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  • Writer's pictureOwen Johnson

The Last Student Film: Part Two - How to Fail

my car doesn't get nearly enough credit for being the driving force behind this film (haha)

The Knees

The best skateboarders in the world are the ones who continue to push themselves despite being the best. What this means is that even those who are masters in their art, will fall. If they’re not falling, they’re not trying anything new. When an expert skateboarder falls, however, they’re doing far more than grafting their knee skin to the sidewalk.

1. A good skateboarder falls correctly. If they’re lucky enough to anticipate the fall, they roll, turn, or cover their head.

2. A good skateboarder will adjust. Anyone looking to do better than before will take a pause, consider what may have caused them to fail, and go at it again, with a modified approach.

3. A good skateboarder knows how to walk away and grow more knee skin for sacrifice another day.

I am not a skateboarder. However, I believe that the same techniques for an effective failure apply to every art form, minus the skin part, usually.

But with a script written, and three weeks to go, Nik and I began plugging away. Our road map consisted of putting out a casting call and lining up actors and running a rehearsal, storyboarding the entire film, shot listing it, sourcing all the gear we would need from connections I had in Fort Collins, coordinating a crew of volunteer students (since we had no money), and nailing down a location.

I was also acting Director of the Student Video Productions team and the Tree Stump Films documentary production company at the student media offices on campus. My first ever wedding photography gig was coming up and my internship with the school district was starting to ramp up as well.

We remained in reasonably strong spirits.

The Casting Call

I reached out to Nora, who, as a student studying acting, likely had both an understanding of acting and actors as well as connections that I don’t have. I asked her to be the Casting Director for our film which we all had begun abbreviating from How to Say Goodbye to HTSG. She excitedly agreed.

Having people in your corner when you’re trying to move a production of any size forward can be an absolute game changer. Such was the case with Nora. Within a day she had built a very pretty casting call, set up a professional Gmail account specifically for the film, and had put out word of our film in her various avenues along with a couple pages from the script.

We were getting auditions almost immediately.

They were mostly monologues and headshots the actors already had created. This was of course, genuinely exciting, but one of them was special.

We received an email with a headshot and video file attached. The headshot was fine: a girl in her twenties, black hair, good looking. I opened the video. Instead of a monologue from a contemporary Broadway heavy-hitter, or a song from a golden age musical, the actor facing the camera began to read words that Nik and I had written together.

A disembodied voice read the lines of Benny, and the actor delivered the lines for Paige the best that she could, using only hints from the script at intonation and direction.

Regrettably, this actor was not very good. That wasn’t what I was thinking about though. Someone was acting,playing a character we had created.

From that point on, the project stopped feeling lofty and theoretical. People believed in a project enough to invest their energy in it, and it only felt more real after that.

The Mentor

Nik and I attended high school at Denver School of the Arts. There, we were students within the Video Cinema Arts (VCA) department. There, we were taught typical high school things like math, science, history and all that, but in the second portion of the day following the schoolwide lunch period, all the students moved to their respective departments, be it dance, vocal performance, theatre, visual art, or in our case, film.

Me, in the recreation of a scene from Super 8 - Spring 2016

Nik and me in the recreation of a scene from The Aviator - Spring 2016

I cannot imagine a way to properly describe the level at which we took the department, and what it was teaching us, for granted. "We like making videos" was effectively the extent to which we participated in the lessons about composition, exposure, story, lighting, editing, preparation and more.

One of our vastly underappreciated teachers was a professional filmmaker named JD Gonzales.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but JD was teaching us things that most video students wouldn’t come to learn until their third year in college. Or at least, he was attempting to, with varying degrees of success. He was an excellent teacher, but fourteen to eighteen-year-olds don’t exactly value education in the way college students do, so it was kind of hit-or-miss regarding what actually gelled into applicable knowledge in the hormone saturated minds of unruly public-school teenagers.

I didn’t realize how out of our league we were punching by the time we left high school, until gaining some perspective in my second year of university. I tracked down JD on Instagram and sent him a message. I apologized for taking his hard work for granted and thanked him for all he had done to set us up like he had, without us knowing.

He was highly appreciative and encouraged me to reach out again when I was approaching graduation, since even though at the time he was working on films in New York City, he expected to be back in Denver, and might be able to help me take some good steps towards the industry.

I didn’t forget it.

Nearly three years later, I found that same text conversation, and reached out. I explained that I was going to graduate soon, and that I hoped to get into the film industry. JD was excited, and suggested we find a time to meet.

I drove down to Denver the following Tuesday. It was cold and overcast. For the rest of the day, JD and his go-to gaffer and I went through his one-ton production trailer, pulling out everything he had and organizing it. I gushed questions. Everything I could think of in terms of the industry, gear, lighting, production, writing, anything that I could get out, these guys had great answers for me.

