There’s no such thing as an overnight success in the film industry. Even some of our most legendary filmmakers have histories littered with half-finished films, false steps, and near-misses. There are wins, too; the moments both big and small that connect one project to the next.
My story is no exception.
Cold open: It’s 1993. I’m five years old, watching “Jurassic Park” for the first time. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. My brain is leaking out my ears. I make a pledge to myself. Whatever it took to put those dinosaurs on screen…I want to do that someday.
When we did (thanks to an old blog of mine - a story for another time) it was instant creative kismet and we began scheming how to break into the industry. Writing was much cheaper than directing, so we put pen to paper and spent seven years developing our voice.
In 2014, we sold our first show to NBC. It didn’t get made, but it established a relationship with Blumhouse that led to Jen and I creating and showrunning 2016’s “12 Deadly Days” for them. And in the fall of 2020, as COVID swept the globe, we got the call that would take our careers to the next level.
“You guys want to direct, right?”
We did. And our first feature - a twisted psychological thriller called “The Aviary” - was born.
The voice on the other end of the line was Jessica Rhoades, the producer we’d sold those first two television projects (among others) with. Jen and I had won the Hollywood lottery. We were in the right place at the right time to have a feature film offered to us by a trusted producer, with the promise of creative freedom. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Jessica brilliantly saw how we could turn COVID’s many disadvantages into advantages that could keep dozens of talented people employed, give new talent a chance, and make a great film.
When we accepted that opportunity, we also accepted the responsibility of crafting a movie that could be shot safely - in this case, outside – with as small a cast as possible.
Clearing that hurdle started early in development of the script. Jen and I had been working with some of the concepts that would become “The Aviary” Our first task was to bring those ideas to life in harmony with our restraints.
We always knew the story would center on Jillian and Blair, two women escaping a strange desert cult, but it wasn’t until now that we decided to take a big swing and start the film with their escape.
Practically, this allowed us to commit to telling a story in the relatively COVID safe expanse of the desert. Creatively, it was our way into one of the less commonly explored parts of the cult experience: the aftermath.
For reasons both budgetary and creative, we committed to never seeing the inside of the compound. No flashbacks. Just the terrifying now of freedom.
We also knew that we wanted our villain, a preternaturally kind and calm cult leader named Seth, to be on our hero’s heels. But in a twist that played to our limitations, we wanted him to be after them in a place they couldn’t run from: their own minds.
This decision turned the wide open desert into a psychological pressure cooker, a stage on which we could explore Jillian and Blair’s deepest fears and darkest conflicts.
Finally, we wrote with a particular location in mind: a ranch Jessica had access to in New Mexico. Besides its expansive natural beauty, the ranch also had a standing town set that would up our production value if we could find a way to use it.
It would become the abandoned desert town of Calvary Hill, where our escapees would find shelter on their journey as they start to lose their minds.
Of course, making movies is never that easy.
Once we had our script, we turned to casting first. We knew the stars we attached to the project would ultimately help determine the budget With our short window for pre-production already closing our producers started making calls.
We’d written the character of Jillian with Malin Akerman in mind and figured we might as well shoot for the moon. Would she be interested in bringing Jillian to life for us?
She said “yes,” and we quickly brought her on board as both star and executive producer. Her attachment, along with Jessica as a producer and the strength of the script, was enough to get the ball rolling on financing. The deal was complicated, but it essentially guaranteed that our distributor, Saban, would pick up the film at a certain price when it was finished. In turn, our financiers could take out loans with the promise of at least breaking even in the future.
No sooner did we get the greenlight, than we lost our primary location. COVID spiked dramatically in the winter of 2020 and the early months of 2021. It became clear we weren’t going to be able to travel to New Mexico to shoot on the ranch like we initially planned. Principal photography would have to take place in Los Angeles, within thirty miles of the city.
If you shoot within that radius (known colloquially as “The Zone”) cast and crew can drive home for the night and production doesn’t have to pay housing and transportation costs.
While playing by these rules saved our production some money, it also severely limited access to desert locations. Most of the true desert near LA - Joshua Tree, for instance - starts just outside the radius.
