In the spring of 2018, 6 friends drove over 6000 miles in a massive RV to shoot a no-budget feature film.
We filmed in 6 states, 2 Canadian provinces, with zero permits. We stole almost every location, filmed inside the Space Needle illegally, got on stage at a music festival, slept in a graveyard, drove over a mountain and nearly went off a cliff, snuck gear into the Cosmopolitan Casino, filmed on the Vegas strip, dealt with a copious amount of security guards, and just narrowly escaped getting sued by the RV rental company.
This is how we made Summerland.
Packing Our Bags
Kurtis: Back in 2013, I had written the first draft of the script with a friend Dylan Griffiths. It has always been a dream of mine to make a road trip movie, so we set out to make a love letter to early 2000 road trip films. We wanted it to feel like the films we grew up with, but we wanted it to relate to kids today. That's when we came up with the idea of a gay teenager who pretends to be his best friend's girlfriend online to help him meet guys.
I showed the original script to my long-time producing partner Chris Ball (who plays Bray in the film), who then told me that a lot of story plots were things he had actually done when he was younger.
We had discussed shooting it back in 2013 and 2014, but something always got in the way. Eventually, we put it on the shelf as we had gotten busy producing horror films (Still/Born, What Keeps You Alive, Harpoon, Knuckleball, etc.).
Noah: I had worked with Kurtis on a couple of his previous films and had directed some music videos and other short projects together, and we had always talked about potentially doing a feature together.
He had been telling me about this road trip film he had written, and the next thing I knew, I was on a group Skype call with 5 other people trying to figure out how to make this script come to life. These calls became a regular routine for a couple of months. It became a fun, collaborative practice of writing and reading other people's work—our own version of a writer's room.
We would always talk about how we would do this and that, who would play this character and that character, where we would shoot this scene and that scene, and before we knew it, we had basically planned out the entire shoot.
There was this moment where we all looked at each other and just said, "Shit. Are we doing this?"
To do this script, the "right way," you'd need several million dollars. That was obviously impossible. So in our minds, the project became this modern-day filmmaking experiment. Could we make a movie with basically no budget and no crew and have it feel like something you might see in a movie theater?
The next thing I knew, I had dropped out of school and was flying to Canada to start production.
Kurtis: With a shoot that required stealing a lot of locations, we knew we were going to have to keep the gear list to the bare essentials and go as small as we could. Luckily with how technology has developed, it's more about how you use the gear than the camera you're shooting on.
For the majority of the film, we used an a7S II. We used an Atomos recorder to be able to record ProRes to push the camera to its limits. We utilized the Ronin M and a Dana Dolly for a lot of the camera moves. For lighting, all we had were 3 Quasar tubes. We used the bedsheets we had in the RV to soften the light, often taping them to the wall and bouncing the Quasars into them.
With how good prosumer cameras are getting, it was often easier to shoot with our setup than a fully kitted-out ARRI or RED. The flexibility gave us so much freedom in how we were able to mount the camera wherever we needed. We could throw it on a C-stand for an overhead shot or carry all the gear through a long hike with ease. I don't think a movie like this would have been possible 5-10 years ago.
It really proved to me that all you need to make a movie these days is a few good friends and a camera. Gear has become so accessible now that you don't need a big crew to make a movie look polished; it obviously helps, but the images coming out of even an older a7S are catching up to the high-end cameras of a few years ago.
Noah: If someone saw us with a tiny a7S in a location we were not permitted to shoot in, there was no worry. We basically looked like tourists that were very invested in our shots.
The only thing that looked suspicious at times was the boom pole and microphone. Oftentimes we had to rely solely on lavaliers in situations where it might be too risky and had to remain incognito.
Another wild factor in this shoot was the obvious lack of crew. Kurtis and I were the only set crew members. One of us handled sound while the other handled the camera. For a section of the shoot, I was also acting, which took away from the already limited hands, requiring Rory or Maddie to take over doing sound.
Kurtis: The one benefit of only having 6 people and not a huge crew is that we were able to be much more flexible than a typical shoot. It allowed us to shoot much longer than a normal indie (we shot over 30 shooting days).
It was a dream as a director being able to just take 2 hours off in the middle of a day to rewrite a scene with the actors. It gave us the freedom to really hone in on the important bits without being rushed by the clock or location limitations.
Kurtis: For over a month we lived in the rented RV and drove across the west side of North America. Maddie took the main bedroom, and the rest of us piled onto the three available beds in the main area. It made it so that we wouldn't have to spend money on hotels, which helped us stay on budget. It was tight with 6 people, and a little hectic having to shoot all day in the RV, then not having anywhere to "go home," but we made due.
Thankfully we knew some people along the way, with producer Brandon Christensen living in Las Vegas, and Noah's family is in Los Angeles. It allowed us to break up living in the RV full time.
Noah: The RV was our home and our location, so it got pretty beat up. I mean, could you imagine living, sleeping, eating in the same space that you're filming for 30 days? It's going to get messy. However, it's very convenient because we could basically wake up out of bed, grab our stuff, and start shooting immediately.
Kurtis: The script had 8 set pieces that were major destinations we had to hit. We filmed in Calgary, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, Big Sur, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and London.
Noah: For the most part, we didn't have permission to film. We successfully stole almost all of the locations in the film. The Seattle Space Needle, Las Vegas Strip all went off without a hitch, but shooting in a parking lot in LA was next to impossible as we got kicked out 3 times.
Kurtis: One of the largest challenges was the music festival. We had tried and failed to get permission from several larger festivals on the west coast, and it was one of the main problems of the schedule since everything would fall around the dates of whatever festival we got.
Noah: Joshua Tree Music Festival finally accepted us, and we could not have been any luckier. They gave us full access to the festival and only asked that we be respectful and leave a tiny footprint. The only time that we may have pushed the boundaries was when I went up on stage in character and sang a song without the festival's permission. They weren't happy about that—but later asked if I would come back next year and do a full set.
Kurtis: Initially, we spoke to a lot of different distributors who showed interest in our film. Maddie Phillip's new Netflix show Teenage Bounty Hunters was coming out soon, and Rory had been acting in a Disney/Hulu show Find Me In Paris, so both had been building up a following, and the more we thought about it, the less sense it made to give up ownership of this tiny film we made.
COVID was so disruptive to the industry. Film Festivals were all switching to virtual, and all of our hopes of having a real premiere with a crowd were quickly slipping away. This allowed us to step back and look into different release strategies.
Ultimately we decided to self-release the film. It's such a labor of love that we didn't want to give up control at the end. We poured so much of ourselves into it and had such a blast making the film that we wanted to share that with the world.
Noah: We documented the entire trip extensively. We had hours and hours of footage of the shoot, and we knew that it could be inspiring for someone out there that doesn't think they can make a feature either because they have no crew or no budget. But we had proof that it's possible.
We cut together a 7-episode short series on the making of the film that will be coming out over the next few weeks. It gives a deeper look into how we made the film, and we hope it inspires someone else to make their own dream project. Show them that anything is possible.
Check out episode one below!
Summerland comes out on September 14th on VOD.