Summit

A Case for Test Screenings

As I'm in post-production for my second feature (About a Donkey), I've been reflecting on post-production for my first (Summit). There are a lot of differences between then and now, largely related to my skill and experience as a filmmaker and the unique conditions under which each film was made. (Though there are similarities too, like who my collaborating editor is and the (lack of) budget for both projects.) But the biggest difference I've noticed is my strong desire to share the rough cut of the film with a broad audience before locking picture. 

Four years ago, I honestly didn't see the point of test screenings. I understood why people do them from an objective standpoint. But, to me, it kind of felt like pandering or like it would just result in a bunch annoying comments about what was yet to be finished with the film. I did show it to a few people, of course -- those who worked on the project or very few other filmmakers whose opinions I trusted. But I felt that getting audience opinions wouldn't mean anything because I had a vision (and a limited budget that left limited options) and I didn't need outward input clouding my perspective. But I later realized that my aversion to showing it to a wider audience was more rooted in insecurity than practicality. Part of my desire to keep objective eyes off the film was because I knew a lot didn't go as planned in production, and I wanted to maintain a bit of a bubble around it so that I would feel compelled to finish it and deliver on what I had promised people. I suppose I feared that getting enough potentially lukewarm reactions would be discouraging in a way that would rob me of my motivation. (It's important to note that due to budget constraints, we had only 3 people working on the film in post-production (one person even did everything in terms of sound, including the score), around full-time jobs. The film was in post for a year and a half.)

That decision not to share (through not only picture lock but also through color grading and sound mixing) was a mistake, though. After my experience of screening Summit for an audience, I slowly started to see the value of test screenings. I may have been keeping it under wraps because of the big things I couldn't change. But when I screened it for an audience, I would cringe realizing there were little things I could've changed if I had just shared it and seen how they were interpreted. (I'm including a list of some of those things at the bottom of this post, if you're interested.)

As a director, it's definitely important to have a vision and follow your gut, but we're making films for an audience because we want to share a story that presumably is meant to say or affect something. So, while it's just as important to make choices and feel confident in those choices, I believe you should also make sure that what you're trying to say translates to your audience. I find it interesting that we workshop our screenplays like crazy, but there's this kind of auteur arrogance about the final directed product. Since I started running IndieWorks (which I started after I made Summit), I've realized this more and more. I often see films that are so obviously too long or contain shots or moments that are independently beautiful but don't serve, and sometimes even detract from, the story. And I often say to my programming colleagues, if only someone had told them before they locked picture -- or maybe, if only they had asked and been open to that kind of feedback. Sometimes films are so personal or the choices made all the way back in the screenwriting process have been with you for so long, that you simply need someone to help you see through fresh eyes. And from my own experience and what I see daily screening submissions, I wish more directors were as collaborative in the post process as they are building up to it. (Side note, test screenings and cultivating a broader, more informed perspective on your work before you lock it are especially pertinent if you are not an individual of a marginalized group of people but are (rightfully) choosing to be inclusive in your work. You'll want to run your depiction and choices by individuals who do identify with your portrayal to make sure you're capturing authenticity and empowering voices rather than perpetuating stereotypes.)

In my more recent work, I've been much more open to feedback during post-production. I believe I've always been a collaborative director, both in pre-production and on set. But I feel I would often go into the edit married to what I originally wanted it to be rather than letting it become something new. Even when working with other editors (which I mostly do), I was still fairly tied to the script or the modifications made to it on set.

However, my last two shorts, I edited myself. And ironically, I've always said I prefer not editing my own stuff so that I could have a fresh perspective on performances and pacing; but it was through editing my own work, specifically my latest short "Enough," that I realized I really needed to deviate from my own script. After playing around with options and feeling like some things weren't translating when all assembled together, I eagerly started showing rough cuts to people -- people I trust but still people outside my usual small circle and more in my target audience. I checked my ego and actually relished in hearing interpretations, even when they weren't my intention. Though I didn't end up following every piece of advice, I took it all in and allowed it to affect the way I see the film. I earned a stronger perspective on what I wanted the end product to be. In fact, hearing from a diverse grouping of people confirmed some things I had been feeling; I gained the confidence to throw out an entire sequence from the script that we had shot. Originally, the film was meant to cross cut between three characters before they are brought together. Instead, I had it cross cut between two before shifting the narrative to the third. The substance and purpose are still there, but the execution has changed for the better.

