These are key lessons from the writer, director, editor, and co-producer of one of New Zealand's best films of the year.
This post was written by Tom Levesque.
In 2021 Tom Levesque, a New Zealand-based filmmaker, and his producing partner Eva Trebilco, embarked on a micro-budget feature production with other first-time feature filmmakers. In 2022 that film, Shut Eye was selected to play at New Zealand International Film Festival, released in cinemas, and acquired for North American distribution with Gravitas Ventures.
Touted by critics as “One of the best New Zealand films of 2022” and a “minor sensation,” the film, Shut Eye, looks at the blurred lines of friendship and obsession between a socially anxious insomniac and an ASMR performer—leading to devastating consequences.
Since the film's release, Tom has signed a director's attachment with Canadian production company Mind’s Eye Entertainment for a to-be-announced feature film.
Here are seven lessons from the film.
Learning #1: I used rejection as fuel to become a better filmmaker
Having spent my entire adult life attempting to "break into" the film industry as a writer/director, rejection has been my most consistent companion. Going through the motions of short films, music videos, and short documentaries, my work had never been award-winning material when I first got started. In fact, I had several people in our local industry tell me to quit and find something else to do.
All of these experiences of being told my work is no good could have easily stopped my filmmaking dreams. However, I chose to use this as motivation to get better at all facets of my craft to prove those naysayers wrong. I dedicated myself to being a student of film, studying as many classics as I could get my hands on. I learned how to operate a camera as best I could, becoming familiar with lights, lenses, and framing, through to directing talent and eventually hired to shoot music videos and documentaries. I learned how to edit on Premiere Pro so I could edit my own material. I read copious numbers of screenplays and screenwriting books to hone my writing, where I churned out script after script which I then started submitting to competitions. It gave me confidence to see my development with each finalist placement or high Black List rating.
Having all these skills in my filmmaking toolkit meant I could write, shoot, direct and edit my own films without the need for other crew—which was a great experience to grow and discover my own voice as a filmmaker. At the time, rejection hurts and is horrible to go through—but I’m glad it happened as it’s taught me to use rejection now as fuel to do better next time, instead of being hung up on it.
Learning #2: Write something that you can pull off well
This might sound obvious, but having been writing spec screenplays for two years prior to making Shut Eye, I have always been tempted to create larger-than-life stories. When Eva Trebilco, my producing partner and I, realized that short films weren’t going to give us the break we were looking for, we strategically looked at what kind of story we could tell for what money we had.
Our vision was to create a solid feature film that would be invited to festivals and get a distribution deal—all on a budget of about $30K. We needed a story that was relatively contained (minimal locations and characters), had a sense of originality to it, a newsworthy hook, and potential to move audiences emotionally. We shot it in a cinéma vérité style to reduce setup times, leaned into natural lighting or cinematic city night lighting, and set up a rigorous rehearsal period so actors could move through scenes quickly during production. All of this and more worked to simplify and speed up production while still achieving striking visuals.
With about half our savings, we looked for inspiration around us that we could access for the script. We soon got interested in the world of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), as we had both been using it. Realizing that this world of ASMR had been relatively unexplored in feature films, we dug a little deeper and became fascinated with the sense of voyeurism it produces—which our film explores.
Learning #3: Create a culture of collaboration
We couldn’t afford to pay industry rates for cast and crew, but we wanted to make sure everyone was happy to be there, understanding their value to the film. We brought people on board by being totally honest and upfront with the vision, offering what money we had, providing back-end points where possible, catering generous nutritious meals, and creating a safe, positive and collaborative shoot experience.
We decided very early to work exclusively with first-time feature filmmakers across the board, all of them hungry for an opportunity to prove themselves and springboard their careers. I know some filmmakers will roll their eyes at this, but for us, we wanted to create an even playing field for every crew and cast member involved, as we wanted to avoid someone using their experience to overrule the production.
From pre-production through to post, we worked to create a culture where everyone felt listened to and could safely provide their thoughts and feedback. By doing so our film is better for it, with changes made along the way to better articulate representation of various themes and identities. By feeling heard and appreciated, our crew and cast were happy to be there and gave it their all.
Learning #4: Honesty is the best policy
Although we had a relatively contained story, we still had locations to fit our characters' world and hardly any money in our locations budget. Without a location scout on board, Eva and I had to physically seek out each individual space, which we learned quickly that if you’re honest about your situation, people are more empathetic to your cause.
I remember sitting in a meeting for nearly two hours, desperate to get a key apartment location that was perfect for our story, but we couldn’t afford it. It was in this meeting where I opened up about myself, my drive to make a feature film without any money, all the people involved, and what we were hoping to achieve. In return, we were offered the location along with all the support from staff for a massive discount. Without it, our film would look and feel much different.
The same went with equipment. For example, we shot the film on our own Sony FX6, but we needed some beautiful cinema full-frame lenses. The commercial cost to hire Tokina lenses over a 16-day shoot was looking to be about half our total production budget! But when we were upfront about our situation and impassioned vision, help arrived in the form of a 92% discount. And this heartwarming stuff kept happening!
Honesty really is the best policy.
Learning #5: Embrace problems and fail fast
It’s so easy to get caught up in the mistakes that might happen on set, sometimes to the point of being unable to move on or focus on the next task. We all learned from our 16-day shoot that those mistakes can sometimes be Hail Marys for the project.
For example, we had booked an actor months in advance for our crucial last day of filming who suddenly bailed on us the night before. While considering calling the day off and losing a few thousand dollars in crew and equipment hire, we quickly went into solution-focused mode and found someone that night. The result couldn’t have been better as this replacement turned out to be the more moving performer.
Likewise, with camera, our wonderful DOP Kelly Chen would often keep rolling when we called cut. However, her natural eye to capture things that weren’t orchestrated was brilliant and some being the best shots of the film.
Learning #6: Be diligent when it comes to the legal stuff
If you’re serious about getting your film distributed, you’ll need everything in your film to be cleared by a lawyer, including contracts, location permits, music licenses, advertising material, etc. We, unfortunately, found ourselves in a situation where our lead wears a clothing brand that wasn’t cleared before filming—assuming it wouldn’t be a problem due to fair use.
When they initially denied our request to use it, we had already lost our lead actor who moved overseas and had no money to re-shoot or add visual FX to cover it. The scene was so crucial—we couldn’t lose it, so we were looking at having to take an expensive loan to cover it. Fortunately, after relentless persistence and months of waiting, we heard we had approval to use the brand from the global legal team in New York City—the relief was enormous!
A very close call and a big learning for all involved.
Learning #7: Self-belief is everything
This is something I wholeheartedly believe, that self-belief is the most powerful tool in your inventory when making a movie. It’s the fuel that’s going to pull you through the dark times.
Making a feature film is really hard work, particularly when you have a budget about the size of a short film—but with the belief of yourself and others around, you can break through to new levels.
There will be long hours, setbacks, rejections, and disappointments—but those can all be pushed through when you keep that vision bright and believe that you can do it. This might sound cheesy, but Eva and I would regularly spend time meditating on the best outcomes we hoped for. Powerful stuff!