Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
John Goshorn: I grew up rurally, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside the small town of Bedford, Virginia, which is not that different from Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, though it might be a little smaller.
Living in such a secluded location — a half-mile from our nearest neighbor and an hour from the nearest movie theater — we were a fairly close family. I was the youngest of four, and we spent a lot of time playing outside in the woods, mostly various make-believe games, climbing trees, swimming in ponds and creeks. I read a lot. If I wasn’t outside, I was probably reading.
Film Courage: Who is your biggest supporter?
John: Most people I know are supportive in different ways. My parents are probably my biggest cheerleaders but my wife has also made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to make art. Several good friends have been willing to look at scripts or pitch in their acting talents or editing talents. Some folks I haven’t seen since high school or never met at all contributed to crowd-funding or spread the word about the film on social media. Independent filmmaking always seems to consist of asking for thousands of favors, and the absence of any one of them could send the whole endeavor crashing down.
Film Courage: What made you pursue a Bachelor’s, Master’s and other continuing education for film, media and acting?
John: I don’t think I had a specific formative experience beyond my attachment to the world of storytelling from reading and make-believe games, but I think visiting colleges my junior year of high school really crystallized what I wanted to study and what I wanted to do with my life. I was weighing studying politics or the arts, and ultimately, it just seemed like art was going to allow me to live more honestly.
Film Courage: When you were laid off from your job in 2008, what was the position like?
John: I was working as a commercial videographer and editor for the local ABC affiliate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I had just moved from a similar position near my hometown six months earlier. It was far from my favorite job, but was a good way to practice single-camera production skills and learn Avid while I tried to get into a graduate film program.
I knew the business climate wasn’t great, because business had slowed at my previous job before my move — fewer clients, fewer work orders for commercials, more spec work — and wasn’t doing all that much better at my new station, but no warnings or rumors of layoffs had made it down to my level.
When I found out, I was stunned. I don’t think there’s a way to take that news well, and there’s always going to be a sense of unfairness about it, but I will say that I’ve since learned that terminations are usually handled with less generosity than they were in this case. Those of us who were downsized were allowed to continue working through the end of the calendar year, and got modest severance packages. There was none of the “here’s a box – clean out your desk immediately” or being escorted off the premises by security that you hear about with a lot of other layoffs.
Film Courage: What were the first few days like for you during your initial week of unemployment? What were the Holidays like?
John: I was still working out the string to my final date of employment through the 2008 holiday season, but knowing I’d be dumped out into the worst recession since the Great Depression as soon as the calendar flipped was incredibly daunting. And even when the people closest to you are supportive — and they all were — a lifetime of cultural conditioning can still make you feel like you’ve failed as an adult, a husband, a man, etc. when you can’t provide for yourself or the partner you asked to quit her job and move to another state so you could take the job you just lost because a corporation deemed you expendable.
Film Courage: When did the idea for THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH take shape?
John: A version of it began to materialize in the first couple weeks of 2009, sorting out things like “can I afford COBRA?” (no way!) and “will I port my life insurance policy?” (also no). It was a neo-noir that I have described as “Fargo without the laughs,” but once I outlined it, it didn’t really take hold of me — I had no anchor other than an intriguing plot about a couple who become increasingly desperate when the husband loses his job. It wasn’t until I had accepted an offer of admissions to the MFA program at the University of Central Florida, that I really started trying to make the story work, and discovered in a magazine article that examined Orlando as an example, both good and bad, of a “21st century American metro area” that I realized the heart of the story — that this neo-noir plot — like most noir plots — was anchored the American Dream, and what Gary Hawkins has called “a generalized lie” that Hollywood tells, “that you are master of your own destiny.” At that point, I began to understand the film I was actually making.
Film Courage: How did you emotionally balance writing this script and being unemployed? How were you able to fully concentrate?
John: Between job searching and trying to cope with the turn of events, I honestly wasn’t able to grapple with the script until the summer before I began graduate school.
