This is part three of a four-part series about how I (Karl Stelter) wrote, crowdfunded, directed, and premiered my first professional short film, The Long Goodbye.
In my first entry, I shared how I came to be in LA, and 6 years later finally start writing something that mattered to me.
In the second entry, I shared why “finding your voice” is bullshit, and what I learned from crowdfunding $11,000.
In this entry, I’ll be sharing exactly how I put together a team to make that film without just ‘coming up’ with talented filmmakers, how I prepared for my first-ever short film, and what I wish I did differently.
After 8 years of grinding it out on weddings and corporate films, completely changing as a person (here’s my first ever video from 2010. You’re welcome), and learning to carve out small segments of the day for writing - I was ready to go all-in.
But I wasn’t expecting a home run. Hell, I just wanted a single.
In fact, I remember a specific moment about a week away from production where I thought to myself, “If I can make something even just watchable, I’ll be happy.”
And as it turns out, the best decisions I ever made were all in pre-production: finding a team that understood the vision, and were willing to put in the work with me.
Finding Your Team
I’ve always HATED seeing other filmmakers write about ‘their team,’
How they ‘came up together since college’ or ‘met on set 5 years ago and finally got a chance to work together.’ How they were so grateful to have them, and how they made the film possible.
It all felt so... lucky.
And even with 8 years in LA, I felt like an outsider because I didn’t have these things.
Perhaps even more-so BECAUSE I’d been in LA for 8 years.
So I want to share with you, as truthfully as possible, how I found every person on my team. It’s a little lengthy, so feel free to skip ahead to how I approached collaborating with departments I’d never worked with before.
Note: I keep a spreadsheet of EVERYONE I meet that I think does a good job in the industry, from PA’s to editors, to other directors. Do yourself a favor, and track with talented people.
Paul Major, Producer. I first met Paul when I was self-casting for a small commercial in 2014, casting him for a small 1-liner role. I loved Paul’s personality, work ethic and passion for what he did. And over the years we continued work on each other’s projects. Paul became not just an actor or producer to me - but a friend. Someone who understood me, and was willing to put in the work. He was one of the first people I brought on board.
Caitlin Crommett, Producer. I met Caitlin on a friend’s short film I helped gaff in 2015 (for free - always help friends on passion projects for free if you can), and she did a phenomenal job hustling / keeping things running. She also runs a non-profit called Dreamcatchers which helps fulfill end-of-life dreams for people in hospice care.
Joe Simon, Cinematographer. I’d been quietly following Joe’s work since 2011, watching his ambitions evolve from best-in-the-world wedding filmmaker (not an exaggeration), to commercial DP, to narrative DP. And at each step, I was in love with his style and filmmaking sensibilities. So when he posted on Instagram in 2017 that he was looking for short film scripts to shoot, I DM’d him the short pitch. Then a medium pitch via email with the script, and finally the full length pitch on a phone call - where he said yes.
Landon Brands, Gaffer. I’d met Landon briefly at SXSW in 2016, and I told him if he ever got out to LA to hit me up. A year later he moved to LA, he actually reached out, and we actually met for coffee in 2017. I liked his hustle and vision for where he wanted to go, and when I needed to find someone to support Joe - Landon was game.
Christy Carew, Composer. I was analyzing various Seed&Spark campaigns as I was preparing my own crowdfunding effort in 2017, and ran across the Virtually trailer. It was beautifully done, and then at the end I saw the credit ‘Music by Christy Carew’ and did a double take. I’d thought they just got SUPER lucky with a stock song that happened to fit perfectly. I reached out about my project via email - and she actually got back. AND she lived in LA. We met over lunch a few times, and she was on board!
Scott Edwards, Editor. In one of my more collaborative moments, I reached out to an editor whose work I really admired from a short film just to say ‘hey, you did a damn good job with this.” We set up a short 20m skype session to meet more officially, and about 6 months later I asked if he was available to edit a short doc (passion project). He was busy - but he introduced me to Scott in 2016, who had assistant edited on the project I originally admired. We talked about the short doc and it’s goals, and I hired him to edit it - which the first time I let go of editing something personally important to me. And he crushed it. So when I asked about The Long Goodbye - he said yes.
Paul Ruddy, CSA - Casting Director. In 2012 I’d taken some acting classes to better understand actors, and really admired the teacher Zak Barnett. I’d kept in touch loosely over the years, and as I was trying to figure out how to cast two older actors, I reached out to ask if he knew anyone or had any students that may be interested. He in turn recommended I find a casting director, and gave me Paul’s name. I researched Paul and found a YouTube video where he spoke about casting, and connected with it - and after an email intro and a phone call, Paul was in.