Another thing that you can’t find within that radius: abandoned towns. . Like the kind of abandoned town we’d made sure to feature heavily in the script to capitalize on the one we had access to at our original location.
We scouted and re-wrote to a number of different locations. Maybe instead of an abandoned town, the women find an abandoned diner? Sure. LA has a few of those. But they were too far from our other locations to be practical.
No problem. What about an abandoned gas station? Another production outbid us with the same shoot dates.
As the budget finalized and the rest of our cast came together (including the incredible Lorenza Izzo as Blair and Chris Messina as Seth), the reality set in that we were only going to have the time and money for one “company move.”
A company move is when you uproot all your trailers and production offices to travel from one location to another. This involves all kinds of coordination between departments and can easily eat up half a shooting day or more.
On our 14-day production schedule, we couldn’t afford delays like that. We were going to have to shoot our entire movie - an epic journey across hundreds of miles of desert - in no more than two locations. And one of those locations would have to have some kind of abandoned town or shelter.
Enter Bloom Ranch of Acton.
Most shoots use this beautiful lavender farm for the lovely fields, gardens, and central farmhouse. We weren’t interested in any of that. We wanted to use the driest, most lifeless corners of the property to simulate the desert, and we wanted to use the small collection of wood and stone sheds and barns as our “town.”
The property wasn’t big enough to shoot the entire movie on, but it was a start. We would ultimately end up a few miles down the road on another private ranch to shoot the third act of the picture.
As we scouted Bloom Ranch with our intrepid and talented cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, C.S.C., Jen and I made sure to choose the setting of each scene with a visual journey in mind. We wanted the story to start with golden, open fields that symbolize the women’s new-found freedom and transition into drier, more imposing landscapes as they realize they aren’t as safe as they hoped.
This created an interesting question of how to build a journey through the desert that conveyed the hopelessness of everything looking the same without boring the audience. Each scene had to look same-y but not the same.
We had to craft that journey while shooting south as much as we could (since that’s where the best light would be coming from for much of the day). And we had to frame out the roads and buildings surrounding the property because our VFX budget only allowed for a minimal number of paint outs.
Once we were on set, each day became a race against time to shoot our pages for the day - literally. Shooting outside meant we had to keep the position of the sun in mind at all times.
Take too long to shoot a scene and the sun would move too much to keep continuity with light and shadows. We didn’t have the budget for lights and equipment to counter that.
Everyone from the stars to the PAs had to be focused, on time, and at the top of their game - just to make our days. It was a crushing amount of pressure, but even in the wildly fluctuating heat and cold of Acton, CA, spirits were high.
The whole crew shared a vision, and the more impossible the day seemed, the more we dug in together.
Most of our production challenges and creative problem solving revolved around a lack of time and resources, sometimes from things I never expected. For instance: campfires.
When Jen and I wrote the script, we thought we were being clever to include a number of scenes set at night around a series of campfires. This would sidestep the need to rent expensive lights and generators for our night scenes, so long as the women stayed close to the fires.
We hadn’t stopped to think about the safety and permitting concerns around fires, especially fires set in dry, grassy areas during a once-in-a-lifetime drought.
We couldn’t just build a campfire. We had to bring in a fire team to dig gas lines to create fake, controllable campfires that could be shut off at a moment’s notice. We had to rent fake wood for those fires. We had to pay for a fire marshal to inspect the site, and we had to pay for a water truck to sit on standby in case an errant spark burned out of control.
Of course, that also limited where we could shoot our campfires, because the water truck had to be able to park nearby. Tricky when your movie is supposed to take place in the middle of nowhere.
Another challenge we faced was how to cut our visual storytelling to the bone. We didn’t have time for complicated setups, nor time to experiment on set. We had to come in with a rough plan, then condense and cut as we got the scene on its feet and saw what our actors brought to the table.
While we were confident in the movie that we shot, post is where it really came together.
We had the pleasure of teaming with an excellent editor - David Bilow - who worked with Jessica on some of the television shows she produced.