I was still unemployed, and my wife and I had moved out of our apartment and were staying with family until graduate school started and we headed to Florida. She landed a seasonal gig at a girls’ summer camp, and while she was there, I visited my parents’ house, took over their upstairs for three weeks, and pounded out the first draft, mostly writing nights into the wee hours of the morning, after days of torturing myself with procrastination and bad writing.
Film Courage: Within your nine months of unemployment, what was the timeline for making the film?
John: While I was unemployed, all that was accomplished was the first draft of the screenplay. Heading “back to work” was going to graduate school and working as a graduate assistant, but fortunately, the program at the time was built around the process of making a digital feature for less than $50,000, so most of what I needed to make the film — deadlines and such — was part of the curriculum. Over the next two years, I wrote seven more drafts of the screenplay, crewed up, raised money, scouted locations — all the necessities of preproduction.
We shot in the summer of 2011, and our initial editor and I made several editing passes to get the film into a condition that would allow me to graduate the following May. However, I was not satisfied with that version of the film, and thus spent the next the next two and a half years in a roughly six weeks on/twelve weeks off pattern of working on the film, handing it off to two more editors and a colorist, and a visual effects artist, and working with my composer and post-production sound guru Gavin Salkeld to bring it to the version I submitted to Cinequest.
Once I had my degree, “managing” making the film really came down to a potent cocktail of stubbornness and guilt. It was a grueling process, and there were honestly dozens of times I wished I could just be done with it, but quitting was not an option. Not only had so many people sacrificed so much to make it — the cast, the crew, and our IndieGoGo donors, my family — but I knew we had made something compelling, and it made me sick to consider the film becoming just another promising but ultimately failed project that a fledgling filmmaker abandoned.
Film Courage: We know you were successful on Indiegogo, raising $5,000. What part of the movie did those funds go toward? Did you use any of your own funds to finish the film?
John: Aside from legal and insurance, our principal photography period was funded entirely by the IndieGoGo campaign. Food, gas, locations, production design, and expendables were all covered by that campaign.
To finish the film, we needed an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription and to keep our LLC running — annual reports, accounting costs to file taxes, banking fees — and then to submit to festivals, ship them deliverables, create publicity materials, and create and ship our IndieGoGo perks. All of that money stemmed from diverting part of each paycheck from my teaching gig at Full Sail University to our production company.
All told, because it took so long to finish all of that, I would estimate the final cost of the film to be roughly $15,000, which, incidentally, was the number I arrived at in my very first draft of the budget before I had to adjust it downward to make sure we could go to production on time.
Film Courage: How many days was production?
John: We shot 21 days of principal photography and 3 pickup days, for a total of 24.
Film Courage: What was your favorite day on set and what happened this day?
John: Probably one of my favorite days on set was our next-to last scene of the last day of the first week of shooting. We shot a simple domestic scene of Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward) inside at night, lit with a porch light, some neighboring rooms, and the glow of an offscreen laptop playing Days of Heaven (1978) dir. Terrence Malick. There are no doubt many films influenced by Nestor Almendros’ cinematography in that film, but how many can say their film was actually lit by that masterpiece?
And it was even cooler because of the 15 or so people in that room, only about two had not seen that film. And I could take some responsibility, whether directly or indirectly, for virtually everyone who had; all but a few had seen it as part of one of the classes I taught as a graduate teaching associate at UCF.
Film Courage: Where did you shoot the film/secure the locations?
John: We shot on location in Orlando, the surrounding suburbs of Maitland, Winter Springs, and Reunion, and the beaches of New Smyrna Beach and Brevard County, Florida.
Film Courage: What camera(s) did you use? Did you have a lighting package?
John: The film was shot on a Canon 7D with Nikkor lenses, primarily primes. We did not use a lighting package. The most we did to alter the lighting at any given location was to swap out some incandescent bulbs with daylight-balanced compact fluorescent bulbs. To make this story as real as possible, cinematographer Jeffrey Gross and I wanted to strip out as many barriers between the characters and audience, so we shot mostly with a 50mm lens, handheld, with a combination of available light and practical fixtures.
Film Courage: How long is the final version of the film?
John: It’s basically 80 minutes and change, so 80 or 81 depending on which way you round.
Film Courage: What can you share about keeping the budget so low?
