, my communication law professor brought it up in class, saying that after spring break, it was possible we wouldn’t be returning to campus due to the looming threat of the so-called “coronavirus.” If students travel on vacation – especially internationally, since some countries like Italy were harder hit than others – it was possible they’d be bringing the virus back home and infecting not just their families or members of the community, but students, faculty and staff at the university. This seemed like a plausible threat, but according to my professor, he thought we’d be returning.

That very day, just hours after hearing my professor speak about it in class, we received news that confirmed that we would not, in fact, be returning to campus after spring break. We were going to finish the spring 2020 semester at home, which means that even us seniors would be finishing our university experience not with each other but isolated in our houses.

Despite this news, some things didn’t immediately change. I even went to the gym a few times, and on spring break I was also able to use the production center on campus –  the central and most important facility for us media studies students – for my independent study project. The production center is where everything we need is: the studio (with lights, backdrops, and a green screen); the lab with all the high-powered Mac computers for projects; and all the gear and equipment necessary for film productions such as cameras, tripods, and microphones. The manager of the production center equipped the space with bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes that he urged us to use before and after using the computers; in addition, he had spaced out all the computers as part of a social distancing measure.

However, within just a day or two of using the lab, the manager announced that the production center is indefinitely closed, barring access to everything including the lab and production equipment.

This was a huge blow for me because I needed the computers to edit my independent study project – a travel vlog that I was planning to make after filming my travels in Los Angeles in January – but it was also a huge blow to my team, the other teams in our class, and of course every student in Media Studies who were relying on the center for all their needs that semester, including their senior capstone projects.

In one sense, it made me so thankful that we filmed at the beginning of March. All along throughout February, all of us – including our professor – reserved some trepidation about filming so early in the semester. Like I said earlier, we didn’t have enough time to formally hold auditions, nor did we have more time to film (rather than doing it all in a day), among other concerns. And our professor thought we needed to do more pre-production work. But all of a sudden I – we – ironically felt thankful that we had been in this position all along, because if we had been able to delay filming and planned to shoot, say, near the end of March, we wouldn’t even have been able to. Now, because of coronavirus and the subsequent quarantine, we were in a much better position than the rest of the groups in the class, some of whom only shot a scene, an interview, or hadn’t shot at all. We were the only group to have completed a full-length project (even though, of course, we still needed to edit it). So we weren’t completely devastated.

Angie and Stephen on set. Angie became the sole member of the team responsible for the entire editing process, since we were all fragmented and isolating from COVID. She took refuge with her boyfriend at the time in Vermont to do it.

However, because of the quarantine, this now meant editing remotely. We couldn’t all be present with each other in the computer lab to take part in the editing process or share our thoughts or simply be together as we completed this final phase of our project. And we were all spread out. One person was in Portland, one in North Yarmouth, one in Bath, and one – the editor, Angie – in Vermont. Of course, we could still Zoom together and chip in, but it was still disappointing we couldn’t all be together, at the very least to enjoy each other’s company, but perhaps more importantly to provide input so readily.

Now, we were basically relying solely on Angie to complete the project. This was fine, since we trusted her tremendously to execute the post-production phase with her consummate editing skills. But I also felt bad because it meant a lot of work for one person while the rest of us were essentially left with no work to do aside from providing input during the occasional Zoom meetings. While the overwhelming bulk of the weight was not on our shoulders now, they were all on Angie’s now. Thankfully, Angie was such a good sport about it and didn’t seem to mind doing it because it kept her occupied. She also thoroughly enjoys the editing process; it provides her with both pleasure and reward.

But, as if we hadn’t experienced enough complications by now, several errors and issues kept cropping up during the editing phase.

For one, the audio files were way, way, way too long. Sometimes up to an hour. This left Angie with having to find the correct timing for the delivery of certain lines, cutting them, and placing them in the proper place to sync them with the video. This created more work for Angie than normal, since audio is typically recorded in much shorter files. But I can’t fault Steven for that because it was his first time, and he put so much work into the project, which we’re forever grateful for.

She was also experiencing issues with continuity. Continuity is “the practice of ensuring that details in a shot are consistent from shot to shot within a film scene,” according to Lynda.com. “When there is continuity between shots, then audiences have a greater suspension of disbelief and will be more engaged in the film.”

As she edited, she kept discovering these issues. Things weren’t making sense from shot to shot. She also discovered issues in the story that contradicted each other, such as the supposed “digital detox” that Don claimed to be practicing on his writing retreat, despite being seen with a cell phone earlier and immediately after saying he’s practicing it. I hold myself responsible for that one. (Although my idea was that he was at the end of his retreat, thus could justify using technology again.)