During development, he helped put together a tone reel to show investors. Whenwe came back to him at the end of the process he already had a sense of where our heads were at. He immediately understood what we were looking to get out of each scene and quickly identified which scenes needed the most help.
With a tight editorial schedule David encouraged us to engage in a key strategy: “Get to the Good Stuff”
Basically, we acknowledged which scenes and moments weren’t working early on and excised them. That allowed us to focus on putting as much of the best material on screen as possible.
For better or for worse, our punishingly tight 14 day shooting schedule didn’t give us room to get lots of options or alternate takes, so the assembly cut came together quickly. We then began to drill down on the parts of the film that needed the most help: the horror sequences set at night.
Between our limited lighting budget and our equally limited coverage, these scenes were falling flat. It took David’s keen eye and sense of timing to figure out how to milk the most out of what we had.
For instance, in a key sequence where Lorenza wakes up to find Malin in a strange, sleepwalking trance, we didn’t have time to cover all of Malin’s movement. She starts inside a small shack, opens the door, goes outside, and wanders off into the dark. We only had her waking up, standing up, and Lorenza’s reactions to her movements.
David was able to piece together an eerie moment that played on Lorenza instead of Malin. We used sound to motivate Lorenza’s reactions, and had her emerge from the shack to find Malin already some distance away in the dark.
The result was a nightmare-like moment of dream logic that I think ultimately improved on the scene.
There wasn’t a day that went by - from pre-production to post - where I didn’t learn something about the craft I’ve dedicated my life to. Whether it was something as small as which direction provides the best natural light (south!) or as large as scheduling a multi-week shoot (hard!), I was constantly taking in new information.
Most importantly, I conquered one of my greatest directing fears: talking to actors. Despite some previous experience with actors on short films and music videos, I never felt like I had mastered the emotional terms they are fluent in.
I always know what I want, but it can be hard for me to go deep enough to find the words. Luckily, Malin, Lorenza, Chris, and Sandrine Holt (as the mysterious Delilah) were total pros and taught me more than they know through their patience and process.
By the time the shoot was over, I felt more comfortable getting the performances I wanted - whether through finding the right verbs for my actors to play or by designing games for the actors to play within scenes.
The day I felt like I graduated directing school was the day Malin said something that really clarified the relationship between motivation, movement, and emotion for me.
I’d designed some busy blocking for Malin as she revealed a secret to Lorenza about an incident that happened at the cult compound they’re fleeing. Malin took a beat and suggested the scene would play better if she didn’t move at all.
I wasn’t so sure, but she pointed out her character was ready to face this secret. If she moves, it feels like she’s still running from it. If she sat on a log, calm and poised, it told the audience she was at peace.
What clicked for me in that moment was not only a lesson in directing, but a lesson in trusting my gut. I could’ve fought for what I’d planned, but I knew that Malin was right and made the call to go with her idea.
This was part of learning how to make hundreds of decisions a day without needlessly second guessing myself.
On set there’s usually not one “right way” to do something, and for an inexperienced director, that can be overwhelming. I had to trust my gut and charge forward, while weighing the opinions of the talented, dedicated team at my side.
But that doesn’t mean my instincts are flawless.
A criticism I have when I watch the movie back is that I don’t think we were as clever or competent in condensing coverage as we could’ve been. We aired on the side of simpler set ups that would allow us to get two or three takes of a performance instead of more complicated shots that might carry more visual power but require us to move on after one take.
This resulted in rock solid performances that I’m very proud of, but a lackluster visual language - one of the few tools we had to keep the audience engaged and leaning in during a slow burn to the climax of the film.
If I could go back, I’d take a few more visual chances at the risk of more limited performance choices in the edit.
Every movie is its own battle, and I hope some of these lessons inspire and enlighten you in the trenches of your own film. If you’d like to watch THE AVIARY it’s available to rent on Amazon or stream on Showtime.
To help you on your own filmmaking journey, be sure to check out a couple of articles here on the Wrapbook blog that I think are essential to getting ready for your first feature: How To Run Film Payroll, How To Build a Shot List, and An Indie Producer’s Guide to Crewing Up.
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