Aching to Make a Short? Follow Ben Strang’s Lead and Make It a Pilot
"Beast is an ellipsis and not a period."
A short is disposable, right? You make it, and that’s it. Even if it gets turned into a feature, almost always, you recast, reshoot, re-everything. But a pilot? That’s the beginning of something that builds on what you’ve made already. That was the line of thinking Ben Strang followed when he set out to make his first film, set in an unusual location: the remote fishing community called Smith Island.
Beast is out this week on Vimeo and Omeleto, so Strang sat down with No Film School to talk about making the film. From embracing community building to working with people you love at all costs, he explains how he made a film that could continue on as anything, like a one-hour TV show or a 10x10 digital series that builds on the heart and mystery of the original.
No Film School: When did you first decide to make this film and why?
Ben Strang: It’s funny—I answered this question so many times at film festivals and my answer was always something like, “Well, I visited this fishing island (where we shot Beast) back when I was in school and thought it was so interesting and would be a really spooky setting for a suspense film.” My answer to these festival Q&As was always about the business angle of shooting the pilot in a cool location. But it wasn’t actually until this year that I realized something I think I was really hiding from back then—I just LOVE being around the water. It’s part of my DNA and when I first visited Smith Island back in 2012, the truth is I wasn’t actually thinking, “This would be a cool movie location," I was thinking, “Oh my god, I want to live and die here. These people get me." When I was growing up, my dad would always be scanning Craigslist for old broken boats for sale for like a hundred bucks, and we’d all fix them up together and spend days on the water. I didn’t realize it up until now, but seeing fisherman up close on Smith Island back in 2012 really just reminded me that I’m just like they are and if I’m going to tell a story, it’s going to be one about a place that resonates with me so deeply.
"I just kept having this feeling that the story meant more to me than ‘disposable.'"
NFS: Was Beast meant to be pilot from the beginning? Or can you pivot from a short to a pilot?
Strang: At the very beginning of writing Beast (back in 2015), I was a year and a half out of college and my thought process was basically, “Ahhhhh, I need to make something of myself, I need a calling card project”. And so at the time, the first step that came to my mind was what I had read about other directors doing since I was a teenager—make a short, win a festival, and then somehow materialize a "directing career". I felt this utter terror looking down the barrel of a potential directing career and feeling like, at age 23, I somehow had already missed my shot. So I knew I needed to make something, and one night I was on the phone with my dad venting my career anxieties and he finally shut me up and said, “Just wake up tomorrow and write a story about something you really, really like.”
The story I wrote was a 25-min short film script based on a poem I had written the year prior, which was about a young boy that grew up by the sea and believed in a strange creature in the water. Looking back at that 25-page short film script, and now at the short pilot and TV show bible that Beast became, I think there’s something exhilarating about the purposefulness of short-form pilots. Short films always felt to me to be somewhat "disposable". Even if your short became a feature, it would be totally re-shot, potentially with new actors and maybe new locations. And as I was writing Beast, I just kept having this feeling that the story meant more to me than "disposable." It wasn’t until the edit, literally 2 years later, that I finally decided to lean on that instinct and edit Beast to be part of a bigger story. And now I think it’s evolved into a piece of short content that I hope remains a part of the intellectual property forever—whether that’s in the form of 9 more 15-min episodes to finish out the story, or a TV show where the short (or footage from it) becomes part of the show’s backstory. The core inspiration for Beast has always been about exploring a world, and it feels really good to finish it and know the ending of the short is an ellipsis and not a period.
"I wasn’t actually thinking, 'This would be a cool movie location,' I was thinking, 'Oh my god, I want to live and die here.'"
NFS: Community. How did you involve the small island community in your film? What is your philosophical perspective on building relationships versus burning them?
Strang: This is definitely a core value for me as a filmmaker. My greatest joy in filmmaking, and in life really, is seeing people doing what they love, connecting with one another, and being stoked out of their mind. When we went to make Beast, I knew that there were dozens upon dozens of favors that would have to be asked and new relationships forged out of thin air and that I didn’t have the budget to incentivize anybody outside the film crew to help us out.
So, my task was basically...I have to go find a bunch of people that I don’t know in a state I don’t live in anymore and hope they are equally as fascinated as I am about making a movie on the disappearing islands in the Chesapeake Bay. The relationships with the islanders all stemmed from a woman named Michele Davidson who operates the Smith Island Inn bed and breakfast where my brother and I had stayed when we visited in 2012. I called her up one day a few months out from production, reminded her who I was from years prior, and expressed to her my unbridled excitement about filming a movie on the island. I think by the end of that one phone call, she was all in.
