When Everything Is Going Wrong, It’s Actually Going Right: That And Other Mantras Of Indie Filmmaking

KIRSTEN RUSSELL- FILMMAKER/ACTOR

In October of 2005, I finished the final draft of a dark comedy called “Rabbit Stories”.  It was a screenplay I held onto for dear life as my soul mate went MIA with someone else.  And with 10 lead characters, close to 40 locations, hundreds of extras including dancing death row inmates, an ashram filled with sari-clad devotees, and a full biker gang I optimistically decided to make this my feature film directorial debut because heartbreak is a terrific motivator.

Chicken is with Camila Gibran (producing) and Natalie Zampella

The script for “Rabbit Stories” is actually divided into three stories that weave together following a poem about a rabbit.  The first in “The Chicken or The Egg” we meet Ted and Kate, a miserable couple who’s marriage implodes whilst battling for the affections of a used motorcycle.  Then in “The Story of Mac” we met Mac and Lila who fall in love through Plexiglas as Mac counts his days on death row.  And lastly, “In the Backyard of His Holi Vrindavin” there’s Nadine who has finally found her long lost father who now is the head guru in a spiritual cult.

Backyard is with Jon Miller (DP)
 

So with three shorts, the plan seemed simple:  We would shot one section every summer for three years through New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. With this, Camila Gibran, my fellow producer and co-owner of Basically Films, committed ourselves to what we strongly believed was a three year venture.  What we didn’t see was the additional summer that we would need to for the numerous re-shoots and the two years of working with our awesome unpaid editors, Jonathan Van Buren and Jamie Wright, making this into an epic seven-year undertaking.   But even early on, when we realized how in deep we were in, we had an epiphany that bailing was no longer an option.  Thus became our first rule of indie-filmmaking:


What you don’t have with money you make up with and unrelenting, unembarrassed, shameless pursuit of something you
said you would finish…Damnit.

 

Scene from Chicken is with Natalie Zampalla and Daniel Vespa

 

 

Though we had a strong producing team along the way including Megan Stuart Wallace, Misha Brea, Michelle Sarkeny and Marc Bonan, in the end it was Camila and I who “stormed the Bastille” when locations refused to return calls, slept in equipment vans in the rain for fear of being ticketed in an illegal parking spots, and single-handedly moved a full room of furniture down two flights to a black mold-infested basement. We weathered Lyme’s disease, lung infections, torn thigh muscles and rotated vertebrae.  We lost friends, homes, relationships and emptied our bank accounts as the majority of the film was self-financed.  But if asked, we would do it all over again because:

When everything is going wrong it’s actually going right.

 

This became the mantra that, for however goofy it may seem, humbled us to the idea that maybe we weren’t alone here.  And maybe what we were doing might somehow have meaning.  And through some of our stormier moments this was the guiding light.

Scene from Mac is with Camila Gibran (producer and actress)

Because there were countless times I cursed the sky for raining, forcing us to shoot in a virtual monsoon only to realize that the entire scene took on a darker and more poetic quality than we would have ever achieved had it been a clear day.

Then there was the DP who left the country 10 days before shooting forcing us, not only to push back the entire shooting schedule, but also to shift to a new idea of using one cinematographer per story.  This change created one of the most interesting qualities to this film as each section has a completely different tone. As in life, when through different eyes, one’s scope of love may seem more colorful, comedic or painful than another’s.

Scene from Backyard is with Marcel Simoneau, Dudley Findlay Jr., Jacob Battat

There was one of the more important scenes where we elude to a crime that takes place in car in an empty parking lot.  Everyone panicked when the owner of the car informed us it was in the shop with no tires for the weekend.  Then out of nowhere we drove past the strangest of vehicles and chased down the owner begging her to allow us to borrow it for the night.  It was painted with rainbows and child-like trees which added a perfect irony to a scene so sinister.

This also saved us from being arrested while shooting the biker party scene. Originally I wanted biker actors because the idea of going with real bikers scared me silly.  But when the opportunity presented itself to enlist The Arresting Souls, who are police officers by day, we took the offer even though I was still intimidated by the prospect of directing a real biker gang.  So when our set was mistaken for a Hell’s Angels bash, four cop cars cruised silently up the dark block with their lights off and shotguns locked and loaded.  And right before mayhem broke out The Arresting Souls were recognized as fellow members of the force and none of us ended up with our faces in the dirt.

Mac is with Kirsten Russell directing with Camila Gibran and Tom Brangle

 

What you don’t have with money you make up with time.

Around the 6-year mark when the film was in the can, the slow process of grinding out this dark comedy became just “dark” with little comedy in sight.  I counted the birthdays, and boyfriends come and gone and the embarrassing question at yet another Christmas party, “So how’s the film coming?”  I, as the director and a female director, had begun feeling that the project had become some over-grown infant that just nursed and cried and wanted more and more.  As I said to Camila one day on the phone, “I just need this horrible baby to smile at me.” Then in late august of 2011, I sat in front of my computer watching the most recent cut.  And as I watched a unique and funny and moving film about love as the strangest force of nature, I realized it had smiled at me.

The irony is that as I moaned about watching the years slip by, I see that all of us needed this time. Though our cupboards are bare and we are fund raising to finish sound with Kickstarter, I would never had done this film any other way because it required the TIME for “Rabbit Stories” to grow up.  I needed the years on set to become solid in my rhythms as a director.  The script needed the years to change with what had been captured on film just the summer before.  We needed the years to be crystal clear of what kind of people, not just filmmakers, the experience of finishing this would make of us.  So we have a feature film, seven years of uncanny stories, a million laughs (as only making a comedy can provide) and huge changes as humans and artists.  We don’t lament any of it because when everything seems to be going wrong, it’s actually going right.

BIO FOR KIRSTEN RUSSELL:

Kirsten Russell began as an actress doing her first play at 10 years old.
She attended all-arts high school in Miami, Florida and then went on
to study acting at California Institute of the Arts. She continued her
acting career in NYC where she performed in over 50 plays originating
several by playwright, Edward Allen Baker. She appeared in several
TV shows as well as starring in Joe Maggio’s awarding winning indie
flicks, “Virgil Bliss” and “Milk & Honey”. In 2000 she began directing
stage and soon after wrote and produced her first short, “Gomers”. She
joined forces with fellow actress and friend, Camila Gibran, where they
created Basically Films. Together they completed Kirsten’s second
short comedy, “Valentines”, that she wrote and directed in 2006 before
starting preproduction on “Rabbit Stories”. Her next film, “Getting Over
Bob”, is in the early stages of preproduction.