INSIDE THE THESIS FILM FROM TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
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The Calling Card short film. The big one. The film you’ll use after you graduate to show people what you’re capable of. It sounds daunting but it’s an exciting project that you work towards for years as a film student. Personally, I never went to film school. I went into Television but I’ve always wondered what may have been if I had decided to go to Film School.
Fortunately, Amanda Prentiss and Evgueni Mlodik were kind enough to share their experience at the Colorado Film School. Their current project is a big one. It’s a short film called By the Light of the Silvery Moon and it’s based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.
The film is currently in pre-production with Amanda producing & Evgueni writing & directing. So what’s it like to produce a calling card film? Read on for both perspectives on what it’s like to be a student, how it impacts their choices as artists and what they hope to achieve with their latest project.
What is ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’?
Amanda: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” is the name of a song from 1909. The music was composed by Gus Edwards and the lyrics by Edward Madden. In our film, the lead character, Sybille (our little mermaid), sings the song. It’s about love and being in the arms of the one you love. It’s representational of the love she yearns for, as well as a foreshadowing of a later scene that takes place in the moonlight, but isn’t quite as romantic.
Evgueni: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” is a classic romantic song that ironically reflects the themes and characters of the film and appears in a number of forms throughout the story. The song speaks of finding grand love and marriage under the beauty of the silvery moonlight, and all of that does occur in the film… But with a twist.
As a student and aspiring filmmaker, how important is it to select the right subject matter for a thesis film?
Amanda: Selecting the right subject for a thesis film is extremely important for two main reasons. For one, it’s the final project you’ll make in film school, so it means a lot personally. On the other hand, it becomes your calling card – whether you apply for grad school or immediately try to get a job, admissions counselors and prospective employers are going to look at that film.
Evgueni: I think it is important to stay true to one self while experimenting with different styles and themes in order to find your own individual voice. It is easy to conform and get lost in imitation while attending film school, so it was crucial for me to find a good story that spoke to me personally and would lend itself to a unique and interesting dramatization in front of the cameras. I also feel that the more your finished product stands out, the bigger the chance you and your work will get noticed.
What made you finally decide on adapting The Little Mermaid? What inspired you about the story?
Amanda: I was actually not involved in the decision at all. This is Ev’s thesis project – I signed on after he had already written the first draft of the script. That being said, the story had a lot to do with why I got involved. I love fairy tales, especially the original ones. I think it’s because they are darker and less cheesy than a lot of the adaptations that have been made from them. For me, the story is inspiring because it’s so applicable. We all yearn for that “true love” but at the same time, we have to question whether the sacrifices we make for it are worth it. Particularly in this day and age, when we as a society are so materialistic, people often find themselves in the position of debating between love and furthering themselves in a different way – whether it be a career opportunity or what they perceive as the freedom to “experience life” before settling down.
Evgueni: An adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” has been on my mind for quite some time. I grew up in Russia, where the tale is quite famous, but in its original form, before the Disney revision. I always felt drawn to the tale of the tragic misfit who could never properly integrate into any of her surroundings, especially those she earned for. When I move to the US, I was surprised that no one knew of the story as originally written and its deeper themes and tragic ending eluded so many people. While the Disney version is known and loved in Russia, the original conclusion is much better known. In light of some recent personal events, as well as my growing fascination with German Expressionism, made me feel that it was the perfect time and opportunity to adapt this story into a new film, as well trying something completely brave and new for my final college thesis project. It was always my determination to try creating something challenging and thought provoking, since this is first and foremost a concluding thesis of fours years’ worth of education.
Choosing to do an adaptation presents many challenges for the screenwriter. Can you elaborate on your approach to the story and some of the challenges you faced writing the screenplay?
Amanda: As I mentioned before, I was not involved in the writing of the screenplay. However, I was a part of the rewrite process. In that regard, I would say one of the challenges was determining where to stick with the original story and where to make it our own. Another issue was with the story itself – up to the last scene, it’s a pretty well-known story. We had to face the challenge of figuring out how to engage the audience and keep them interested while still telling that familiar story.
