5 Things I Learned While Making My AFI Thesis Film
Jeremy Merrifield learned a lot while creating his award-winning film at AFI. He tells NFS all about his process for his award-winning film, Balloon.
I’ve been an avid reader of NoFilmSchool since its earliest days as a blog with only Ryan Koo posting. I’ve never tired of the film school debate this site was founded on. Anyone who knows me knows I have long been against film school -- I’m not one for traditional classroom learning. For me, I need to be doing it and I place a lot of value in seeking out and building my own miseducation. So, I don’t typically advocate an academic setting—that is unless there is a specific use. For example, I need a degree because I want to become a heart surgeon. And that’s exactly why I ended up at the American Film Institute. Not because I wanted to be a heart surgeon, but because I had a specific use.
I went to AFI for two major reasons. First, I wanted the “four picture deal” (to quote one of my favorite AFI directing faculty members, Rob Spera). While at AFI, students make four movies -- three in the first year, and a thesis film in the second. Try as I might, I probably wouldn’t have made four films in two years without AFI -- and definitely not at the level I was able to make them. This is mainly because I needed collaborators to take my craft to the next level.
While at AFI, I had the great fortune of learning from talented filmmakers. This means faculty like Peter Markham, who teaches an incredible course on visual language. Also, Patty West, who manages thesis production with savvy, studio exec-style mentorship, and this guy, Chris Schwartzy… This also includes Q&As and master classes from visiting filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Barry Jenkins, and Asghar Farhadi.
But some of the best filmmakers I learned from are the ones I was working with on a daily basis. Attending AFI allowed me to join a community of filmmakers who I will continue to learn from and work with in the future.
1. You’re always pitching or “What’s in it for them?”
For my thesis film, I made a coming-of-age superhero short called Balloon. The story for Balloon started as a very personal one, based on a memory I had from my childhood: A massive balloon release at my junior high (before we knew the environmental ramifications of such an event). When I was putting together the team, I knew exactly which filmmakers I wanted to work with. I had some longtime collaborators from back in New York (producer Kate Chamuris, production designer Jerry Marsini, and line producer Alex Peurye) and I had met several new collaborators at AFI (producer Christina Cha, cinematographer Frances Kroon, editor Bowei Yue, and co-writer Dave Testa). It was a student film and none of us were getting paid, so I really needed to shape the project around what inspired all of us.
I wanted the team to feel as connected to the story as I felt. At the time, we were seeing the Harvey Weinstein story break and our nation’s gun violence problem reached terrifyingly high levels. And what did these incidents of mass shootings have in common? Guns, yes, but also boys. It was always boys pulling the trigger, never girls. The question we asked ourselves was, “why?” How can so many boys grow up to be men displaying toxic behavior? This question galvanized our team and really set our story development into motion.
2. Get the money — and get it on the screen!
At AFI, you’re in the heart of Hollywood. This means we have the opportunity to work with many union professionals in the industry, including SAG-AFTRA actors, DGA assistant directors, and Teamsters in the transpo department. But this also comes with a slew of financial commitments that an average short film doesn’t incur. This is both good and bad. It’s tough because you’re looking at having to raise a lot of money to make a fifteen-minute flick. The positive is you’re working with established talent on your project -- and experience counts!
You’re also getting a taste of how to tell stories within the myriad of production logistics that comes with making movies in the Hollywood landscape.
Besides crowdfunding, one way we went about raising money was by going after corporate grants.
This is a big advantage to producing at a non-profit organization; this made up more than 50 percent of our total capital. We had a theory that if we raised the base capital on an AFI thesis film, we would have spent a lot of money to make a film that looks like it cost very little. But if we raised an additional 20 to 30 percent capital, we actually could get a lot more for our money. Because it was a student film, there were a lot of discounts offered to us, as well. So, a little more capital opened a lot more doors. This allowed us to work with visual effects and camera equipment that we wouldn’t have gotten at the base budget level. Those were all skills that excited the team to be able to learn and take with them into their careers. If a short film is a calling card, this allowed us (especially the producers -- see #1) to show we could do a lot for very little!
3. Great a great AD and learn how to work with actors
When you set out to make a movie, you’re often told “no kids, no animals.” This is because both of them need extra time and money to accommodate. Besides the fact that we had to have a wrangler to work with our caterpillar (spoiler alert!), we were also working with a cast full of minors. Though it definitely presented its challenges, I think a lot of this can be resolved with preparation (see a theme?).
First and foremost, get a great AD. We were fortunate to have the incredible John “Tag” Tagamolila step in as our first assistant director.
He felt certain that what we were attempting was impossible for a student production. That said, after we showed him the amount of preparation we had done, he came on board and took the whole operation to the next level. We also had the incredible Daphne Boelsma as our lead studio teacher. I’ve heard people groan about studio teachers and seen them treated like an adversary to the filmmaking process. But that’s not true. The right studio teacher will take care of your young cast and be a partner with your AD in helping to make your days.
The other big challenge we faced with young actors was the material. Amidst this seemingly simple superhero origin story, there was a very raw and gritty look at what it was like growing up today. In order to get the best talent to come in, I had to pull a controversial scene out of the script and tone down the language. This was a big risk.
We still had people refuse to audition for the film and one parent protested the use of the word “bitch” (though, strangely, several other words which are not printable here were “okay”). Once we locked our cast, we used our table read to foster a conversation with the actors and parents. We told them how we wanted to change the script and why. It was really important to establish trust and to let our young actors and their parents be a part of the creative process. Language and certain themes can feel exploitative, but with this approach they were consenting because they believed it would better tell the story.
Lastly, in regard to material, I was worried parents might over-rehearse their kids. So, I never gave the actors a scene with the actual dialogue in the film. What I really didn’t want was to have an actor roll up on set and do the scene without any life or spontaneity in it.
