In 2015, I went to a screening for Time Out of Mind, which was produced by and starred Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York. Following the screening, Gere talked about making the film. One thing stood out to me: Time Out of Mind took 10 years to go from idea to screen.
As we left the theater, I said to my husband, “I hope it doesn’t take that long to make my film.” I had just begun the process of producing a film inspired by the story of Danny Lajterman, a 19 year-old who died after ingesting heroin that was laced with fentanyl. Through my publishing company, WAT-AGE Publishing, I had worked with Danny’s mother, Linda, to publish her book, Life After You: What Your Death from Drugs Leaves Behind. Danny died on February 23, 2014, and Linda, after going on Facebook to warn other families about the dangers of drugs, wanted to expand her thoughts in a book. The death toll from drug overdose was continuing to rise, and I hoped that delivering Linda’s message in a feature film would reach more families and, hopefully, save lives.
On February 1, 2020, we wrapped up production on Life After You, shooting the film on more than 20 sites in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Five years have gone by since I began working on the film and our schedule dictates that two more years will pass before it will be released in theaters. So, not ten years, but maybe seven.
I have spent my career as a journalist and writer, jumping on topics as they crop up and getting the stories into print or online quickly. When I signed on as a film producer, I learned that making a movie is a much different beast. YouTube and other online sites have made it easy to record and post video in the blink of an eye. But producing a feature film is more complicated. Those of you who are involved in film making will find my observations obvious or perhaps just reaffirm your own feelings. For those who often wonder how a film, particularly an independent film on a small budget, gets made, my observations might illustrate what goes into taking a story from the page to the screen.
Over the next few weeks and months, Woman Around Town will feature many of the professionals who worked in front of and behind the camera to create Life After You, a film that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. My story will be an introduction to how we filmed this movie, specifically ten things I learned about making a movie. Here goes:
One: Film making is collaborative.
Making a film is a team effort. There are no lone wolves on the set. Interacting with others is essential. There’s a hierarchy, of course, with the director and cinematographer at the top.
But learning what others do, and respecting their contributions, builds rapport and helps everyone do a better job.
Two: A great movie requires a great script.
It doesn’t matter how fabulous the actors are. If they are working from a script that has clichéd dialogue, a lack of character development, and not much of a storyline, the result will be disappointing. It’s not unusual for a film to go through many scripts before finally arriving on one that creates excitement for the project. Ours certainly did that.
Three: Preparation is key.
Much needs to be done before the cameras start to roll. Cast and crew need to be hired, a process that involves a great deal of research. Equipment needs to be acquired. Scouting for locations where filming can take place is followed by obtaining permissions from homeowners, businesses, institutions, and government agencies. Various departments – design, wardrobe, hair and makeup – begin to work with the cast and crew.
Four: Feed the masses.
Cast and crew need to be fed twice a day, and that food has to be ordered and delivered on a timely basis. Food preferences and food allergies have to be taken into consideration. Those working on a film burn through calories and need to keep up their energy, so food and drinks are essential to keep this train running.
Five: Hurry up and wait.
A feature story about the Sam Mendes film, 1917, noted that the battle scene involving explosions took five hours to reset after a take. We never had to wait that long, but there were many days when we had to stand around before filming could resume. Many books were read during these down times. Also it was a good time to take a nap.
Six: Expect long days and even longer nights.
Someone who visited the set was astonished by how long it took to shoot one scene that might take up just a few minutes in the film. An individual scene is shot in many ways. There might be a long shot taking in all the actors, then other shots that focus on individuals to show reactions. Then close ups. Each take involves setting up the camera and lighting in a different way and checking actors’ makeup and wardrobe.
Seven: Paying attention to continuity.
If an actor was tucking her hair behind her right ear in one shot, she has to repeat that in follow up shots. The script supervisor stands behind the director and keeps track of all these details. (Sofia Pipolo was the script supervisor on our film. Learn more about her in her My Career Choice.)
Eight: Community involvement is essential.
We were fortunate that the community of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, supported our efforts. Not only did locals permit us to film in their homes and businesses, but many volunteered to be extras in some of our scenes. In return, we sponsored a mentor/mentee program where students were able to visit the set and watch us film. A win-win!
Nine: A producer produces.
Friends keep asking me, what did you do as a producer on the film? Often my answer is – everything! On a larger film, producers usually monitor the action from a corporate office, but with a small independent film, a more hands-on role is necessary. I helped to raise the funds we needed, supervised the catering, talked about the film with anyone who wanted more information, served as a sounding board for those who needed someone to listen, and appeared on TV when the local ABC affiliate in Lebanon showed up. I interacted with everyone on the set, and I hope they saw me as someone who respected what they were doing and how hard they were working to make this film.
Ten: Expect the unexpected.
No matter how much planning goes into making a film, things will go wrong. But a talented team can quickly right the ship. We had our share of problems, but they never impacted the filming. The result was that we finished on time. The lead up to Life After You may have taken five years, but the filming was completed in 24 days.
What’s next? The editing process will take up the next month or two. By the end of the summer, we will have a cut of the film that we can submit to 2021 film festivals. At these film festivals, we hope to follow up a screening with a panel of experts and those who participated in the film. Our goal is to continue to raise awareness about the dangers of drug use. A theatrical release would happen in late 2021 or early 2022, with a possible sale to a streaming service to follow. Schools would then be able to screen the film in their auditoriums for parents and students, events that would spark much needed conversations.
You can read updates about our progress on Life After You’s Facebook page and on Woman Around Town (send me an email to sign up for our e-blast – firstname.lastname@example.org). And, of course, if you would like to make a tax deductible donation to the film, you can click here to go to our fiscal sponsor page.