How to make a short movie: The Real Quinn Hardy

This summer, we wrote, directed and edited a short movie called The Real Quinn Hardy, about an aspiring singer-songwriter who thinks she’s about to make it to the majors. When it all goes wrong, she digs deep to write a song that she hopes will change everything.

It all started back in April, in Nashville, at the Bluebird Cafe, where inspiration struck in the middle of eating a black bean burger, forcing us to actually stop eating (damn it though the burger was SO GOOD, the muse does not respect the burger) and start scribbling the first few ideas, beats and lines of dialogue.

Later that night (after an AWESOME Bluebird set by the way — shoutout to Jessica Roadmap!), we pretty much had a first draft. We spent a month polishing and rewriting it, because all writing is really rewriting, then a month in preproduction where we cast our brilliant and wonderful actors (Rachel Keefe, Ana-Lisa Gunn, Brian Gallagher and Brittany Kleban), storyboarded it, designed the sets, and wrote the song too (which our fantastic lead actress Rachel also sang!).

Then, yikes! We shot it. D went full Spielberg, while A basically ran the set. It was awesome.

Two kick-ass actors: Rachel Keefe and Brittany Kleban

Two of our kick-ass actors: Rachel Keefe and Brittany Kleban

11 hours, 3 scenes, 70 shots later…

Dean

…it was time to edit.

Editing

So, we edited. And edited. And edited. And six weeks later (glossing over Apocalypse Now levels of insanity), we had a short movie.

Like, we made a thing, guys. It’s real!

Charlie dancing

We learned SO MUCH from this experience.

The most important, practical thing? Write what you can reasonably shoot with the resources that you have. Think about who you might be able to cast (friends, family, nonunion local actors, your super famous A-list third cousin), what kind of props you can scrounge together, where you can shoot, and then base your story around that. Yes, spaceships would be cool. Couple of dinosaurs? Obviously awesome. Superheroes who can fly? Hell yeah. But, realistically, it’s more likely to be people drinking coffee. Which is FINE –two people talking in a room can be beautiful, epic, hilarious, devastating… As long as you write it that way!

No less a filmmaker than Judd Apatow summed up his entire filmography as exactly that — people sitting around talking. You could say the same thing about Cameron Crowe (the brilliantly mind-bending Vanilla Sky aside).

It’s all in the HOW, not the WHAT.

The what is “people talking.” The how is the kind of people, the subjects they talk about (and around), and where they’re talking. Are they in a cafe, on a space station, arguing about comic books, dealing with an alien invasion (you know, the usual short movie topics).

The question you need to ask yourself is how can you make your people talking interesting? What’s the hook? What’s the thing about your story that is purely you. The thing only you could do in that moment? Because there is something — you just need to find out what it is. Felicia Day was a hardcore gamer when she started writing her groundbreaking web series The Guild — it’s people talking, but the hook was gamers talking about gaming.

In our case, we love music, and we write music, and we were SUPER INSPIRED by the awesomeness that is Nashville. So we based our story around a songwriter.

Rachel Keefe as Quinn Hardy

Rachel Keefe as Quinn Hardy

Also important!! Don’t worry about whether you have expensive cameras, a crew, or access to all your dream locations. In the end, you have to find a way to make it happen on your terms, with what you have in front of you. If you can’t shoot in a real cafe, dress a room to look like one. If you don’t have RED cameras, use a regular camera, or even your phone. Make whatever you’re using work for you in the context of the story. Write the scene or the movie, find some actors, feed them, let them do what they do best while you point your camera at them. Then edit it together and…

That's a bingo

Over the next few months we’ll be posting regularly in a lot more detail about every stage of making a short, from concept to script to preproduction to shooting to postproduction and beyond.

But for now, we’ll leave you with this. We didn’t want to sit around thinking about why no one has offered us the next Star Wars movie (side note: Lucasfilm, please offer us the next Star Wars movie) — we wanted to make something — so we made something.

And you can too.

We Bought A Zoo: Writing, zebras, and asking “why not?”

We Bought A Zoo is such a Cameron Crowe movie, in the most awesome of ways.

Quirky, self-aware yet beautiful dialogue? Check. Heartwarming scenes that stumble over themselves to move you (and always succeed)? Check. Naturalistic, charming performances? You know it. Eddie Vedder and Bob Dylan on a (killer) soundtrack? Of course. Heartbreaking/epic use of Sigur Ros music? Duh. Awkward relationships that blossom in the end? Yep. A seemingly insurmountable situation that… well, spoiler… gets surmounted in the best, most uplifting, “happy tears” and punch your fist in the air kind of way? Hell yeah.

Basically, there is a surplus of things to love about this movie, and that’s all down to Cameron Crowe’s singular and inspiring vision.

And, as a writer, there are two added bonuses: a perfectly constructed and naturalistic script, full of character revelations, callbacks, heart, humor and forward momentum; and this most true and undeniable fact:

We Bought A Zoo is one of the best analogies for being a writer that I’ve ever seen.

Think about it: when you write, you’re basically trying to do what Matt Damon does in the movie. You take a massive leap into the absolute unknown, risking everything, while trying to wrangle a zoo’s worth of wild animals (AKA plot points, act breaks, characters etc), while rebuilding the infrastructure, moving walls, extending boundaries, deciding what to keep and what to lose (and kill), all while you constantly readjust to this ever-changing new world. So many moving parts, all seemingly with a will of their own. It’s frustrating and rewarding, despairing and uplifting, with success dependent often on the whims of outsiders, with people frequently telling you that you’re crazy (“stop just before zebras get involved”) and that you should be an accountant or work in sales; and it all builds up to the opening date, when you have NO IDEA if anyone at all will even show up. It could be the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, something that touches the lives of others and moves them, inspires them; or, it could be nothing. A lion roaring in an empty zoo with no one around to hear it still makes a beautiful sound; but it’s a lonely one.

Writers: always include the zebras.

Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras
Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras

Crowe may not have intended this — his movie is more generally about taking that leap, choosing the thing that scares you, starting over, asking yourself “why not?” — but it mirrors the life of the writer in eerily accurate and joyous fashion. It resonates emotionally, like all his movies do, because his movies have spectacular heart. He’s sometimes/often on the receiving end of criticism that his movies are too sentimental. No. They are unashamedly sentimental, yes, but they mean it. They mean it so much and so hard and so intensely that it’s impossible not to feel it too. He writes about connections between people, the incredible joy in a certain smile at the exact right moment, the rush of taking twenty seconds of insane courage to do the thing you want to do  (for writers, that could be 20 months or 20 years of insane courage), and the extraordinary happiness when it all works out.

No cynics allowed, in Cameron Crowe movies or in writing. You just have to believe. When you inevitably ask yourself if you should continue because it seems crazy, there’s only one real response, one question to ask yourself.

Why not?