Eh? ”Window” Reflections? Pretty funny stuff here, guys.
Okay, so if you haven’t watched “Window”, the short movie I wrote and directed for Planet Sun Productions, you can watch it here. It’s only fourteen minutes, and reading this before watching it probably won’t make too much sense. Also, spoilers and whatnot.
If you have watched “Window”, first of all, thanks! It’s really kind of you to take fourteen minutes out of your day to watch this little movie I made. I hope you liked it. And now, enjoy my reflections on “Window” just as much as you’ve enjoyed that delightful pun.
Why, you may ask, am I writing this? Well, there’s a few reasons. Firstly, I haven’t had the chance to do a Q&A for the film at any festivals (ah, film festivals… but we’ll get to that later), so this is the best opportunity for me to talk to people about the film. In the same vein, now that the whole process that we started over two years ago is over, this is a pretty perfect way for me to get the whole thing off my mind and definitively say it’s done, which has been a hard thing to do. Thirdly, I know that a lot of people who follow me on Tumblr are film students or young aspiring filmmakers who might be curious what goes into making a short film on the scale of “Window”, which is achievable by any and all of you that want to make a short film. This will hopefully either help inspire you to take that final step towards getting a production going or realize that you never, ever want to do that. Either stance would be reasonable. Finally, everyone who knows me because of Tumblr knows me as a guy who writes about movies, so it seems like it would be a wasted opportunity not to talk about this one, considering I know more about it already than anyone else in the world ever could. That is both a blessing and a curse.
The idea for “Window” came from two personal fears of mine. The first one, rather obviously, is that I hate looking out windows at night. Have you ever looked out a window at night? It’s the worst. I’ve never seen anything terrifying by looking out a window at night, I’ve never had some masked man staring back at me, but any time I look through one, out into the dark, I vividly imagine someone out there, and it freaks me out. Trying to rationalize it doesn’t do much either, because unlike being scared of monsters or aliens or anything like that, seeing some random guy staring at me from outside my window COULD TOTALLY HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE. And then if you see somebody outside your window and you make eye contact with them, they know you’re there and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can lock your doors and windows and whatever and hope they don’t try to break in, but then you’re just sitting there, a nervous wreck waiting for something to happen. You can try to chase the guy off with a weapon or something, but he’s outside already! He has the spatial advantage! All he has to do is run away, hide in a bush or something, and then come back whenever he feels like it, or even worse, hide and wait while you’re running around with your baseball bat looking for him like an idiot, then sneak in to the house and wait for you to come back inside so he can murder you in the face. Call the cops? He’ll be gone when they show up thirty minutes later, and then he’ll just be back the next night to stare at you again. The only thing you can do if you see some guy standing outside your window staring back at you is start stabbing yourself to deny him the satisfaction of doing it himself. Basically, I wanted to make a movie that would make everybody else understand why windows at night are creepy so I wouldn’t feel weird about it.
That idea was what inspired the first version of “Window”, which actually was quite different than the final version. The original idea had a normal college age guy who lived alone being tormented over the course of several days by the shadow of a guy outside his windows, and after getting increasingly angry and complaining to his friends about the guy (no mask, just regular creepy looking man), finally runs out after him one night, fail to find him, then go back inside, get in bed, then realize that the guy is in his room, stalker guy stabs a knife towards the college kid, and then cut to black, end movie. Sure, a creepy idea, but in talking about the script with other people, I realized that there was nothing at all interesting about the college kid. So I decided to return to the drawing board.
This is where the second fear of mine comes in. It’s a more abstract fear than “crazy guy standing outside my window watching me”, but essentially I’m scared of becoming the old man in the movie. I’m not agoraphobic, I don’t have extreme social anxiety or anything like that, and I have lots of friends who are great and who I love spending time with. My problem is that I have a tendency to be a real homebody. I often have to force myself to be socially active and talk to people and go out and do stuff. This used to be a bigger issue than it is now, but I used to have a really hard time talking to friends on the phone or texting or contacting people to hang out, because I had this idea in my head that they didn’t really want to talk to me and they just did so to be polite. I had no reason to think that, I just did. Again, I’m not so bad about that now, but I’m still bad about initiating conversation or activities with even people that I’m close friends with, let alone people I don’t know at all, and I know myself well enough to know that if I lost contact for whatever reason with the people that I’m closest to, I could very well become a shut-in, alone in my house watching movies and being miserable and not able to rouse myself to change it. I understood of course that this fear was really just about fear itself in a way, as I was afraid of one day being too afraid to talk to people. Naturally, I realized that this was pretty ridiculous, just as ridiculous as being afraid to look out a window at night, and so I decided I could explore both fears in the same movie, and basically explore the idea of “nothing to fear but fear itself”.
