How This SXSW Filmmaker Made Her Short Film Fast and Found Distribution
Do you have an idea, three talented friends, and a couple of actors willing to give you a couple of days? Then you can make a short film just like Chelsea Devantez did.
So often in indie filmmaking, you'll hear people tell you, "Just make stuff!" Write that short, get some friends together, and make the thing.
Writer/director/comedian Chelsea Devantez embodies this advice. She had the idea for an unreliable narrator taking a deep dive into a rival's social media, and after her burst of inspiration, she was able to churn out the script for Basic and begin filming within just a few weeks.
The short stars Nelson Franklin (Veep) and Georgia Mischak (Arrested Development) as a blissful, picture-perfect Instagram couple, while Devantez plays their jealous social media stalker. But is that really all that's going on here? Through some smart, snappy writing, Devantez manages to turn this idea on its head in just about three minutes of screentime.
Basic found itself in the Narrative Shorts Competition of SXSW, but obviously missed its chance to play to Austin crowds. On March 19, the project instead found a home at Short of the Week, an online distribution platform backed by Cary Fukunaga, David Gordon Green, and Michael Sugar.
We had the chance to chat with Devantez about the making of the film, which you can watch here. Let's dig into Devantez's advice for working fast on set, learning how to write punchy jokes, and staying persistent while seeking an audience.
No Film School: It sounds like this production moved very quickly, from having an idea, writing it, and getting it shot within three weeks. How did you manage to get the project off the ground so fast?
Chelsea Devantez: Everything in this business takes so long—I can't stand it, so when I make my own stuff, I don't let anything slow me down! I'm naturally a very fast-moving person and always have been, then on top of that I trained at the Second City where you write material that you put up that night, and if it doesn't go well, the next day you're writing something else, memorizing, and going again. After every show you then have an hour-long improv set, eight shows a week where you are just constantly generating material.
"People are constantly telling me to slow down, and I'm constantly telling them to fuck off."
My first TV job after performing on the Mainstage was in late night comedy where we wrote a new show every day, so churning stuff out quickly is in my bones. I'd also had experience producing and directing a bunch of TV sizzles and pilot presentations before, and I knew this particular idea could be executed in a short amount of time. On top of that I had worked with Kevin [Walsh, director of photography] before (and we were on the same improv team for years and have helped each other's web/TV projects before) so I knew what we were both capable of. I'd also worked with Kenzie [Elizabeth, assistant director] and Kelly [Reilly, creative consultant] before on separate projects, who are both powerhouses.
People are constantly telling me to slow down, and I'm constantly telling them to fuck off. I don't come from a background that allows you to end up in the position I'm in, and I didn't get here by sitting and moseying about!
NFS: You filmed the short in two days and with no budget. What were some challenges on set?
Devantez: The entire crew for this film was four people, including myself. We shot it over two days with eight locations. There were many, many challenges. But here’s a specific one. Kevin Walsh, the DP and editor and co-producer, and I had scouted this beautiful park for a shot we wanted and had even practiced all the takes for these beautiful shots we wanted. When we showed up on the day, a concert was taking place where we wanted to shoot and everywhere was PACKED. I’d planned the day so Georgia and Nelson could shoot these two shots back to back in an hour, to be respectful of their time. So we pulled into the parking lot and re-staged it on the fly with my A.D., Kenzie Elizabeth. I’d bought this pineapple for an extra shot if we had the time, and we pulled the pineapple into the new shot. Now it’s one of my favorite scenes in the film, and it’s in the ugliest location, ha!
NFS: What were some things you did to make sure you could work quickly and efficiently each day?
Devantez: The biggest thing is that Kevin and I had already walked through every shot the weekends prior, and we each already owned a camera that we used. He has a Sony 87 and I had a Canon 80D. We have a ton of test footage for the middle of the film where I ran around with my boyfriend's sister and her wife, and had them act out the parts as I tested locations and shots. I would then upload that to Vimeo for Kevin to see and note and review. Then Kevin would run around stepping out the opening shots with Kelly Reilly and upload that footage for me to review. And then we took a separate weekend where Kevin and I stepped through each shot with me playing each role. I also arranged costumes and shot order, so that we could swap a prop or a shirt and pretend it was a new setting very quickly and save time. Georgia, bless her heart, did seven costume changes in the back of my car. All the locations were within ten minutes of each other.
The other huge hack, and the reason I knew we could make the film for no money and a small crew, is that all of Georgia's footage could be shot MOS [with no audio]. And her footage is the majority of the film! Having sound out of the way freed us up a lot to get the visuals right in a short amount of time.
"The people who you become actual friends with while creating this work are the people who will help you build a meaningful career."
NFS: This is a short about the lives we lead online and the conflict that can arise there. You capture that conflict in a very dynamic way. What was your process for coming up with those visuals?
Devantez: Thank you so much! It was so detailed that it would probably be boring. But I'll say this, for the footage with Georgia, I was sending Kevin shots from actual wedding videos. I watched hundreds of them, wedding videos had that effortlessly ridiculous corny levels of joy type of look I wanted.
For the apartment scene, I wanted only one source of light to be coming from the phone, but Kevin had the idea to use these neon light wands that really elevated the night visual. He's such a visual genius and I'm so lucky he came on as director of photography and editor, we've made a few projects together, and he's just stunningly talented.
NFS: One thing that's enjoyable about Basic is that it changes direction and surprises you more than once. What advice would you give to a writer seeking similar ways to create a fresh, surprising story in a comedy short?
Devantez: Study late-night comedy joke writing, which were my first three writing jobs in TV. When you think about it—a late-night monologue makes you laugh because they lead you somewhere and do a tiny little tweak at the end that surprises you. And before that, I wrote eight years worth of sketches and these things called "blackouts" at the Second City, which are basically a visual or verbal joke that's extremely short and the punchline is so strong the lights black out on it almost immediately. They are energy surges for the audience in the running order of a show.
"Study late-night comedy joke writing."
For me, it's a type of joke format, and in visual form is really powerful for storytelling. Take for instance this Joan River's joke: "It was a Jewish porno film… one minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt." You could shoot a short film of a couple having sex and then nine minutes of feeling terrible, then pull out and reveal they are on a porno set and someone says, "That's a wrap on Jewish porno." You can do that with most monologue jokes. Once you practice it, it becomes a skill in your brain you can use whenever and however for your story.
NFS: How did you land at Short of the Week?
Devantez: When SXSW went down, I was scrambling for what to do, and my reps reached out to Short of the Week for me. After they did I got a really nice note that they had already been aware of the film from the SXSW industry portal and planned on reaching out anyway. Before that I was messaging friends to see who had a contact at Vimeo, when Vimeo sent me an email on their own saying they would feature it as a staff pick. It was a really incredible turn of events after getting such heartbreaking news about SXSW.
NFS: Do you have any other advice for filmmakers seeking platforms and audiences for their short films?
Devantez: I've directed a lot of other web/TV sizzle stuff, but this is my first short film and my first time applying to film festivals. I really didn't know how anything worked, I just made a film I loved and applied on FilmFreeway. I think there are better ways of going about it. Whoever is reading this, you know, DM me. But here's my real advice—your friends who you make while doing this work, are the most important people in your life. More important than teachers, celebrities, mentors, anyone. The people who you become actual friends with while creating this work are the people who will help you build a meaningful career.
NFS: Anything else you'd like to add?
Devantez: Thank you so much for covering SXSW films that went down. We're dealing with something much larger and much worse right now, but art gets me through my hard times, and I hope (and know) we can keep art alive as we go through this moment.