At the beginning of this year, I wrote and directed a short film for my Production I class at Kent State University. The whole point of that class is to create a film from start to finish — including writing, planning, budgeting, casting, and of course, the actual production and postproduction. It was a very intense class, but it has been my favorite I’ve taken so far and has perhaps taught me the most about filmmaking. This four-part blog series dives in-depth into the process of creating How to Be a Productive Member of Society, my first [proper] short film… because this was the first film I produced and directed that had a complete and proper film set, planning process, production process. I recommend watching the film before reading, which you can do below.
I wanted to make my film about the mundanity and repetitiveness of day-to-day life, and how exhausting life can get. Of course, in my limited worldview as a third-year college student, I’ve not been too exposed to this lifestyle yet, at least not personally. But it is something I worry about in my future, and parts of the film reflect the thoughts I have daily. The idea of the film was to be a bit existentially questioning, questioning what purpose we have when faced with the same thing every day and a constant stream of juggling modern-day problems, like debt, or workaholism, health issues…
This film puts all of that in video form through the perspective of Keith Gray, who narrates his day-to-day activities as if they were some sort of lengthy to-do list — something appropriate with the title of the film being “How to Be a Productive Member of Society”. It’s a bit ironic though, no? Many of the things Keith does in the film feel like things you’re supposed to do to “survive” or “be productive”, yet actively contribute to his downfall and upset.
If it wasn’t made obvious by now, this film took heavy influence from the Radiohead song/poem “Fitter Happier” from their OK Computer album.
In the first few classes we had, we were tasked to form our groups and start preproduction very soon, with some guidance of course. My group consisted of myself and two girls; Heidi, my friend whom I’ve worked with at my college’s TV station and was very talented; and Janelle, someone who I’d never really met before but brought some amazing ideas to the table in the initial group-forming phase of class. I explained my idea for a film, and they were all in.
The first thing my group did was start a Google Doc to serve as our sort of “whiteboard” to jot all of our collective ideas for what direction this film would go in. We grouped different ideas into “Routines”; the film goes through about 6 different routines with some variation between them. We typed down everything, even the most mundane and arbitrary, that we could think would be a part of the average day and what might be expected of the average citizen. As we went on, this eventually was reformatted into a very early version of our script.
Before getting too far, however, we were required to make a “pitch video,” which was a short video to explain what our film would be about and to get ideas of our visual aesthetic. This was the stage where many groups would “test-shoot” some scenes and editing tricks. For ours, we opted to go the much more experimental route, making our pitch video consist of many unsettling clips to represent daily life occurrences, followed by some clips of me talking about “how to make our film” with some heavy effects overlayed. It was meant to be kind of creepy! We even included an instrumental version of Fitter Happier as background music for the pitch (alongside The Cycle of Abuse – Emeralds, Wandering in our Times – Laurie Spiegel and kopfmusik – C418), to pay homage to the inspiration for our theme.
Another fun little fact: My dad has served as a major inspiration to me with filmmaking, and even reviewed some versions of the script. To pay respect to that, I included random clips from past films and videos he has created in the “montage” part of the pitch video. The rest of that montage footage was either stock footage, or random video clips I had lying around from previous projects of mine.
The class required the script to be somewhere between 7-10 pages. This was about what our professor expected students to be able to complete throughout the three-and-a-half-month class, as the general rule of thumb is that each page of a script is roughly equivalent to a minute of screen time. With our film going the experimental route with little focus on character-to-character dialogue and heavier reliance on intrapersonal thoughts and voiceover, our first script draft ended up at 27 pages.
Now, our professor was flexible to grant a few extra pages to films looking to do a bit more than the standard 7-10, on the condition that they would put extra effort into preproduction and that they knew they were signing up for extra work and headaches. This was not our case at all. We were at 27 pages, and our professor pretty much flat-out told us there would be no way we’d be able to accomplish that. Unfortunately, though, I’m a very “go big or go home” and ambitious kind of writer.
After many meetings with our professor, we agreed that we could bring our script down to under 15 pages. It hurt, and it was hard to choose what to get rid of, but it became easy when we looked at things from more of a logistical point of view rather than a visionary one. Given the constraints of the class, time we had, and money, it became easy to realize that we weren’t going to be able to give Keith a young daughter… or have a bunch of extras for a wedding scene… or cast a younger Keith… or film at a nice house for an intimate honeymoon scene… and we certainly didn’t need a bunch of filler scenes of Keith driving his car. And though it always hurts to make cuts to your writing for logistical reasons, I eventually accepted that the meaning of the film would still be conveyed properly.
Our next draft got things down to 20 pages, and after some more cuts, we managed 17 pages for our final draft. Our professor was still a bit worried if we would be able to accomplish it or not, but we explained that the film wasn’t actually going to end up at 17 minutes and that each page would speed through quickly due to the very fast-paced presentation. To that, we got a friendly “Good luck, please prove me wrong.” So that’s what we set out to do.