But, as a former actor, I wanted to give my cast a chance to prepare. I wanted to do everything I could to set my actors up for success, just like I wanted for anyone on my team. So, we crafted a version of the script with dialogue where every character was saying exactly what they were feeling. This subtext version of the script served as an emotional roadmap for the scene. Then, on set, I’d ask them, “would you really say that?” The answer would usually, be “no” or “actually, I think I’d say [insert line here].” And we’d go again and try that.
We had a great cast and all I had to do was create an environment that fostered authenticity. So, we often threw the script out and just let them talk (or not talk) to one another. For me, this yielded some really spontaneous moments that I was so happy we caught on camera.
4. “Set your team up for success”
I remember once seeing a trailer for Werner Herzog’s MasterClass.com course on filmmaking. In it, he said, “storyboarding is for cowards.” I love Herzog, but Fitzcarraldo we were not. For a sixteen-minute short film with six shooting days, three major stunt sequences, two special effects sequences, over sixty visual effects shots, a cast full of minors, and more than a hundred volunteers, I think to not have boarded would have been reckless. Boards don’t just include traditional storyboards either; it also includes overhead floor plans of what every setup will look like. This is particularly important when there are many different equipment pieces in the mix. We had multiple cranes, jibs, scissor lifts, massive green/blue screens, and other major pieces across different departments.
Unless you want a traffic jam causing hours of lost time, they all have to know where they need to be in order to pull off every single shot.
We found that the key to storyboarding is to start early and include your collaborators every step of the way. You don’t want to show up one-week out with some magical, micro-managed vision that no one had the time to prep for. You also want to give your team a chance to provide feedback on the boards. A movie can’t be made by committee, but it can’t be made without one either. That’s why they are your team: let them help you make the boards better! Your film will only benefit!
My iPad has become my single most valuable production tool. The massive binder I used to lug around has all gone paperless. I even use it as my director’s monitor now, paired with a Teradek Serv Pro.
I use an app called Shot Lister, which gives me an hour-by-hour shot list of how the day will go. In my production meeting, my AD and I will walk the team through every shot on the hour-by-hour and pair it with a storyboard and floor plan. If a location doesn’t have a blank floor plan for a set, we will create one with MagicPlan paired with a laser disto. Once I have a blank floor plan, I like to do my overhead layout in an app called Shot Designer, but it can be a bit time-consuming. So, in a crunch, I’ll bring the floor plan into my favorite sketch app and just draw right on it. For this, I really like Adobe Sketch -- where I also do all my storyboards.
Here's the shot list for the gym sequence, which was both stunt and VFX-heavy.
Above is an overhead floor plan of one setup using Shot Designer. The “onion skin” layers are overheads for the many other setups in this scene.
5. Festivals or “You’re not alone!”
We completed the movie in January 2019, a year after we had started pre-production. This is largely due to the kind of post-production time a movie like this requires. It was all-hands on deck in order to get this kind of film delivered within the extremely tight deadlines imposed by AFI. We could not have done it without the brilliant work of our post-production team, led by our tireless editor, Bowei Yue.
When we started submitting to festivals, it was kind of a dead zone in the festival season. We didn’t hear from our first festival for many months. And when we did, it was rejection after rejection!
Then, out of the blue, we found out we would premiere at Palm Spring International Film Festival’s Short Fest. If you can get your film into Short Fest, you are very lucky because they do a wonderful job welcoming their filmmakers and fostering community. Soon after our Palm Springs premiere, other festival acceptances followed. Now, here we are, a finalist for the Student Academy Award and we just qualified for the Oscars by taking home Grand Prix at HollyShorts!
It continues to astound me how audiences are moved by the film: laughing, gasping, and even crying as it comes to its final exhilarating sequence. But the point is no film is for everyone and it’s completely subjective who will respond to anything. So, research, research, research.
Choose festivals that program the kind of film you made. Be honest with yourself. Where does your film fit in the festival circuit and the greater market as a whole? I think the best stuff always has some heartstring buried inside of it that drove you to make it and will drive the right audiences (and festivals) to see it.
Walt Disney said, “we don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” The goal is to keep making movies and to tell the stories you would want to see -- and you will find you’re not alone. You will find your film playing somewhere...but also budget at least a couple thousand dollars in festival submission fees!
These are just a few of my takeaways from the process of making Balloon. Some of these might seem obvious, but I had to experience them in order to really educate myself. However you choose to learn moviemaking, there really is no better way than to be doing it. For me, that meant film school, but for you it may mean some other journey. And whatever that journey is, I wish you well!
Feel free to comment below if you feel I’ve left something off or completely disagree with something I learned. I want to learn from you!
And also, find me on social: @jeremydirects. For upcoming screenings of Balloon, visit balloonmovie.com and sign up to be notified when screenings happen in your area.
Jeremy Merrifield is an award-winning writer-director who has worked on stage, screen, and in commercial advertising. While studying directing at the American Film Institute, Jeremy made four films. His most recent film, BALLOON, stars Paul Scheer (BLACK MONDAY) and Jonah Beres (Hulu’s PEN15). It won the Grand Prix at HollyShorts and is a finalist for the Student Academy Award. His production company, DREAM THREE FILMS, is currently developing a slate of projects including a feature film version of his short, LINE, based on his experiences growing up in a southeastern commercial fishing community and the devastating effects of climate change. In New York’s Broadway theater community, Jeremy worked on such projects as MISS SAIGON, CATS, LES MISÉRABLES, and MARY POPPINS. Prior to that, Jeremy provided consulting and creative direction for Fortune 500 companies such as Lucent Technologies, Canon, and Pfizer. He can be reached at jeremymerrifield.com | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook.