The team behind 'Caroline' divulge the valuable production steps that led to their standout short.
Making a short film is almost always a murky and uncertain process. You prepare for what you can and take any production errors in stride. But for all that potentially could go wrong, writer/director team Logan George & Celine Held have used experiences from each of their six short films as another ingredient in what has become a meticulously crafted recipe for success.
The path of a short film can become even more stressful after its completion. Recognition, exposure, deals, representation: these are the opportunities that short filmmakers on the festival circuit seek to further their career in the industry. Logan and Celine are now in the hunt for what many see as the pinnacle of these achievements, an Academy Award nomination, or better yet, a shiny gold statue.
In 2018, their short Caroline was the only American language film to be nominated for the Palme D' Or at Cannes. It also had stops at Palm Springs International ShortFest, SXSW, and Telluride and recognition on sites like Vimeo, Short of the Week, and NoBudge. You can check out the full short below.
No Film School caught up with Logan, Celine, producer Kara Durrett, and cinematographer Lowell A Meyer, who walk us through the three stages of production, cutting costs in all corners, and what it took to pull off their award-winning short film.
CELINE HELD: The idea came out of these articles about mothers who had left their children in cars, and how black and white these people seemed. We felt like sometimes the situation wasn’t always so black and white. Sometimes there was no other option, or it was more nuanced than that. We wanted to see what could happen in exploring the grey of that situation. So, Logan and I moved down there [to Houston, Texas] about a month before. We had cast the children way in advance and had written the parts for them. We [George and Held] ended up living with the Falk family [lead actors Caroline, age 6, Brooks, age 4, and Sally Falk, age 1] for about a month before production.
LOGAN GEORGE: We were planning on casting someone to play the mother, but as we started spending time with the kids, we could see how comfortable they got around especially Celine. Her bond with the kids was really strong, and so we thought it was better to not have a middleman, to have Celine direct from the inside out through the role of the mom.
KARA DURRETT: You guys were boots-on-the-ground a month out, and we tag-teamed it all. I found some location options on Google Maps. We needed a grocery store, and an insurance company that wasn’t well known, and kind of a circular parking lot.
LOWELL A MEYER: The tax service place ended up being our entire base camp for the shoot.
"As a filmmaker, you just have to be available and keep rolling."
DURRETT: Yeah, all the locations were free. Our budget was really tight. We made this movie for almost nothing and the tax service place was just like, "Here’s the keys."They really saved us.
HELD: I think sometimes in finding locations, you can run into people who are really wary of the situation, but we just got lucky. We found these amazing people who wanted to help.
DURRETT: The casting agency that found Tam [Jackson, supporting actress], Pastorini Bosby, was my casting agent from when I was in high school.
MEYER: And the picture car we got was from the woman whose AirBnB we were renting for the crew.
GEORGE: Yeah, that was this really big puzzle piece that fell into place. The car was from the AirBnB. And the exterior house [we used in the first scene] was the AirBnB that you guys were staying in.
DURRETT: We had to work within the budget. You guys [Held and George] were the production designers, costume designers...and my parents catered.
MEYER: You [Durrett] cast all the extras from your friends from high school, or your family -
HELD: And of course, Caroline, Brooks, and Sally [lead actors]. The shoot was three days, and we had to make sure to use every minute effectively, so we did a lot of pre-production to make sure we were all on the same page.
GEORGE: We had Caroline, Brooks, and Sally get used to the idea of a camera.
MEYER: Yeah, they were almost completely ignoring it. They knew us four obviously, and then another Producer [Jordan Drake] and the AD [Debra Gutjahr] but they didn’t know anyone else on set.
MEYER: I learned that you really can’t ever be rolling enough on kids. It was probably a nightmare to edit Logan, because we had so much footage by the end of it. But there were times when she [Caroline] would get into a groove and things would happen, and as a filmmaker, you just have to be available and keep rolling. So that was a cool thing to see. It was beautiful.
In terms of capturing them, the gear and everything, we knew we wanted a high-resolution image. I also wanted to try to find the smallest camera there was. We went with the ARRI Super Speed lenses for the same reason, since they’re incredibly small and lenses that I know well. We ruled out the idea of a DSLR pretty early on because of how many highlights there would be in the background, we wanted highlights to get bright without actually losing the detail in them. We chose a RED Epic Dragon.
DURRETT: We rented our gear from MPS [Film] in Austin instead of going with a local Houston camera house. We drove out to Austin the night before the shoot. They really helped us.
MEYER: They gave us the wireless focus and the wireless video. It was all really stripped down and tiny and as handheld as possible. The G&E package was really small. We used a bounce and a flag maybe once or twice. We didn’t really spend much time lighting anything.
GEORGE: Except for your little LED ribbons, the interior car lighting.
MEYER: Yeah, the ambiance level inside the car can sometimes get a little dark, so we had those overhead. But I feel like the emphasis in terms of filming was really about capturing every single moment possible and not tripping ourselves up or getting out of our own way of filming a miraculous moment with the kids when it came up serendipitously. So we kept a pretty light footprint all around.
DURRETT: Our PAs were from Sam Houston State University. Our AD [Debra Gutjahr] was amazing and after finding her, she had a crew she works with regularly in Houston.
MEYER: We mostly used the flags to keep the crew out of the sun.
DURRETT: It was literally 103 or 105 degrees. The hottest days of the summer.