Between this latest experience and the rewatching of some older work with an audience recently, I've grown to fully accept that, generally speaking, the film that was on the page simply will not be the film that is edited, which will also likely differ from the film that was shot. Even when it's a writer/director, or in my case, writer/director/producer/editor, the vision and execution will and should change along the way. I now embrace this process and appreciate how the viewer's experience informs the work. This shift in perspective and willingness to be more vulnerable and less precious has been beneficial and helped me grow as a filmmaker -- which for me is the goal, to always be growing and becoming a better, more effective visual storyteller. 

We're only in the very beginning of post-production for About a Donkey, but I'm already looking forward to and planning our first test screening. In this first rough pass, I'm making the choices I feel are right to convey and elicit what I'm going for. But I'm also keeping flexibility in mind. I'm looking forward to asking an audience if any given joke lands or if a line or moment feels too longwinded or abrupt for the subtext underneath. I really just can't wait to consume diverse experiences of the film to make sure it's as strong as possible while accomplishing what my collaborators and I want it to. I'll, of course, keep my vision and preferences in mind, but I'll also listen and be open to finding creative ways that could possibly better execute that vision.

-Christina 


Some of my observations after releasing Summit, many of which I could've realized from test screenings before release:

I'm gonna spoil my film a bit here, so skip this whole section if you have any intention of watching.

  • A moment that pains me every time I watch the film (which is lately never unless I have to for some deliverable reason or if it's screening and I need to attend), is one in which a character is insanely searching the house for someone or some evidence of someone after the death of one of the characters. His character insists someone is in the house and then storms off ripping the place apart. The last thing he checks is a dresser, pulling out all the drawers before slamming his fists on it in frustration. There were lines scripted immediately after that, that referred to there being no one and no clues in the house. The actor dropped the section of the line about clues (this was a particularly stressful production day for everyone and we all struggled and had to make creative sacrifices). In post, I was so concerned with the technical things wrong with the scene and also certain aspects I felt were lacking performance-wise which I was trying to fix in nuanced ways, that I overlooked a very logical flaw. I assumed (really hoped) people would infer that he was mad with grief and just searching for any minuscule sign of someone hiding in the house. But when the film first screened in front of an audience, many people in the audience laughed when he was looking through the drawers. (A viewer from a later screening specifically tweeted about my movie and mocked "stupid characters in a horror movie searching for people in tiny dresser drawers.") In hindsight, yeah, if you're not onboard with his crazy erratic behavior, if you're not going along with his grief, if you're a skeptical viewer, or even just a super logical one, it is pretty silly that he says he believes a killer is hiding in the house and then searches in spots only mice could fit. A test screening would have allowed me to see the way it was perceived and found a way to cut it or cut around it. I was too married to the intention and didn't have the distance to have an objective perspective on the execution.
  • There are two POVs in my film, one when a character goes to pee in the woods and gets spooked by hearing cracking branches around her, and one when two characters have sex and are being watched by someone unseen. I was definitely playing with the POV trope as alluding to the killer in horror films. The first POV scene was, in hindsight for the viewer, meant to be symbolic of said character cracking in her own mind -- like her need to consume & kill was coming back even though she was trying to suppress it. But, after screening it for an audience, I realized that literally no one got that symbolism. I was trying to ground it in reality with a certain hint of surrealism. But it blended too much with reality for anyone to read into it. It apparently just read as a weird (possibly poorly directed) moment, not as a clue. I wish I had known that while there was still time to heighten it. And then the second POV, very few people interpreted it as a POV at all. There was no heavy breathing, maybe the camera wasn't shaky enough, maybe the audience just wasn't expecting for the film to go in that direction. I don't know because I didn't get a sampling of feelings. It's very possible I would have kept it as ambiguous even if I got feedback that stated it wasn't translating as a POV, but I still would've loved to know how that moment was being interpreted just for the context of the choice I was making before I locked that choice. 
  • There are lines in the film that directly reference obscure horror movies and pretty much tell you who the killer is while still making sense in the context of the conversation. Only hardcore horror fans ever picked up on those. I was definitely playing with a lot of references in the film, trying to achieve the duality of being enjoyable for horror fans and non-horror fans alike. But I never did see how the film played and was interpreted differently by those different targets until it was done and out there. In post, I was always unsure of whether or not the clues to what the film was really about were too subtle or not subtle enough. I was making a lot of choices while attempting to look at the film as if I didn't know what the twist was to see if I was treading the line effectively. But I could've answered my questions if I had been less precious about protecting the twists and my choices and, ultimately, my ego.
  • And beyond the horror clues, a unifying factor of viewing the film was definitely supposed to be the commentary. There's stuff embedded in it regarding gender and race tropes in horror films as a reflection of gender and race expectations in real life. I was also going for a bunch of subtle commentary on how people use each other in relationships (romantic and platonic) to validate or appease ourselves. I found that while some other filmmakers and a more analytical subset of my audience got the the general commentary, most viewers did not. I had to accept that most people won't think deeply about the intention behind something when it's alluded to but not overtly stated; and while I may not necessarily care whether or not those people get it, I do want my vision to be effectively communicated and consumed. Along our festival run, I had to contemplate whether or not the film and the story worked independent from the commentary enough to encourage rewatch from people who wouldn't immediately pick up on the subtext. But this reflection of mine was long after the fact when the film was done and when there could be no revisiting of the execution. In hindsight, I feel I could have balanced it better with all that in mind. That said, there are people who enjoy it as just a slow-paced, character-driven, horrific story with no sense of the intended commentary. Some others enjoy it largely with the commentary in mind. Some just hate it, and it varies whether or not that's in spite of, in ignorance of, or because of the commentary. Some are just bored and confused by the film and wouldn't even watch long enough to notice the commentary. I accept and appreciate all those things now. But the point is, I feel I could've made stronger decisions if I had allowed them to be more informed decisions. 