Evgueni: While I believe “The Little Mermaid” was tailor made for a German Expressionist style film, there had to be changes made to fit the style and our budget. Amanda was amazing in helping me prune the original screenplay and bringing it down to a tight and concise story. Some of the fairy tale’s original aspects were either removed or changed, such as the Mermaid’s initial meeting with the “Prince Charming” and the Witch’s role had to be modified somewhat to fit our narrative better. Of course, we have no fish tails or sea foam, but in spirit, I think this is the closest adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s immortal work.
What sets this adaptation apart from previous work such as Disney’s animated feature film The Little Mermaid?
Amanda: This adaptation is completely different. To begin with, the stories are opposites of each other. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is extremely light-hearted and ends with the traditional “happily ever after.” Our film is a much darker story and ends in tragedy. The Disney version also focuses much of its attention on what happens to Ariel after she becomes human, as well as the interactions and growing love between her and Eric. One might say the theme is true love prevails (like many Disney stories). In our story, a lot of time is taken to establish Sybille’s world and the ramifications of her choices for wanting to be with Matthias (our Eric). I would say our theme falls more along the line of choices, and how when we make choices, we must then face the consequences of them – particularly if the end result is not as we expected.
Evgueni: I feel our film will be the complete antithesis of the Disney version, exploring different styles and themes. The ocean setting is now a macabre cabaret, a setting so familiar to German Expressionist films of the 1920s and 30s. The mermaids, while still the ethereal sirens, in our story appear as tempting dancers living under the harsh contract of a devilish Madam. The Prince “Eric” of the piece is no longer the saintly cardboard cut out of a leading male character, but more complex and flawed human being. We also added a new character, that is unique to our version, that of the Pale Man. He figures greatly in our Mermaid’s ordeal and is related greatly to her final fate.
As students, what do you hope to achieve with this film both professionally and academically?
Amanda: Wow, that’s a good question. Professionally, I hope to make a film that I can be proud of, and that we can get into festivals. Who knows, maybe someone will see it, and that’ll be my “big break”. (Laughing). No, just to get it into some decently good festivals would mean a lot to me. On an academic level, I just hope it’s a film that people like, and maybe even get into the student show. Oftentimes, you’re very judged by how good your film is (which is completely fair) and people decide whether or not they want to work on projects with you based on the other work you’ve done. I hope people don’t see this and decide they don’t want to work with me. That’d be super unfortunate.
Evgueni: First and foremost I would like to create a film that the cast and crew can be proud of putting on their resume. Second, I wish to present a complex and beautifully constructed thesis film that will stand out as its own unique creation that will also create buzz and help all the amazingly talented and hard working people that helped create it. Of course, having it end up in a place like the Cannes Film Festival would be a dream come true, but I would be extremely proud and happy if “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” traveled the American festival circuit, and who knows, maybe after that we will conquer Europe as well.
Having never gone to film school, I find it fascinating how people carve out filmmaking identities for themselves. Some discover their place at school while others skip film school altogether. What are some of the advantages of film studies and how has it affected your growth as an artist?
Amanda: Honestly, I’d say it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other in regards to whether or not to go to film school. I would say that one of the big advantages of film school is the freedom to fail. In the “real world” the stakes are a lot higher whereas we have the ability to be able to experiment with our projects (at least the lower level ones) and if things don’t go as planned, we have people there supporting us and walking us through what went wrong and how we can avoid those mistakes in the future. Another advantage is the access to equipment – Colorado Film School has an entire equipment cage full of various cameras, lights, and other equipment that we can use and learn about. For example, we’re shooting this film on the RED ONE. The rental fees for that camera run at roughly $600-$1000 per day. If we didn’t have access to the camera through the school, there’d be no way we’d be able to use it. You also get a lot of exposure not just to your instructors, who are film professionals, but also the guest artists they bring in to talk with us. As a producing student, I feel that’s extremely beneficial, since I’ve had the opportunity to attend talks with entertainment lawyers, television CEOs, and big-budget film producers. Each has taken the time to talk one-on-one with students about our current projects and our future plans. This is a subject that I could go on a long time about. To put it simply, for me, I feel really blessed by the experiences film school has allowed me to have, from the classes to the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Evgueni: That’s an excellent, and difficult, question, Jason! I don’t think I’d be able to pursue filmmaking without a degree and going to film school has truly instilled me confidence of finding my own voice, as well as learning the craft itself and the rudimentary “tools of the trade,” so to speak. The teachers who worked in the industry and the numerous guest speakers have provided me and other students with great experience and knowledge of what to expect in the real world of film business and how to pursue our goals and dreams. I also feel that film school is a great crutch for your first productions, seeing how it can provide amazing equipment to shoot your film that would never be able to obtain otherwise on a dilettante’s budget. Most importantly, however, thanks to film school, I have met many amazing young artists and nothing inspires creativity more than an atmosphere charged with talent and ambition and to try bold new things in story telling and filmmaking.
