Sunday, January 22, 2017
Originally published on Postmortem Mag
“I can’t believe you suckers bought it. I did it, I’m set!”
That’s a line said by main character Ron Patrick Hearst in the opening of Followers, my student short film about the reluctant leader of an oven mitt-worshiping death cult. The film was initially conceived as a web show, the winner of a $500 grant from a fledgling student group to produce about five 10-minute webisodes. This line, written as part of the final episode, reflects what the story had become. At that point, it was full-blown meta-commentary on my thoughts on the project’s very existence.
“It can’t continue. It shouldn’t,” said Ron while pondering his own fate. Before, during, and after we filmed this scene, it felt like the rest of the world was trying to tell us the same thing.
In 2010 I was accepted to Northwestern University, a fantastic college in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. But the real decision was deciding which specific school I would attend. Officially, I was slated to study at the Medill of School of Journalism, in arguably the best undergraduate journalism program in the country. I’ve always wanted to be a writer of some kind, and more specifically, I was trying desperately to break into video game journalism. I figured having bonafide journalism chops would give me the edge I needed to stand out in a crowd of competitive gamers looking to turn their hobby into a livable wage.
However, I knew very little about the Northwestern overall. I hadn’t visited, and I only applied because my mom had looked up good journalism schools. As I started to do more research I also became very interested in the School of Communication, especially its robust film program. The only thing more appealing to me as a writer than people reading my words is seeing my words visualized.
I wrestled with this decision for some time before sticking with journalism. It was the harder school to get into, I don’t care about most aspects of filmmaking outside of writing, and I could always transfer or declare a film minor. I eventually did the latter and my dorm was basically half journalism kids and half film kids anyway. Soon enough, through friendships, I had made some connections to our microcosm of a film industry.
When I wrote the first draft for the first episode of Followers in late 2011, it was a response to my biggest beef with the nature of student films, at least on our campus. Everything was too normal. Unencumbered by studio demands, school should be the place when budding filmmakers should feel free to do the weird stuff that appeals to them. And yet, every screening was full of pretentious sub-indie dramas or sitcoms with riveting subjects like “College mailrooms sure are slow.” Most student films are amateurish by nature, but there’s something sadder about poorly done takes on such generic genres instead of more off-kilter ideas. So instead of just complaining, I wrote something weird, taking influence from obscure superheroes, stoner comedies, and Cthulhu mythos.
Here's the pitch: “When a lazy young man accidentally gets his hand stuck inside a demonic oven mitt, he is forced to take charge and form a cult to earn his freedom.”
Why an oven mitt? First, it’s cheap and the actor can wear it all the time without being too inconvenienced. Second, in the show it’s essentially a puppet. I wrote a bunch of dumb comics as a kid about surly talking food, and the puppet was essentially my latest version of those characters. After all, what are puppets if not live-action cartoons? The character’s name is T’Chroll, pronounced like “Troll,” so it’s not like I was going for subtlety.
From there, the plot spirals into my preferred blend of needlessly dense and complicated lore, undercut with simple comedy. It’s the kind of cult-themed movie where characters are named Joan Townsend and Ron (because of the Jonestown Massacre and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard). An antagonistic teaching assistant would spend one scene carrying out covert missions for a mystical secret society while whining about not being on their mailing list. A recurring joke with a lazy roommate involved the Internet-famous Gorilla Munch cereal. The character initially set up as the love interest instead becomes attracted to the ridiculousness of the cult, not its leader, and winds up the real brains behind the operation. And in the end, the main character learns the lesson that he shouldn’t learn any lessons. With T’Chroll’s demonic help, Ron goes from a passive bad person to an active one.
Somehow, my script won. That’s when a story where a woman says, without a trace of irony, “Take your stupid oven mitt and stay the Hell away from me!” began to take me on a roller coaster of emotions.
With help from my charitable film friends, I spent the next few months scraping together a student crew and casting actors. I’m not white, and since I rarely write characters with race in mind we strived for truly colorblind casting. So while I certainly could’ve written more than one prominent role for a woman, I am pleased we were able to spotlight two Hispanic men as well as a gay man. And they were just a straight-up great cast, the best people for the parts.
The more the project materialized the less I could contain my excitement that Followers was becoming a real thing. The suckers, a.k.a the money people, bought it. But when development would stop for weeks at a time, simply due to busy student schedules, doubt creeped into my mind, and it stayed there for the next three or so years. I submitted the first script in January 2012 and hit publish on the final movie in April 2015.
We filmed the pilot in May 2012 and it was such an incredible trip. A 10-page script calls for about 10 minutes of footage which required hours of filming over a very busy weekend. I had been on a few film sets before, but inhabiting a world that you created and described on your own, even if it only consists of a messy apartment with a magic brick, is something else. I spent that summer endlessly rewatching an early cut of the episode, constantly re-editing it into new trailers while finishing up the remaining four scripts.