There was also the issue of the still shot of Stephen watching the news. If we left this as is, the audience would be forced to awkwardly stare at him for a good 30 seconds or so, with no camera motion and nothing to break up the monotony of the shot (this is why we so deeply wanted the slow zoom). To work around this, Cody took it upon himself to dress up as a reporter and record himself at his house speaking into a microphone to play the reporter in the scene. In the script, the reporter’s voice was off-screen, so he or she wouldn’t be seen at all. But because of the suboptimal shot of Stephen, we needed a different visual to break it up, and Cody’s reporter saved it. Angie somehow worked her magic to make it look like a real television report too, plugging in news-like visuals and all.

Groundbreaking reporting by Cody Curtis a.k.a. John Thornton. Sadly, the fictional reporting here essentially became reality when COVID hit.

In addition to all this, we couldn’t use as much of Conner’s drone footage as we had liked. Even though we were absolutely elated about the footage he got, ultimately we couldn’t use most of it because it was too shaky at times. This was a disappointment because of how thrilled we were to open the film with it, since we knew it’d look dramatic and really give the audience a sense of place. Plus, how many students get access to a drone to incorporate its footage into their short films? There’s no drone available at the production center, so one would need their own or a friend’s, and we were so lucky to have Conner help with this. But, because of the shaky footage, we consequently could only use a little bit. Still, I was (and still am) stoked to have been able to have incorporated any at all.

The opening scene for the film. Drone footage by Conner Olsen.

After Angie created a rough cut, we held several Zoom meetings to address the myriad issues she was confronted by, as well as put forth some input for how to make the film better. For example, what music would we score it with – especially at the end? Where should there be music, and where shouldn’t there be? How should the credits appear? Should we add a scream to the final scene to make it more haunting and dramatic, or is that too cheesy? All of these and more were questions we had to ask ourselves and each other as we neared the end of our project.

Finally, at the beginning of May, Angie completed the final draft that we were all pleased with. One that we felt we could be comfortable showing to an audience, despite our various contentions with it. We were done. This damn project was done.

Now it was time to show the class. 

(Via Zoom, of course.)

Final Week, Final Thoughts

The class “viewing party” was certainly unconventional. All through the semester – before the quarantine came into effect, anyway – we were anticipating being in an actual classroom to watch each other’s films, and maybe comment on them. This included dramas and documentaries alike. But with the quarantine, we of course were forced to watch everyone’s films – one cobbled together using stock footage, two as just movie trailers, then ours – over Zoom. Thanks to the production center manager and our lab instructor, Nat Ives, this was made possible in a smooth and streamlined fashion.

Everyone’s films came out great considering the myriad logistical obstacles they all faced. As I said, every team had either shot only a little or none at all, due to the production center closing and the scattering of team members forced into quarantine. Again, it made me thankful we had shot so early in the semester so we could actually produce a full-length project. If we hadn’t, we too would have been forced into making a short movie trailer or collect stock footage. But as I said, everyone really executed their projects well considering the challenges they faced.

After our film’s presentation concluded, one person commented, “That was sick. Can you film our movie sometime?” That was rewarding to see, and it seemed sincere. Contrast it from generic compliments we received from people who viewed it after my team and I promoted it on social media: “I liked it,” “Good job,” and the like. To be frank, it compels me to consider the sincerity of them. But I also believe it’s important to not be consumed by skepticism of those types of compliments, or of course hyper-critical comments. After all, we did receive overall positive responses, and that’s better than people saying, “DAMN that sucked.” (Though it’s entirely possible people feel that way and they just don’t want to be “rude.”)

I also knew we couldn’t be too hard on ourselves if our film wasn’t winning any Academy Awards. After all, it was the first film for at least three of us. Plus, we all knew our film would suffer. There were just too many things working against us: time, talent, and turmoil – to name a few. So we just wanted (and had) to create something. We were all noobs who just wanted to do our best in spite of the headaches. And I really do think we executed it well, because despite the plurality of hardships, I think we did a damn good job and created something cool, unique and interesting, even if it wasn’t going to earn the top spot on the IMDB “Top 250.” It’s kind of like the ethos of a garage band: let’s make something that could be shit but have fun doing it, and at least aim for something decent. 

I think we had a good mixture of interesting cinematography and story, decent acting, great location, and spot-on editing, all considered. So I’m happy with what we created, and I’m proud to be able to show it to people, even if their reactions are tepid.

Plus, there’s the pride of: Holy shit, we did it. We actually did. In spite of the odds, we created a short film. And I wrote it and acted in it and had fun with my friends. Even if I die tomorrow, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years, and I can finally say I participated in the creation of a short film.

