No-Budget Local Filmmaking During A Global Pandemic
An era of reinvention for indie film production?
A crew on a mission, the Virtual Cinema Studio team, headed by writer/director Sasha Santiago recently released a series of short films emphasizing the tough times communities are facing throughout the United States. That Girl Named Cinema is the third film in a series of four COVID-underscored projects shot in the Spring and Summer of 2020. It’s been a year been full of unexpected turns, largely due to COVID-19, for everyone, but particularly the global film industry. While big budget projects have largely sat at a standstill, no-budget to low-budget indie projects, such as this one, have managed to make things happen. That Girl Named Cinema is a little slice of fantasy, described by Santiago as “a love letter to cinema.” It whisks away nostalgic small-towners and art-hungry city-slickers alike. Santiago wrote and directed the whole project in just under three days with the help of a few local Nebraska artists who are finding new and innovative ways to explore their own creative voices during the worst pandemic the world has seen in more than a century.
Santiago’s first interactions for this project were with local actor and producer Katie Otten, who played Pants, one of the leads in the film. During Otten and Santiago’s first meeting about the project to discuss timeline and story ideas, Otten largely set the tone by suggesting fantasy and sci-fi.
“I feel like fantasy is so often not done because people think, ‘well I don’t have the costumes, or sets, or space’…but you know, fantasy encompasses so much, and can be done on little to no budget if you get the right story in the right setting.” — Katie Otten
Along with the genre suggestion, Otten had connections with local film hero Bill Hedges, founder of Lyons’ Cosmic Films Studio — the perfect place for Santiago to create his fantasy/sci-fi infused world.
Santiago begins and ends the film with main character Cody, played by actor Albert Johnson, quoting John Cassavettes.
“Cassavettes is like the original maverick indie filmmaker…when I read his words, he usually helps me stop thinking about the movie problem: lack of budget, gear, locations, schedules, and start using my limited time to think about the people problem in the story.” — Sasha Santiago
When Santiago was writing That Girl Named Cinema in less than two days, “there was a self-appointed pressure to make up a scripted story based on the personality traits of the actors and whatever stories they shared with me about their life, and actual locations I had access to” (Santiago, 2020). Johnson found Santiago’s efficiency, and “get-it-done attitude helpful…the whole thing was surprisingly fast and efficient for how quickly he wrote and shot it all.”
Otten also found the fast turnaround impressive and “think[s] this is going to be exciting for local people, as well as people all over the country to see because not only did it happen during COVID, and happen safely, it shows what is really possible in such a short amount of time.” Otten is a working actor and acting teacher in the city of Omaha and “hope[s] that this project shows people that Omaha is doing a lot of really cool work…that there’s a lot happening here and a lot of stories being told” (Otten, 2020).
Lyons is about an hour north of Omaha, which is one of the larger cities in Nebraska. “Nebraska has a rich heritage in the film industry. From the early work of Fred Niblo…to actress Hilary Swank from Lincoln, and director, producer and screenwriter Alexander Payne, from Omaha, the state knows how to grow and nurture talent” (Nebraska Film Office, 2020). With Omaha’s acclaimed metropolitan University of Nebraska, the region continues to attract local talent, such as Katie Otten and Dennis Stessman, who played opposite each other in That Girl Named Cinema. Having already filmed two shorts in this series, Santiago knew Omaha would be the next stop, and reached out to local talent ahead of time.
Otten had “previously worked on projects with Bill at his internationally known Cosmic Films Studio,” which was founded in 2014 when he purchased and revamped the 1940’s constructed Lyons Movie Theater into a fully-functional small-scale production studio with sound-stages, miniatures, and other-worldly sets. Hedges knew he wanted to buy the theater, having “worked there in [his] teenage years, and then renovated it upon retiring from the post office about 6 years ago.” He’s since drawn film industry interest through his efforts to preserve 35mm film. Santiago knew he wanted to write this short film around a particular location and drew inspiration from Bill’s studio.
While ‘Cinema’ maintains the COVID-19 pandemic undertones of the previous two shorts, it diverges from the other shorts’ heavy, thriller style in its lighthearted, fantasy nature and Sci-Fi-esque plot. ‘Cinema’ holds its own in depicting the tremendous ways the pandemic has affected our lives, even depicting some of the odd lifestyle changes we’ve made to accommodate a global pandemic, such as lead actor Albert Johnson washing the cash he receives for selling to-go theater popcorn in an attempt to keep the buzz of his local movie theater alive while it is closed to the public.
This was Albert Johnson’s first time acting, though you wouldn’t know it with his classic movie-star looks and on-camera appeal. Santiago found Johnson through the Backstage app, after already having established the general idea for the story with Otten and Hedges. Johnson says the timing of the project in his life couldn’t have been much better, and that “making a whole short film about COVID was such a great experience…in that it was kind of a new and interesting take on the whole COVID thing.” While the story has pandemic undertones, Johnson “didn’t feel like COVID was even that present given the nature of small-town living.”
In-line with the fast-and-furious filming of these projects, actor Dennis Stessman was also thrown in with minimal time to prepare: “it was only a day or so after my first phone call with Sasha where we filmed my scenes,” recounts Stessman, “out in that tiny Airbnb house, just in the backyard.” Stessman’s character was already established within the story when he was brought on to help with the film. He’s used to the “rapid-pace nature of short films”, but felt that “this project was nice in that nobody was trying to make the project or our expectations about it into something that it wasn’t.”
“Knowing that it was going to happen fast, we knew we would get out of it what we put into it.” — Dennis Stessman
Though both Stessman and Otten are both University of Nebraska Omaha alumni, the two had never worked on a project prior to this one. Despite having never worked together, the two managed a very convincing couples’ argument scene. Dennis describes the experience “it was trying to bring my own experiences in relationships, but on the flip side of that I felt kind of weird because Katie is just such a sweetheart. She is just so nice…I felt like I was in a way, yelling at a puppy, which was tough honestly.” Katie’s character believes the world is all sparkles and that childlike innocence certainly plays into the argument in how infuriatingly naïve her character Pants can be from the audience’s perspective. While Otten and Stessman both have a fair bit of Nebraska film industry experience under their belts, this project was Johnson’s first time acting. He says everyone on the Cinema team “was really open with kind of rolling with me on it…working with them made it that much easier.” The whole cast really rolled with the punches and managed to pull-off a beautifully poetic short film in this dark time. When it was all over, Johnson says “after we shot everything, we just kinda had a couple of drinks and shot the shit.” Sounds like a the perfect way to wrap-up shooting a short film in a small town to me.
“As an artist, I feel that we must try many things — but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad — to be willing to risk everything to really express it all.” — John Cassavettes