Jay Stern tells us about making his first feature-length film, based on a 17th century play:
I made The Changeling because I had simply grown tired of wanting to make a feature.
There had been many things keeping me from making one. I went through film school prior to the digital revolution, so it was much harder to just go out and make a feature when I graduated and moved to New York City. Instead, I started working in theater, which I could rehearse in my apartment and put up in small theaters and bars around town for practically no money.
During this time I developed a few film projects but had trouble finding the financing. I made short films in the meantime and started a film festival which is just about to enter its 9th year.
One day in 2005, after another grant rejection for an ambitious project I planned to shoot in various locations across Europe, Siberia, and the U.S., I decided that enough was enough. I realized that I would never make a feature unless I just went out and made one. I looked at the network I had developed during my years in theater and running a film festival and realized I had all the resources I needed. I decided to adapt a successful play, so I wouldn’t have to worry about creating a script that worked. I searched for one that was public domain and could be produced on a tiny budget, shot in my apartment if need be. I would then gather my group of actor friends, rehearse, and shoot.
The goal was simply to make a movie, to get something in the can that was feature-length. I’d pay for lunch and tape stock (remember tape stock?) but that would be it. It would be a down and dirty production that would highlight our strengths – solid, strong and intimate acting, and a long-standing working relationship that would allow us to work efficiently.
After much search I settled on Middleton and Rowley’s 1622 play The Changeling. I know that in hindsight choosing a minor Jacobean play with the original period language isn’t the way to ensure commercial success for a super low budget first film. But our goals were small, simply to make a movie, to work through the process of creating a feature film together. For this, the play was perfect.
We started rehearsing without a crew, location, or any funding in place. I expected these things would come together eventually. I just wanted to be doing something every day that would keep momentum moving so that at some point we wouldn’t be able to stop the process, that there would be no turning back.
It’s a long story, and most of it can be read on my production diary. Suffice it to say that the project grew much bigger than I could have imagined. We found an incredible director of photography who was naturally in tune with me and the project (the supremely talented Alan McIntyre Smith, we gained access to two beautiful locations for very little expense, and what originally was going to be a down-and-dirty modern adaptation to be shot in friends' apartments became a beautiful period piece. We raised $17,000 from private donors to get the film in the can, and eventually went on to secure a New York release, and receive reviews in the New York Times and Variety.
The resources we went into the film with turned out to work to our advantage. My previous relationship with the cast and our long, detailed rehearsal process meant that the actors were completely comfortable with their roles and each other so that they weren’t thrown when things came up on set. We never had to do a second take due to a performance issue. And this was necessary because we could only afford to shoot for six days! (I don’t recommend doing this by the way. Six days is just too short to shoot a feature.) And giving crew members a chance to step up their own departments on this movie meant that they gave their best work to the project. The cast and crew were the best production resources I could have hoped for.
The experience was transformative for many of us. It was my director of photography’s first feature as DP, my composer’s first movie, my sound designer’s first feature, and my leads' first feature leading roles. And ever since then I have no longer been uncomfortable about referring to myself as a “filmmaker” (although, yes, technically it was shot on video, not film).
The movie was a hard sell, as far as I can tell, due to the genre, the lack of famous actors, and the fact it was shot (albeit beautifully) on miniDV. It was rejected by every festival I applied to. And I applied to tons of them, big and small. But Ray Privett, the programmer of the Pioneer Theater (and who now runs his own distribution company, Cinema Purgatorio), saw the film when we had a private screening at his theater and he asked if he could release it for a New York run.
Outside of our New York run, we had limited attention in the U.S., but the play the movie is adapted from is quite well known in Europe and the other film versions aren’t very well regarded, so I routinely get requests for copies from England and Germany. And having successfully produced and directed a low budget feature, I’ve received offers to produce other films. I’ve also gone on to lecture about low budget filmmaking (you can see one such lecture, about my work on The Changeling, here.)
Since The Changeling, we’ve since gone on to shoot another feature, Spirit Cabinet which is now in post. You can read about that ridiculously short shoot here. And now we’re in pre-production on a low budget romantic comedy musical called The Adventures of Paul and Marian. We’re currently raising funds to get us through production via Kickstarter, so if you’d like to join the indie film revolution, please check us out!
So let this be a lesson to you – you too can make a feature if you make sure to cultivate a group of talent and give them a chance to do the work they normally don’t get to do. Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to make your dreams come true. No one is going to be as good at it as you are.
Questions about our work or making movies in general? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org