On the long drive back to Fort Collins, I sat in silence, brain swelling with new information. I turned these new thoughts and ideas over in my head. JD had so much wisdom to share, learning all we could from him would be key.

The Jitters

With audition tapes filtering in on the daily, Nik and I were feeling good. With two weeks to go, we met up again. Time to figure out just where the hell we were going to shoot this thing.

In the original version of my script, the couple were talking at a bus station, and in Nik’s, a train station. We had settled on a train station in the hopes that we might get to use the platform at Union Station in Denver.

Some googling turned up multiple applications for permits for videography in the station. It seemed simple enough to just fill out this form and send it along. As we were reading it, however, we hit a snag. Per the agreement, we wouldn’t be able to use nearly half of the production gear we would need, and we would have to do it between the hours of 1pm and 3pm on a Sunday. Shit.

After dozens of emails and phone calls to various transportation departments, we came to learn that in order to shoot what we wanted to, for the duration of time necessary to shoot it all, it would be as simple as coughing up $25,000 dollars. We were stumped.

We decided to change the canonical location of the scene from a train station to a coffee shop inside of a train station. We figured that with the proper sound design and insert shots, taken guerilla-style at Union, it could be just as effective, and a lot more accessible to shoot. I called JD for some advice. He recommended that whatever place we pick, we would need to be paying customers. We would need to have a lot more space than we expected, as well as easy access to outlets and parking. He also said that they may ask for insurance, and since he trusted Nik and I to not wreck the place, that we could use his if we needed. Love that guy.

The next day I drove to Denver with my mug of coffee to kick start the Tour de Café: a spree of location scouting over the course of that sunny Saturday morning. We started at The Molecule Effect, where Nik works. Just to be sure, we had a shot of espresso, then headed out. We had mapped out 8 coffee houses around the city, and we needed to go to all of them to gauge everything from how busy they were, to how many outlets we would have, to whether the aesthetic was right. We wanted to find a spot that felt as much like a train station coffee spot as possible.

We hopped in my car and made our way to Middle State Coffee, which was white on the inside, with lots of plants and people. We liked it a lot. We each ordered a double shot of espresso. You know, to be polite for walking in and looking around and taking photos.

Actually, we had a shot at every coffee shop.

One of our final stops was called Blue Sparrow Coffee. At this point we were so caffeinated I could see sound and our conversations were so fast paced it probably sounded like TV static to bystanders.

Blue Sparrow Coffee was perfect. It had glossy white tile and loads of open space. Even the menu itself looked like an old train station sign. We had a shot of espresso. This was the dream spot.

Blue Sparrow was our first choice, with Middle State as a fallback. After our 8th coffee I could feel my pulse in my eyeballs, and I could tell Nik was starting to ascend to the astral plane, so we called it a day. I dropped him off for his shift at work, took a deep breath to steady my caffeine shakes, and headed home.

Asking Favors

Six days until the shoot day, I began asking around my peers in the journalism school and at the student media office if they had any interest in volunteering on my shoot. A few were interested but would need to check their schedules if they were free.

Okay, check it right now. “Okay, just let me know as soon as you can so I can coordinate for the shoot.” I was starting to get anxious. Why wasn’t I getting a crew together a month ago?

Nik had sent emails out to Blue Sparrow and Middle State Coffee. Middle State hit us back right away.

“One thousand dollars for us to shut down for a full day.” Nik and I scratched them off the list. It was down to Blue Sparrow. It was vital that they come through. I could feel a bowling ball on my chest. Shouldn’t our whole film not hang in the balance of location availability? Time to start gathering gear.

My internship with the school district was more than just a cool way to practice with production equipment and hang out with friends. Due to my relationship with the internship supervisor, I was able to ask a particularly big favor: I wanted to borrow their brand new Sony FX3 Cinema camera, along with a pile of other gear. More or less without batting an eye, my supervisor said sure, though he cut me off when I asked if I could use the big lighting tubes which look like lightsabers, since the district needed them for a massive production for the graduating seniors.

I made a list of everything I was going to borrow and wrote out a little agreement as proof that I meant to bring back everything and that trust was not misplaced. 4 days until shoot day.

written agreement and list of stuff (the quarter was one I borrowed to screw a plate to a camera, coincidental to the film)

I decided not to estimate the value of everything that I was taking. I could tell that my supervisor was a little anxious but trusted I would bring everything back. He needed me to, since the camera I was taking was also pivotal to the production of the grad films.

I loaded it all into my car and drove to my office.

There I opened the equipment room door and began heaping even more gear onto the little unfoolable trolly cart we have: a dozen batteries, our LED light kit, the electronic slider, the audio recorder, the boom microphone, the C-Stand, and more. I hauled it out to my car and loaded it into the trunk.

“Hey dude, just checkin’ to see if you can crew on the shoot on Monday in Denver?”

“Sorry man I have class that day.”

