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  • Writer's pictureOwen Johnson

The Last Student Film: Part One - How to Build a Story

Nik and I on a photography project in Denver in 2018

The Prologue

As a student in the closing weeks of the fall semester, one typically is working on lining up their classes for the spring, making sure that they fulfill the proper credit requirements, and either disregarding or hounding study guides for upcoming final exams.

While the majority of my peers did just this, I was doing my absolute best to line up as few classes as possible.

Having found my passion of videography and filmmaking, I knew that given the range of available courses and with only one remaining semester of my academic career, my time would be best spent if deliberately sculpted to my goal: By the end of my last semester, I wanted to write, produce, plan, shoot, and edit my last “student” film ever. This was especially important because I hadn’t been able to make a narrative film of my choosing since my senior year at high school, so I was itching to make something new; additionally, given my position at the university and within the student media organization, I planned to wield the resources of the school to their fullest extent so as to shoulder most of the production expense onto the institution charging me thousands of dollars a year.

This was the last semester I would be able to tap these resources, giving me the opportunity to inflate the production value of whatever the movie would be.

I approached a few professors who I had a good relationship with, and requested a total of three independent studies, which I would use to leverage credit hours to push production forward.

While this sent up a red flag in the registrar’s office, they allowed it anyway, and the stage was set for the upcoming 5 or 6 months.

I was to have a single required in-person class; along with three independent studies, one working as an intern for the local public school district to produce media content, worth three credits; one dedicated exclusively to creating this film, also worth three credits; and a third, targeted at placing myself squarely in the industry, speaking with professionals, getting on set if possible, and also completing an FAA Part 107 Drone piloting course, worth 2 credits.

An old friend from high school, name of Nik Velimirovic, intended to graduate at the same time as me from CU Denver, and as we both wanted to make movies in our future, we teamed up to try to make this production possible. We'd done multiple films together in high school, and several videography projects since then. We remained good friends throughout university despite our (at the time) different paths.

The Olde Script

A year prior I wrote a short film entitled Free of Charge about a first date gone awry. It wasn’t a bad script, and I liked the story well enough, so I had intended to use it for this film. Nik concurred that it was a good script and we began, rather leisurely, to prepare. We had several meetings which consisted of discussing theory, story, hypothetical production process for Free of Charge, and how we would manage to lock down the multiple locations, actors, and a fancy car by the third week of March, our spring break (about 2 months away).

Nik and I passed the script back and forth, making suggestions, comments, etc. The annotated draft is below if you happen to be interested. Nik's thoughts are (as always) thoughtful, and frequently hilarious.

Free of Charge [draft] with Annotations by Nik Velimirovic
Download • 1.59MB

One of our shared favorite directors is Denis Villeneuve, known for movies like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (my favorite film of all time). Around this point, Nik shared with me a short film he discovered which was written and directed by Villeneuve. The content was artful and brilliant; and thrillingly vile, entitled Next Floor.

Nik pointed out that what he felt were the most effective short films were the ones that take place over the course of a single scene, like this one. While many short films try to embody the experience of a feature film in 10-20 minutes, the short films which can act independently of surrounding context can often provide a much more enriching story within the few short minutes of runtime.

Free of Charge, we realized, had attempted to do just that, to cram a feature length story into a matter of minutes. We divorced ourselves from the certainty of producing that project and began looking for another one. Oddly enough, we didn’t have to wait long until one found its way to us.

The Heavily Abridged but Contextually Significant Love Story

I fell in love with a girl named Nora in my third year of high school. I had been told she liked me back, but I was clueless as a 16 year old, and wholly oblivious to any hints/gestures regardless of how my friends said she looked at me.

I was fairly sure she didn’t want to be any more than friends, which made talking with her in the hallway between algebra II and US history a painful day-to-day process, but I found myself looking forward to it every morning.

Nora and Me in the hallway, shot by my friend phoenix, circa spring 2016

By the end of high school, I was more in love than ever, and in a decidedly unfortunate turn of fate, discovered that feelings were at least in some way reciprocated, but Nora had made a personal promise to remain single for a year following an unfortunate incident unrelated to us.

Then we left to (different) colleges.

For the first two-ish years of university, the both of us underwent a conversational interlude. We pursued other people, built new lives around new friends. She was at a university about a forty-five minute drive away. Just far enough to keep us apart for a while.

Following a particularly turbulent break up in the tail end of Autumn 2019, I found myself lying on the floor of my room in the dark. I had just finished blocking accounts and numbers, deleting photos and scrubbing my history from social media. My phone lit up, illuminating my ceiling. I rolled over and squinted at the screen: Text from Nora.

