Posted on Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 by Peter Sciretta
My name is Peter Sciretta, you probably know me as the creator and editor of the movie blog /Film, aka slashfilm.com. What you probably didn’t know is that I once directed an independent feature film. Before I started writing about movies, I wanted to make movies. Its a part of my life I have rarely talked about, and I thought now was a good time to share the story.
I’m sharing this story with you now because when I posted a Throwback Thursday photo last week of me on set, many followers/readers had questions and wanted to know more. So here it is the quick details on the feature film I co-directed in 2002, along with a trailer for the film, which will never be released.
But before we get to the trailer, lets start with the story…
Growing Up With Movies
Much like many of you, I grew up loving movies. Friday night in my house was HBO night, and my family would get together in the family room (our tv room) to watch the latest premium cable movie release. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I spent many nights in the hospital with her. The nights I wasn’t at the hospital I was escaping the reality of the situation through movies on VHS tapes we rented from Blockbuster.
After my Mom’s death, me and my dad moved from Springfield to my father’s hometown of Natick, Massachusetts. I quickly discovered Video Paradise, a downtown independent video store. The old man who ran the shop would recommend all kinds of older movies I probably never would have discovered myself. My weekends were spent going to see the latest releases at either the General Cinema near Shopper’s World Mall, or the much crappier Lowes Theatre across the street, which sometimes won the better release that week. Me and my friends preferred to stay away from that multiplex as it had small theaters, bad sound and gummy bears stuck to the tiny screens.
Making Movies as a Kid
My middle school friends and I would shoot movies with my father’s camcorder in the back yard or in our house. Most of them were not very planned out, shooting in order as we made everything up with all the visual effects being done in-camera or practically. The best of the bunch was a story which involved a family which goes on vacation, allowing the son’s hamster to break out of his cage and enjoy the house by himself. But when the house is targeted by a duo of burglers, the pet hamster must stop them through a series of elaborate traps. You could hear the hamster’s funny thoughts through voice over, it was essentially Home Alone meets Look Who’s Talking. It was fun but it wasn’t a real movie — I think it maybe clocked in at 25 or 30 minutes long.
After my friends begun getting their licenses, we would make our way to movie theaters outside of our usual radius. I would see midnight revivals of classics at the AMC Theater near Fenway Park, and I eventually found the Landmark Theater in Kendall Square which showed all sorts of movies that weren’t playing in my town. Its here where I saw films like The Blair Witch Project, Run Lola Run and Timecode.
I fell in love with independent cinema at The Landmark, which is one of the reasons I applied to become a volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival. I would travel to work every year for two weeks and consume 4 dozen films on my hours off. I would return home and have movie nights at my apartment where I would screen good indie films I discovered at the festival that my friends might not otherwise ever see.
I was trying to consume every movie I could possibly get my hands on, plowing through the filmographies of famous directors and working my way down IMDb’s top 250 films of all time. To me it was magic, and I was trying to figure out how it all worked. I would rewatch my favorite movies like Back to the Future over and over, creating diagrams of how the story arcs connected and drove the plot, how exposition and jokes were set up early to be paid off much later. I would draw maps of the action sequences and figure out how director Robert Zemeckis and his cinematographer Dean Cundey shot the moving action and how the editors constructed the footage together to form a moving narrative.
I was working as an overnight manager at a White Hen convenience store (now a 7-11) on Route 27 in Natick. I think I took the job because I was partially inspired by Kevin Smith, and like a lot of young people, didn’t realize which parts of his story were important to emulate. But its probably one of the best jobs I ever had because it allowed me to watch and analyze movies on my laptop and read books about the filmmaking and screenwriting processes.
Working 11pm to 7am, I dealt with a slow stream of drunks at night and the early morning coffee crowd in the morning, but the hours in between were pretty dead and as long as I was able to accomplish my list of responsibilities I was able to use the rest of the time as I saw fit. So it became my self-designed film school. I can’t tell you how many books and movies I went through working at that counter, but it would probably shock most people.
Making ‘Escaping Reality’
My friend Elaine Mak was learning film production at Regis College and she would tell me about the short films she was working on. I suggested we make a movie. Not a short film, but a feature-length movie. Its the kind of suggestion that can only come from someone who is young and stupid enough not to be intimidated by the enormity of the proposal. I had been saving money to eventually go to one of those hands-on film schools like Full Sail, New York Film Academy or LA Film School. And somehow I had the bright idea to instead spend the money on a film. Plus, if we did it together, we’d have twice the resources, connections and money.
So we got together and over the course of handful of months, wrote a screenplay titled Escaping Reality. The coming of age drama followed four teenagers on the run from the cops. Headed to Canada to escape their problems, the friends are forced into confronting their issues with one another and themselves. The screenplay read kind of like Clerks or Slacker, lots of existential and melodramatic conversations. We wrote the script with a distinct visual feel, from emulating our heroes like the hip hop montages of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and experimenting with split-screen storytelling, which was in vogue thanks to the tv series 24.
Elaine worked for the head of the video department at her college so we were able to score all the equipment we needed for free, and the school also let us use the grounds and certain halls for shooting — it was almost like our back lot. We rented out a casting office in downtown Boston and held auditions, and even though we weren’t able to promise pay, we had lines going down the block to try out for the movie.
One thing I knew from working various crew positions on short films around Boston was that if you can’t feed your cast and crew, you are doomed. So a lot of our budget went into catering, and it costs a lot of money to feed a set consisting of a couple dozen people.
While we didn’t have enough money to afford to pay the actors, we knew that if we didn’t pay some of the key crew members, the film would turn out horribly. So we hired a professional director of photography from New York, and was lucky enough to find a great sound engineer Jason Tower who had never done film production and was willing to work for cheap.
Its almost impossible to make an independent film in most cities these days, but living in a small town it seemed like almost everyone wanted to help or was willing to donate something — a location, props or even some snacks. We were able to shoot in a small grocery store in Wayland for free (although they wouldn’t let us shut down the store and so instead of laying down dolly tracks we pushed our Dp with the camera in a shopping cart — and it didn’t look bad). We did have to pay to rent out the historic Casey’s Diner in downtown Natick, but most other locations we filmed at were either donated or “stolen”.
We had never shot anything of this magnitude and none of the books we read could prepare us for this challenge. Our first day of shooting was planned for a 12 hour shoot, but nothing went as planned. I commented as we drove home that the sun was rising just as it had as we had driven to set at the beginning of that day — we were up for more than 24 hours on that first day of filming.