Over the next few months leading up to production, Michele introduced me to literally everybody I could possibly need to meet on the island and there was never any sweet-talking or bullshit. I would just talk to someone on the phone and try to connect with them, and it would be pretty clear if they were going to be excited by what we were trying to do or not. Throughout the entire process, I really tried to prioritize my connection with Michele and with the islanders over all else. It’s really easy in production to get this tunnel vision of “get in, get the shot, and get out," but I think from my background in documentaries, I always feel like filmmaking should be more organic than that. It’s not war, it’s art, and people shouldn’t be made uncomfortable so I can make art. Now years later, I’m still super close with Michele and many of the islanders and after the shoot was all said and done, we sent them each a framed photograph of the entire crew that said: “We helped make a movie on Smith Island!”.
"It’s not war, it’s art, and people shouldn’t be made uncomfortable so I can make art."
NFS: What was the style you wanted for Beast and how did you communicate this with your DP?
Strang: Beast always felt a little bit like a documentary to me—not in terms of the approach to shooting it but in terms of how I wanted it to feel. David Bolen, the DP, is a long time friend of mine from film school and at the time we shot Beast, David and I had just spent the first few years of our careers shooting a ton of documentary work. My love for documentary came from growing up shooting street photography and loving the ultra naturalistic styles of photographers like Sebastiao Salgado and marine photographers like Marion Warren.
So, when David and I started thinking about going to the island to make Beast, both of us were thinking, “How can we make this feel ultra real but not lean so far into the full-blown docu-aesthetic that the visual design feels accidental?” Ironically, I storyboarded the hell out of the entire shoot, every single shot, and a lot of them were director-porn dolly shots that were entirely unfeasible, but when we got to set, it was actually David that really pushed me to lean into what inspired me, not what I thought would look cool.
We knew that our goal was to portray the stark yet beautiful feeling of this remote island in the middle of winter, but to do that with very few indoor scenes and a very small camera crew to control daylight (DP, 1st AC, Gaffer, Key Grip, Steadicam), we would need to shoot as many scenes as possible at sunset or sunrise. I wish it was more complex than that but I think a huge amount of the visual style in Beast is that we shot almost the entire movie in the 45-minute golden-hour windows and we thought about the composition and shot selection as if we were making a documentary about the island.
"...we would need to shoot as many scenes as possible at sunset or sunrise."
NFS: I know that your family (mom and dad) were involved in shooting and that you found your producer through a photograph! What is your philosophy on finding collaborators and the art of filmmaking?
Strang: Movies just aren’t fun if you don’t love the people you’re working with. I hate to sound so fatalistic but who you make a movie with can literally make or break the entire experience for you and sometimes make or break the film itself. Nearly everyone on the Beast crew was a dear friend of mine, from Chantal the lead actress who is one of my best friends from college to Miles, the 1st AC, who I’ve known since I did a semester at VCU film school in Richmond my freshman year. Beyond just the crew, my mom and dad were literally crucial in the production, too. The entire crew crashed at their house the night before day one. My mom came to the island with us and ran a full-time kitchen preparing all the meals and crafty, and my dad came out to the island to execute all of the gags where we had something moving around on the water. For one scene, it was 20 degrees outside and he was wearing a 4.3-millimeter wetsuit and a scarf, standing waist deep in freezing water and dragging a canoe around on the surface.
I’m really not sure how all our schedules even lined up to make it work but I do know this: the one thing we always talk about when we get together now is how much of an adventure that shoot was because we all could be there together. There were no fights, no bickering, no talking behind backs, just wall-to-wall excitement.
"There are 10,000+ short films made every year, and at the time of writing this, substantially fewer pilots. Go make a pilot!"
NFS: What's your advice to others, seeing the style you made this in? And do you recommend short to pilot?
Strang: I’m not sure I’m the most qualified person to be giving this much advice, but I will say this—as I’m now navigating the next chapter in my career, which feels equally as unscripted as my steps felt at age 23, the things I remind myself daily are:
- Focus less on ‘writing’ your next project and more on journaling every day about the things that make you feel.
- Surround yourself with people who push you to be creatively vulnerable, and make you feel free to fail.
- Make free time for yourself and spend it doing things that you just fucking love. All your best art will come from that place.
- There are 10,000+ short films made every year, and at the time of writing this, substantially fewer pilots. Go make a pilot!
Thank you, Ben!