First Features

The Beauty of the Struggle: Making the First Budgeted Film.

“I’m sorry Sir, but your credit card has been declined.” Her voice, shrill and condescending as if she was enjoying the process of my denial in maniacal glee. What began as a passionate dream now quickly deteriorated into a hellish nightmare. The only problem was that I was already awake. I closed my eyes as tightly as possible, until the colors from behind my eye lids flickered and danced. As a child, when I felt scared or stressed, this was a common habit of mine. Anything to escape the harrowing sequences which I commonly find myself tied up within.

Glancing down to the dirty floor of the putrid car rental station only to see all of our expensive equipment strewn about, my senses went numb. My co-producer kept his cool, pushing me aside so I could regain my composure. We always have had a unique working relationship in that while he holds the magical ability to deal with people and stressful situations with ease, I erupt in a Kinski-esque rage the moment I feel as if I’m being cheated, lied to or mistreated. Principal photography was to begin the next day deep in the heart of Appalachia and here we were still stuck in a car rental lot in Hoboken. I stared at the woman behind the counter with devil eyes, secretly cursing her in my mind as she was now getting in the way of my film.

Deciding together we would avoid any form of crowdfunding, we went into the project as co-producers, using our own funds to support the film. Three months into pre-production, some of that money had already begun to bleed away. Since it was my first budgeted narrative feature, I was naive to some of the necessary ingredients which goes into the filmmaking recipe. Not only that, but due to our over ambition, we decided to shoot in an extremely difficult location in the middle of winter, transporting our cast and crew to the middle of nowhere and making sure they were always comfortable, fed and put up. Adding to the stress, our main actress was set to leave the country for a couple months within a few weeks. Every day was more important than the next.

After hours of negotiating, it turned out that the inept employee double charged our credit card causing it to decline. Once this was discovered, we were on the fast route down the snowy highway to Appalachia in a shitty rental car. My stomach was in a knot as I watched the snowy landscape pass by at rapid pace praying that our first hiccup wasn’t in fact an omen for the production. I saw this as a metaphor for the rest of the project, perhaps it’s these moments that give us guidance, causing us to look deeper into the meaning as to why us crazy filmmakers feel the need to do what we do. Had I lost my cool in that situation, there was a 100% chance the film would not have happened. At least for a long while. Our success or failure seemed to lead to the little things.

The production of a horror film has always been a dream of mine, yet not having the courage within me to engage in a full budgeted feature until recently, I spent the most part of my young adult life making DIY documentaries. I believe it is strongly important for a filmmaker to be able to recognize when and if they are ready for the difficult journey to make a feature film. Two years back, I certainly would not have been able to take on such a massive project. Also with documentaries, I was allowing myself to learn more about this wonderful life and the incredible people surrounding me. I began to travel, viewing the world through the lens of my Hi8 camera, visiting friends and family who would inevitably become my subjects. First there was one of my best friends Jac, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, then there was my father, who asked me to document the last months of his life as he struggled with cancer. I guess the ironic thing about it all is that even after going through all of those moments, I was still filled with fear to make my first feature. One may think that after ten years of creating intense documentaries, I’d be ready to move on with thick skin, but the fear still remained. With each documentary, I learned a little more until eventually I received the courage from within to take on the next challenge. If Werner Herzog could pull a steam ship over a mountain, I should be able to make a modestly budgeted indie film. Right?

My co-producer and I have always been obsessed with the Giallo genre and early 70’s and 80’s exploitation films. Earlier in the year, I found myself visiting his family home in Appalachia. With a week of no plans, we decided to shoot a fake horror film trailer with my FlipCam. Gathering some friends and locals together, we shot what turned out to be a ten minute short, “House on the Edge of Hell” on a budget of twenty seven dollars and were discouraged when it didn’t get any attention whatsoever, nor should it have. Dreamers should never give up their dreams, as ridiculous as they can be. That’s what helps make us crazed filmmakers so special. The beautiful insanity that shines through. Though it was just friends having fun with a camera, I enjoyed the spontaneousness process and playing around with the genre. Once we arrived back home, the winter months took a toll. I was broke and trying to regain my passion in cinema, which after a while, seemed to vanish as quickly as it flourished in my soul all those years earlier. Through the spring and summer, I lived a rather reclusive lifestyle, doing anything I could not to think about film. It was a great relief, yet as I believe one’s passion never can fully escape, the inspiration slowly returned, much to my excitement. I raced back to the city as quickly as possible, very little money in my pocket and slept on various floors and sofas, spending most of my time at local cinemas. I practically consider Anthology Film Archives my home away from home at this point.

