Written by Benjamin Stark

Don’t Die is about a desperate man who robs a drug store to get life-saving medicine. While the stakes of making indie films in a place like Alabama are much lower, I think anyone who’s made a movie will agree that it’s an endeavor that comes with its fair share of desperation.

The tagline of my first feature, The Nocturnal Third, was “Do what you can with what you have.” Given that it was a self-financed microbudget thriller that we shot on weekends over the course of three months, that became our production motto as well. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it would be a major theme of my life going forward.

I’m proud of our work on The Nocturnal Third. I made it with great friends and a great cast, and I stand by many of my directing decisions. But it didn’t make the splash I hoped it would make.

After that production, the creative team amicably parted ways as my collaborators pursued other opportunities in different parts of the country. So I spent the next few years recommitting to doing what I could with what I had.

'Don't Die'Courtesy of Jeremy Burgess

Instead of trying to muscle another feature into existence through pure willpower and great personal expense, I focused on honing my craft as a director in various ways. I put forth my best effort on corporate videos, music videos, and short films. If I couldn’t break in as a feature film director overnight, I would play the long game.

At the film festival debut of The Nocturnal Third, I met Jeremy Burgess, who has the same passion for screenwriting that I have for directing. We made a short film together called Dead Saturday, a religious thriller starring Oscar nominee Eric Roberts. Then we co-wrote a feature-length script for a horror comedy that we eventually realized would be prohibitively expensive.

To prove that we could handle a bigger budget, we decided to write a smaller feature built around available resources—which is exactly how I wrote The Nocturnal Third. This time, our primary resource was a free location: a hunting property in rural Tennessee co-owned by an actor friend of ours. I was entirely ready to brace myself and white knuckle it through another microbudget experience with a barebones crew, long shooting days, uninspiring lunches, and an amorphous schedule. I even prepared myself mentally to work as my own cinematographer.

And then something happened that I didn’t expect: My plan worked!

'Don't Die'Courtesy of Jeremy Burgess

My strategy of buckling down and focusing on quality resulted in a résumé of well-crafted, engaging, financially responsible projects that had put us on the radar of some talented professionals. One of those people was producer Colby Leopard, who had recently moved to Alabama from Brooklyn, where he worked for FilmNation Entertainment in distribution and marketing. Confident that our finished product could stand out in a crowded marketplace, Colby joined the team as our lead producer.

From there, our cast began falling into place. We wrote a lead part for our longtime friend Virginia Newcomb—who had just been to Sundance with The Death of Dick Longa year earlier—not knowing if she would be able to commit. Not only did she accept the role, she agreed to join our creative team as a producer and let us lean on her many years of wisdom and experience. She became a driving force that helped us round out an accomplished roster of primary actors, including Theodus Crane (Five Nights at Freddy’s), Joshua Burge (Relaxer), and Frank Mosley (Quantum Cowboys).

As we continued to assemble our crew, I found myself surrounded by a team of true filmmaking professionals. And no, I didn’t have to shoot the film myself, thankfully. Our cinematographer Michael Williams did an excellent job, and for all you tech geeks, he shot on the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4K in ProRes 4444. I was relieved to be in a position to take my craft as seriously as I’d always hoped.

And then we went out and made Don’t Die. In 13 days. During a viral pandemic.

'Don't Die' Courtesy of Jeremy Burgess

Thanks to the people around me, we ran a very safe set despite the necessary time crunch and public health concerns. There were no injuries of any kind, and no one tested positive for COVID-19 during production. It’s easy for a passionate director to allow telling a story to override care for the people around them, but thankfully I was never put in that position because of my production team. Producer Troy Candor, who functioned as our unit production manager, played a particularly significant role in holding everyone to high standards of professionalism and safety.

From production to a test screening to our festival premiere. Don’t Die taught me a lot about engaging an audience first rather than expressing my personal politics or showing off my stylistic preferences. If you’re putting your viewers in the shoes of interesting characters and taking them on a compelling journey using the best visual tools at your disposal, your personality will come across just fine on its own.

Now that Don’t Die is out in the world, the advice I’d give my younger self—or any burgeoning filmmakers—is to keep going. Keep working. Keep putting your work out there and meeting new people. You never know who’s watching. You never know who you’ll meet next.

Don’t lose hope. Don’t quit. And don’t die!

Don’t Die is available to watch via Panic Fest’s virtual slate until 12:00p.m. Sunday, April 14th.