Team Size: 10
Timeframe: 7 months
Role: Writer, Storyboard, Cinematography, Director, Editor, Producer
Prompt: Senior film project for Princeton University Visual Arts Certificate
An introverted man, Marcus, is driven to action when is best friend, Charlotte, is mysteriously killed. His journey puts him on a collision course with Ray, his arch-rival, and Ray’s mercurial accomplice, Lee. But be warned: not everything is as it seems in a story like this.
NOTE: Spoilers regarding the film’s plot will follow in the subsequent examination of the production process.
Given that the film was my final project as part of completing the Visual Arts Certificate Program at Princeton University, the project began with just me and my advisor, Keith Sanborn.
This project required extensive pre-production work, starting in September 2014, and involving Keith and I discussing the script treatment for about two months:
The idea itself started with me wanting to tell a story in which the main characters are spying on each other and (presumably) killing each other throughout the film, but that at the end, it is revealed that it has all been a game of Assassins and no one is actually hurt. The entire idea started with the following:
From this point, we focused in more on the characters, developing out their personalities and labeling their archetypes, such as “The Fox” or “The Lion,” also creating a Character Flow Chart to deepen their relationships.
To go along with these deepening characters, we took another pass at the outline, this time trying a new exercise in separating the “Appears to Be” plot versus the “Actual” plot; given that the film would hinge on the audience believing that these characters were actually lethal to each other, when in truth it was just a game taken too seriously.
At this point of the process, the idea was to have the final twist be the plot being revealed as a game. But in discussions with Keith, we realized that it was needed for the audience to get a chance to ride the actual plot with the characters, instead of having the rug pulled out from under them at the end as a “gotcha” twist. We decided that it would be better if the big plot reveal happened at the midpoint of the film, and then the second half would be exploring how these characters, whom we now know are taking these game too seriously, would try to win at all costs, with two more character-based twists added to end in which the protagonist ends up humiliating the antagonist.
Now with these new plot beats in tow, and with the characters now substantially developed, it was time to write the script:
From here on out, much time and detail placed into writing the storyboard, after which the project could move on to casting.
In casting, I sent the final script out to a series of actors and actresses on campus and asked them to pick two characters to read for. Then, I would meet them in person and decide which character best suited them. At this point in the process, the side characters Lee and Jack were written as male characters. However, the people that performed the best for these two characters were women, so the characters were transformed from men to women.
This actually bettered the theme of the piece, as, instead of it being a murder mystery with a twist that made fun of people taking things too seriously, it began to expand into an exploration of toxic masculinity, and women being far more stronger than they appear to be. I wish I could take credit for having conceived of that theme, but at this point I am simply grateful that a fateful casting decision led to its inception.
After a few more pre-production requirements (i.e. ordering and delivering props to campus, constructing some of the more hand-made props, getting permits from campus to be able to carry paintball guns around with us for the shoot), production could begin:
Production took place, for the most part, during the last week of January 2015, when the majority of campus students were away on break. The crew consisted of myself as the director and cinematographer, my five actors, two crew members (a lighting designer and a production assistant), and a friend, Stefanie Webb, who graciously let us use her house as a set piece for the film. Marissa Applegate, my lightning designer, also doubled in the small role of the bartender. Lastly, we consulted a handful of extras to appear in the film’s final scene.
We completed a scene a day, going off of the storyboard as a basis, albeit with the final scene taking two days. Filming took place at my friend’s house, a handful of roads around campus, and the Princeton Quadrangle Club, which served as the main setting for the film.
After the first day, there was an impromptu snowstorm that descended on campus. We missed one scheduled day of shooting, but it was light enough to continue shooting after one missed day. Long term, it served as a blessing in disguise, as it gave the film an eerie, melancholic ambience, and helped provide wonderful B-roll footage that I recorded during the storm itself. This B-roll footage was used as an aesthetic opener to the film in its entirety.
By the end of week, every scene was completed except for one – Scene 005 – the scene that precedes the climax where Lee meets Marcus for the first time, a result of the missed day of shooting. As such, we had to shoot the scene in blocks over the course of the next month, during which the semester had already started. These shoots consisted of me, Gavin, Regina, and my production assistant Michael Melesse. With some luck and some perseverance through very icy temperatures, we managed to find the time to get it done.
With the footage in tow, I spent two months, give or take, editing the entire film together, with back-and-forth discussions with Keith to make sure the editing choices I made were going in the proper direction.
Production had gone smoothly enough that we did not need extensive reshoots. The only caveat was that one scene – Scene 004 – came out with fairly garbled audio, which required the actors playing Marcus and Jack to return for one day to re-record their audio for dubbing, which turned out well. I enlisted the help of three additional friends to record ancillary sound effects to go along with the laughter and commentary that blossoms in the film’s final moments.
The only major editing choice that came in post was the ending. As the script was written, the characters of Marcus and Lee, now unified in having worked together to defeat Ray, walk down the road together in a harmonious, happy ending. I ended up cutting this scene – because I wanted to leave the audience with the feel of “now what?” After these characters have spent absurd amounts of energy on a game, what is next for them? They won, but was it worth it?
So, the film in its final version just… ends. There is no extended epilogue. The characters walk out of frame… and that’s it. It is almost a touch unsatisfying in how curt this ending is, and that is the point.
The final touch to the film was music. I had hoped to compose some original pieces, but with time running out, I asked two friends, Andrew Ferg and Frederic Sengstacke (whom had also helped me with the sound effects) to look at a cut of the film and find music to go along with it. They did an immaculate job, and I had enough time to layer it into the film to invoke a musical theme of violence that repeats when characters are either angry or about to “die.” Their work on the project, combined with myself, the film’s five actors, and two original crew members, is yields the final team size of 10.
The final cut of the film was submitted on April 15, 2015, seven months after Keith and I first started the ideation process.
The final version was later shown three times at the Lewis Center Senior Thesis show in April-May 2015.
The film, even though it was a Certificate requirement, was indeed my passion project. The disparate elements and layered structure of the script came together, combined with a handful of happy accidents, to create a film that I am most proud of.
Beyond that, this project showed me every aspect of the film production process, from idea to finished film. Leaving me with even more admiration for filmmakers across the world, and even more desire to be one of them myself.