It’s not generally a good idea for filmmakers to say what their movie is about, because once an audience hears that, it has the effect of limiting outside interpretations. Instead of viewers watching the film and coming to their own conclusions, they watch the film looking specifically for the one the director told them they were supposed to find. So I’m going to avoid that as best I can, but I will say that “nothing to fear but fear itself” is a big part of understanding what I had in mind when I was putting the movie together. The ending is purposely ambiguous regarding the reality or non-reality of what we’ve seen (although, admittedly, the final product isn’t as ambiguous as I’d originally envisioned), but regardless of what your interpretation of “Window“‘s final scene and its meaning for the rest of the film is, no matter how you look at it, the main thing that killed the old man was fear. That, for me, became the ultimate theme of the film, the very real power that fear has on us, whether it’s fear on a more horror movie extreme scale, like a masked man encroaching on the safety of our home, or it’s every day fear of leaving our house, talking to someone, or making a change in our lives.
As I said, the original ending to the film was supposed to be more ambiguous about what really happened to the old man as compared to it is now, where the hints seem to favor one conclusion more strongly. I won’t say which conclusion that is though, because originally I wanted people in the audience to be argue and debate over what the film’s ending meant, so in the event that there is some disagreement out there, I want that disagreement to continue, because that’s more fun than everybody agreeing on a movie’s meaning. The truth is, though, that the final version of “Window” is a lot different than the one that was in my head. That’s one of the most important lessons I could ever hope to teach a budding filmmaker: the film you see in your head when you first conceptualize the idea and the film that you end up with are going to be two very different movies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just something you have to come to terms with and accept. When I watch “Window” now, I can’t judge it in any meaningful way, because I don’t see the movie everybody else sees. I only see the movie that isn’t there, the things that, ‘oh, if we’d only had more time we could have done this,’ or ‘oh, we shouldn’t have done that,’ or ‘oh, I wish we could have kept that shot’. Maybe a lot of that is because I’m a really vicious self-critic, and I have a really hard time not tearing apart my own work in any format - movie, script, music, reviews, any of it. I just have to finish it and put it out before I get so deep into criticizing myself that I give up on the whole project. That’s part of why it was such a struggle having to work on this one movie for such a long time when I just wanted to put it out, say “this is it”, and give up any more control of how people would see it. It’s also why it’s hard to watch the film now and see all the things I wanted it to be at first, all the flaws that, even if nobody else ever notices them, I can’t help but see.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely proud of the fact that we got “Window” made. It was a hell of a lot of work, and I can’t begin to thank enough the cast and crew who gave up their time and put their belief in me. That was incredibly helpful in getting the project done, because even when I was getting into full self-critic mode, I didn’t stop or throw out the film because I felt that I had a duty to the rest of the people who put their all into making the film to keep working through and get it finished. And in doing that, it became clear to me more than ever before that the director is truly the one to blame for how a film turns out. I know the film isn’t perfect, and I’m sure there are those of you out there who could point out things about the film that didn’t work or reasons you didn’t like it, and I can say with absolute certainty that any problem with the film is my fault as director and my fault alone. Every single member of the crew put everything they had into their work and did everything exactly as I directed them to do, and the actors did exactly the same, they performed with their all exactly as I directed them. And so, if anything’s wrong with the film, it’s because I directed it that way. I’d love to say it works the other way too, that if the film is great, it’s because I directed it that way. And maybe that’s true to an extent, but I’m not so sure that’s completely the case, at least not here. There are so many things in the film that I couldn’t have made happen without having this crew of people to help me make it happen, to tell me, “Yeah, we can make that work”, no matter what I said, and to offer up ideas to make things work even better. That collaborative effort can be a frustrating thing, particularly for a first-time director like I technically was (I’d done some directing on other video projects, but this was first time I had real directing control over the whole project), because it’s easy to lose your voice if you’re surrounded by more experienced crew members if you don’t properly assert yourself and stay confident in your vision for the movie. But that collaborative effort is also what makes being on set and making movies exciting, because everybody’s talent and skills and ideas all come together in these perfect moments that have an incredible cathartic effect when you’re on set and you’re tired and worn out and hungry and ready to go home and then a shot just goes off perfectly and everybody in the room knows it at once.
