This post was written by S. Roy Saringo.

My dream was always to be in the director’s chair. But 15 years had passed since graduating from film school, and I had yet to set foot onto a film set. It wasn’t for the lack of trying. I wrote a screenplay I began to develop in 2008, but that didn’t amount to anything.

Three years later my producer friend, Grace Santos, helped me shoot two short films around Tampa Bay. They weren’t features, but they were something. Sadly, nothing happened for the next eight years. Then in 2018, I got let go from my very last corporate job. That forced me into freelance videography as a primary source of income. I thought maybe this is what I needed to finally go for broke on my dreams. I would produce cinematic videos for my clients as “practice” and write scripts on the side. Ironically, I would go broke in less than a year without a completed script and nowhere close to making a movie. Being a dreamer wasn’t working out for me, it was time to suck it up and be a responsible adult. So, I went groveling back to corporate America.

That’s when I got an unexpected phone call.

My friend Andrea, who never calls me, invited me to watch her kids perform for an original stage production at a small church in Safety Harbor, Florida. She stressed that I needed to meet the show’s creator, Katie Combs, but I wasn’t convinced this was worth my time. I ended up going anyway because Andrea already bought me a ticket, and I felt obligated.

I’m glad she did. The show was fantastic. The kids sang in pitch, on key, and in harmony. That’s not normal. Even Katie’s music and lyrics were Pasek & Paul-level remarkable. I was floored. I couldn’t believe this was happening in a suburb of Tampa… by a "nobody" that should be a "somebody," based on what I just witnessed.

Days later, Katie and I met for coffee. Her story’s different from mine but thematically the same. We felt like we’d proven our ability to produce high-level content but couldn’t get closer to our dreams for one reason or another. We agreed to help each other and find something to work on together. We found it in Filtered. It’s another musical she was workshopping about 10 students in the course of a year and the effects that social media had on their psyche and relationships.

It was so good that I immediately asked Katie to let me turn it into a movie. How hard could it be? It’s 10 characters singing and talking at home and in school. We had the kids, we could use their actual houses, and Katie had a working relationship with her alma mater. Best of all it had a completed script. This was doable. Thankfully, Katie agreed.

I’ve been a solo run-and-gun for all my freelancing work that I didn’t see any difference between those smaller projects and this bigger one. I knew how to light a set, compose a shot, and move a camera all by myself. I was proficient in Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve, as well. This was worth it to me if it meant having a movie under my belt. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t make a feature film and work a traditional job at the same time, so I bet on my dreams instead.

I also brought in my friend, Grace, to executive produce. She did this as a single mother remotely from California while overseeing the business affairs for Patriot Pictures and Gamechanger Films. She didn’t have to, but she did because she believed in me. She’s pretty awesome.

Bts_04Credit: S. Roy Saringo

We initially shot a proof of concept on my GH4, but I knew shooting 4:2:0 8-bit wasn’t going to give me the quality I needed, let alone the ability to color properly. So, one of Katie’s friends graciously gave us the money to buy a new BMPCC 6K.

Meanwhile, I already owned a set of Rokinon Cine Lenses, so that gave us a good starting point to work with. Still… I had no camera cage, and no external battery, and I ran juice off the power adapter the entire time.

The rest of my gear was three Neewer photo stands, two Quasar Science tubes, and one Benro tripod. I had to borrow a camera slider, a shotgun mic, and a party hazer from friends whenever I could. That was everything I had to work with. No flags, no bounce cards, and no modifiers. I relied heavily on natural light to be my key and fill.

On set, Katie and I were the only crew members. We’d guerilla everything, down to the Excel spreadsheets we used for scheduling. And because our actors were full-time students, our shooting schedule was sporadic.

As if that wasn’t crazy enough, the pandemic placed us on lockdown right as we needed pickups and reshoots, which were mostly at our school location with some shots requiring a crowd of students. That wasn’t happening during the COVID scare. (More often than not I had to be creative in the edit with the footage we captured before the pandemic.)

And when wewere shooting, Katie acted as the location manager, prop master, and 2nd AD, while I was the grip, camera, and audio departments all rolled into one. (We tag-teamed directing the actors.) I didn’t even have a field mixer that allowed for 32 Bit (floating) audio, so I couldn’t just set the mics and walk away.

I was monitoring a boom and two lavaliers on a Zoom H6 while riding gain, moving the camera, and pulling focus at the same time. We ended up having to ADR half the movie—DYI, no less—since no studios were open post-lockdown. The good thing was that 25% of the audio was musical numbers recorded pre-COVID, and the remainder of the film sounded pretty decent.

Recording_studio_02Credit: S. Roy Saringo

We launched a Kickstarter campaign and successfully raised funds for post-production audio. That went into music arrangements for the songs and studio time to record solos and ensembles. Katie was in charge of all that. I used for some underscores and for the sound design.