John: Obviously, the academic context in which the film was produced helped. We did not have to rent equipment; instead we checked it out from the university equipment room, although it’s worth noting that production sound recordist Joe Caulfield and cinematographer Jeffrey Gross used a lot of gear they already owned themselves, including the camera and primary audio recorder. I also had access to a crew of eager, passionate film students, which means I have to talk about compensation, which is often an uncomfortable conversation in this context.
I was not OK having anyone work on this film for “food, copy, and credit,” and yet I also had nothing to pay them — our IndieGoGo campaign was all we had to shoot the film, and it was incredibly difficult just to raise the money we did. Thus I offered the only thing I could — a co-equal ownership stake in the film. Every PA, every day player, every set decorator, every department head, etc. was offered an equal ownership stake in the film as my producers, lead cast, and I. Not everyone took me up on it, but a lot of them did and I think the offer bought some measure of goodwill with everyone as a first-time feature director, that no one was being asked to participate for a lesser financial share than I would get. I later learned that this is a similar arrangement to that of Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998), which affirmed my instincts, as it’s probably the fairest way to handle the unfortunate dilemma of making your first film as a poor, struggling artist without access to capital of any significance.
Film Courage: What are a few lessons making this film which you can pass along?
John: When you’re trying to make a micro-budget feature, your strength is going to be the people you’re working with. You don’t have money, you may not have state-of-the-art technology, but if you’re working with talented, committed, passionate people, you can create something good. If you are not confident in your team, you’re not going to be able to give them the freedom you need to give them so that they can make you better. Just one example — by the time we got to set, Jeffrey Gross and I had spent 8-9 months talking about the aesthetic of the film. We had such an implicit trust that during the shoot, I could count on one hand how many times in a given week I asked to look at the shot. Instead, I played to my strength and worked with the actors on their performances.
Speaking of which, a low-budget movie is going to live and die with its performances. That’s not to say you need A-list talent — you won’t get it on that budget — but you need talented performers and you need to work with them to communicate your vision, and you need to understand how to direct them to the performances that will give your movie life. It’s extremely hard to overlook bad acting, and it stands out even more the better the production value is, because that focuses even more attention on them. Learn about actors — how to talk with them, how to give playable direction, how to recognize good performances as they are happening, and when adjustments need to be made.
As you are crewing up, make sure you have a complete, experienced post-production team, including, if at all possible, a post-production supervisor, before you shoot. I cannot complain about anyone on our team, but I think we would have completed post-production faster had I gotten everyone on board sooner and had a post-production supervisor to coordinate the editors, colorist, visual effects artist, composer, sound editor, etc.
Film Courage: THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH has 9 festival awards. How many places have you screened the film?
John: We were official selections of seven festivals: Cinequest Film Festival, Twin Rivers Media Festival, Orlando Film Festival, River’s Edge International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Blow-Up Chicago International Art House Film Festival, and Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival. We were nominated for four Maverick Movie awards, and held five additional public screenings, mostly in and around the Orlando area, prior to the film becoming available on Amazon.
It’s always satisfying to hear from folks who experienced the brunt of the 2008 economic crisis firsthand say that this film captures how that time made them feel, but perhaps the most memorable comment was after one of our FLIFF screenings, when an audience member commented that the dynamics of the marriage between Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward) and Jonah (Tom Kemnitz Jr.) and their relationship with Maggie’s mom Ellen (Peg O’Keef) felt particularly authentic to them. That was especially gratifying, as over the process of finishing the film, it became increasingly apparent to me that the cultural myth of the American dream extends beyond the material trappings and also shapes what we expect from the people in our lives and who we expect them to be, and the movie is at least as much about that as it is about the economic crisis.
Film Courage: Obviously higher education is important to you. You work in academia and have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Is the threat of a student loan bubble similar and equally devastating to the 2008 mortgage meltdown? How do you feel the student loan issue influences today’s students and their parents?