There’s a really great example of this in the final film. In the final shooting script, the scene where the old man sees the masked man through the kitchen window and runs through the house to lock the doors and hide in the closet included a bit where the old man would run into the bathroom to quickly take his pills before going into the closet at which point he would see the masked man in his mirror for a split-second before turning around and seeing nothing, then running the rest of the scene and going in the closet. Well, that part of the scene was thought up when we didn’t have a house location yet. And you may or may not know this, but finding someone who will let you take over their house for an entire weekend for a very minimal amount of money is hard, so when you find someone who agrees to let you shoot in their house, you accept it even if it doesn’t fit every specification of your script. And so when we get to the house and look at the bathroom we realize there’s no way to make this mirror scare thing work. We still want to shoot a bathroom scene though, because we want to show the old man taking his pills as part of his daily routine and system for never leaving his house, and to add to the ambiguity of the ending as something that could be both clue and false lead. So we decide that we don’t need another scare scene, because we have enough interaction with the masked man and a mirror jump scare is just a cheap trick to get the audience to scream. We talk it out for about fifteen minutes, and come up with the bathroom scene that’s in the film now after the old man comes out of the closet, and now that scene and that shot itself are my favorites in the film. They weren’t part of the original idea, but I think that single scene is the key to the whole movie. If you want to understand what the movie is really about and you want to know why I made it, watch that scene. J.D. Parker who played that main role plays that scene absolutely perfectly, and it’s that moment in the bathroom that defines the tragedy of his character. Even if every other second of the rest of the movie was a complete failure, I’d still be unabashedly proud of that shot.
The actual shooting of the film wasn’t bad. We had a long, exhausting two days on the set, but we finished everything on schedule and with nobody wanting to strangle anybody else, and we had a lot of fun in the process. The real difficulty was in post production, and mainly because we kept having to edit and edit and reedit and making really tough choices. We had to delete one whole scene that showed how the old man got his groceries brought to him by his garage, which we hoped would help answer more questions of how he survived without ever leaving his house but that we finally decided was messing up the pacing and wasn’t essential to the actual plot or character. We had to do some small insert shots and “reshoots” (nothing actually that involved) that after we did them ended up not being used because another draft of the edit made them moot. We did a whole session of scoring for the film that we ended up chucking out for a new score. And what was most frustrating was that we originally had a completely different set of songs for the old man’s jazz records he listens to through the day, and then after going through the agonizing process of getting in contact with the companies that held the rights to the songs quickly realized that using just one of the songs for even the small amount of screen time we had was going to cost as much as the entire shooting budget of the film. Let me warn you, micro-budget filmmakers, if you want to use licensed music, be prepared to deal with prices that are way higher than they should be for a short film with a budget of only maybe a couple thousand dollars and no chance of making a profit (if you’re wanting to make short films to make money, you’re a sucker. Do internet videos instead or get into the commercial/music video business). Also be prepared to find out that the companies that own the rights and the companies whose jobs it is to help you find the rights owners for obscure songs do not give a shit about you if you don’t have a shit-ton of money and a name they recognize. Music licensing is extremely prohibitive for micro-budget films. After deciding to forgo the first selection of jazz songs, we searched for ones that were even more obscure, and after an exhaustive search turned up no contacts for rights owners, we decided to just put the songs in the movie and ride it out. If someone wanted to complain to us, good. It would mean we could finally get the legitimate rights to use the songs. Incidentally, we never found any of the rights holders for any of the jazz songs we used until we put the video on YouTube and it recognized one of the songs as being owned by IODA (a subsidiary of Sony, who owns through all their subsidiaries a disturbingly high percentage of existing music). So here’s a piece of specific technical advice: if you have a song you want to use in a movie and aren’t sure who to contact about getting the license to use it, take the song, put it over a picture of a bunny or something, and put it on YouTube and it will tell you within hours of uploading what company owns the copyright. It’s far more convenient than scouring the websites of BMI and ASCAP.
