Family vacations are stressful. I should know, as I went on a particularly hellish road trip with five of my nearest and dearest family members last summer. As filmmakers, we often make art to process life experiences. After this vacation, however, I required an artistic catharsis. Thanks to an emotional purge, I made Trip .
What should’ve been an idyllic Italian holiday filled with basil, Vespas, and Montepulciano became a less-than-Roman-holiday filled with passive aggression, yelling and, well, lots of Montepulciano. As soon as I returned from the trip, I knew I wanted to explore the experience on film.
Throughout the vacation, I found myself wondering what my mother, father, brother, and cousin were thinking. While we are all different people, each with a unique voice, I realized that each of us also had a very distinct point-of-view. We’ve seen films like National Lampoon's Vacation and TBS’s The Detour that tackle tormented family vacations, but we hadn’t seen them through differing perspectives. What if I invited an audience to explore our trip this way?
I started with the basics. While I knew my characters (my family), the set-up (said family gets lost on a road trip), and the tone (darkly comedic), I didn’t quite know how I’d format the heightened adaptation of our story. I saw an opportunity to deeply explore each character by creating chapters within the short film. Trip would have six chapters, each dedicated to a different character, all on the same timeline of events.
Additionally, I would place “runners” or repeated jokes throughout the film to create structure for our audience. If Mom voiced a similar, recurring concern for puttanesca in each episode, those moments would serve as hints that we were reliving similar moments.
Cory Fraimon-Lott (1st AC) adjusting the Osmo mounts. Credit: Nicolas Borenstein
Sure, incorporating differing POV's in a short is a cool idea, but how do you make it work? My inner critic was already chiming in. My previous project, a digital series for Elite Daily , was a fairly traditional production and Trip would not only tackle different perspectives but would be placed entirely in a car.
Cars are really difficult for production. “Maybe you should rewrite it to be set in a restaurant?” a friend asked. I knew I wanted a car-setting and after dropping that friend from my life, I persisted. It was important to me that the family feel trapped. The stifling intimacy was important to convey and setting it anywhere else would lose that quality for the audience.
"A Sony FS7 would capture artful, close-up portraits of our characters, while several car-mounted DJI OSMO’s would capture coverage of the entire family, highlighting a grittier, almost documentary-like voyeurism."
Fortunately, I’ve worked with a fantastic DP, Marc Katz, on several projects and he was open to the challenge. After a brief anxiety spiral around shooting the film on a stage with a green screen, we decided to use two different types of cameras on location in an actual car. A Sony FS7 would capture artful, close-up portraits of our characters, while several car-mounted DJI OSMO s would capture coverage of the entire family, highlighting a grittier, almost documentary-like voyeurism.
Oh, and naturally, we shot the rolling hills of Long Island to stand in for Tuscan wine country.
Stephen Smith (as Dad) & Marc Katz (DP) preparing the FS7 framing. Credit: Nicolas Borenstein
We all know some shoots never go according to plan. Trip was no exception.
For starters, our car wouldn’t start the night before the shoot. That's right, what would be the most pivotal (and inanimate) character almost didn’t show up to set. After many Google searches about dead car batteries and several manic visits to ZipCar garages in East Williamsburg, the filmmaking Gods heard our cry and we jump-started our star ‘94 Land Rover and headed out to Long Island.
As a writer, director, and performer, it’s important that you’re overprepared for all aspects of your shoot. I’m constantly prioritizing and re-prioritizing to ensure every aspect gets enough TLC. Some nightmares included: is my shot list memorized, are my lines memorized, is that line of dialogue witty enough, am I funny? For this particular shoot, I prioritized my actors.
"Each character needed to make minor yet affecting adjustments in physicality, wardrobe, and performance."
Character is key. Since these characters were fictionalized versions of the ones I love the most, I wanted to give my actors a lot of my attention, especially knowing that I would also be on camera. As a result, we rehearsed each chapter copiously, even driving up as a unit to get in character.
Each character needed to make minor yet affecting adjustments in physicality, wardrobe, and performance, and I wanted them to have the freedom to play around. Without that preparation, Kathryn Markey ( playing Mom) might not have been able to improv her scene-stealing ramblings about shooting glocks and freezing breast milk.
"Once we captured coverage using the OSMOs, my DP would sit in incredibly compromising positions in the front seat or trunk to grab a couple of quick moments on the FS7."
We laid out our shot list by chapter and broke down the chapters into coverage using OSMO’s and then the FS7. Thanks to an incredibly patient crew—and the consistent looping of “One Dance” by Drake to diffuse fatigue—we stabilized the pesky OSMOs and drove down a very small stretch of land in Long Island, bringing this family’s road trip to the screen.
In my experience, it usually takes some time for everyone to get comfortable and for the performances, camera, and overall juju to settle. After a few takes, the “Greenblatts” found their stride. Once we captured coverage using the OSMOs, my DP would sit in incredibly compromising positions in the front seat or trunk to grab a couple of quick moments on the FS7. We wouldn’t need much of that coverage as we had a lot of OSMO footage.
Kathryn Markey as Mom in 'Trip.' Credit: Nicolas Borenstein
It turned out that the FS7 footage—the footage we spent the least amount of time on —ended up being the coverage we liked the most. While we kept some of the OSMO footage in the edit, I realized how much I preferred the filmic quality evoked from the FS7. After all, this was supposed to be Italy, and like any film that's set in Italy, it will face scrutiny if it doesn’t match the visual splendor of Under the Tuscan Sun .
It was an interesting challenge to edit Trip , as the scripts weren’t necessarily linear. My editor, Cecilia Delgado, and I had to find moments that would tie everything together between the different chapters. One way to help with that consistency was to lean into a few runners: Mom’s mania about the peas in the puttanesca, the families obsession with Josh’s penial surgery, and Mom & Dad’s honeymoon from hell. Those recurring jokes would ground us and remind us that we were watching characters experience something a bit more linear.
"Do I wish I wrote a script that was a bit more linear? Maybe. Knowing what I know now, would I had considered scrapping the OSMOs? Perhaps. Should I have scouted a longer stretch of land? Absolutely."
But after all was said and done, we pieced together this funny, sad and, hopefully, relatable film. We crafted tension between Dad and Son, Lucy and Josh, and let Mom be Mom. Oh, and, a cousin was there too.
With any film, you learn so much about yourself and your process. Do I wish I wrote a script that was a bit more linear? Maybe. Knowing what I know now, would I had considered scrapping the OSMOs? Perhaps. Should I have scouted a longer stretch of land? Absolutely.
But all in all, I loved making this film. The short film medium afforded me an opportunity to craft something risky and genre-bending in just under 14 minutes. After Trip went through IFP’s Screen Forward Labs , I was also able to see how others viewed the film.
It’s an incredibly moving experience to see other people relate to experiences seen in your work. I think it’s incredibly challenging for filmmakers to enjoy their work, but I was really proud of the result. Turns out, my family was too!