John: I’m not enough of an economist to judge whether the threat of unpaid student debt is as toxic as some of the mortgage debt trafficked in the 2000s. I do know that student debt prevents a lot of educated people from getting a mortgage, buying a new car, starting a family, starting a business, and any number of other steps that their parents made at the same age. I think it also leads to a much more transactional outlook on education. If someone’s paying so much money, especially to the point of going into debt, to get a degree, they’re going to expect their education to feel more like customer service than being asked to step outside their intellectual comfort zone, or challenged to think critically about things that aren’t directly applicable to producing profit for a future employer, which kind of misses the point of higher education.
Film Courage: Do you tell your students the experience behind making this film? If so, what do you emphasize?
John: I tend not to share all that much about the personal specifics — losing my job, etc. — in classes, but given it’s the project I’ve spent the most time on, I do reference it a lot when talking about the process of making films, and best practices for the production process.
One aspect I try to emphasize is the importance of defining the aesthetic of your film and matching it to the resources at hand so that you can play to your strengths. The aesthetic of Hollywood films is not all that replicable for a small student crew, and trying to do so is a recipe for something that looks like exactly what it is: a cheap imitation of a Hollywood film. There are opportunities provided by a stripped-down production. You can do a lot of things to optimize performance, whether that’s shooting more takes, longer takes, or shooting closer to story sequence. You can shoot faster or more continuously when you are not bogged down by dolly track, complex lighting setups that take hours to execute, and when you have a small skeleton crew instead of several grip trucks and a generator and all kinds of cable and grip gear, you can get into some locations you couldn’t otherwise.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those choices — Hollywood has used that approach for over a century to great success. it’s just that a lot of times, you’re working against your strengths rather than with them. When you don’t have the money or a large crew or tons of equipment, you have to find a way to do what those productions have a harder time with, like the sense of intimacy that’s really hard to create on a set full of 120 crew members.
I use the analogy of a chisel and a paintbrush. Hollywood blockbuster-style production is a paintbrush filling up an empty canvas. You’re creating a world that doesn’t exist where you’re shooting. It may never have existed anywhere. Micro-budget production is more of a chisel. The world around you is your block of granite, and you’re using the tools of cinema to chip away what you don’t need from the raw material of life.
Film Courage: What misconceptions do you see from students about filmmaking?
John: The biggest misconception is a preoccupation with technology over technique. Not everyone has it, but I did starting out, and I have seen it plenty of times as an instructor. It’s the idea that “I need to save up and buy the brand new top-of-the-line camera,” or “If I’m working with a top-of-the-line camera, that will automatically mean my film is wonderful,” or “What I really need from my education is to learn all the industry-standard software inside and out.” It happens on the other end of the scale too — “My smartphone shoots video, so therefore I’m automatically a filmmaker.”
Technology is simply a tool with which to practice technique. Moviemaking technology changes really quickly — especially cameras. And it is important to master that technology. But the technology is not a substitute for knowing which shot, angle, lens, or blocking makes sense for this story or this moment in the story. Or how to provide a useful adjustment to an actor. Or how to structure a story to communicate something meaningful about the human condition. The technology serves the technique. If it’s the other way around, that’s not going to be a film most people want to watch.
Film Courage: What can you tell us about your path to distribution?
John: When we were selected to Cinequest, we had a few nibbles from various distributors. A couple turned out to be passes from reputable companies who told us they simply didn’t know how to sell the film. Another was a “filmmaker services” company that asked for an upfront fee to place the film with distributors. I tend to object to such agreements on principle, but might have considered it were it not for the fact we didn’t have anywhere close to the upfront fee — they were asking for more than we spent on principal photography. They were still interested after Cinequest, but there really was no path forward since we couldn’t afford the fee. We also had some interest from a small company that was enthusiastic, but had almost no track record at that point, and turned that down as well, thinking that if it came down to having a novice company as a distributor, we’d just as soon do it ourselves.
So we tabled distribution while we finished up our disc packages for donors, another painstaking process that took far too long, but I firmly believed that as patient as they had been, our donors deserved their copies of the film before it premiered online. Finally, as we were just finishing up shipping out the discs and posters to our cast, crew, and donors, one of our producers, Julie Opala, got in touch with a contact at Multicom Entertainment Group, the current distributor of Jeff Nichols’ first feature, Shotgun Stories (2007). We had a conference call, they asked to see the film, and when they did, they liked it enough to acquire it.