Learned Since "Summit," Now Onto "About a Donkey" (Kickstarter Update)

Hi everyone, 

It's been awhile since I've sent an update because I added you all to our monthly newsletter. However, I thought I'd check back in here because there's some exciting stuff going on and I know not everyone receives every newsletter. It's been four and a half years since we ran this campaign for Summit! I don't know about you, but it feels like forever ago. I often feel like my life is divided between before Summit and after Summit because making it was such an intense experience. I have a real love/hate relationship with the film, to be honest with you. I wouldn't be the filmmaker I am now if not for mistakes made and lessons learned through that film. It's very flawed. But I love it because of the fact that it made me that filmmaker -- that I learned so much from it. And there is a lot in it to be proud of -- aspects of the film that did work out, largely thanks to the talented people I was lucky enough to be surrounded by. Thank you for becoming part of the film and allowing us to make it. I'll never stop being grateful to you for that. 

Since its festival run and VOD release, and since it started getting reviews and audience feedback, I've learned a lot, as well -- particularly in terms of how different people will view your work based on their life experiences and existing biases. Some people totally get the stuff I was trying to say about gender, race and tropes, while with other people it just goes right over their heads. Some reviews hate the pacing, others appreciate it. Some consider it a horror film, some do not. It's interesting taking in the opinions that come out, especially knowing when they come from a deeply personal place. It's been nice seeing people objectively engage with the work, even when their objective opinions aren't fully positive. It's given me further perspective on how intentions don't always translate, and that you can't meet everyone's expectations. I learned where I could have balanced the commentary more and done better to serve the story while still making the film I set out to make. But I also learned to just embrace the film for what it is and accept the way some people may feel about it. That said, there are people that really like it and get what I was going for, which has been lovely. In any case, I hope you enjoyed being part of the experience of making it. I hope you're proud to have contributed to it. But also please know that I know it's a flawed first feature. I've definitely grown as a filmmaker. 

I'm not sure how closely you've been following our work since Summit. But you should know there's a lot of free content to dive into, if you'd like. From our 10-episode web series 'Kelsey,' to shorts: "Juice It," "We Had Plans," "Not Our Living Room," and "Hello." "Not Our Living Room" and "Hello" are probably of most interest for genre fans. (You'll recognize familiar faces in all those shorts, by the way.) I also have a comedy pilot, "Two Gays and a Girl," and two shorts, a horror titled "Night In," and a thriller titled, "Enough," currently in post-production.

But my main focus right now is my second feature, About a Donkey. It's not a horror film. It is a character-driven ensemble piece though. And it's definitely subverting expectations, which is a pattern in my work. It's generally more in line with my comedic work above, like 'Kelsey, ' and "Juice It." I'll definitely be back to my horror roots (*cough* already wrote third feature script *cough*) but this project is really near and dear to me and my collaborators. It's a film we've been wanting to make for years, but it feels especially timely. I think art matters more than ever right now -- reaching people and spreading empathy and hope is crucial. This film, if made, will do that.

