One year ago, Shanna Becker was considering attending summer classes at UCLA, hoping to network with students and faculty there to find the right people to make her feature length film Brink. When she discussed her options with her husband, Matt, he told her that if she really wanted to make the film then she should do it on her own and find other people locally who were in the same position. People with the skills and knowledge to make a film, but lacking the experience or connections needed to propel them into their careers.
At age 32, Becker, is making her first foray into film-making. She made videos with her friends in high school, and attended Fulton-Montgomery Community College, studying acting and directing. Becker made short films in college, but acting was her primary focus after graduating. She pursued professional acting, appearing in many local productions, while becoming a teacher at a local school. She also opened her own dance, theater, and music school, The Canajoharie Academy of the Performing Arts.
While juggling these responsibilities, Becker, a passionate writer, generated many scripts over the years. She said, “Writing and directing has been a dream of mine. I’ve been passionate. I’ve got tons of scripts, piles of things, just piling up that I’d love to do and so I just decided that it was time to start doing them.” Six years ago she finally decided to turn one script, entitled Brink, into a feature length film.
Becker described the film, which “follows the stories of different groups of characters. Those groups of characters are all at different points where change has become necessary, something is not right. So every one of them is at a changing time in their lives. Through a series of events, all of the story lines end up intersecting at one place at one time. That’s the simplest way to put it. You have people from all different walks of life, and you’re looking at their lives through a microscope. If you were able to be a fly on the wall in the room when a couple is actually being who they really are when other people are not there.”
The project went through a series of false starts, with people she knew agreeing to get involved, but ultimately backing out. While she had a difficult time getting started, she knew she had selected the right script. She said, “It was always with this script in mind, only because it is so stark, it’s flexible, it’s real and it’s different. It’s all of those things; it isn’t anything else that anyone else around here is doing. And so I figured that would be a good place to start. It also summarizes what I do as a writer, which is intimately get to know characters inside and out. Who they are even when the cameras stop rolling.”
In the spring of last year, she placed an ad on Craigslist looking for crew members and was contacted by Marty Hardin. Hardin had worked in advertising for 32 years, but had been laid off and was trying to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He had also made experimental, non-narrative films for the past 20 years, but decided that he would like to work as a director of photography.
He was considering going to film school to pursue this new career and talked the idea over with a friend working in Los Angeles as a director of photography. Hardin’s friend advised him not to go but instead to volunteer his services to a local production to build his demo reel.
When Hardin contacted Becker to get involved with the project, he said that it was due to the fact that, “it was actually a film, that had real dialogue, real stories. It had some depth to it. It was a real script, it was really engaging. That’s what drew me to it.” Hardin was the assistant director and director of photography for the film.
When they met for the first time, the two went over the script, and, after discussing some possible changes, they began planning when to shoot the film. They first met in the spring of 2013, with the film being set in the fall in upstate New York. They knew that they had a short timeline for when they had to begin filming, so they began searching for cast and crew members, whom they ultimately acquired through such platforms as Craigslist and Facebook, as well as through word of mouth.
Before they started shooting the film, Becker and her crew launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, raising over $5,000. Even with this money, Becker was not able to pay her cast and crew. The money was raised to provide food, water, and other necessities on set. Everything else was provided by Becker herself, her cast or her crew members.
She said, “Everybody really gave what they could, and a lot of people contributed. They contributed their equipment and their surplus supplies and their time. If you were to add it all up to what it was worth, it would be priceless. I couldn’t put a sticker on it.” Hardin did an estimate on what the cost of everything from the camera equipment, lighting, costumes, pay for the cast and crew would have cost and figured that it would have been roughly $300,000.
The film consisted of 21 shoot days between Labor Day and Thanksgiving with a typical day lasting about 12 hours. Despite the long commitment, Bo Smith said that it wasn’t a difficult decision to donate his time and equipment to the film. He said, “I’ve been doing sports for ten years and there’s only so many times you can shoot the same thing over and over before you need something different.” Smith attended The New School of Radio and Technology and works as a camera operator and event shooter. He served on the film as the camera operator, grip, and supervising editor.