And I truly could not have done it without my team.

This is precisely how we all felt when we know the project was officially complete.

Now for the stuff that I find a bit surreal.

Reflecting on the genesis of our film’s story and how everything came to be, I still marvel at the unfolding of it all.

When the idea was first born, it was in early February. It’s a known phenomenon that writers often draw their ideas from current events and real-world happenings. Stephen King’s idea for his first novel, Carrie, came from a story he read in LIFE magazine about telekinesis:

I’d read an article in LIFE magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena – telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first —

POW! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.”

This is precisely how our idea came about. We had been discussing various ideas for our short film, and one thing we all agreed on was that we wanted it to be a suspense/thriller film. I told the team that I had always wanted to write a story about a young couple – or at least two young people in a car together somehow – who encounter a man on the side of the road in a rural environment who needs help, and turns out to have sinister motives. I figured the idea sounded cliche, but it still always appealed to me. The team liked this idea and thought we could work with it and simply build on it to form a real cohesive story.

However, that was what we were still facing: we needed to build on the story. What would it be about? Who are the characters, what do they want, what are they doing?

At some point, something crossed my mind: this epidemic in China from a flu strain called the “coronavirus.” So I said: What if we make the film about a virus?

POW! Two unrelated ideas – a virus and a couple who encounter a sinister stranger on the side of the road in a rural environment – came together, and we had an idea.

We knew we wanted one of the characters to have the virus. We played with a bunch of different ideas – this character would have the virus, who would infect that one, and it would either end with the death of all three whether by infection or, perhaps, a violent confrontation.

My character, Pete, suffers from a disease caused by a virus that causes him to have violent coughing bouts. Sound familiar?

I’ll let you find out for yourself how the film unfolded.

By the time we shot the film, it was the beginning of March. At this point the virus may have been in Washington state; I can’t remember. The state of affairs was surely escalating, but we still didn’t fully comprehend or grasp the magnitude of the situation. Plus, even if we did, what were we gonna do? Rewrite the script? We had already done that and experienced enough stress as it is. And we were operating under an extraordinarily tight schedule.

But then things became more and more serious, and more and more surreal. As I mentioned earlier, just two weeks after we shot the film, there was talk about shutting down the school and finishing the semester at home. And then the rumor became real: because of the coronavirus that was becoming a global pandemic and reaching the United States – with a very real threat of reaching Maine eventually, especially after students return from Spring Break vacations domestically and abroad – the semester would be completed at home.

Here was my team, in a state of disbelief and amazement. We had just shot a short film about a virus that kills one (or more) of our characters – indeed inspired by real-world events – and now we’re not only finding out that the coronavirus was infecting and killing thousands of people around the world, but we’re in a state of lockdown to protect the population from further infection rates. This is when we began to realize how very serious the threat of the virus had become, almost feeling bad that we had used it as the inspiration of our film despite forming it at a time when we didn’t fully grasp the reality and gravity of the situation. Perhaps our own ignorance was to blame, but we didn’t want to be hard on ourselves.

Because our film is about a virus, and because of some of the dialogue, and ultimately because of the timing, I actually wondered whether people would find it controversial, offensive, or insensitive.

I wondered whether people who viewed it – even friends or family – would perceive the story as capitalizing off a crisis. After all, it’s about a virus during a global pandemic, with millions infected and probably millions dying. (As I write this, more than 100,000 people have died in the U.S. alone.)

But there are so many films out there about viruses and pandemics that our film was hardly anything unique in that respect. One could make the argument that it was timed poorly; others could argue it was timed perfectly. For the latter, it’s worth noting that people seemed to be consuming television and movies that were about the same thing. There have even been articles that promoted media with these films, such as an article in Vulture with the headline, “The 79 Best Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine,” and in December, the mini-series of Stephen King’s famed apocalyptic novel, “The Stand”, aired on CBS. However, people generally seemed to be more interested in Tiger King in 2020 (including me).

We ultimately didn’t any flak for it, so that’s good.

Despite its myriad imperfections (as was expected), we were just happy that we not only completed the film, but that our professors and peers enjoyed it, too. It was months of chaos and stress, but it was such a profound learning experience, and some of us have even continued to be involved in film since then. Most of us hope to continue working in film in some capacity, whether it’s creating our own, being part of a cast or crew, or writing or filming them. And while the future of big-budget filmmaking is so uncertain, we’re just excited to be working here in Maine nonetheless, and “In The Midst of Mountains” has equipped us all in some ways for that industry.

Plus, now we all have something for our demo reels.

Watch the full film for free on YouTube, In The Midst of Mountains

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