It was August 2021, and the time that every film student awaits was close: senior year, when we got to direct our thesis films.
This post was written by Linda Paola Varela.
I had spent the summer writing a realism-based script about a Mexican mother and daughter and how they struggled to handle the daughter’s mental illness. It was heartfelt and simple, used only one location, and seemed like the perfect script for a successful student film. Then I scrapped it.
I ended up making a film called I’m Just Trying to Help. The logline was, “A young woman seeking a novelty treatment for her mental illness finds herself in a fight for survival against an eerily cheerful AI avatar and the doctor who created her.”
The film is a sci-fi drama with slight soap opera/telenovela undertones. It was important to me to make a film about a subject that a lot of us (but specifically Latine folk) deal with, which is the pressure to hide our true emotions and pretend that everything is okay for the sake of other people's comfort. I feel like this is something that women, POC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community can relate to. Many of us are often told to stay quiet when we want to voice our struggles because we don't want to be perceived as being "too much."
This film was inspired by the question: what would happen if there was a way to be happy all the time? Technology and social media really have a huge impact on our lives, but what we portray to others isn't always what's really happening.
I've enjoyed sci-fi throughout my life but it wasn't until this year that I became interested in making it. I was up for a challenge, and I have grown in many ways. Now that I am closer than ever to finishing this film, I want to share some lessons I have learned along the way!
1. Make something that speaks to you
Twenty-four hours before my script was due on the first day of class, I took a look at the original realism script I had written and I knew I could not spend a year working on it. The script was fine, but I was just not excited about it. I found myself wishing I was doing something weirder, because that is what I’m drawn to. Rather than translating a real-life experience onto the screen, I wanted to create a world that served as a metaphor for feelings I myself have experienced.
After a few hours of brainstorming, an image came to my mind: a doctor’s office with completely pink walls and white furniture. I wondered what would happen there. It seemed like the kind of office someone who is very happy would have. Or someone who is trying very hard to be happy.
Boom. Then I thought of the eerily cheerful AI avatar that goes rogue. Then I thought of the campy melodrama of Mexican telenovelas. I had my concept, and boy, was I in for a ride.
2. Know what you want out of the experience
Early on, I realized that my concept was complex, required skill beyond my level at the time (extensive production design, special effects, and filming action sequences), and would be difficult to execute.
I decided that my focus for this project would be to do my best and learn as much as possible from the experience. To do that, I had to accept that, because of this risk, there was a big chance my film would not be “good,” but there was also a big chance that I’d come out on the other side with a lot more skill than I started with.
3. Ask, ask, ask
An important reason why I was able to go through with filming was that I was able to secure a great location. As an undergrad college student in my twenties, I didn’t have a lot of connections, so I decided to ask my father (an actual adult) if he knew anyone who rented out warehouses and would be willing to let me use it for my senior film. He sent a few texts to his friends and within hours I had set up an appointment to view one the next day.
My producer and I met with the man, saw the warehouse, and loved it. We told him we were building a doctor’s office, and his reply was, “I have a doctor’s office.” It turns out he had a location where an oral surgeon used to have his practice and the location needed a lot of remodeling, so it was hard to rent out. He let us have it for free and paint it pink as long as it was restored and cleaned when we were done!
My main takeaway is that you never know who will be willing and able to help you, so ask. You might get lucky!
4. Prioritize your peace of mind
Filmmaking can be stressful and hectic, and I found that one of the most important things I could do was reduce my stress in any way I could while still making the film I wanted to make. I knew that if someone else paid for my film I would feel accountable to them, so I decided to pay for the film mostly myself with money I had earned through scholarships, freelancing, and work in theatre.*
*I want to note that I was able to put the money I earned toward my film because my parents have kindly supported me through college.
5. It’s okay to learn as you go
Because I am a student and was paying for the film myself, I had to be picky with where I chose to spend the limited amount of money I had both during production and during post. My strategy essentially became, “If I can learn it, I’ll do it myself.” I tried my best to take advantage of the resources my school offered (shoutout to my professors!) but there were plenty of things I had to learn on my own.
Special effects are not something taught in my program, so I had to find a way to learn. Internet tutorials became my best friend. With their help, I learned Adobe After Effects so I could make a character’s eyes glow and learned how to (mostly) fix inconsistently lit green screens. I learned how to do each thing as it became relevant in the process because in addition to this film I had my other classes and work. The result was worth it!
6. If you trust your vision, others will trust it too
I am not a great screenwriter, and translating my vision from my head to the page was not easy. There were moments in my head (such as the tonal shift from campy to dramatic) that I felt would work once they were on the screen but was having trouble successfully communicating to others.
I am extremely grateful to Lisanne Skyler and Jacob Bricca, my thesis advisors, because they gave me the space to really go for what I wanted with this film even if they couldn’t completely see how it would come together in the beginning. They were both quick to offer their help or refer me to other resources whenever I became stuck and were extremely supportive of me taking on such an ambitious project. I never heard them question whether I could pull it off, and that faith really boosted my confidence throughout the process.
7. Remember why you made your film in the first place
Even though I knew that this film would be a lot of work from the beginning, doing the work was not always easy.
There were many instances where I considered withdrawing from the senior showcase because I didn’t think I’d have a finished enough product.
Even though this is technically my film, throughout the process it stopped being solely mine. Little pieces of it belonged to each person who helped me make it. When I was extremely burnt out and there were moments when I didn’t care whether I got my moment in the spotlight, I thought about all the cast and crew who put so much work and so much love into the film. They deserved their moment.
Thinking about them, their support, and the message of my film helped me carry on. As of the writing of this article, I’m Just Trying to Help is set to screen on May 7, 2022, as part of “I Dream in Widescreen,” the senior film showcase at the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film & Television.
I don’t know how it will be received, whether it will screen at any festivals, or whether it will win any awards. What I do know is that I set out to learn as much as possible from this experience and I have, while finding some great friends and collaborators along the way.
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