Some of you may be wondering why the movie is online now after I talked months ago about sending the movie to film festivals and haven’t said anything about it since. Well, unfortunately the film didn’t get accepted to any of the 10-15 festivals we submitted to, all various size festivals in different locations, some specifically for shorts, some genre specific even, but all rejections. The thing is, I wasn’t upset by the fact that the movie was getting rejected. I knew the film would be a weird one for festival programming and, again, I’m a self-critic, so I’m immune to any sort of direct or indirect criticism of the film since I’ve already done so much of it myself. What upset me was that getting rejected for film festivals costs exactly the same amount as getting accepted. That’s a few hundred bucks that’s just gone. I mean, I helped fund film festivals, so I guess that’s nice, but it doesn’t make it feel any less pointless. Look, I’m not trying to dismiss film festivals. Film festivals are great things, they’re an incredible resource for filmmakers to show their work to people who will care about it and possibly help them get it out to a wider audience and make money off it, and they’re a great way for filmmakers to meet other filmmakers and film lovers and to indulge in the thing that they love. The thing that I’ve realized now however is that for “Window”, festivals really weren’t the most viable option. I tried to take the festival route because we’ve had another Planet Sun Production short that did so and because it seemed like the thing I was supposed to do, but it’s fairly obvious now that it wasn’t the right approach for a film like “Window”. For one, it’s a genre film that isn’t necessarily friendly for most film festivals and paradoxically not horror-movie-scary enough for horror-specific festivals. It’s also a really small budget project, about three thousand dollars all told, which even for short movies is a lot less than most shorts you see at festivals. Plus, short movies are weird because, at least in America, there’s no real market for them. If you’ve got a feature you’ve made, it makes more sense to put it in festivals because that’s how you’re going to get people to see it and hopefully find some form of distribution for it. Shorts, on the other hand, are really just for show, usually treated by the film industry as demo reels to get attention and funding for feature film work. There’s only one place right now that Americans will watch short movies, and that’s online. Even more, there’s no guarantee that anyone will go to see your short if it’s in a festival, especially if the festival doesn’t program and highlight its shorts properly, so putting a short film online may well get you a larger audience for your film than a film festival or even a full festival run could, and it’s free. In fact with YouTube you can even make money off of it provided you can get enough hits to monetize it and own the rights for every element of your film. So, here’s another piece of advice for you young filmmakers: don’t assume that getting your film into festivals is any better than putting it online. Having the little festival laurels to put on a poster makes your short look more legitimate, but with the way that media consumption is moving, soon you’ll be able to gain the same kind of legitimacy from online sources as well, and you’ll probably get a lot more eyes on your project.
I want to thank you again for watching “Window” and for reading this whole long thing too. I want to especially thank my Planet Sun brethren - Josh, Daniel, Greg, and Ben - for their support and for putting so much time and effort into making “Window” a reality. I couldn’t have gotten through it without knowing that you guys had my back. I hope everybody reading this got something out of it whether you want to make films or just really like watching them. I hope I may have answered some of the questions you might have had, but I know there might be more out there, and I’d love to hear those. So if you have a question about the movie itself, technical questions about how we made it, or you need advice about how to get a short film project off the ground, please send them my way. You can use the “ask” function on my Tumblr page, or if you’ve come here from somewhere else, you can ask me on my Facebook page or on Twitter. If you liked “Window”, I’d encourage you to seek out some of the other videos Planet Sun Productions has done - you can find them on the YouTube page where you watched “Window”, or you can visit the Planet Sun website. Thanks for watching, thanks for reading, and thanks for letting me do what I do.
But seriously, don’t look out your windows at night. It’s so fucked up out there.