Film Courage: Is there anything you haven’t shared yet, that you wish you knew before you made this movie?
John: There’s a lot I think would have helped with the process of making the film that I think had fully understood beforehand might have deterred me from making the film, from how long it would take to get from script to distribution — roughly as long as Blue Valentine (2010) — to how difficult it is to find an audience for a film of this scale, to how emotionally draining the entire process is. As much as it takes knowledge, planning, and networking, it also takes a measure of naïveté — some might say hubris — to try to make a feature this way.
Film Courage: Where is THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH it currently available to watch?
John: Currently The Happiest Place on Earth is available on Amazon Instant Video, and is free to Amazon Prime subscribers.
Film Courage: What do you want audiences to gain from the movie? In your Indiegogo campaign you mention “We urge our audience to seek and promote life-affirming values that don’t involve material or lifestyle benchmarks…”
John: A sense of perspective.
Life never turns out how exactly how we expect, and if we’re blindly chasing a specific picture of life that in most cases is not even entirely up to us, we’re probably not going to handle it very well when it looks like we might not get the materially comfortable life and domestic bliss all those image-laden messages promised us.
Film Courage: Any thoughts on the current trend in downsizing/minimalism or the voluntary simplicity movement of 30 years ago?
John: Folks in rich countries reducing our consumption is probably a good thing, since so much of our history is marked by imperialism and colonialism in service of consumption.
Film Courage: Do you think American consumers are rethinking their lifestyle choices and purchases a decade later?
John: I think the generation who came of age during the early 2000s, who graduated into the abysmal job market of the financial crisis, are probably less likely to buy into the consumerist version of the American Dream, and we’re definitely seeing some people reconsider the wisdom of tethering their financial future to a piece of real estate likely to fluctuate in value based on investor speculation, and increasingly, climate events.
Film Courage: In hindsight, many people who have been let go from a job realize it was the best thing that happened to them (although at the time, it did not seem this way). Any thoughts on this for your situation? Did it change you for the better in any way, help you to take more chances in life, etc.?
John: I don’t think it’s the “best thing that happened,” but I do think that had that job continued, it would have been very easy for my filmmaking dreams and ambitions to get derailed. Instead, the lack of employment opportunities kind of forced me into a situation that allowed me to make my first feature, and the economic crisis in general provided a story to tell.
Had I not had the support system I did, though, my outcome would have likely been a lot more depressing, like it is for so many people who still haven’t gotten back on their feet and are growing increasingly hopeless they ever will.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
John: I want to keep telling cinematic stories about people trapped in systems that don’t function for them — whether that’s the intersection of socioeconomics with the criminal justice system, or whether that’s living in a culture ordered by toxic masculinity, or something else that really starts to disturb me about the world in which we live.
If that’s another feature, or some kind of television/digital series, that’d be terrific, but most likely I’ll be spending at least some time making shorts that have the potential to be combined into a triptych or some other kind of omnibus film. Given how long this feature took to finish, the idea of working in smaller chunks is appealing in the short term, but knowing me, my story ideas are probably going to snowball into a longer form fairly quickly.
More information can be found at happiestplacemovie.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/happiestplacemovie, and on IMDb.
BIO: John Goshorn was born and raised in a rural Virginia town an hour from the nearest movie theater. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Multimedia Film and Production at Georgia Southern University, having previously taught cinema studies, screenwriting, and film production at Full Sail University and the University of Central Florida. Goshorn holds a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University, a Master of Fine Arts in Film from the University of Central Florida and a professional acting certificate in the Sanford Meisner technique from Truthful Acting Studios.
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Maggie’s dreams of starting a family of her own begin to take shape after she and her husband, Jonah, purchase their first home together. However, the pretty picture’s frame cracks when Jonah loses his job writing for a newspaper soon after moving into the new house. Unable to handle the pressure, Jonah disappears and leaves Maggie to deal with the fallout by Writer/Director John Goshorn. Watch it on Amazon here!