Even without being able to pay cast and crew members, Becker was committed to running a professional shoot. She took great care in planning out her auditions, keeping to a tight schedule so as not to keep actors for too long, and filming each of the auditions. Her mother was a producer on her film and also headed craft services. Becker said, “She made sure there was a hot meal on every set every day, at least one. If you were going to be there for two or three meals, there were two or three hot meals.” Hardin added, “It was good food. This wasn’t, like, I’ll throw something together, like peanut butter and jelly. It was good and it was really appreciated.”
In order to increase the production quality of the film, Becker shot in various homes and businesses throughout the Mohawk Valley. Shooting began on Labor Day at the Village Restaurant in Canajoharie due to the fact that that was the only day when the 24 hour restaurant would be closed. Becker and her crew felt that their success in securing their locations was due to their professional approach.
Becker and Hardin would sit down and discuss with the owners of any location they wished to use exactly what they would be filming there. They also had production insurance to cover any potential damage done at the locations.
Since these were real homes and businesses, there were occasional restrictions.
In one home, the cast and crew members were asked not to wear their shoes to avoid damaging the carpeting. In another, the home owner had a dog that would occasionally begin barking during filming. For the most part, they were able to use locations free of charge, with only one restaurant asking for a fee to cover the wages of the staff that would be required during filming.
Becker and Hardin were able to secure a number of seemingly unattainable locations, even receiving permission to film inside of The Urgent Care Center at St Mary’s in Amsterdam. The only location that eluded them was a bank.
Becker contacted several banks, trying to find one which she could use as a setting for her film. One of her conversations seemed promising, but she never heard from the owner afterwards. She spoke to realtors to see if they could give her any leads, but ultimately she couldn’t get a bank. As they had already started shooting the film at that point, they began looking at alternative locations that they could alter to look like a bank, such as schools and libraries. Ultimately, those options didn’t pan out, so they decided to build a bank.
Bo Smith, sound recorder Craig Miles, and Becker’s husband, Matt, who worked as the second camera operator, spent two days building a bank. They used Becker’s dance studio, and, with parts of shelving units, hot glue, wire, duct tape, and staples, created the location. They rented stanchions and asked cast members to bring their house plants to help dress the space. The shooting schedule had been slightly drawn out due to their inability to secure a bank, so on the day before Thanksgiving, they completed their final day in their newly built bank.
With filming complete, the project is now in the editing stage. Becker hopes that they will have a screener ready to give to cast and crew members by December and plans to submit it to festivals in the spring. Becker said they may do another fundraising campaign in the near future in order to do a local premiere, “something nice and big for the community.”
In the meantime, Becker is working on four short projects. One is to be a short film centered on a couple returning home from a sunny vacation to winter in upstate New York. The other three are pilots, episodic stories that she may try to sell or do on her own online. Smith is working as the director of photography on each of the projects, which Becker wrote and directed. She is also writing a musical which she hopes to produce locally as a stage production.
In terms of what Brink will do for each of the participants, Smith encapsulated it by saying, “Just to continue creating, I guess. I don’t want to dumb it down and say it’s all about the next gig, because maybe the next gig isn’t as much fun as what we just did, but it’s still moving forward and creating.”
As for Becker, she says, “I would like to be one of those people who would say that if just one person in one theater was moved, that that would be enough, but I want so much more. I want many people to see it. I want it to be brought to a broad range of people just like what you see in the film. You see so many different people at different places in their lives from different backgrounds. I want all of those people to be able to see and garner something from this film and from this experience.” Becker believes that Brink is capable of achieving these things “but,” she says, “there is always another story.”
(Photos courtesy of Worlds Apart Films and Media, used with permission.)