Interview with the filmmakers behind short film Burn the Tapes (part 1)

As I confessed in my last post, I’m no filmmaker, so what better way to start off my column than by talking to some filmmakers?

And just to make things more fun, why not talk to some filmmakers who just made their first film, having no previous experience at all?

Call it the blind interviewing the blind.

I’m sure that over the next few articles, we’ll all learn some things about getting a story on to the screen.

Newbie producer Jillian Gora reached out to me some time back wondering if I’d like to hear about the experience she and her friends had making their very first short film, Burn The Tapes.

Jillian had never produced a film before, and her collaborators – brother and sister Brit and Nick Kewin – had never directed before.

Over the next few months, we’ll talk about their journey of discovery and, hopefully, share some lessons learned.

Burn the Tapes is the story of a young woman whose new life is threatened when a stack of cassette tapes reveals a haunting truth about her husband.

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Jillian Gora and Brit Kewin

Above: Jillian Gora and Brit Kewin

James McNally (JM): Tell me about each of your backgrounds. It’s not exactly true that you had NO filmmaking experience at all, is it?

Jillian Gora (JG): Well, not exactly, I guess. Brit recently completed a master’s degree in visual anthropology. As part of her thesis project she shot a basic video and learned to use an editing software program – so she had dabbled.

I come from an advertising background and had coordinated TV shoots so I understood the basics of what went into shooting a video project. Nick has an incredible talent for writing and he and Brit took it upon themselves to research how to write a screenplay and then wrote our film together.

But none of us had ever made a short film. We had never created a story from nothing and tried to bring it to life.

Although I knew what went into shooting a TV spot, there were a ton of details that none of us had ever been exposed to. Suffice it to say, this was a huge challenge and we were really winging it – at least at the beginning.

JM: Did you all agree on what each of your jobs would entail? How about your commitments of time and money?

JG: We definitely understood who brought what strengths to the table.

Brit and Nick are very creative and have a way with words. We obviously knew from the start that they’d be the writers. They had been talking about writing a script together for a while, and it was sort of assumed that they would direct the film too – although it’s important to note that we did have a talk about this one day and officially decided that they’d direct.

This was important so that everyone understood who was in charge creatively. Luckily they work really well together as a brother/sister team so there weren’t really any power struggles.

I’m a details person. When Brit and I decided to go ahead with the film, we had already discussed that I would produce whatever creative project she wanted to make – it just so happened that she wanted to make a film. So my role was set from the beginning.

Of course, ‘producer’ can be a bit of a catch-all title so we communicated a lot and we were sure to share in some of the responsibility so that not everything fell to one person.

For example, even though I was the producer, Nick and Brit pretty much took care of location scouting because we shot the film at their grandfather’s cabin. They also knew the town better than me so they organized for our convenience store scene to be shot at a local store.

In terms of a time commitment we all agreed that our jobs came first but our excitement for the project meant that we spent most of our free time researching and working on pulling the details together.

We were very open about financial commitments and all agreed on how things were going to be funded.

We didn’t spend very much money but there were of course little costs here and there. Being upfront about these things is super important – we’re all still friends so obviously we did that right!

JM: Originally, Burn The Tapes was a short story. How did you go about adapting it into a screenplay? What had to change structurally? How much was added or removed?

Brit Kewin (BK): We wrote the script together, whereas the story had been my own. So that was the biggest shift.

We started this project by throwing out ideas from stories we’d written or half-written or thought about.

Nick liked the concept of a man recording his dreams over a period of years then giving a stack of cassette tapes to his new lover to listen to and type out. Aside from that, everything changed from short story to screenplay.

My story was about a student who answers a craigslist ad for a stenographer and falls for the old man who posted it. Our story together is about a young wife who discovers a disturbing secret about her erratic husband.

The shift in content and tone happened gradually, though. We never sat down with my story and tried to [make it into] a screenplay. Once we’d decided where we were heading, I don’t know if we ever even looked at the original story.

We have mutual interests in very specific kinds of places, people and dilemmas, so other things that might engage [either one of] our imaginations didn’t meld when we wanted to make something together. Gradually, the story morphed from the first to the second.

When we got down to actually writing, we fumbled around trying to figure out what makes a story that will be seen versus what makes a story that is intended to stay as squiggles on a page.

Neither of us knew a beat from a (beat). Nick had a free alumni course on offer from his university so he took ‘Screenwriting 101.’ The class truly earned its ‘101’ tag by dragging out the basic features of plot and character for people who had never tried to write anything beyond their names.

He did send an early draft of our script to his prof, though, and she [told] him it sucked. So, arrogance not deserved. Then the class ended and she stopped answering emails.

With that, we expanded our pool of ‘advisors.’ We downloaded free versions of Final Draft, then sent watermarked scripts to friends whose advice we sort of thought we might kind of want to hear. No writing, screenwriting or movie watching experience necessary. We got back half-baked opinions and literary-minded advice and we took it all to heart.

We were lucky to get to take our story all the way through working with actors, then shooting, then editing – all of which taught us as much about writing a screenplay as actually writing a screenplay.

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Next time: finding cast and crew

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