Here are a bunch of questions we asked ourselves over the course of making “The Grey Matter”:
Who the hell is going to help me make this film… for free? Fortunately, I work with my brother Luke who is my co-conspirator as well as our cinematographer. So that was covered. But what about everyone else you need to make a film? Our budget didn’t allow us to even come close to paying industry standard rates — or really anything at all. I did, however, build relationships over the years through my professional career. That’s an important factor in getting your short made. Create relationships that are mutually beneficial. And call in those favors…holding the boom for a 16-hour days on that dude’s 20-minute silent film finally paid off because all these years later, he’s now a skilled producer.
Will this short be a waste of time and money? It was important that we knew what we were getting into when I wrote a script in need of a “worm-like creature” along with other key special effects. For us, the short serves enough specific purposes that it remained valuable in spite of its never-ending process. It’s a proof of concept piece for a feature script we plan to shoot, a redirection of the tone and work we’re mostly known for, as well as a fun little film that we hope stands on its own two feet independently of its other reasons for being. Having those goals in mind kept us afloat in the darkest times of our many frustrating holding patterns. Our short took almost two years to complete and ending up costing around the same as one year’s college tuition. Now every film is different, and someone could certainly make a great feature film with that exact same time and budget… but that just wasn’t what our film was ever meant to be.
How the hell are we suppose to cast this thing? Initially, casting took forever. We started by reaching out to actors that were friends of friends, but after months of getting nowhere it became pretty apparent that we were in need of professional help. Our EP Emily Wiedemann had a relationship with the casting director Eve Battaglia. She dug the script and agreed to help us out for next to nothing. This was crucial. Our film has a very offbeat tone, one that could very easily tiptoe into the world of camp in the hands of the wrong actors. Landing our three leads Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Lucy Walters and Carter Roy made a world of difference. They were able to translate our oddball little script into something that feels totally authentic, comedic and relatable.
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Why did I write a script with so many FX shots?
We’re big fans of practical effects in films, so it was important to us that we create a physical version of our maggot/worm creature, Brian. The only problem – this was an area of filmmaking where we had no experience. We needed someone that was going to elevate the production in the same way the actors would. Someone excited by the material enough to do it solely for the love of the film. This seemed tall order to us at the time. After a few dead-ends, I started to panic and severely pared down the screen time of the creature FX to the only bare minimum. Ultimately, this ended up being useful in two respects, less VFX shots and hopefully, it left the audience wanting more.
Eventually, our producer, Ashlea Hartz, reached out to FX artist Tate Steinsiek. Fortunately for us, he loved our script and his career was taking off due to being a finalist on SyFy’s Face Off. After discussing it with Tate, we decided on animatronic puppets augmented with CG to create a mouth and facial features for Brian. Perfect… Only we never budgeted for any CG. We needed to add another huge favor to our ever expanding list of huge favors. Our friends at the VFX house Phosphene agreed to slip us into their already busy schedule after hours and in between legitimate paying clients.
Why didn’t I just voice this dumb worm in the first place? I had a great idea. After the film was cut I thought there was an opportunity to reach out to a “recognizable actor” through our casting director, in order to voice the creature, Brian. I saw this as a way to make our little film stand out in a crowd as far as festivals and later websites were concerned. I mean, it would require very little of an actor’s time and resources and provide them with a fun way to give back to the upcoming generation of filmmakers. Seemed like a no brainer. So we went for it.
Every time we reached out to an actor it took nearly a month of back and forth with an agent for an eventual “no” or they just stopped responding all together. I’d estimate we spent around six months going back and forth with actors’ agents or managers trying to cast the part. In the meantime, VFX needed a final voice track to start working on Brian’s lip-sync. So a major bulk of the VFX work was on put on hold… for six months. Eventually in the frustration that our film would never be completed, I decided to voice the character myself. Something that in hindsight I wish I had done from the start. At the end of the day it works just fine with my voice, but I still have dreams of what could have been.
Is it even worth doing the film festival circuit for a short film these days? This was a question we asked ourselves over and over again before, during and after the festival process. I had my sights set on Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX as the festival we hoped to premiere at. Its fan base is our target audience… which is essentially ourselves. I’ll never know for sure, but I have a feeling my eagerness resulted in us submitting a cut of the film that was way too rough and as a result, we were rejected. This was a crushing blow to us. Everyone gets rejected from Sundance, but to make a genre film and get rejected from Fantastic Fest… it just felt like a bad way to start our festival rounds.
I should mention that at nearly 18 minutes, “The Grey Matter” is at the long end of a short, making it much harder to program. Coming from the world of commercials, we usually operate within 30 second timespans. The idea of making something that didn’t feel rushed, had some character development and world building was the appeal of making the short from the start… so we have ourselves to blame for not getting into more fests.
We didn’t get into any of the majors, but at the end of the day, we ended up with some quality festival play. I’m glad we did it, but it was a full year that we couldn’t share the film with the public. So if we were to do it again I would probably only submit to the majors and then if we didn’t get in… straight to the internet.
Why didn’t we just premiere the film online from the beginning? As I write this it’s been one week since we released the film online and we’re at roughly 82,000 plays. We followed what seems to be the established online release plan for shorts. First, pick an intriguing image to be your poster frame on Vimeo. In our case, we went with a pretty graphic image. We were a little on the fence about choosing this particular image because while it felt captivating enough to garner clicks it could also scare away potential viewers (and did, according to many web comments) not to mention it makes the film seem much more gruesome than it actually is. Though that shot is as gruesome as the film gets, it may still be too graphic even for fans of dark comedy.
We launched on Short of the Week and Film Shortage, which put the film on Vimeo’s radar. It was picked up as a Vimeo Staff Pick, which is huge as it’s really the only guaranteed way to get a wide net of eyes on your film. After that, the views started adding up. After two long years, it’s exhilarating to get so many viewers of the film – so quickly. The other great thing about the online audience it there’s instant feedback and open dialogue with your audience. We even got our first “fan art” in the form of a hand drawn poster by Cody Schibi.
We email new websites and blogs every day in order to keep the momentum going. We set up a Google alert for the title of the film so we know if it gets a mention anywhere. I tweet daily from my own account as well as one I set up for the film. We post to Facebook, hopefully not annoyingly so. We appreciate people’s nice comments and ignore the mean ones. Also, the short is essentially a truncated first act of a feature script I wrote. So outside of just promoting the film for its own sake, we are essentially building a potential audience for our feature.
One thing we did that I had never heard of anyone doing before was hosting our feature script on The Black List to coincide with the release of the short. Now when we get press coverage we try to mention that the feature screenplay is available for download there. Then an “industry professional” could easily find the script. The public can’t download the script there and the site is not really designed for this type of promotion as far as I know, but if it pushes the right reader to the script it could mean a world of difference for the future of our film.
Watch “The Grey Matter” below: