In 2014, I wrote a script about the end of the world with the intent of making it my first feature film.
The film was written to depict the fears and anxieties that are at the center of the climate crisis. Little did we know that as we moved into post-production, we would find ourselves in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. And while the film doesn’t specifically state that the characters are in a “lockdown,” the film is about isolation and loss—something that every American is dealing with today.
The film, EXPOSURE 36, is the story of a struggling photographer who is drawn into New York’s criminal underworld when his friend goes missing three days before the world is set to end.
It was written as a way to confront the frustration I felt about the lack of action that was being taken to protect this world and our future. While I am very fortunate to have been able to shoot my first feature, our current global circumstances feel more dire than ever. But if this feature has taught me anything, it’s that if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you have to get out there and shoot.
Throughout my childhood, I spent my weekends making films with my brothers and friends. Growing up, we would find any excuse to turn a class project into an opportunity to make a movie.
Sound familiar? You’ve heard this story countless times from filmmakers. Maybe it’s even your own story. But there was something that was never made clear to me: filmmaking could be a career. As I applied to college, I considered my filmmaking aspirations a pipe dream and for the next four years, I spent my undergraduate time preparing for the possibility of law school.
I laugh about it now because the last thing I needed at 22 was more schooling. I spent some time in New York working various jobs, got denied from film school, then moved to Sydney, Australia, where I enrolled in a film program and made my first official short film, Duration of Stay. I came back to New York, got denied by more film schools, and since then I have been writing, producing, directing, and editing my own projects.
My producing partner and brother, Montgomery, formed our production company No2Mauro Productions in 2014. Without the benefit of film school, we were determined to begin our careers as independent filmmakers on our way to producing our first feature within the first five years. And sure enough, five years later we were shooting EXPOSURE 36.
Collaborating on a project from opposite coasts solidified our roles on the film. As director and editor, I focused on creating the right mood and pacing and worked with our composer, Coleman Zurkowski, on developing a score. Montgomery continued his work as creative producer, adding his input into each rough cut and facilitating additional collaborations. He also developed a plan for the festival circuit before the pandemic ravaged in-person festivals and a budget for post-production.
While it would be ideal to be in the same room, we think it’s important that we, as independent filmmakers, are represented in both New York and LA.
We entered pre-production in the spring of 2018 and were given no green light, no “okay” from financiers, nothing.
Our original intention was to shoot it for $10,000. But if we wanted to take a step forward as filmmakers and give ourselves a new challenge, it would require an increase in production value. Our plan to work with better cameras, a larger crew, more interesting locations, and SAG actors meant that this was not going to be a $10,000 picture. If this project was going to be done right, we were going to need to raise some additional cash for principal photography. We reached out to a small group of people and managed to raise enough money to begin shooting.
Once we decided to move forward with the project, we immediately began re-writing the script and stripped the entire thing down to the essential characters and locations. We ensured that each scene could not exist without the one before it. In order to get everything we needed done in such a short amount of time, all the fat in the script needed to be trimmed.
From May 2018 to October 2018, we auditioned actors around New York City hoping to find a cast that believed in our vision. We landed on a group of actors that we thought could bring life to each role the way I had envisioned. One of the things we emphasized during the audition process was that the shoot was going to be short and intense. We would try not to go over 12 hours, although all filmmakers do, but we were determined to finish principal photography in 12 days.
We continued to look for small contributions from people we knew, secured locations, hired a skilled young DP, found a talented woman who would serve as costume designer and production designer, and a hair and make-up artist. In a matter of days, we rented a truck and packed it full of props and lighting equipment, and had a shoot schedule that was jam-packed.
Let me preface this section by telling you that throughout my career as a filmmaker, I’ve had extremely good luck when it comes to shooting.
Unfortunately, we decided to shoot EXPOSURE 36 in the middle of July, the hottest, muggiest, grossest time of year in New York City. A normal summer in NYC would have been rough enough, but we happened to be shooting during a heatwave. The New York Times said it was the tenth hottest July ever recorded in New York City’s history. So we had to contend with close quarters, hot lighting equipment, and a small crew stuffed into even smaller locations.
We had some of the most dedicated cast and crew a group of filmmakers could ask for. Despite the extreme heat, there was very little conflict on set. Even when the boom operator would tell us to turn off the air conditioning while the camera was rolling and sound was speeding, none of the cast and crew protested.
Well, maybe there were a few moans and groans, but nothing that lacked a sense of humor. Our lead actor, Charles Ouda, was in every scene, and we required him to be on set every day. And, without fail, he was there and ready to work. He helped set the tone with a positive attitude and raised the bar for other performers.
We spent a day or two shooting out each location, and then it was on to the next location.
The edit has been the most arduous stage of this process. A few weeks after we wrapped the film, my wife and I found out she was pregnant. The baby was due April 2020.
Editing the picture started in September 2019, and it was a slow grind as I balanced my full-time job and life’s responsibilities. It’s hard to think about the whole process now and try to determine whether we would have benefited from finishing the edit before the new year and the onset of the pandemic, or if it was a silver lining that we would have more time to finish the project. Regardless, it has been fascinating to see how the lockdown has influenced the cut of the film.
When I saw that the city had become a desolate shell of its former self, I decided it was time to get B-roll to add to the edit of the film. One morning, in the middle of the lockdown, I made the decision to head into Manhattan and grab the shots I knew were going to improve the film.
The result was crucial to the final outcome of the film. Our aim had been to create a feeling of isolation. We wanted to portray a city that had been evacuated and left empty. We had no idea that we were going to have this opportunity, so originally we shot principal on empty streets and areas with little traffic. But the opportunity to get once-in-a-lifetime shots presented itself, and it changed the entire film.
As independent filmmakers, we have no choice but to adapt to the state of the world and the place we’re in. In order to get your story out there, it sometimes requires you to overcome these challenges, even in the midst of a global pandemic. If you pay attention to what’s going on around you, it can sometimes work in your favor.
Finishing and beyond
Since the middle of summer 2020, we have locked the cut, scored the film, and created some temporary special effects. We are now moving into a crowdfunding period where we hope we can raise money to finish the project once and for all.
We’ve already raised $9,000 in the first three days of the campaign. We hope in the next few months to mix, color, and conform the picture to a final product that deserves to be shown on the big screen once festivals and theaters open again.
Regardless of the current circumstances, it’s important for creatives to find inspiration and tell the types of stories that are true to us. As I’ve learned, we never know when our films will suddenly bleed into everyone’s reality and feel more urgent and timely than ever.
Our biggest hope is that the film can find some type of audience. The film is about loneliness, guilt, and isolation and how our protagonist finally emerges out of that. As society weaves its way through the complicated process of coming out of a pandemic and attempting to return to “normal,” our hope is that this film will be something people can point to in years to come and say that this is how dire it felt to be alive in 2020. At times it felt like the world was falling apart, but in the end, we were able to pick ourselves up and pull ourselves out.