Here with our first triple-feature is John Klein, whose production company bears the name of his first feature as producer, Glass City. (Note: Klein produced all three films discussed here, and he directed Happily After. Cole Simon directed Glass City and Separation Anxiety.)
Back in my hometown of Toledo, when I was a senior in high school, I started an amateur theatre company called Still Waiting Productions, the name inspired by our first production, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (Cue ironic chuckles.) Knowing what I know now about theatre, acting, and art in general, I can only assume it was a horrible mess. But at the time, we were the kings and queens of our domain, a small band of passionate students eager to leave a small yet significant mark on our hometown. Our summers, home from college and producing stage plays, defined us, as they do for everyone, I’m sure. When I graduated college with my film degree, it seemed only natural to write what I knew.
I think I’ve covered all the clichés so far, right?
Anyway, that first script I wrote was called Glass City, based very loosely on our experiences with Still Waiting Productions. And, like so many beginning efforts at anything, it also was a mess at first. The screenplay was a hodgepodge of my favorite influences of the minute – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State were doing circles in my head – and elements were borrowed or ripped wholesale from my life and the lives of my friends. There was no reason not to bring on Cole Simon - fellow SWP-er, good friend, theatre major at Ohio State – to direct because, in addition to being supremely talented, he had shared so many of those influences and elements.
Cole likes to say that when I tell people I’ll do something, it’ll happen. However true or untrue that is, I said we would produce Glass City in my hometown – Toledo has always been referred to as the Glass City, and we saw the morose, stagnant Mike Stegman’s life (get it?) as a nice parallel to that of the city’s downtrodden luck – and that’s what we did, about a year after I moved to Chicago. To keep our costs down, we shot on my HVX200 with a Redrock M2 adapter – all the rage at the time, prior to the onslaught of DSLRs – and Cole brought in actors from Ohio State while I brought crew in from Chicago. Ninety-two pages in thirteen days.
The result was probably the most personal film I will ever produce or shoot. I know everyone looks back at their first film and cringes. I won’t say I don’t do that, because I do. But I also know we made some seriously good choices on Glass City. We came up with a visual style and color scheme that fit the story perfectly, gradually growing from a desaturated, static palette to a more frenetic, vivid look. The acting was remarkable, and I can say that with my modesty intact because I had absolutely nothing to do with it; Cole is just a phenomenal director. And oh, the things we accomplished! We set up a traffic jam with twenty picture cars. We had a fifty-five setup day in a Laundromat, and finished ahead of schedule, dolly moves and jibs through ceilings and all. We closed the largest bridge in Toledo for a night. For a few twenty-somethings on a micro-budget, that was majestic. And for a couple of guys who had lived through summers we wished could last for years, we watch Glass City and now have a complete snapshot of what those times were like for us.* * *
Following the completion of Glass City, we christened our production company Glass City Films and set off on finding our next projects. I suppose the easy goal was to grow and stretch ourselves beyond our means in terms of production value. But we also wanted to break down our storytelling barriers. Glass City showcased us portraying our own experiences. We wanted our next projects to be steps outside of ourselves.
It didn’t take long. After Glass City premiered, a friend of mine from elementary school invited me out for coffee – which I don’t drink, but whatever – and slid a script across the table for a feature titled Happily After. (The “Ever” is silent.) I read it, and as her first feature film screenplay – much like ours – it needed some tweaking. It was a romantic drama, a love triangle of sorts that was incredibly talky… but then around page 68, a spectacular twist just turned the whole script around, turning it into a sort of neo-noir thriller. It was awesomely twisted and unique in the best way, and excited the hell out of me. We collaborated on smoothing over some of the rougher patches - as we've done with all our scripts - though the big selling points of the story and dialogue barely changed. And then I told her I'd direct it. It was an enthusiastic statement without any substance at the time. But when I say I’ll do something….
About the same time I was signing my creative life away, Cole was in a play at Ohio State called Separation Anxiety, written by Jeremy Sony. He sent me the script on a whim, in full acknowledgement of its limitations as a stage play, expecting me to come back and call it unfilmable or something or other. It was one of the most emotionally resonant pieces of writing I had read, and I immediately said, “Let’s do it!” Never mind that half the script took place in an airport, or that there were fireworks at one point, or that the story juggled three separate timelines at once, or that one character sounded like a walking, talking Hallmark card. It was there, and we could totally pull it off.
Now, if you had told me in 2008 at the premiere of Glass City that we’d be producing two feature films back-to-back not more than one year later, I think I’d have spit my drink in your face. But, well, I’m an ambitious idiot. We slated both films for 2009: Happily After for August and Separation Anxiety for November. And our sanity left with them.* * *
Happily After, my directorial debut, came first. Ninety-seven pages in eighteen days. It was our first SAG feature, and our lead actor, Ross Marquand, was a revelation. My longtime friend and 1st AC, Justin Cameron, lensed the film – his first feature – taking over for my usual cinematography work, and brought a whole new level of excitement and raw creative energy to the set. We had nearly twenty locations, ranging from a park to a police station. My gear was still our only option given our budget, but we had learned much from our mistakes on Glass City, and were able to handle the adapter this time.
