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The ups & downs of creating a micro-budget feature film

By Sam Zalutsky, Spalding School of Writing Dramatic Writing Faculty

This week, my “new” movie, Seaside (@seasidemovie on Instagram and Facebook), a revenge thriller set on the Oregon Coast, was released by Gravitas Ventures (@gravitasVOD) on multiple streaming platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and Vimeo. For a while I wondered if Seaside would ever see the light of day so I am really excited and grateful to be able to share it with you.

Some of you might have seen an excerpt at a recent Spalding residency. But for most of you it will be new. It’s a strange feeling to call something I’ve been working on for over 7 years “new”. I’m sure this is a very familiar feeling for you as well. But this is our process. We work and rework something so many times that keeping a creative project fresh can be a struggle. There are so many ups and downs on the road to completing a movie, or play, or book that it is easy to get discouraged. So it’s essential we find a way to stay connected or return to the original spark of inspiration.

I started writing Seaside during a cold January residency at the MacDowell Colony in 2012 (@macdowellcolony). But the inspiration for the story started years earlier: the dramatic and dangerous Oregon Coast. This magnificent area has intrigued me since I started coming here as a small child. The juxtaposition of stunning beauty and nature’s destructive potential, a dangerous beauty, is omnipresent here. Towering, rough-edged cliffs collapse into a swirling sea; gnarled trees fighting a daily battle against fierce winds ringing wide deserted beaches. It is this contrast that inspired Seaside’s location, visual look, and most importantly, theme: the permeable edge between the sand and the sea, the borders between humans and nature, and the borders within us all.

Sharon Washington (Angela) & Ariana DeBose (as Daphne)

As I’ve grown older, I thought I would come to understand human nature better; that people would make more sense. Yet I realize that a dangerous beauty lurks within all of us; we all have that same complex capacity for beauty and destruction: the line between rational and irrational, the good and the bad, the past and the present. My four main characters (Daphne, Roger, Susanna, and Angela) are all pushed and pulled by their pasts. Whether someone is good (or not) and how our past influences our present are themes made for the thriller genre. What we see happening on the surface is quite different than the fears and desires underneath. With Seaside, I want to challenge audiences’ assumptions about who is good, who is bad, and for the audience to never be quite sure what is coming next.

From the initial script draft to the first day of production took approximately four years. Four years of rewrites, setbacks, fundraising, reaching out to producers, revising, rethinking, applications for funding and other support, feedback from friends and colleagues. Finally, my producers and I determined that we could shoot in the Spring of 2016. Every director dreams of being in production; it is the most intense part of the process but often the shortest. We had a fantastic three-week shoot. We worked hard but also enjoyed hanging out after a long shoot day, drinking donated local beer, and enjoying beautiful evenings on the coast. OK, actually my cast and crew enjoyed the beer. I usually ran to bed as soon as I could after dinner to gain strength for the next day.

But it’s easy to forget that production is really just another beginning of the filmmaking process. Without the intensity of production, the post production process is much more drawn out. Editing, sound design, and scoring are all just opportunities to rewrite and revise. And it all went relatively smoothly, despite our tiny budget. We submitted to top-tier festivals around the world and were hopeful that one acceptance would open the door to more. We received positive feedback from a few but mostly it was rejection after rejection for over a year. And it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t immune from self-criticism and feelings of shame, asking myself what I had done wrong. I didn’t think I was up for self-distribution, which would add another two years or more onto many years already spent on this film. Many times, I wondered if anyone would ever see Seaside and asked myself if I should just move on. I tried to find solace in the fact that I made a new movie, that the process was worth it, and to find value in what I had learned from this project that I could take to the next film. I had to cherish the small victories and reframe the story but I struggled.

Ariana DeBose (as Daphne)

Then Outfest (@Outfest), one of the most prestigious and oldest LGBTQ festivals, invited Seaside to participate in a Work in Progress screening, despite rejecting the completed film for their festival the previous year. From that screening, we met a sales agent who was interested in selling the film. It wasn’t the best deal but it was something. So we negotiated back and forth for many months. In the meantime, Alyssa Roehrenbeck (@pdxalyssa) my producer, had produced a few more features and was negotiating with Gravitas for the rights to one of them. And Ariana DeBose (@arianadebose), our lead, who quickly rose from supporting role in the original Hamilton cast to a Tony nomination for her role in the Donna Summer Musical on Broadway, was cast as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which is shooting now. The combination of Ariana’s rising star and Alyssa’s relationship with Gravitas gave us the chance to show them the film. And they bought it!

Matt Shingledecker (as Roger) & Ariana DeBose (as Daphne)

We have to have a fierce sense of determination and drive, a belief in our own creative voice, to make our work in the first place. But my self-belief was battered and challenged with this project. I was forced to turn elsewhere again and again for support: to my loving and supportive husband, friends, and family; to my smart and determined producer, Alyssa, who has stuck with the project for years after I had money to pay her; to my Spalding students and colleagues; to other projects that felt fresh and exciting when I didn’t have more energy for Seaside; to the original location that inspired this movie; and finally to the always changing, never simple vagaries of human nature, the dangerous beauty, lurking inside all of us that inspired the story in the first place.

Sam Zalutsky’s first feature is You Belong to Me, distributed by Wolfe Releasing. He has made short films, a web series, and dozens of non-profit videos and is a photographer as well. He lives in New York with his husband. You can see more of his work @zalutsky on Instagram/Twitter and on his website:


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