Short Film ‘Darkness at the Open Cut’ Ironically Sheds Light on Indie Film Industry

Big city filmmakers are seeking higher ground by creating content in small towns.

With the world of moviemaking turned on its head in 2020 due to COVID-19, most productions have screeched to a halt, seeing their starts delayed as the outbreak continues to spread. This paradigm shift in filmmaking has pushed creators out of big markets and into small towns. Among those seeking new and innovative means of grass-roots filmmaking is Brooklyn-based writer & director Sasha Santiago. Santiago set-out to create an under 20-minute sizzle reel with a crew of one person (himself), and a cast of 3 actors in just under 2 days. The team believes they can deliver a high-concept, well-executed feature film for $100K in under three months, if given the opportunity. Santiago’s sizzle reel acts as a calling card for Virtual Cinema Studio, with which he hopes to acquire full financial backing for a feature-length film of the same concept in the coming months.

Pictured: Brianna Muñoz (actor) — Darkness at the Open Cut poster

“…the nature of the project was to cast, write a script, shoot it, and leave town all within a week.” — Sasha Santiago, director

The project is titled Darkness at the Open Cut and is shot entirely in and around the town of Lead, South Dakota. Shots include the town itself, the local gold mine, and the surrounding wilderness. The story is inspired by the bizarre lifestyle changes and subsequent lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A brief IndieGoGo campaign was the first step for this small cast and crew in getting their film out into the world. The campaign’s purpose was primarily to create a network of fans, as well as generate minor funding for film festival submission fees. The team hit their goal in the first two days with small donations from local fans, but they also gained some generous backing from local businesses who were ecstatic to have a film come out of their community, starring local faces whom they know and love.

This small-town indie thriller depicts the story of an overworked COVID-affected healthcare worker and his forlorn wife, who is struggling with the restrictions of the pandemic and being stuck home alone.

Darkness at the Open Cut is the second short in a series of COVID-19 underscored shorts developed and created by Santiago during the spring and summer of 2020. While most of the shorts were shot in small towns, the final somewhat larger-scale project, The Fuse, was created in and around Seattle, Washington in the Puget Sound region. The Fuse took-on a larger cast, one of whom is also a native South Dakotan: renowned comedian and children’s book author Krista Kay. Kay is originally from the small town of Mobrige, SD, just a few hours away from Lead. While each short touches on the trials and tribulations of COVID-19 small-town-American living, Darkness at the Open Cut traverses the tumultuous personal struggles and general unrest of this historical moment, delving deeper into the complexities of relationships, rage, and betrayal.

Santiago describes the films as a proof-of-concept for his self-proclaimed “guerrilla-filmmaking approach.” Santiago says the feature-length (90-min) version of the “Darkness” story with colorful South Dakotan characters and unique locations would be a hit. The film is looking for $100K in funding, which is just 1/3 of what’s considered by the film industry as an “Ultra Low Budget Project.”

For the sizzle reel, Sasha reached out to local talent via Backstage.com, and upon meeting one-another, everyone’s personalities and stories inspired the creation of each individual character in the film, within the scope of the small town COVID-19 underscored plot, of course.

Pictured: Chris Mott (actor) plays ‘Trent’ at Homestake Gold Mine, South Dakota.

For Chris Mott, it all started with a middle-of-the-night introductory email from Santiago. Which quickly turned into a succession of three emails, and the persistence finally pushed Mott to respond, leading to an hour-long phone call with a complete stranger. He was sold on the idea of pairing up with Santiago to make something. He showed Sasha around town, and took him on a hike, which ultimately sparked the idea for Mott’s character Trent and the beginning of the story that’s turned into Darkness at the Open Cut. Mott “has always loved to create,” when he realized the opportunity Santiago was proposing, he thought, “what an opportunity to just say ‘yes,’ and jump right in.” Outside of acting Mott has his own construction business and enjoys the jobs where he gets to use his creative side. He also enjoys making music as a singer and guitarist. That very same creative spirit is what Mott attributes to his ability for this project, to jump right in and try his hand at acting. He described the spontaneity to try something new as scary, but more-so exciting. Watching the film you’ll see for yourself Chris’ naturalistic approach, and on-camera charisma.

The level-headed and driven Brianna Muñoz has aspirations of becoming a real-life detective one day, but jumped at the opportunity to play the complexly salacious character, Lexi. She was well-prepared for the challenge thanks to her years of experience at the Lead-Deadwood High School theater program. Her involvement in the project stemmed from “an old high school director, who’d seen the opportunity on Backstage and emailed [her] about the on-camera acting opportunity.” She says, “he knew that with everything going on with COVID, and [her] being in college now, that there weren’t a lot of opportunities…to get involved in acting projects.” Brianna describes her gratitude for being part of such a project in her hometown, citing the tremendous support and community pride: the community here provides tremendous support and an enthusiastic fan base for projects like this.Making a short film in Lead puts something out there in the world that shows everyone a small American town, which would otherwise go completely overlooked.

Pictured from left to right: Dir. Sasha Santiago, Chris Mott, and Jared Harrison (Behind the scenes)

While Jared Harrison did not come into the project with any acting experience, he felt that Sasha’s directing style helps push new actors into the right mindset, in order to capture what he needs to tell the story.This made Jared feel more at ease in front of the camera, and he enjoyed coming out of his comfort zone in the end.Harrison got involved in the film through Muñoz’ suggestion as the two are an adventurous young couple who’ve been together for a several years, and “always love building new and exciting experiences together, challenging and supporting one-another as best they can” (Muñoz & Harrison, 2020).

Chris Mott also describes Santiago’s directing as simple and easy to work with: “I felt like he could just kind of, pull stuff out of me…he knew what he wanted and it made it that much easier when he’d just help you by putting the right thoughts in your mind, to get on film what he wanted.” This hands-on directing approach works well for small-town filmmaking when the cast and crew are so small and inexperienced. Acting as a guide to “draw what you need out of characters helps new talent be the canvas a director needs them to be for the story” (Santiago, 2020).

The story and grit of Darkness at the Open Cut’s tiny, unfunded team out of Lead, South Dakota reminds us “once more that a small-town movie shoot may lack the sexy grit of, say, the Lower East Side,” but small communities provide the fanbase, team support, and buzz that big cities never will. In small towns, you get “smart young people into the streets and create a scene of thrilling activities for the non-creative folks who are creative consumers” (Bubier, 2011). For Santiago, it was a test for him to be as simple and direct as possible, without time to overthink things: the nature of the project was to write a script, shoot it, and leave town all within a week.” Sometimes to really make things happen all you need is to take the pressure off by getting rid of any expectations for the project,just have fun, and you’ll come out with something much better than when the stakes are high from the beginning.” The cast described the experience similarly: “…it almost creates itself in a way, just by the nature and dynamics of the project” (Mott, 2020). Seeing the film for yourself you’ll see just how well this project came together, and how much heart and soul a little town and its people can provide for creatives, searching for the things that often get lost while living in big cities.

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