I think it’s a fact that every first-time director can’t sleep in the weeks leading up to Day One, and when I did sleep, I dreamt of the worst possible circumstances. But when you get on set, everything melts away but the joy. And that’s how it was. We made our first five days, the scenes looked and sounded great, we were able to bounce two pages ahead of schedule by taking advantage of a sunset on a high-rise rooftop, and we all started to feel that excitement.
And then disaster struck.
During the filming of a scene involving our lead actress, Sharina Martin, she severely injured her wrist on a broken window. The good news: she’d be fine (and was, eventually). The bad news: she needed reconstructive surgery on her wrist, and would require a cast for the remainder of the shoot. Too deep into shooting to recast – something none of us wanted anyway – we simply rewrote the film to accommodate and rescheduled nearly every scene of the shoot to fit around the change in availability. We wound up only two days over schedule, in the end, and I’d say no one who watches the film is aware of the change until I bring it up in Q&A sessions, so I’ll count my blessings.
But for the rest of that month, we were all in a state of heightened awareness, of constant improvisation within the confines of what visual arcs, themes, and ideas we had already set out for ourselves. The police station – an abandoned location rented out by the city of Chicago – had fallen prey to scrap metal thieves, and there was no longer power in the building. The art department had one day to redress four rooms of the station, including the prison area. We had only half a day to film the final scene of the film, which featured an eighteen-foot crane and a Steadicam. Such is life on every set, I know, but it all seemed more so because of the early challenges.
The editing room only brought further difficulties, as we struggled with early test screenings and wound up cutting 25 minutes of superfluous plot points out of the rough cut. To say this film was made in post-production is a true understatement, and if I could share a directing credit, editor and colorist Mike Molenda would get it. The work he did was awe-inspiring, and the film exists and thrives because of it.
To this day, the completion of Happily After is something I refer to as a collection of minor miracles. I’ll never have a cast and crew as good as that ever again, methinks, at least not a group so dedicated and so willing to take on the impossible. I took more creative risks on it than on anything I’ve ever done, and more financial risks to boot. I hope that energy comes across. And so, here we are, and here it is.* * *
Compared to that, producing Separation Anxiety should have been a breeze. Five main characters instead of twenty? Half the locations? Sixteen days instead of eighteen? Easy as pie. Of course, by now, I should also have gotten used to being wrong.
There were rewrites and changes abound in the early stages of the transition from stage to screen. The screenplay was trimmed to ninety pages from over 120. A more ambiguous ending was scrapped in favor of one that provided a real emotional catharsis for our trio of main characters. Finally, Cole stepped in as director when Jeremy decided to focus solely on the screenwriting, and I again relinquished the cinematography reins to Justin so I could exclusively produce. We’ve always prided ourselves on not wearing too many hats, so we could excel at one thing rather than be mediocre at two or three things. Collaboration makes our world of filmmaking go round, no question about it.
The first five days were early wraps and brought incredible performances from Glass City actress Kiana Harris and former “Dawson’s Creek” star John Wesley Shipp. I suppose it must be our sixth day of production that brings us trouble on our shoots, because the massive forty-setup day – which featured emergency vehicles and a rather complicated series of jib crane moves at dawn near an iconic dam location – finally broke us. We wound up having to come back the next day to shoot several remaining elements, and had severe issues matching the cloudy day to the previous day’s sunny footage. I suppose we should be grateful, though, that clouds were all we got. We were blessed with a two-week dry spell; had it rained on a single one of our shoot days in Columbus, the entire schedule would have been dead in the water.
As it stood, we got to Toledo and I finally realized the worst part of filming Separation Anxiety as a producer: the airport. Populating an entire wing of the Toledo Express Airport with extras – whose information we required weeks in advance for TSA to run background checks – and then trying desperately to light consistently despite being surrounded by wall-to-wall windows just as the days are getting shorter…yeah, we probably should have thought that through a bit. All praise to Justin for not losing his cool and getting some truly splendid photography out of it. And equal praise to our 1st AD, Dan Gutierrez, for corralling extras and making an indie film look massive. In the end, we closed an airport. We even got to film on a plane. What films get to do that at our level?
After Separation Anxiety premiered, Cole won the Golden Drover for Best Director at the Trail Dance Film Festival. I think we all would’ve been happy to win Best Drama, of course, but I think I was secretly happier that Cole took home his award. The growth he displayed from Glass City to Separation Anxiety was stunning; I can only hope my second feature is as grand a leap in maturity and quality.* * *
I could list hundreds of little nuggets of advice for all independent filmmakers. Don’t be so afraid of hearing “no” that you forget to ask the question. Trust your crew. Good food is the most important thing on a low-budget set. Always have a backup plan in mind, whether it’s a second airport or another picture car or a replacement crewperson. Or hard drives, for that matter. But, no matter what, treat every single person on the cast and crew with the respect they deserve, which is quite a lot. That means communication. That means proper housing, food, and paychecks. That means insurance. And it means just plain being nice.
Our company is a Midwest group. We started in Toledo, we’re in Chicago now, and we have no intention of going to either coast. This is home, and this is where we’ll do our best work, always. Our mission statement speaks of fostering Midwest talent and artists through powerful narrative drama. We have humble beginnings, as all indie filmmakers do. But however much a mess we may think we are sometimes, we couldn’t be happier with our films or with the people we’ve chosen to tag along with on this crazy journey. And someday, hopefully, we can look back on all this and say, Yes…this was still only the beginning.