In retrospect, filming the next four episodes throughout the 2012-2013 school year actually went pretty smoothly. But in the thick of it, the frequent delays between meaningful progress had me always on edge thinking that the show would never come together.
This deeply bothered me for two reasons. The first is kind of petty. At this point, a new team of students was controlling the TV group, and I don’t think they ever respected the show. I always got the sense that they thought the show would fail, that it was too strange or dumb, and that I had no business running it. Maybe this was true, but looking back, I think my paranoia was really due to feeling like all my artistic hopes and ambitions were pinned to Followers.
Second, I was in my junior year and my journalism career was going well. As it became more obvious that was the professional direction my life should take, Followers was my first and, what I perceived at the time, my last chance of dabbling in filmmaking, and in fiction even. So part of my sense of self, this idea that I was an artist, depended on me expressing my vision in a finished form.
But like I said, aside from a few snags (we had to recast one role and bring on my great friend Jon Oliver as the new director/co-producer) the shoots went well. We filmed outdoor chase scenes, strobe-filled demonic possession scenes, and even a big, bloody, sword fight in an auditorium full of extras that turned into a dance party. But it wouldn’t be Followers without the threat of annihilation at the very last moment. Shooting the final episode was a mad dash to get everyone’s schedules lined up, even if it meant waking up at the crack of dawn. We were shooting during the last week, if not the last day, of classes before everyone went home or prepared for graduation. We did it though. We didn’t shoot every scene I wrote, but we got enough to make a show. Or rather, I thought we did.
Considering how much the relatively small the previous hiccups bothered me, the next few months were… difficult, to say the least. I don’t remember when I accepted that Followers was never going to be a show. Maybe it was during the summer of 2013 when I found out that crucial footage from episode four, the dance party/sword fight/one-act play, was somehow missing and couldn’t be reshot as everyone else was moving onto different films. Maybe it was during my internship at PCMag.com the following fall in New York. I was cut off from the slow implosion of my movie happening back in Evanston, and I realized a tech/games journalist was what I ultimately am. Or maybe it was during winter break when I felt profound sadness because the world would never see a bunch of actors saying lines I wrote to a cow-shaped oven mitt wearing googly eyes.
Followers, as I intended it, was dead. So the question now was if I could get anything out of it. I began personally collecting the footage we had. Next, I made a document full of story points and tried to cut and rearrange them into a single film that could survive the gaping plot hole left by episode four’s deletion. Satisfied with my new nonlinear, and slightly nonsensical, construction I edited the footage into a rough cut and attempted to find a new editor.
By the way, in the middle of all this I graduated from Northwestern in June 2014.
The next few months were a weird time. I was living with my parents doing lots of freelance writing, applying to jobs, and trying to keep Followers alive on the side. I can’t imagine what the TV group must have been thinking. “We were right all along. That stupid oven mitt thing totally crashed and burned.” Or maybe they completely forgot? But I couldn’t let this go. In a way, it was still keeping me tethered to a part of my life I needed to move on from. That and unemployment.
I eventually hired a freelance editor, Kurt Gallant, and worked with him for a few weeks to turn my rough cut into a watchable, 40-minute short film. As it took shape, I felt hope unclouded by doubt for the first time in years. Suddenly the Followers universe felt alive and vibrant again as I added new elements, such as specific song choices and American Graffiti-style ending descriptions to describe each character’s fate. I saw hilarious footage I forgot we shot or that was shot on days I wasn’t on set. To help deal with my sadness I watched documentaries about other unrealized films like Lost in La Mancha or Jodorowsky’s Dune. At that point, nothing would please me more than the thought of escaping that personal limbo. Kurt had saved not only my movie, but my artistic identity.
On April 23, 2015, after making one last trailer, I released Followers on my YouTube page. Barely anyone saw it but that wasn’t the point. It existed. I made some DVDs for good measure. Earlier that month I also moved to New York City to work full-time for PCMag.com.
I still think sticking with journalism over film school was the right choice, at least that’s what my career suggests. But by making Followers I received my own film education. I have a deeper appreciation for how difficult it is to make a movie. I have so much more sympathy for filmmakers unable to make their dreams a reality and the existential despair that can bring. But I also realized how much adversity and compromise can actually enrich the process of making art, even silly art like mine. If Followers had been made with no problems I would have been pretty happy. But bringing Followers into existence through sheer will despite what felt like cosmic odds against us yielded far more satisfyingly complex emotions. Witnessing your baby spent its whole life on the brink of death is a real bummer, but I’m glad that I learned firsthand that the struggle towards unpromised creative catharsis, however long, is worth getting your mitts on.
Watch it for yourself