The Testimony of Erin J. and GSFF 2014

It’s time for some exciting news: Last fall I shot a short film called The Testimony of Erin J., which is about to be screened at The Garden State Film Festival in Atlantic City! You can see a trailer for it over at the Media Page, but here I’ll talk a little bit about what it was like to make it.

The film is structured like a documentary, with mostly sit-down interviews. Erin J. believes she was visited by extraterrestrials growing up, but no one else in her family believes her. We hear Erin’s side of the story, as well as more skeptical accounts from her brother, Brendan, and Uncle Ron. Who’s telling the truth? What if they all are? What really happened here?

Erin J. started as a story I wrote to tell on a camping trip with some friends from high school.[1] I was itching to make a new short, which I hadn’t done since Dirty Hands, and this was a great fit- it was very simple, quick to shoot, and only needed a small cast. I also knew I could keep it short enough that I think it could appeal to a lot of different film festivals.

The story is meant to be creepy [2], and while there isn’t much action to build suspense with we get a lot mileage out of what is gradually revealed to the audience. I suppose at its most basic, suspense is about the audience having more information than the characters. Watching people do things we know are mistakes creates a very anxious tension.

The unusual structure meant that I couldn’t write the script and plan things out as much as I usually do. I wanted the interviews to feel natural and spontaneous, and even if I was only using snippets of sentences, I wanted to give the actors enough context to understand what they were saying. I decided to write out the interviews as if they were transcripts, and cut things together afterward.[3] [4]

This meant that I would up with waaay more footage than I knew I’d need, but it was worth it- there were editing connections between the interviews I never would have made without seeing them on screen, and it made the whole process more authentic. It felt like I was actually cutting together real interviews of real people who were simply telling their story.

In an attempt to avoid copyright problems, I needed to take a picture of the front gate of a naval base. I could find pictures on the web, but it was cheaper to take one myself. Getting permission was another problem: People on military bases get worried about you taking pictures of things. [5] And in my experience, anyone who has a badge and a gun does not have a sense of humor. Solution: Sunny day, fast shutter speed, moving car. Just point the camera out the window and grab the shot as we drive by. No one was the wiser.[6] [7]

Erin J. also gave me my first experience in creating a film score. Even though I’ve been playing music for years, with a smidge of composing and arranging experience, I’d much rather leave that stuff to the people who can do it really well. Not having the time or budget to get a composer, I recorded it myself. I had a simple melody for the piano, which I augmented with some long tones on the trombone. Again, I recorded a bunch of variations on the main ear worm and then rearranged them as needed on the computer. Having the tempo be 60 BPM really helped with lining things up with what happened on screen.

All in all, I’m very happy with how The Testimony of Erin J turned out. I had a fantastic cast, including Sarah Litzsinger, Stuart Zagnit, Benjamin Eakely, and Karen Lynn Gorney, who were found for me by the incomparable Sara Koch. I’m glad the process was different from how I usually work, forcing me out of my comfort zone and making me experiment with things I wouldn’t have ordinarily tried. I don’t think I’d want to do this all the time, but I feel much more confident that I’m not a one-trick pony.

If you’re near Atlantic City, definitely check out The Garden State Film Festival from April 4-6th. If not, keep your eyes peeled here- I think Erin J. is going places!

  1. [1] Although now that I think about it, that version doesn’t have many similarities to this.
  2. [2] Contrary to my usual advice of keeping festival pieces short and funny.
  3. [3] There was one scene toward the end that I wrote out traditionally, but it wasn’t really an interview.
  4. [4] And no, I didn’t make the actors memorize everything. I’m not that cruel.
  5. [5] No idea why…
  6. [6] I hope.
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