Never Stop Listening to Your Project

Ashley Lenz and I in Abby & Tabby Alone in the Desert

What happens when you make something and it doesn’t turn out how you think?

Happens all the time.

None of my films have turned out quite the way I thought they would. Dirty Laundry had a big scene cut, and the wind blew a lighting flag into the picture car 😳 (insurance FTW). For Patrick went through extensive rewrites, then on the shoot day we had to change locations because of intense winds. Wind seems to be a recurring theme for me… And truthfully, neither have as many festival laurels as I had hoped. I wrote about more lessons I learned making those films here.

It doesn’t feel good to have things not work out how you wanted. But that’s partly the learning curve of becoming a filmmaker, and it’s also partly the nature of filmmaking itself. As Danny Boyle says, films are made on the day. You never truly know what you are going to get until the camera starts rolling.

So if it doesn’t turn out how you think, does it at least feel like it got to a good place?

If you listened to your project, would it say, “Yes, this feels right”?

Abby & Tabby Alone in the Desert still delights me with every viewing, and I am so proud of the story that emerged. But this little project has had quite the evolution, and it continues to evolve even now.

It started out as a feature, but when we got into the editing room, we discovered we would need to go back and shoot at least two more days of content. That’s the danger you run up against when your project is an improv comedy. Yes, we had an outline of our scenes, but all the dialogue was completely improvised by the actors on the day. There’s no telling how long scenes will end up being.

Facing this post-production conundrum, I listened to my heart, and the story I felt the project wanted to tell. What I found, was that cutting it further rang truest.

Change is hard. Especially when you set out with a different destination in mind. But being an artist is about making difficult decisions, and often times, change is the best thing for our art.

So we cut it.

Down to 35 minutes to be exact. We tightened every scene. Removed seconds from a shot here, a frame over there, until we got what I felt like was exactly where the story wanted to be. The jokes land, the pathos carries, and it moves at a good clip

Now we had an incredible story with stunning performances… but 35 minutes is not an easy length to program. Festivals are the lifeblood of independent films, and yet again, we were drawing short.

We still had our premiere at the Northwest Film Forum, and released online on Seed&Spark, but it didn’t feel… done. So it languished for about six months- me no longer having the energy to get it out into the world.

Then, as fate would have it, I found myself as part of a writers group in Los Angeles. Almost all of it’s members have had very successful web series. When sharing with them the rock and hard place Abby & Tabby was in, they shared something my heart already knew…

Cut it more.

We always wanted it to be a television show. As a 35 minute “short”, it was really a concept pilot for a longer series. So why not lean into that episodic spirit and turn it into a web series?

When I went to parse out the season… it was so easy! (🙏) The story already had natural breathing points and breaks in the story flow. My editor and I completed the transition in just a couple hours.

Learning and cultivating that muscle- that a project or story will tell you where it wants to go, has been another valuable lesson. And that your intended destination might not be where you end up.

Only time will tell if Abby & Tabby will find more success as a web series, but it finally feels RIGHT. Like the Goldilocks solution to this unique little problem. And if needed, I can submit one of the episodes as a short film. There is a lot more flexibility having multiple formats, and something to definitely consider when you have a longer running short.

If you have a project that doesn’t feel like it quite landed, maybe ask it if it has somewhere still to go.

In my experience, the story and characters themselves are the best guides.

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