From C to C: My Expedition into (Short) Filmmaking

Back when I made my first film, I was practically devoid of any of the filmmaking knowledge I have now. I’d never read a book on filmmaking, so I relied entirely on others to get my vision from the page to the screen. I must’ve come a long way. With no formal training of any kind in the art or craft of filmmaking, my homemade education is comprised of two things: movies and (some) books. I find that’s all a filmmaker needs nowadays, that and maybe some informative blogs on self-distribution, since that particular landscape is constantly changing.

My first short film was supposed to be Cunnigula, a darkly comedic piece of about 32 pages. But once all 16 hours of Mini DV footage was dumped into a spliced-together computer, it branched out into the realm of the feature film, clocking in at an hour and 35 minutes! By mixing absurdity and comedy, I was able to create a mostly enjoyable, though exceedingly ribald experience that made viewers laugh hysterically during the show, but kept them pensive long after. Despite what you may accurately infer of the surface subject matter by the title, at its root Cunnigula is really an exploration of addiction, and the audience got it.

John working at the spliced-together computer

Rebooting Frankenstein's computer, complete with a hanging fan cooling off the five hard drives separated by screwdrivers!

But it took too damn long! The challenge for me now as writer, director, and editor is to tap into those myriad emotional states much more efficiently (and quickly).

Cerise, which marks my seventh short film, comes pretty close. The current edit stands at a solid 21 minutes sans credits. During the next week or so I hope to use some of the feedback offered at the July 7th test screening and trim it down to 20 minutes with credits. But for a filmmaker, there’s more to the film than the finished product. For me, Cerise also marks my greatest achievement as a short screenwriter. I put to practice much of the knowledge I’d gained from reading screenwriting books. Then, I allowed myself to deconstruct the script a week prior to shooting because I realized (with the help of my good friend Troy) that I really didn’t need much of the material I’d typed (though it would make for an interesting experimental film à la David Lynch.) And even while editing, I saw that there was even more that I didn’t need.

Watching Cerise

My crew and I monitoring a take on a sweet 17" HD monitor.

I started off with a 25 minute film and painstakingly whittled it down to the current 21 minute version, brushing out the last of the pesky dust that remained in the machinery.

What I’ve learned from all this is that we can read all the books we like, but all books should be kept in the reference section of Barnes and Noble; there’s no knowledge but in doing. As filmmakers, we need only watch movies to see the basic elements of story at work. And how do you perfect that knowledge? Write a script and make a mediocre film of it. Then write another and make a better film of that script. It’s partly instinctual, partly practical. That’s exactly how it was when I first wrote Cunnigula; I knew nothing of Syd Field’s three acts or Joseph Campbell’s hero quest (all I knew was Aristotle’s Poetics, which is still a great reference 2,300 years later!), nor had I any clue about the dos and don’ts of screenwriting. The only thing I learned was how to properly format a screenplay, and even that felt very logical. Story lies in the practice of telling it.

Alas, Cunnigula and all its copies are buried somewhere in my brother’s basement next to the rest of my past; now it’s time to soar onward with Cerise “to infinity, and beyond!” I’ve grown a great deal, and with this latest short I’ve gone from controversial to “cute” (the last word many would expect to hear regarding my work), but the journey between these two prominent Cs in my life has proven invaluable to my development not only as a filmmaker, but as a more well-rounded individual as well.

And just wait until you see what I’ve got cooking up next!

7 thoughts on “From C to C: My Expedition into (Short) Filmmaking

  1. John, we can totally relate to your experience with Cunnigula. We made the Girl Rods series for fun and accidentally ended up learning a lot. In recently years we’ve done more research (Jess as a result of her job as a film teacher; Julie as a result of her upgraded status to full-time writer), and while it’s helped, the most valuable lessons we’ve learned are still rooted in those first funny, mistake-ridden, sometimes unwatchable films. But we love and appreciate them because, without them, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today.

    We can’t wait to see CERISE, love seeing your progress, and look forward to whatever comes next.

    Julie & Jessica
    King is a Fink Productions

  2. Great post, John. I can’t wait to see Cerise.

  3. trigonis says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Julie and Jessica! As a poet primarily, I too know the importance of experience and how it all works its way into your psyche and eventually into the next project. I’m sure we’d all love it if we could read and read about filmmaking or writing or teaching or anything and then, the first time we actually do it, put all that book-knowledge to use and win a Pulitzer or get a plaque or an Oscar. But the human being is just not wired that way (thankfully!) I love learning with every new word pressed down into a journal page, every continuity error that I just can’t stand watching.

    Thanks for your encouragement, too, Phil! It’s great to have such strong support from all across the country.

    And keep up the spectacular and truly innovative work with TILT, by the way. You’re doing such wonderful things with the campaign. Looking very forward to seeing it!

  4. John, a pleasure to read this…and I can´t wait to see “Cerise” but I also would like to go to your brother´s basement to “grub out” CUNNIGULA, you aroused my curiosity now…..LOL…
    I think that you´re are going the right way, it won´t be easy nowadays but your ambition & your dedication will help you to realize your dreams.
    Let me finish with the words of the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick:
    ‎”Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of any kind at all.”

    Good luck with Cerise and keep me posted!
    Marcella

  5. trigonis says:

    Thanks for the good words, Marcella.

    It’s funny about Cunnigula…it’s become that film that all filmmakers have, the one that was cool back then but the older you get it’s like, “Man, what was I thinking?!” (Don’t get me wrong, I still think the idea is probably one of the best I’ve come up with, but the execution and amateur mistakes makes it basement-worthy.) I may work on a short version for the Cinekink Film Festival, but that’ll be it. A friend of mine and I tried to write a feature-length version, but that didn’t work, and at that point, I couldn’t really tap into the story since I’d grown so much since then. I could always shoot the film again with the knowledge I have now. Maybe one day…

    Oh, and more than half the DVDs in the basement don’t work (we were soooo “newb” back then we didn’t know about things like “bit rate” when making DVDs, so most of the DVDs stop playing around the first 40 minutes. Nothing like experience!

    Thanks for the kind words with Cerise. As always, my team and I will keep everyone updated on this extra-special film!

  6. “…there’s no knowledge but in doing.”; “Story lies in the practice of telling it.” You hit the nail in the head with these two lines… All the best with Cerise, John. Be well, do good work!

  7. trigonis says:

    Thanks so much, Ian. I tell it the only way I know how to…through experience!

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