HELD: And Lowell spent the most time in the car compared to anyone, because we would keep swapping out the kids and actors but Lowell would sometimes just be in the car in between takes. Because the camera had to be in the car, we rarely had a full car. So we were able to focus on the kids one by one in these small blocks of time where there would only be one of them in the car.
GEORGE: The whole game plan, especially in working with the kids, was meant to accommodate lots of different scenarios, story-wise. And so some of the kid moments that make it into the film were crafted, and when you got a moment like that you could sort of check it off, and then a lot of it’s just what the kids brought organically that ends up blending in with the story.
MEYER: And I was nervous at first about that because [the kids] never saw a script. They didn’t have an idea of their lines or anything.
GEORGE: That was the nature of the shoot. They can rarely all be in the car at the same time because the camera has to be in the car mostly. But because the car is so confined and the kids in the back are really strapped in, you could be getting multiple moments from them at any time. So it was about really figuring out what we needed in advance, and then giving them room to be kids too and respond to natural stimuli.
"It’s worth saying no to people who aren’t right, who it isn’t working out with, in order to find the right fit, or the right people.
DURRETT: At the end of our second day, you guys had all the main actors for the fight come out for a rehearsal.
HELD: Yeah, we choreographed the whole fight in advance, so we could concentrate on the kids on that third day. All the adults would already know what was happening.
MEYER: But I couldn’t believe you guys still had the energy to do all that after shooting all day.
GEORGE: That’s because the fight is my favorite part. Caroline loved the bite. It was strawberry syrup for blood and a little piece of white candy for the tooth.
MEYER: There was no stunt choreographer on set, no costumes, no production design. It was just you guys [Held and George].
HELD: It was all of us. That was only because we were able to work with you both so far in advance too. All of us understood what movie we were making before we got on set.
DURRETT: The kids were amazing. And it was just a really fun shoot. Lots of spray bottles for the fake sweat, lots of popsicles and pickles. My dad [caterer on set] bought a whole jar of pickles, and I told him, "Don’t waste the catering budget on pickles." But the kids ate them all. We went through four huge Costco jars of pickles in three days.
MEYER: The kids would come out of the air-conditioned holding, the tax services place, and we’d already be rolling and slated so that as soon as they came in we could start capturing immediately.
HELD: There were so many times when Caroline was actually acting to nothing, like pretending her siblings were in the backseat. I think she blew all of us away.
GEORGE: Tam [Jackson, supporting actress] too, and Harold [Presley, supporting actor], they all felt of that place. It was the authenticity of working with people from Houston. It was Tam’s tattoos, her outfit. She’s an amazing actress. Harold too.
MEYER: When you guys first sent us the first cut, we both weren’t breathing by the end of it.
HELD: Logan edited the film. We had enough footage to make a longer cut, but we really cut it down.
GEORGE: It’s all so piecemeal. We really got to decide how a conversation went between two people, like between Celine and Caroline, or Tam and Caroline, because you always have Brooks and Sally in the backseat to cut to.
DURRETT: Yeah, but there were so many elements of it that I didn’t know if it would work. You hope it’s going to work but ultimately it’s this big group effort and you don’t know. And it ended up being such magic. But I still, I didn’t have any inclination that it would go to the places it did. I mean, I never doubted it. But we didn’t make the film in order to play in these festivals, or get any of this recognition. It’s a really small film.
MEYER: I think it’s been really really cool to see that this movie works internationally, even though to me it feels like such an American story.
HELD: I think it’s the mother-daughter thing. The sibling thing too...the sibling relationship, taking care of your younger siblings.
MEYER: Yeah, I think it’s just interesting like, I know what you’ve always said Celine is that the film is a commentary about the lack of childcare in America. But I think what people connect with is people questioning one’s parenting skills and I feel like that’s something that everyone can relate to.
GEORGE: It’s a lot of things. I think the goal was to tell this “kids left in cars” story from a different perspective, not to be on either side, the mother or the good samaritan. So it hopefully doesn’t read as a morality tale with some definitive answer on the subject. This is just our very specific story but the idea is to highlight and call out some of the generalizations we can make about people.
ADVICE FOR FILMMAKERS?
DURRETT: I think what you guys have taught me is the idea of working with people for a lifetime. I honestly never really thought about it. I always kind of imagined just jumping from film to film. And you guys, I think, were the first people who were really adamant about continuing to work together, about building a team. And I figured out that what I really want to do is be surrounded by people who inspire me and who make me want to do better on the next one. So I think that it’s kind of shifted my entire career perspective of going from "how many films can I make?" to "how many films can I make with these people?" and "can we keep getting better each time?"
MEYER: As a filmmaker, you’re trying to build a team and you’re looking to find lifelong collaborators. I think you have to understand that they’re not easy to find. And a good way to start is aligning yourself with people who have similar tastes to you, who you genuinely think are good people, and who you can spend 16 hours a day with doing some of the hardest stuff you’ll ever have to do in your life and still be able to tell a joke at the end of the day. I think character matters just as much as talent. And drive, as well, when you’re looking for a collaborator.
HELD: There are always going to be new people on your sets, and there have been new people on every one of our sets. But having people there that I could actually completely trust, totally hand something off to...you guys are responsible for so much of Caroline, and all of our work with you. We’re really lucky to have found each other. But yeah, I think it’s something worth fighting for. It’s worth saying no to people who aren’t right, who it isn’t working out with, in order to find the right fit or the right people.
George, Held, Durrett, and Meyer’s next short film, Lockdown, will premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. They begin production on their first feature together in 2019. See more at elofilms.com.