SMASHED – THE MOVIE
Based on the results many of my writing students earned with their short scripts, and the results of the films I’d directed, my name became the ‘go to’ for writing and directing. So, when several projects fell out with an LA based women’s film organization, a few of the producers involved with that program reached out to me.
That’s how it started.
The process of working with a young organization that acts as executive producers had many ups and downs. I learned so much about myself and others and I look forward to writing about that knowledge in future articles, but for now, I want to give you an overview of this program.
Women in Media, an organization that started as a networking group for women to hire other women in the film industry moved into film producing. Their founder and organizer is a networking powerhouse. Pair that with her optimistic personality and she has managed to create symbiotic relationships with very large organizations that have the ability to offer in-kind support to filmmakers — think cameras, lights, locations, gear, costume, contacts and even training. Women in Media started their Cameraderie initiative, and I was asked to direct and invited to submit a script. The producers has solicited scripts from several writers, and eventually it was my script that was selected. But that was just the beginning. I had no idea how massive this undertaking would become.
I advise my writing students who have small budgets, few resources and inexperienced filmmakers to keep their stories manageable. I guide my students to create projects that have fun, solid, compelling stories that come from personal experience and don’t require huge amounts of pre-production, people and costs. Of course, the more you master the craft of screenwriting, the more you can expand the guidelines and challenge yourself. I challenged myself. The script evolved from 4 characters to 6, then 8 and finally I had something like 14. Only 7 or so had speaking parts. This script always had comedy, but it evolved to action-comedy with my protagonist practically running a marathon. I call it action for several reasons; the sheer number of footsteps = chase scenes. My protag is always running – trying to beat the clock, her antagonist and trying to get to her daughter before it’s too late. I wrote in stunts. I wrote in stand-offs and I wrote in lots of surprises – for everyone.
It’s a fun story and I could see the possibility of it becoming something larger – a pilot or even a feature. It has that kind of personality.
The leads are women, and I even cast Kim Chi (the drag queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race) as one of my lead hosts.
The script went through many rewrites, sometimes very big shifts and sometimes subtle. It was an exasperating journey. Again, I’ll write more about this in a future article.
Once the script was finally greenlit by WiM, we went into full pre-production and fundraising. By this time, I’d been connected with several film professionals. This was a spectacular opportunity that gave me writing insight that I hadn’t expected. One of the writing mentors was Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman). Funny story – as a UCLA Fellow at Telluride the year Birdman premiered, I had the great honor of getting a private (the UCLA fellow group) afternoon meeting with writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu discussing filmmaking. He’s amazingly talented and offered so much deep insight he became one of those directors you look at for filmmaking guidance. So, meeting one of the writers from the Birdman team was astonishing.
We spent an hour talking about my short. His input and advice continued to shape the story.
Alexander was the first of many mentors that provided valuable insights and I look forward to sharing some of those insights in a future articles.
The pre-production period was fast and furious. I had a cast of 14 (ridiculous for a 12 minute film). I had four sets that had to built. I needed to hire a director of photography, and the rest of my crew. We planned on shooting with 3 cameras. My DP needed to create a light and camera map. I needed to rehearse my actors. We had paperwork to do. Lots of paperwork. We had to deal with covid19 rules. It was intense and expensive.
The Cameraderie rules gave us 3 days to shoot the film. We shot on the CBS lot in Hollywood in a 15,000 square foot sound stage. But we had 3 cameras, a comedy-action short with a lead who’s makeup and clothing degrades over the course of the story. This meant that we had to be very specific with make-up, wardrobe, character arc, and blocking. This was a huge undertaking. I spent time walking my cast and main crew through the entire story in chronological order. Just like we were putting on a live staged show. That helped with continuity and understanding of how the lead’s appearance degrades, and where the antagonist is in relation to the protagonist.
My DP and I had worked out some really fun shots using straight and circular dolly tracks, Easy Rig steadycam shots and a crane. We had a lot up our sleeves and wanted to get as much bang as possible. Each piece of equipment was used very intentionally to reflect my protagonist’s emotional state. In addition to the 3 main production cameras, we had 2-3 ‘studio cameras’ that were used primarily as props to help build the real-world feel of being on a television set. So we had the film world – the story I wanted to tell my audience in this film, then I had the television world – the world my protagonist (Lana) works in and within that we needed to show her personal life that exists outside of the work world. We shot a television show in a movie – much like Network – using the television audience as the second audience.
Two weeks after we wrapped, our editor quit. She’d edited a few pages, until she realized that independent film was more time consuming and challenging than paid television, mostly because in low-budget film we can’t afford the luxury of editing assistants who sync and prep the footage. I had never worked with an assistant editor, but I can see why editors prefer it.
So, I had a first rough cut deadline around the corner and set to editing. Ultimately, we needed to have a final cut for Universal sound and color around the first week of November for a November 21st premiere at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. This was an insider premiere for all four of the films that went through this WiM program.
Although we still had some tweaks to make to the film, we premiered. And it was glorious. What an amazing cast and crew. The audience reacted just as I expected, and in some places, with even greater enthusiasm. It was an exciting evening and I’ve since started the film festival submission route.
I’ll keep you posted.
Dawn Spinella is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. She runs Damn Spinella Productions and No Boundaries Film Institute. If she stopped, she would shrivel like dust and disappear.
Advice: “Write/Live/Create in the eye of the storm! See the debris whirling, driving, spiraling. Feel the roar of the wind, the sting of the hail. Smell the electric scorch of lightening. Taste the dirt.”