The Working Experience: How to Shoot a Short Film-Absorb the Obstacle
Matty Kerr is co-creator, along with John Brancaccio, of The Working Experience. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and visit theworkingexperience.com for more content.
When one door closes just open it again; it’s a door, that’s what it does.
In an interview guitar virtuoso, Steve Vai, who uses to play with Frank Zappa, he said that when confronted with a problem, Zappa would “absorb” the obstacle. If he couldn’t get around it or go through it, he made the obstacle work for him.
Absorb the Obstacle.
In July, I was supposed to direct a short film that I had written. The production company and I had started scouting locations and doing some preliminary casting but then the pandemic hit and by mid-April we had to concede that it wasn’t going to happen; there were going to be too many restrictions and safety issues to make it feasible.
How were we going to shoot a film with the actors staying six feet apart and wearing masks?
It was frustrating. Not to be too melodramatic but when you are really passionate about something and can’t do it, things feel hopeless and without purpose.
What else could I do?
I was pissed off about it and then I decided to stop wasting my energy being mad and figure something else out. If I couldn’t shoot my original script, what could I shoot? How could I use the current situation to tell a new story?
I had had an idea for a script about a man who quit his job to be a stand-up comic so I went back to that and started developing it, only this time thinking about how he would do that when everyone is locked down.
We have all seen the shows with the talk show hosts sitting at home on their couches telling jokes into their computer screens. It’s terrible. There is no audience laughing, the timing is off, all the jokes seem to fall flat. The hosts themselves seem to dread doing it by this time.
Why not use that?
Kids are at home on their computers doing their distance learning. Older kids can’t go to college and live in the dorms. The parents are stressed about unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. Everyone is talking to each other via Skype and Zoom.
Use it all. Absorb it.
Then I actually had to write the script.
It wasn’t until the 8th draft of the new script that I started to get a handle on my anxiety, which always happens to me. I had been having a lot of trouble with the pacing and connecting the different scenes together in a way that made sense that I had gotten stuck. The scenes just weren’t flowing naturally.
Then I had an epiphany.
I have heard so many people say, “I don’t even know what day it is.”
The pandemic has thrown everyone off of their routines. They are not commuting to an office at certain time anymore; they are not going to the gym, going out to eat, the kids are home from school. My neighbors were grilling on a Tuesday afternoon. Doesn’t matter what day it is.
It doesn’t matter what day it is in the script. The film is only meant to be fifteen minutes long but who cares if it takes place over a week or a month? Time has become very disjointed and I want to capture the feeling of confusion and uneasiness that it creates.
We are all being forced to maintain social distance from each other. We are not able to congregate at bars and restaurants to see our friends. We are not able to go to sporting events. I want to capture that sense of isolation and the neurosis it can create.
The main character, Jeff, is attending his comedy workshop classes via Zoom. He has no live audience to perform for. The other comedians complain that they can’t practice their routines without some kind of crowd reaction.
How does Jeff solve this?
He will perform on Facebook Live.
What about an audience? What about a crowd reaction?
Jeff will use cardboard cutouts like they do in the stadiums and pipe in a laugh track.
The characters are absorbing the obstacle as well.
The pandemic itself is a character. There is a mysterious delivery driver who moves relentlessly forward throughout the film. He is masked, he is mysterious, he is scary.
He is the pandemic.
It’s been stressful, yes. I had already sunk a lot of time and some money into the original project and I didn’t relish having to start over. But it has actually been very rewarding. The pandemic prodded me in a new direction.
So use what you have in front of you. If you can’t figure out a way around a situation, embrace it. Do the best you can with what life has dealt.
There really isn’t any other option.