Once the movie was ready for scoring and mixing, Katie and I were fortunate to have Joe Cosas complete our trifecta. He never worked on a movie before, but Katie and I never made one either, so we were all in the same boat learning as we go. Joe is an accomplished musician and no stranger to music theory and composing. He even moonlights as the music director for the ‘80s band “Yes!

Joe dove into podcasts and connected with Andy Meyer (Justin Timberlake’s FOH engineer) and Peter Keppler (Spike Lee’s mixer on David Byrne’s American Utopia) about Filtered’sfinal 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Between the three of us, we accomplished everything a full production does with a lot more money.

Recording_studio_05Credit: S. Roy Saringo

Personally, it was the editorial stage that gave me panic attacks. At the time, I only had a 2011 MacBook Pro, and it couldn’t handle the BRAW footage I recorded. That laptop gave up at the proxy-creating stage.

I began using a friend's new iMac at his office whenever he wasn’t there. That computer was fast, but it was a hassle to coordinate. Thankfully, another friend lent me their older iMac to work from home. That helped with time and gas, but it was still taking hours to render. I finally caved in and bought a 2019 MacBook Pro, fully loaded. That was two months’ worth of bills and expenses I wasn’t spending on bills and expenses.

Even worse, the new laptop was a lemon and wasn’t insured. I had my “Karen” moment at the Apple Store when I went back to replace it. They wouldn’t exchange it without AppleCare, but I sure as hell wasn’t paying out of pocket to fix a computer I never used. I left there fuming. Apple’s Customer Service on the phone was more helpful, advising I was under a 14-Day warranty. I'd just have to FedEx the lemon to California and get a new one customized in China. I would be without a computer, give or take two weeks. That’s two weeks neither spent editing the movie nor making money editing freelance work that I was already backlogged with.

When I finally received my replacement, Adobe was still running slow even with all the upgrades. Hours of YouTube research convinced me to purchase an External GPU. That was no fun. Then I accidentally cracked the MacBook screen and had to buy an external monitor on top of everything else, because that cost less than the out-of-pocket screen replacement.

I started questioning my decision to make this movie. It was sucking my wallet dry, adding stress, and giving me migraines. I found myself diving into the biographies and documentaries of Lucas, Spielberg, and Cameron. It seemed like hardship and near mental breakdowns were a rite of passage. If that was the case, I was in good company. Knowing that inspired me to keep going. 

Bts_01Credit: S. Roy Saringo

Now, about the film itself. We were encouraged to make it 90 minutes, but we didn’t know how to tell this full-length stage musical in less than two hours. Ninety is the sweet spot for film festival programming, but we already killed our babies and then some. Any more would cut out much-needed context.

A few film festivals accepted us. Most of them were online, so the runtime didn’t matter. Sunscreen was the only in-person film festival that programmed Filtered, and we won “Best Director.” Our festival run ran dry after that. It took months of brainstorming, screenings, and feedback to get the story down to 90 minutes. I still disagree with our final runtime, but we did it.

The biggest hurdle was the lack of a three-act, Save the Cat storyline. We have no central character who wants something and faces obstacles to getting it. There’s no Macguffin. There’s no goal line. What I loved about the stage musical was that it made you feel like you were eavesdropping on these kids, overhearing their conversations, and making you privy to their world. I didn’t want to lose that in exchange for industry standards. 

We knew Filtered was a hard sell. It still is. It’s a no-budget teen musical that plays like a French New Wave film. It has no bankable star and no must-see marketing campaign, but somehow Tri-Coast Worldwide Distributions expressed the same love for the way it was told that Katie and I had.

We found them through basic email queries using The Film Catalogue. They understood the story we were telling and knew the challenges we’d face without known talents. Yet they were optimistic about its success if people were given the opportunity to see it. It was a no-brainer to sign with them.

Bts_03Credit: S. Roy Saringo

It’s been an uphill battle to get Filtered sold to any market. We knew that going in. It didn’t help that AFM, EFM, and Cannes were all virtual. Our only offers came from bottom feeders. Fortunately, Tri-Coast has relationships with TVOD platforms and got the movie on VUDU and Prime Video. Honestly, that was more than we expected to happen considering all the things working against its marketability and lack thereof.

Thankfully, Filtered will enter an AVOD window exclusively on Plex for one month, then others such as Tubi, Amazon Freevee, and Crackle thereafter.

Who would’ve thought this indie teen musical made on a shoestring budget would ever amount to anything? But had Katie and I not bet on ourselves when no one else would, we would’ve never seen our names on the opening credits of a feature film streaming online.

And if Filtered never gets on Netflix or Hulu, at least we have Prime.