How to Write, Direct, and Survive Your First Feature Film
We talk with director A.T. White about what he learned from writing and directing his first feature.
Personal inspiration can take you many places, but sometimes it leads to pretty horrific results. Director A.T. White used a personal tragedy to inspire his first feature Starfish. It's an inspirational story about not letting the worst thing in your life destroy you.
The Starfish logline is "With reality rapidly fraying at the edges, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) finds herself following a string of clues left by her friend. Clues that will unlock the secrets of The Signal and could end up either saving the world…or condemning it."
Check out the trailer and then read our interview with director A.T. White!
NFS: Where did the idea come from?
A.T. White: The core of it was written just out of necessity. My best friend had just passed away and I was dealing with a lot of guilt and self-hatred and depression over my personal life as well. So I went to a cabin in the snowy mountains of Colorado and wrote it just to deal with everything. It took a year before I could return to the script and sculpt it into something a little more narratively digestible. While still, obviously, very obtuse. I also had an idea about explorers from other planets utilizing sound waves as their main technology for travel and warfare. Which had come from a real-life probe scanning a meteor in space at the time and getting this signal off of it. I found it intoxicating and it fed into the metaphorical narrative I wanted to tell.
NFS: How did you secure financing?
White: We actually had secured a small budget from private investors for a different film. But when my producers realized it just wasn't going to be enough to make that movie with, we were looking at other projects I had and I had just finished Starfish. So they were kind enough, since it was a small investment, to take the risk and let us move the finances over to this picture instead.
NFS: What did you write on / shoot on? / Edit on? (Give us all the specs!)
White: Ha! I write in a weird way. I found screenplays really cold and anti-creative. So I just write in Pages or whatever is nearby, digitally. I'll plan a lot. And (believe it or not) I structure against a hero's journey template that I like. Then I fuck with the details. When I'm finished, I'll spend a few days just writing it up into Final Draft. But that part is just a job at the end and a chance to preen it of any details and refine things.
We shot on my Red Dragon with old Zeiss Super Speed lenses. And then we also shot the flashbacks on a 16mm camera. And then the finale (which I don't want to spoil) was shot with a bespoke 400+ pinhole camera rig, which was very unique and a beautiful fun day of shooting.
I edit now on Premiere. When we started, I was stupid and I edited on FCP7 but then my editor Alex came in and had to re-adapt it all over to Premiere, haha. I won't put him through that again.
"You, as a director, need to do as many jobs as possible on a short early on in your career, so you learn the process and, more importantly, to appreciate other peoples jobs."
NFS: What was your distribution plan?
White: We didn't have one. We were honestly such a small production just thinking about the near future and getting through making the movie. We had always planned to go to festivals, and then see what people make of us. Haha, but we weren't sure what we had for a long, long time. Until Fantastic Fest opened their doors to us and then the genre crowd was very kind...which made me so happy since that's my crowd. I remember it suddenly making sense. "Ah, of course, I made a film for myself." Haha.
Yellow Veil came on board as our sales agents and they helped our journey with the rest.
"Someone will always have more money, more time, and more technical prowess than you. But you have your own voice."
NFS: How has the festival circuit treated you?
White: It's been absolutely wonderful. I went to as many as I could last year and I supported our limited theatrical (also put together by Yellow Veil) this year. And I've had an amazing time with it. I've spent so many years going to genre festivals as a fan and occasionally as a critic, so to be on the other side of it with a feature rather than a short was invigorating. I can't say enough good things about our experience at Fantastic Fest. That was a life-changing week for me.
NFS: How will making a short help advance your career?
White: Oh, I think it's imperative for so many reasons. You, as a director, need to do as many jobs as possible on a short early on in your career, so you learn the process and, more importantly, to appreciate other peoples jobs. Everyone on a film is so important. And you need to understand that and their struggles.
And then obviously you need to show you have a voice and what you can do. Equipment shouldn't matter. 28 Days Later was shot on SD cameras and looks visually horrible in quality, but it's a gorgeous, fantastic film. Rubber was shot on a 5D. Monsters was shot with just 4 people on crew for the most part. Don't make excuses. Just be sensible and find your way of using what you have. Someone will always have more money, more time, and more technical prowess than you, but you have your own voice.
"...make sure you have something to say. If that's just to entertain, that's fine, but embrace that from a place of honesty. Don't try to placate anyone."
NFS: What's your ultimate goal in Hollywood?
White: Ha! I want to make great films with great people. Hollywood makes that both easy and very difficult. There's a lot I hate about the system, to be honest. Even from my tiny perspective looking in. But there's a lot good in there as well. I've been lucky to meet some lovely people. So, I just hope to be able to continue on that road and try to help sculpt healthy and productive workspaces where the money and the creatives can bring out the best in each other.
NFS: What do you plan on doing next?
White: I have a bunch of scripts either finished or in development. I have 2 that I'm excited to hopefully get going next. Both are in the genre space, but one is more epic and wide in scope and the other one is a lot smaller but incredibly nasty. I won't make something as messy as Starfish again (for a while at least) as it's important I prove I can just tell a simple narrative story now. But it's also important to me that those stories still have lots of character and personality in them. And something to say.
NFS: What's the most important lesson you learned while making the film?
White: Get a post-production coordinator. I can't stress it enough. Don't cut corners like that to save money as you'll waste so much more time and money trying to fix the problems it creates.
NFS: What advice would you'd give No Film School readers about making a short film?
White: Like I said before, don't worry too much about your technology. If you can control your aperture and depth of field, then you're ready to go. Just be YOU. Being a director means you have to learn when to listen and when to block people out. And you're not going to get that right all the time. And because of that, the film will change and grow and morph. It's an organic process.
So when writing it, just make sure you have something to say. If that's just to entertain, that's fine, but embrace that from a place of honesty. Don't try to placate anyone. And use a structure. You'll think you can just break all the rules, but look at how messy my first feature is. Haha. And that was with it still adhering to a Hero's Journey. You only need to change one little thing for it to seem subversive.
When you shoot it, don't let anyone see the panic inside you. Your job is to keep everyone focused, on track, and faithful in the project. Just help them do their jobs well. So plan ahead, make things up, whatever you need to do; just keep it all together.
When you're in post, bring fresh eyes to the project. Don't try to force it into what you originally intended. A film is like a person: you shouldn't try to force anyone into being what you thought they'd be. You have to help them become the best version of what they are. Let your film do that. Let it find its own voice now and just assist it.
That's my humble opinion anyway, but what do I know? Haha.