My Career Choice: Sarah T. Schwab – Life After You‘s Director

Sarah T. Schwab is a director, screenwriter, playwright and producer. 

In 2018, she wrote, directed and produced the short film, ‘A’ My Name Is, a story about a young girl with early-stage cancer who has a late-night adventure in a hospital that culminates into the consideration of her mortality. The film has gone on to tour the festival circuit internationally, and was awarded “Best Lead Actress In A Short Film” at the Nice International Film Festival, “Best WNY Short” at the Buffalo International Film Festival, and nominated for “Best Director Of A Short Film” at the Madrid International Film Festival.

Her short film Family Matters recently won the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival’s “Script-2-Screen” competition in Connecticut, which comes with a $25,000 production services grant through Sacred Heart University.

On the set of Life After You (Photo by Michael Accorsi)

She is a member of the Playwrights/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio in New York City. Her play, A Stage Of Twilight was part of the 2019 Pipeline Series at the Dorset Theatre Festival in VT, staring Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Animal House). The play has also had readings at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts in 2018, and the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2017, both staring Jeff DeMunn (Billions, The Walking Dead), and directed by Larry Moss. She has since turned the play into a feature-length film that she will direct in 2021.

She directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Life After You.

On the Life After You set with lead actor, Gary Perez (Photo by Michael Accorsi)

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career? 

My close friend Nick was a cinematographer and film connoisseur. We met 10 years ago, and he taught me everything about the industry. He’d give me weekly “homework assignments,”listing out what films I had to see (he averaged about a dozen per week). He loved to watch movies with me and explain how a scene was shot: the different camera angles and lighting techniques, how many takes it took specific scenes to get them just right (i.e. There is a scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall is walking backward up the stairs crying and swinging a bat at Jack Nicholson; Stanley Kubrick shot it 127 times.) It was like a Master’s class. His passion was galvanizing. We began to write a horror script together, but he passed away in September 2015 before we were able to finish it. Continuing on with a career in the film industry is my way of paying homage to my beautiful and brilliant friend. And it’s a way for me to tell story, a calling I’ve had from a very early age.

What about this career choice did you find most appealing? 

I’m definitely a “lone wolf;” I can very easily disappear for months at a time to go off and write something. That said, too much alone time can easily turn into loneliness. What’s so great about being a writer/director is that I get a good mix of solitude and companionship. After a script is written, there are many, many stages to getting a film actually made, and you have to work with a lot of different creative minds to accomplish that end. As an indie filmmaker/producer, innumerable hours go into this process. By the end of it, I’m more than ready to disappear and start the cycle all over again.

Filming a courtroom scene for Life After You (Photo by Marc Prisco)

What steps did you take to begin your education or training? 

My first official introduction to a film set was in 2016 on the short, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. This was actor Karen Allen’s (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Scrooged, Animal House) directorial debut. I was a set dresser/prop purchaser and worked under the tutelage of Oscar-nominated Production Designer Kristi Zea (Silence of the Lambs, Revolutionary Road, Goodfellas.). The experience blew me away. I knew I HAD to do this in some form or fashion. So I worked on every film set I could, testing out various departments – script supervisor (hated), production designer (loved), producer (still on the fence)… Once I felt like I got a good sense of the different divisions, I wrote a short film called, ’A’ My Name Is, raised the money to make it, then directed it in December 2018. The film got into dozens of festivals and received a handful of awards. This boosted my confidence. Enough to take on the job of co-writing and directing my first feature this past January (Life After You). It was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences of my life. I’m now of the mind frame that if something terrifies me, then it’s probably a good learning opportunity.

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging? 

Always encouraging. My two biggest supporters are: 1) my mom, who is also a writer; and 2) my production partner Brian Long (former Managing Director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York City). Both dream big. Both believe fear is an option, but not a worthwhile one. And both believe in “reaching for the stars.” So I did, and here we are.

(Photo by Peter Baiamonte)

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change? 

Never. I grew up an only child in upstate New York, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland. Making stuff up in my head to pass the time is all I know. How I was going to do that (while making a living doing that) was a mystery. But my moral compass was set and so I tried journalism, prose, theater… I kept an open mind and heart and trusted that the right path would open up for me, and it did.

When did your career reach a tipping point? 

Like Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point says: “little things can make a big difference.” Getting the opportunity to work on my first film set opened the door to passion. Completing a short film opened up the door to possibility. Getting through a 24-day shoot opened the door to self-perseverance. In my mind, tipping points (plural) never stop, so long as your objective is to grow as a creator. 

Making notes before the next scene. (Photo by Marc Prisco)

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome? 

There are two challenges I routinely face. The first is: raising money. This is nothing new for indie filmmakers. A second, more personal, challenge is sleeping. There is so much going on inside my head all the time, especially during a shoot. It’s impossible to shut everything off. I’ve tried meditation, melatonin, and even a few of those weird ASMR videos where someone whispers into your ear and scratches a hairbrush against the microphone (creepy). Sleep is essential in this business, no matter what department you’re in. You need to be mentally nimble for whatever curve ball is thrown your way. 

What single skill has proven to be most useful? 

The ability to write a good script. I’m a big fan of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Some writers find the book too prescriptive, which I can understand. But I’m a firm believer of learning the rules before you go and break them. I’ve heard some directors say that the script is not important. That the best films are created like the wild west: you just grab a horse (or camera) and go! I really have the urge to punch these people in the face. Without a story – without a roadmap – what are you really doing? Yes, you’re shooting a bunch of really pretty moving pictures. Great. So what? What are you sharing with the viewer? How are you connecting them to the human condition?  What is the catharsis you hope for them to have? Substance over form. Always. You must have a good script before you can shoot it.  Number one rule. Otherwise, it’s just masturbation.

What accomplishment are you most proud of? 

Directing a feature. Especially this one. Richard Sands, the DP on the film, said that most people keep their first movie to a handful of actors and locations. Not us! We shot at over 20 locations (including a courthouse, a hospital, and a grocery store), had dozens of principal actors, and over a hundred extras. Not to mention needing an ambulance, police cars, a coroner van, a school bus, and a demolished car that mirrored our hero car. I definitely bit off more than I could chew. But we “miraculously” (as my co-producer Brian keeps saying) made it through. I’m really, really proud of that. Now for the next film… more money, less locations. This is a non-negotiable. 

Any advice for others entering your profession? 

Mike Tyson has a great quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” My advice is: plan on getting punched in the mouth (metaphorically, of course), because you will. Again and again and again and again. Knowing that will help you get back up, which is what you have to do if you’re going to survive the film industry. Everything that can go wrong will, and that’s ok. As long as you’re resilient, and keep trucking from your gut, you will find your way through the challenges. Keep a humble head. Be emotionally intelligent. And trust your team. This is the only way to move forward with grace. 

Top photo credit: Peter Baiamonte

Sarah T. Schwab’s website

Life After You Facebook Page