Ryan Graff, Production Sound. Production Sound was incredibly important to me, but I didn’t know anyone in this arena. So I started asking friends close to me for referrals. Those referrals weren’t available, but we asked for more referrals. And in a series of fortunate events, we were introduced to Ryan. I watched some of the films he did online, and after getting a vibe from him on the phone and hearing his excitement for good sound, we brought him on board. Pretty much a case study in referrals, research, and hitting the jackpot.
Defacto Sound, Sound Design & Mix. Originally coming across them in some kick-ass sound design for directors I really admired, it turned out Joe knew the owner and was willing to make an introduction.
TL:DR - If you’re ever feeling like other people are luckier than you - manufacture your own luck through persistence.
Collaboration + Preparation
Finding a great team is one thing - but corralling their talents into a single vision is another thing entirely, especially on this scale.
Even collaborating with a DP was entirely new, and I didn’t know what was enough vs too much information.
Conscious that I tend to get very granular, I hacked out a SUPER rough shotlist and set of references that we reviewed and talked about together.
Joe read between the lines and asked if I’d ever seen ‘A Ghost Story’ - which I watched, and ended up being one of the biggest influences of the film.
Here’s our Cinematography Collaboration progression:
We talked over each of these, and while the boards were pretty specific - I also made it clear to Joe that I was open to change on set, and wanted his creative input. After all, that’s why I brought him on!
Preparing Acting Options
If there was one thing I was petrified of, it was getting on set and not being able to verbalize a direction for the actors - especially ones as experienced as our cast.
To counter this, I’d spend hours literally closing my eyes and envisioning each scene, the blocking, and the potential directions I may want to go. What could the problem areas be, and how could I anticipate them with actionable direction - just in case my brain froze on the day of.
Did this help? Yes and no.
Some direction came in handy, but more than anything the act of practicing gave me confidence I could come up with something on the spot.
Involving the Cast and Crew
Leading up to the shoot, my biggest goal was to share this vision with everyone (not just department heads) as clearly as possible.
I knew this would be an all-hands-on-deck production over 3.5 grueling days, so the more buy-in I could get from everyone, the better.
To quote Jim Cummings in his brilliant ‘how to make a film’ article:
“Cast your crew with people your DP and Producers trust, who are also willing to be scrappy. Find people who are talented and enthusiastic. Hire people who you want to eat and drink with.”
So I spent an afternoon with the actors working through the script, answering questions, and finding the initial tone we could start from on set.
I shared the script and storyboards with the PA’s.
I shared everything I could with everyone, not because I needed them to read it - but because I wanted them to know I appreciated their commitment to the project.
A happy and invested crew will make your day, every single time.
Directing Lessons From Filming
The strangest thing I had to adapt to on set was making the most of my time between shots. I was so used to setting lights on my own stuff, operating camera, watching audio - pretty much everything.
So instead of running the technical aspects of a shoot - I got to focus on the actors.
I learned just how important blocking and rehearsal was - even when you feel crunched on time and want to ‘just shoot anything.’ Taking the time to rehearse and make sure you’re on the same page, ironically, will save you time, even if it limits you to just one or two takes.
I focused on being present with the actors - allowing us to go in directions that were more powerful than I could have ever hoped for.
Basically: trust your team. Trust your prep. And trust your heart.
The One Thing I’d Change
Stepping on set for the first time truly is a magical moment: the DP is setting up lights with his team. The actors are rehearsing lines and preparing for their moment. My wife was doing set decoration and wardrobe.
It really sinks in just how much went into getting to this point. How much people have committed to your vision. How much trust they’ve given you.
Which is where I think back to the importance of the script. I poured my heart and soul into it, but when I look back on it - I see a thousand things I’d change. A flawed document that represented the best my mind could offer at the time.
And in some respects: it crushes me. I see how the film could have been so much better if I’d had the maturity or foresight to change things.
But on the other hand: I can genuinely say it was the best thing I was capable of writing at the time. And that is ultimately our real job: not to be frozen by fear, but to risk making something that matters to you.
If you don’t feel like you’ve failed on some level, you either didn’t try hard enough - or you learned absolutely nothing.
Accept the lesson, and keep moving.
Always keep moving.
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