You have class? How could class possibly be more important than this??

“Ah dang, no worries, dude.” There were, in fact, many worries.

I made my way over to the journalism school buildings and climbed the stairs to the second floor, where a room full of production equipment was available to students to check out. Every time I go there, I wish I had a shopping cart. I checked out all the prime cinema lenses, a microphone set, an RGB LED panel set with stands, another six or so batteries, and a positively huge LED panel light with barn doors. I didn’t really have a plan for it in mind, I just didn’t wanna get on set and not have a way to light a big space or fill something like the sun.

I strapped as much of it as I could to my body in some way, and hoisted my big light up to rest on my shoulder, thanked the attendant, and began the objectively short but subjectively interminable trek back to my car. I loaded it into the trunk.

I checked my email. Nothing from Blue Sparrow. About 24 hours until our intended shoot time.

How to be a Bad Student

It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that while I had succeeded in applying my first ever wedding photography gig to my class in a meaningful way, in most other aspects, I was neglecting my aforementioned required in-person course.

I suppose neglecting may be too strong of a word, since it was, at least to some degree, a calculated fasting of assignment points. I had begun to allocate most of my time and energy into this film. I felt like everything I wanted to learn about the industry was on the other side of completing it, so it was now getting nearly all my attention.

Damn it, I still need to graduate.

So, I went into my grade organizer, Canvas, and did a little math using a tool it has where I can estimate the grades on future assignments. I began punching in zeros. How many of these can be zeros before I get myself into real trouble? It turns out, about five, or three if two of them are each worth fifty points.

Now, this is where I apologize to my instructor (sorry) for causing her some grey hairs (probably). At the moment, if I get the grade I am hoping for on our final assignment, I should get by with a low B or a high C.

Maybe it’s a bit of a fringe tactic, but I really believe in this film, and I wanted it to have all the energy I could give it.

How to be a Good Learner

On the morning of the shoot, we had all the gear we could want, and we had a script we liked. And that was about it. I had one person who could be crew if we gave them a ride, but we had heard nothing back from Blue Sparrow, and we literally hadn’t even cast the film yet.

The proverbial knee was meeting the metaphorical pavement.

What happens next in a moment like this is what separates the good skateboarders from the ones who gave it up in their twenties.

I called Nik. “Hey.”


“We blew it, didn’t we?”

“Looks that way.” We sat in silence for a minute. The previous night I had unloaded all the gear from my car and brought it up to my apartment so that I could label the individual bits of gear and who they belonged to so they could be returned after we were done. It was all charged, labelled, organized, and loaded neatly back up onto the cart, ready to be put to good use.

The thing about independent study is that it’s a lot more independent than I expected. There’s no teachers or professors setting up incremental deadlines to make sure you’re on track, or giving those deadlines point values to encourage you to reach them, and there’s only yourself to rely on to move your “homework” forward every day. We had worked really hard to get this to happen, but it still wasn’t enough.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“Well, we definitely are not shooting today.” Nik said. Hearing him say it out loud hurt us both, but it had to be said. My eyes wandered around the room and fell on the pathetic cart of gear. We had royally failed. Not just that day, but in the days leading up, in underestimating the time and planning that goes into making even a single-scene short film. The kind of preparation necessary was a lot, far more than we had expected.

“How much more time would we need?” Nik asked.

I took a deep breath. “At least a month. And that would be cutting it close.” That would put the shoot sometime in the second half of April, less than a month from our intended graduation dates. My stomach turned over at the thought of graduating.

“Okay,” Nik said. “Back to ones, then. Let’s not fuck this up again.”

Back to Ones

After that conversation, the bowling ball on my chest lifted. Mostly. I realized that if we had found some way to shoot that day, it would have been a full-blown nightmare. I knew what I wanted out of this film, and none of it would have come to fruition if we had pushed forward. My brain began to reset, and the sun looked a little warmer out of the window. We have one full month to get this shit right.

I called my supervisor to let him know the shoot was called off and I would be bringing his gear back. I probably should have chosen my words a little bit more carefully because I could almost hear his heart jump into his throat when I said:

“I have good news and bad news.” I had to quickly point out that the camera and everything was perfectly fine, but that the plan had changed, which sucked, but had given us new hope.

I returned all the gear, tail between legs. I made a list of everything we needed to do, and everything I could do that day to make it happen. We needed to create a date range of possible shoot days, amend the casting call, and keep pushing for someone we really trusted with the role. Then we needed to rehearse with them, and make it count. We needed to coordinate crew right away, get them to lock it in within the week. We needed to just bite the bullet and pay for space at Middle State Coffee. I needed to do gear tests and get to know the camera better.

There was a lot to do, but now, Nik and I understood just how much value there was in being prepared, and from where I sit writing this, I seriously have no idea how we didn’t see this coming. But we stood up, shook it off, and got to work.

the new casting call

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