On a whim, I happened to find myself in the audience listening to famed horror director Eli Roth. His words were a breath of fresh air and encouragement. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with him briefly and upon walking home, remembered our silly short film. That’s it! I nearly walked directly into oncoming traffic as my mind was so preoccupied with inspiration. I shall remake “House on the Edge of Hell”! Little did I know the burden such a spontaneous idea would be. Thanks Mr. Roth!

I stood on set trying my best to direct my actors and maintain the crew, to no avail. I hadn’t yet learned the art of directing since my background is in documentaries. I have spent half of my life reading the writings of Herzog, Bergman, Pasolini and so many others, but reading and doing are two completely different things. If one was to simply follow a recipe by the book, it would turn out sub par – I know, since I have a culinary degree as well. So what I didn’t realize is that understanding how the best directors work and had worked, doesn’t mean you yourself will be as good as they are. One must master the recipe, though I am still training myself. A lot of burnt end pieces. The hours were fading away into the gloomy past, and eventually I had to pull my co-producer aside to let him know how I felt.

“This isn’t going to work man.” I nearly broke into tears. All the equipment was set up, lights, sound, three cameras, the performers in place and yet it was all on me. I couldn’t let them see me break. Money was on the line. People’s lives were disrupted. I took a few minutes to wander around on set by myself, ignoring everyone, trying not to break down and eventually thought about the car rental station. Was this the next test? Did I have it in me to finish this film? It was only the first day of principal photography and things were moving terribly slow and seemingly awful. “Fuck!” I screamed to myself as loudly as my inner voice could wail.

The film, entitled Don’t Let the Devil in deals with newlyweds, who, after suffering from a miscarriage are relocated from the city to a small Appalachian town by the husband’s land development company. Warned that the locals would show some resentment and anger towards the couple, they proceed to start their new life together. Soon, the evil underbelly of small town America begins to appear, making it very clear to the couple that there would be hell to pay. Trying to create such a storyline, whilst using locals was tricky as we didn’t want to insult or offend, but simply use the landscape as the backdrop of the film. Much to our surprise the community accepted us with open arms, allowing us free reign to run amok in the streets and businesses to get whatever scene was necessary. I began to feel finally feel confident in my vision, after so many hurdles, and eventually found myself making some great friends along the way, all who would give a helping hand when needed. One of those people was West Virginia native and actor Conrad Brooks, most famous for his roles in the Ed Wood films Glen or Glenda and Plan Nine From Outer Space. I quickly wrote a scene for him the night prior to filming in a whiskey haze, holed up in my hotel room, and come the next day, whilst filming, we realized that it may be his first and possibly last dramatic performance. He was magnificent and though my co-producer had to keep me from getting too distracted as he shared stories of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi and Tim Burton, the scene turned out wonderfully intense. It was an honor. The beautiful things are always the most unexpected.

Later that night, as we called location wrap, we drove back to the hotel and reminisced as to how far we had come. Nearly with a feature film in the can, a whirlwind dream that began with a FlipCam, heart and a whole lot of inspiration, we now were on the verge of completing our first budgeted film. The journey was as stressful as one would believe, being away from friends and family for months on end, the intensity of being on set each day, the bitterly harsh weather during exterior shots but it seemed to be all worth it. And I think back about the car rental station, the shrill voice of the condescending employee, the anger and rage of feeling let down, the feeling of failure as a director and the lonely nights in the hotel room wondering if it would all work out after all. I’d call my friends and beg them to keep me confident, that if I lost it now, I’d become the biggest failure of all. At least if the film doesn’t work or is negatively reviewed, the completion was a lesson I’ll always remember. If such passion and intensity can be harnessed and channeled by so many enthusiastic individuals all at once, is it possible that nothing would come from it? It seems doubtful but perhaps that will be the next hurdle to cross.

All in all, the scariest moment wasn’t the beginning or the idea of nearing the end, but instead, the realization that at that very moment, you are in the middle of your biggest project, money on the line, a solid investment, the confidence of an entire crew and it only takes one moment of lost hope to slip up and destroy everything. It truly is a beautiful struggle if you take a moment to look around at the fabricated world you are working to create. And remember, remain calm.


Courtney Fathom Sell is a New York City-based independent filmmaker known for his extensive body of documentary works as well as experimental cinema and music videos. Courtney considers DIY filmmaking a religion and still uses the same old Hi8 camera given to him as a high school student in Massachusetts. Courtney’s many credits include the documentaries My Dying Day and Satan, Hold My Hand as well as music videos for bands such as Xui Xui and Diamondsnake. Don’t Let The Devil In is his first feature.

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