We're currently crowdfunding for the film: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/about-a-donkey. (I wrote a blog post recently about why I keep crowdfunding. You can read it here: http://www.congestedcat.com/blog/2017/1/27/working-towards-sustainability-why-i-keep-crowdfunding-making-shorts.) I hope you'll check out our pitch and consider joining us on this journey towards making another feature film. I truly believe this project matters and that it's something worth being part of. 

Thank you for all the support,

-Christina & the team

Christina & SUMMIT featured in Newsday

Christina was interviewed by Newsday in promotion of SUMMIT's screening next weekend at the Macabre Faire Film Festival, where it is nominated for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Sound & Best Supporting Actor (Rob Ceriello). There are 5 films nominated in each category (out of 30 features and 146 films in total). Read the full article here. And see full list of nominees here

SUMMIT at Rhode Island International (Vortex) Film Festival Recap

Last Saturday, Summit screened the Rhode Island International Film Festival's Vortex Sci-fi, Fantasy & Horror Film Festival (the genre sidebar of their main festival), and I was invited to participate in a panel the day before. So, my mom & I decided to drive there early on Friday and make a weekend of it. It was a ton of fun! This was largely because I got to spend the weekend with my mom, which is pretty rare lately, but also because Rhode Island is beautiful (I had never been before) and the festival organizers were so warm and welcoming. 

The panel (Behind the Camera Lens) on Friday was curated by RIFF programmer Shawn Quirk and moderated by Rhode Island Film & TV Office Executive Director Steven Feinberg. My fellow panelist was Rhode Island based genre filmmaker Tommy DeNucci, who just released his third feature, Almost Mercy. The panel was for a class of film students at Roger Williams University. I enjoyed speaking on the panel and getting to know Tommy & Steven. We talked a bit about our inspirations and approaches to filmmaking, but the panel had a main focus on filmmaking in the Ocean State. Steven Feinberg seemed to single handedly bring film industry to Rhode Island five years ago and it has been flourishing ever since. It seems like the state works with independent filmmakers to make low budget filmmaking possible while also following the rules and increasing production value. Locations and permits are a lot easier & cheaper to come by than in NY (or LA) if you go through the Film & TV office. It feels very much like they really care about film and filmmakers, not just about making a buck anywhere and everywhere; and I was definitely convinced to try to shoot my next feature in Rhode Island. 

My mom couldn't resist recording the panel (at least each time I spoke), so here are some clips thanks to her: 

Tommy DeNucci's film can be watched on Netflix. (I have not watched it yet.)

As for the Summit screening, well there was a smaller turnout than I or the festival expected. However, despite being small, the crowd was great. There were 17 people in the audience, plus the two of us, the projectionist and some festival staff. The space was nice, a local chapel theater, and the picture quality was excellent. The day before, I had heard festival director George T. Marshall mention swapping out a projector at one of the locations because he cares about how the films look. This is something I really appreciate, particularly after our Manhattan Film Festival experience. The sound was really great, as well (by that I mean the space and speakers; anyone who has seen the film or our budget knows/can assume the audio is a little rough around the edges at times.) I was really satisfied with the screening on a technical level. 

I've seen the film so many times now that I have a hard time reading the room. I'm so immersed in my own boredom, that I half expect someone to stand up rolling their eyes & walk out. But, thankfully, that never happened. In fact, the audience was very engaged during the Q&A. They asked a lot of questions, mostly related to where I found the actors and how I worked with them, how we got our location (and where & when we shot), and the budget. My favorite question regarded the typical use of the killer's POV in slasher films and how that was lacking (or was it?) in Summit (cannot elaborate - spoilers). A lot of people asked for my card, more so than at other festivals, which was cool.

And on top of a successful screening, I was awarded Best Director!!! Out of 80 films (7 of which were features), I was given Best Director. I'm still so blown away and grateful! Having seen a few of the films at the festival, I have to say, I'm truly honored because Summit was in impressive company! (Full list of winners HERE.) A huge part of directing is recognizing talent in others, so I must thank my cast & crew because I won due to their talent and dedication. I cannot thank them enough.

After the screening & awards ceremony, we said our goodbyes and hit the road. I hope to be able to visit again next summer because with my win came an all-access pass to the main festival in August! 

Click through photos from the weekend:

They should release their hi res photos from the festival soon. 

Our next & final screening of Summit will be in January at the Macabre Faire Film Festival (more details soon), followed by the film's VOD release! 

-Christina