Given your unique take on the literature, what challenges have you faced during pre-production? Has it been difficult to pull off the vision you have in mind?
Amanda: I think one of the most difficult things was determining a coherent vision for the film. We wanted to give the film a period look, without pinpointing it to a specific era, much in the way many of Tim Burton’s films or done, or Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. That being said, finding period locations on a budget is another big difficulty. We found a few places that we initially thought would work great, but they wanted to charge us pretty exorbitant rental fees. Pulling off our vision has been pretty hard, most of that due to our monetary limitations. Oh well, they say limitations breed creativity, and I’d say we’re a pretty creative lot, so I have a lot of faith that it will all work out.
Evgueni: This has been one of the hardest projects I ever worked on. The budget angle is important, but it’s easy to get lost with scale and ambition of the film. I’ve studied many older films made in the style we’re going for, some few have even heard of, as well tracking down any adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” I could find to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves. I’ve also been working closely with the production designer and director of photography to make sure all the colors and visuals are in sync with the intended vision. It’s been difficult to maintain the dignity and integrity of the project on a small budget and tight schedule, but Amanda is a true angel and a consummate professional who’s guiding hand has been a blessing. I truly believe that by pulling our resources together we can create something worthwhile and beautiful.
What’s next for ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’?
Amanda: We’ve got a ton of things going on right now. Our main focus is to raise the remainder of the funds we need. We have our IndieGoGo up but time is running out. I’m personally a little nervous about this. Either way, we’re making this film, but meeting our budget would make life a lot easier. Not reaching our goal will affect the overall production value of the film – especially the production design, since this is a period piece. On a more tangible level, if we don’t get that money, we can’t have as much food available for craft services, and that weighs really heavy on my mind. Everyone is working on this project for free, and we need to be able to feed them 2-3 meals per day for 8 days. We currently have a crew of 35 and a cast of 47. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and not a lot of money to do it with. So, funding, funding, funding is my main priority as the producer. An equally important thing is to film our trailer, which needs to be completed by December 1st. That’s less of an issue to for me, because we are intentionally making the trailer very, very simplistic.
Evgueni: Oh, wow, where to begin? Right now we’re all set in preparing an intriguing and abstract teaser trailer to help raise buzz about the film and we are deep in rehearsals for the film’s complex dance and music scenes. Our amazing choreographer is doing a beautiful job and I’ve often had my jaw drop when seeing her work. We are also locating the best possible settings to shoot on our conservative budget. I’ve also recently got in touch with a talented local composer and we’re in the process of writing some gorgeous melodies fort he dancers, as well as a brand new arrangement or “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” All in all, the production is steadily moving along to its triumphant completion, no matter how slow and rocky the road ahead might be.
What’s next for you?
Amanda: My next big project coming up will be my Production II film. I’ll be working on that from January-March, which means that it and this film will overlap. I’ve chosen to make my project relatively short and simple, with the overlap in mind. I have at least a year left until I graduate, so I’m not entirely sure what I’ll end up doing at that point. My hope is to someday be a showrunner for a television show, so I’ll probably apply to a variety of grad programs as well as professional training programs. We’ll see what happens.
Evgueni: Well, as this being my final college project, I’ll be acquiring my BFA in Writing/Directing in May and then moving on to Los Angeles to pursue my dream. I hope that “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” will be a tangible “Calling Card” film. My main dream is to settle somewhere close to the film industry and continue doing what I do best. Giving people entertaining and challenging films.
Thanks to Amanda Prentiss & Evgueni Mlodik for the interview.
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