My wife's family has owned a lakeside campsite in northern Michigan for 103 years. In the middle of that lake lies Birdseye Island. As children they had a tradition to swim to the island and back without a life jacket. That would allow them to play, swim, and canoe without adult supervision. It was their rite of passage. The Birdseye Rule.
In April my wife, Eleanor, and her sister, Jen, opened Birdseye Rule. A men and women's clothing store in Chicago inspired by their family history on the lake. From the beginning we wanted to shoot a film for the store based on the namesake.
2 years ago Eleanor and I shot a film at her grandmother's farm, the place we fell in love and would eventually get married. We made that film during a rough time in our relationship, but we made it to express where we were at the time and be a time capsule of a place we love.
After a showing of The Farm before we released it someone mentioned to me that they'd like to see this as a series and that stuck out to me. A series of short films exploring places and our relationships to them. Birdseye Rule would serve as a great second film in a series exploring this.
I started working on pre-pro in May trying to think of a narrative based around what I knew about my wife's childhood. I got inspired fast, and soon I had a whole idea for a long-ish short film. A 10-15 minute film. With almost no dialogue. Just trying to communicate emotion and feeling through the cinematography. I created a mood treatment as a way to process the ideas in my head. To accomplish what I wanted to do I knew I'd need more money than what we could manage from a new local business. I wanted to work with a lot of my super talented friends on this and have a legit crew. I sent the following treatment to tons of film grants, residency programs, and fiscal sponsors.
Needless to say, I got a whole $0. One of the grant companies actually called me, started telling me how great they thought the idea was but decided to not give me a grant. I was confused by that. Frustrated. Honestly, pretty depressed.
I felt my idea wasn't good enough. I felt like a failure. I thought about maybe trying to do a Kickstarter but I was already defeated in my head and decided against it.
Eleanor is the most amazing person in the world. She helped me out of a slump and told me maybe we'll just try a longer form version another time. Maybe we could make a proof of concept instead.
So we stripped bare a lot of parts and Eleanor got to writing a script similar to the one she wrote for The Farm. We went through about 8 versions in a week. We're both big personalities with a lot of pride and it's hard for us to be vulnerable with each other about work. It's often explosive and leads to a lot of yelling and misunderstanding. We were days away from our first day of production without a final script and no scenes blocked. We were going in pretty blind.
Eleanor and Jen picked out a handful of looks for everyone who would be in the film. Our goal for this film was to be a conceptual telling of the store's namesake and also serve as a lookbook film. I referred to one of my favorite short films for Free People as inspiration. I loved the way they told a story and blended in the different looks and outfits.
I knew I wanted to cast Eleanor's cousin Hannah for the film. We had done one shoot together already for a poem she wrote and I knew she'd be perfect for this especially since the story is part of her childhood too. We also found out Hannah's sister, Maddie, would be there at the same time and my idea started to grow. I thought that we could use these two sisters to represent Eleanor and Jen, the two sisters who started the store.
July 2nd- Our actress/ Eleanor's cousin Hannah got into Chicago at 6a.m. and we started our 5 hour dive to Michigan. We talked about what I wanted to try in terms of shooting based on the rough script we had. We'd do a few tests for some scenes I had in my head for the first 2 days we were there.
As for gear:
Zeiss CP2 35mm
Black Pro Mist 1/4
All shot in available light
The whole family was up in Michigan for July 4th weekend so our plan was to spread out our shoot days over 5 days.
2 days for exterior shots around the campgrounds
2 days for interiors after most of the family had left Michigan
1 day for pickups.
In some of the BTS photos you can see me in the water with an EasyRig. I was literally waist deep in the water hoping I wouldn't trip and ruin my camera. We shot some swimming scenes of Hannah where I was sitting in a canoe that Eleanor was paddling. I bought this underwater housing which was essentially a glorified ziplock bag. I couldn't even focus the lens so I put the camera on auto-focus and prayed the shots would come out. It was stressful to be so out of control in such an important scene but I had faith we shot enough coverage to get something out of it.
After it was all said and done I was actually really excited about the footage although I had no idea how I was going to string it all together.
Another month passed (and a lot more explosive fights ensued) before we settled on a final script. I flew out to Minnesota to do the voice over recording with my Eleanor's friend Stanzi who acts in plays and does some vocal work. We set up a bootleg sound studio in her closet and within an hour we had an incredible voiceover for the film.
The actual editing process tends to always be the hardest part for me. Along with juggling multiple client projects at the same time I got burned out. After trying a couple times editing to only become more and more frustrated I brought in my friend Taylor Shanton to help me out on the editing side. He laid down a lot of foundation for how most of the scenes flowed together.
September 25- I got an email from Low Res Studio about a local filmmaker feature they were going to put on in two and a half weeks. I met none of the criteria (it wasn't a documentary, it wasn't 7+ minutes long, and it wasn't even completed), but they accepted it and it put me on a deadline.
Over the next two weeks I locked myself in a room and edited meticulously. I was frustrated with the temp music I was using when a good friend and composer, Chris Gatton, started sending me his ideas for the score. It immediately got me out of the funk that the temp music was holding me back on. We went through a few rounds of revisions before settling on the final score. I also reached out to my old Sound Design instructor from college, Robin Gulcher, who graciously offered to create the soundscapes for the film. To really add a dimension to the nostalgia of the film I knew a great uncle of Eleanor's used to work in video production. I gave him a call, taught him how to upload video to a cloud, and I now had Hi-8 footage from the camp in 1990.
October 12- I was 100% finished with the film at midnight before the premiere at Low Res Studio. My eyes were bloodshot and I thought I was going crazy. At Low Res we ran into technical issues during playback and my heart sunk. I literally told the crowd that I was now living my worst nightmare. Sweating profusely, we finally got the film to play.
Though the film was received well at the premiere, if you had asked me about it even a few weeks ago I would have told you the whole project was a total failure. I was ready to quit on it so many times. It was hard for me to separate my original idea with the film it needed to become. I couldn't let go nor did I want to let go. I thought my idea, that I was so proud of at one point, wasn't good enough. There were many times during this process that I thought about just giving up filmmaking all together. And I'm still wrestling with that and how to navigate a creative career. It's hard and vulnerable to put out this work that means a lot to you but may not connect with others. You're putting your heart out there for others to judge.
But when it was all said and done, I'm so so so proud of what myself and a very small team of people were able to create. I'm thankful to have such a supportive and talented wife I get to work with and her family who've allowed me to create alongside them. The UPS man who somehow found our cabin in a little shanty town so I'd have the lens I needed. My therapist. The collaborators who offered their creative services for favors, free, or a gin + tonic. And finally to everyone whose read this ramble all the way, liked an IG post, or mentally encouraged me through this process- it hasn't been easy but your support has made all the difference.
Hopefully it's not another 2 years before the next in this series of films is made, here's to hoping. Peace.