I went from sitting on my floor to sitting on her floor, while she sung to herself and made noodles with butter in her basement apartment.

Within a few months we had decided to get together under the condition that we would choose to break up if we were ever faced with the prospect of converting our relationship to long-distance.

Over the next two years, she was the person who showed me what love could be. When the pandemic hit three months later we moved in together to hide from the world. During the summer we stayed up all night and slept through the day. We shared Halloween costumes and got lost in corn mazes. She was there when my first documentary was shown at a theatre and held me when I learned my grandpa died. Soul mates, two parts of a whole, whatever cliché it was, we were it.

The Single-Scene Story

The fairy tale ended in early February of '22. Nora was going to live in Estes park after she graduated in the spring, and I couldn't go with her. We were watching our paths diverge in slow motion, and we were helpless to prevent it.

When we realized that our time together had an expiration date, it crushed us both. Nik is one of my closest friends, and also has a strong personal friendship with Nora. He could see it all unfolding like, ugh, well like a movie scene. I guess.

When my dad, professional geologist and geochemist, and amateur guitarist, learned of our situation, he must have felt far more than he let on, because the acoustic tune and soft lyrics of the little song he wrote about it rocked me to my core. It’s hard to express how it feels when all the grief in your chest is so sweetly played to you as a short recording your dad made, sent through an iPhone.

Au Revoir (demo) by Brent Johnson

Something that really sucks, one realizes in times like this, is that life doesn’t stop just because your world is crashing down around you. We still had to make a movie before we graduated, and with only a few weeks until our shoot, we needed to make some progress.

Nik visited for the weekend so we could workshop our film.

With my perspective of the future no longer centered around my relationship, my focus shifted, possibilities became broader. We were discussing everything going on, mining our lives for a good story to tell.

Following the poignant crack of a Bud Light can, Nik said, “If you want to make films, which we do, you go to where films are made.”

Nearly all of our shared favorite films were made in New York City.

The realization had hit us both at about the same moment: in my student apartment with a spiked beer in my hand at around two in the morning with the dude from high school who had come to be my best friend.

It was New York City or bust. And we needed this film to make it there.

We were brainstorming, throwing out every idea waiting for something to stick. Our film was going to be a conversation. A single scene as a conversation. What conversation is so important that it’s worth making a movie about? What else could be happening that makes one conversation so much more worth watching than any other one?

I threw out an idea. Or, I guess it was more of a fear. I find many good ideas stem from a fear.

I said, “In a few months, Nora is going to leave. Or I am going to leave, and we’re going to say goodbye. What I keep trying to see in my head is how that will go. Will we kiss goodbye? I’m not even sure I would want to know that the last time we kiss will be a goodbye kiss. It’s gonna be on repeat in my head for the rest of my life as the last time, and I don’t know if I want that. Would you?”

Nik thought for a moment. Then, “That’s kind of a cool question to ask. I mean, that sucks, dude. And is incredibly sad. But that’s a conversation that could be worth watching. Let’s write it just as, like, an exercise and see how it feels.”

We unsheathed our respective laptops and began wordlessly plugging dialogue into the script writing software Nik had bought for us both. We wrote the scene separately, aiming for 5-7 pages. Through some amount of tears, I wrote my version of the scene, featuring a busker listening in, and writing a song about the conversation he hears between a couple saying a last goodbye.

Nik too wrote his version, about a couple who tossed a coin to see whether they kiss goodbye before the boyfriend leaves.

It seems a bit weird, objectively. I mean, when a couple of buddies are hanging out drinking beers in the wee hours of the morning, they typically aren’t silently typing on their own computer for thirty minutes at a time and swapping what they wrote, then combining the two versions of the stories into a single script and then setting up their living room like the scene and running it with accompanying train station ambiance played from a Bluetooth speaker just to see if it vibes correctly, but that’s what we did. And thus, three weeks until our intended shoot dates during spring break, our single-scene script, entitled How to Say Goodbye was born.

How to Say Goodbye Title Page

This film had become more than just the last student film we’d ever make. With our goal now to get into film in New York City, it had to be an exhibition of our skills as writers, directors, editors, really just filmmakers as a whole. It was going to be proof to everyone, including Nik and me, that we knew what we were doing well enough to succeed. It was a capstone to our journey as students, a challenge to push ourselves, and an ode to the love Nora and I share. One last hurrah.

Many, if not all readers may now be finding themselves saying, ‘Gosh, three weeks doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to plan, cast, find a location for, coordinate and execute an effective film shoot. Thank you for noticing, reader. Gold star. Find out what happens in the next installment, The Last Student Film: Part Two - How to Fail.

Which should hopefully be written sometime late tomorrow :)

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