Debutante: The Conception

Author: Justin

We set out to create a short film for the Cut to the Chase Film Festival this year because we enjoyed our experience at last year’s festival where we debuted our collaboration with David Smith, a filmmaker that we both admire. That film, “State Inspection,” can be viewed over at our Mountain Craft Originals page. The festival, held annually in Shepherdstown, is highly recommended!

So… this year we ended up doing something very different. Whereas “State Inspection” was a quirky comedy, “Debutante,” our entry for this year, is a dark and stylized story pitting one evil against another. Thematically, visually, and viscerally— it’s different in every way. We were excited to go in this direction. Another big change for us with this year’s entry was that it was produced entirely in-house in the sense that it was written by myself and then directed by Ben. Neither of us were able to claim these titles with our film last year. On a personal level, we were both excited about this as well because it was our first time collaborating in this way on a scripted narrative film. 

I’m not a writer by profession. I feel like I intuit things and sometimes have a hard time expressing the impressions and fragments of ideas that form in my gut. In the case of “Debutante,” Ben and I had only been home for a couple days after a tiring trip to Bolivia to do some documentary shooting and here we were again on a plane headed to Los Angeles for the CineGear Expo. I knew that I needed to write a script for us to make into a short film and I knew that time was running out. We had merely weeks to come up with something and execute it if were were going to make the late deadline. These pressures and the experiences that I had recently had abroad must have combined in a confusing but textured slurry in my brain because as I was nodding off on the plane I had a series of images come to my mind almost at random. A controlling mother sitting in the floor at a Japanese style coffee table, shackled bare feet walking down a hallway, a servant carefully preparing tea, mint leaves, and a hidden relationship— these were all immediately at the front of my brain and the tip of my tongue as I awoke from my half-sleep. I turned to Ben, who was seated next to me, and I said “I know what our film is. I don’t know what it’s about, per se, but I have it.” I followed that up by listing off the images that had come to me, and then I made a promise to write a script that incorporated them and also made some kind of sense. This alone might have been an unusual beginning for a film, but it seemed even more unusual in this case since it was such a departure from the script that I thought I was going to make— about a teenage tennis player who steals a boat, kidnaps a group of women, and forces them to buy Beanie Babies while he cries and whines about how his mother loves her cat more than him. Yep... so... different.

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Once I returned home from the trip, I had the script written in only a matter of a few hours. A few refinements later… it was finished. Now we had to do the legwork of finding locations, casting, buying props, scheduling, arranging for lens rentals, designing the look, shot-listing, and thinking about every other detail of how the film should look and feel. Our next blog entry (“Debutante: The Execution”) will discuss some of these items in more detail.

And here’s where the real magic of filmmaking takes place. After our cast was chosen we were fortunate enough to be able to schedule a couple rehearsals with them. Jennifer (the mother), Cody (the servant boy), and Zoe (Chelsea), not only poured over their scripts but immersed themselves in their characters, studied their backstories, and asked questions to try and get a better sense of the characters they were portraying. Ben had his work cut out for him as well because, as the director, it was his job to answer all of those questions. This back and forth between Ben and the actors was where a number of interesting and unexpected character and story decisions were made. These were the kinds of discoveries that ultimately added depth and nuance to the film that the script itself was lacking. For example, the moment in the film where Chelsea pushes the loudspeaker off of her bedside table was a moment that was improvised by Zoe during our last rehearsal. Ben loved it and decided to keep it, so it was added to the script. 

Some images that inspired us...

Similar revelations were also born from us walking around the physical shooting location during our location scout and tech scout. The scene where the mother is forced to squat down in the dark hallway and yell orders at Chelsea through an open mail slot in the door was one of these moments. In the script, this scene played out with the mother opening the door, stepping into the room, and exerting herself while standing over Chelsea as kind of a large and oppressive force. Once he saw the mail slots in the doors at our location, however, Ben saw an opportunity to take that heavy, oppressive mother character from the script and slowly chisel away at her by making her lower herself and, somewhat comically, be reduced to a set of eyeballs helplessly locked out of the area where she wants to be. The loudspeaker being pushed off of the bedside table was another one of these new moments that helped to reinforce the idea that mother’s grip was loosening and things were turning in Chelsea’s favor. Once you start to break down the details of the film and analyze where each idea came from, it serves as a perfect reminder of the fact that film is a hugely collaborative art-form. I wrote the script, but that script only served as inspiration for which the actors and director could build on. I’m proud that they were able to do so, and I’m also proud that they did such a great job with it. 

Ben agrees: 

“Honestly, the collaborative part of the project was the most fun for me. Justin obviously wrote the script and created this world and then he handed it over to me to interpret and direct how I saw fit. But, I once I took over as director we never stopped brainstorming and working together, so the final product that you see on screen is a direct result of the creator working with an outside source and getting this final film that’s a perfect mix of both our visions.”

This is filmmaking. We are proud to say that we won the “Best Film” award at the festival. We don’t think that Debutante is a perfect film, but it’s a lot better than it would have been if we hadn’t worked with so many great collaborators who were able to add their own voices to the film, and it’s also a testament for what you can achieve with hard work and dedication. We had a number of struggles with the film, but ultimately we were able to make something that feels complete. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a somewhat strange short film thematically, but it’s damn close to what we planned to make. And that’s rarely easy to accomplish, we are proud of that.

Soon, we’ll publish a follow-up blog about the execution of the film where I go into more detail about how the film was made. In the meantime, “Debutante” is available to stream online right here.