Lessons from “The Hacker”: What my second short film taught me about filmmaking, directing, and myself

In 2016, the day after my first short film was screened at my hometown’s cinema, filming began on my second short.

The experiences couldn’t have been more different — or more alike. I know, I know, these kinds of vague statements that seem profound but don’t really mean anything aren’t helpful. At least without context.

So allow me to provide some!

Ethan Taylor as Colin on the set of "The Hacker".
Ethan Taylor as Colin on the set of “The Hacker”.

LESSON ONE: No budget vs. low budget

On my first short film, “Acceptance/Akzeptanz“, I tried what every novice does: produce something with minimal budget.

Cast and crew received room and board in exchange for their work on the film, any funds I did raise (through crowdfunding and sponsors) went towards equipment, production design, makeup, catering, and sound.

While I did not actively leverage ‘exposure’ for their services, I never felt fully at easy with the arrangement, either. I knew about the widespread exploitation of creatives in the industry, but couldn’t see a way around following tradition of first-time filmmakers at the time.

Thus, I felt like I was pulled into two different directions while on set, split between constantly saying ‘thank you’ and giving direction. It was supposed to be my film, after all (as much as a collaborative art form such as filmmaking can ever belong to a single person).

In the year between filming “Acceptance” and starting “The Hacker”, I grew more aware of the systemic issues permeating the film industry. People being forced to work ‘for exposure’ or being ‘paid in experience’ goes against everything I believe in, and I decided not to let myself perpetuate that.

On my 25th birthday, I was lucky enough to receive some money from the marriage insurance my mother had taken out for me (yup, you read that right; marriage insurance. It used to be a thing so that those assigned female at birth in Bavaria would have money to start a family once they marry. If you don’t before turning 25, you get the money for yourself.)

In the back of my head, I’d always bookmarked part of that money for my next short film project. While I hoped my crowdfunding campaign would bear fruit, I could relax about funding since I knew I could cover the costs on my own. Which was great, since my crowdfunding campaign tanked and I was too deep into depression and my struggle with bulimia to do much about gaining sponsors.

Financing almost everything with my own money also had a very interesting side effect: I was able to take charge with more confidence than before.

Sure, part of this was the experience I had gained from producing a short film prior to this. Yet another, bigger aspect was the fact that I was actively paying cast and crew to work on my project.


LESSON TWO: Acknowledge your weaknesses

For “The Hacker”, I knew I needed a DoP (Director of Photography) who can give this film a distinct style.

Personally, my focus and passion falls on the storytelling side of filmmaking, not the technical. It simply doesn’t resonate with me enough to motivate me to get good or even great at it. I knew I needed a pro.

Luckily, I happened upon the right person during the planning stage. An actor friend of mine, who had stared in “Acceptance”, often volunteers for student projects at film schools. He showed me one of the results – and I was deeply impressed with the camera work.

I reached out to Alex Streckmann on Facebook, gushed a bit, and asked him if he’d be interested in working on my short film. After reading the script, he was on board. He even brought his trusted gaffer and camera assistant with him.

They made a great team and Alex and I soon had agreed on a style and shots. Thanks to them, I could focus on the characters and the acting, rather than split my attention between the set-ups and everything else.

Alex Streckmann (left) and Nils Rehbein.

LESSON THREE: Prepare

Like I said, my focus is on storytelling, not tech. That’s why my preparation for shooting centered on working with actors.

I did buy books an cinematography… but have yet to actively work through them.

Uta Hagen’s “Directing Actors”, on the other hand, I devoured within the first day of receiving it. That was my preparation and it proved incredibly helpful both in pre-production and during filming.

I used to act in school plays and amateur theatre, so I had a small inkling of how acting can work. Yet my research took my understanding deeper and made me feel more confident in handling rehearsals, blocking and giving direction between takes.

For you, preparation might look differently. Film is wonderful in that it’s a collaborative medium and you get to rely on amazing colleagues for the areas that aren’t your forte. You don’t have to be great at everything, unless you truly want to. Pick your focus, and be sure to surround yourself with talented people.


LESSON FOUR: Spend on quality

On “Acceptance”, I made a classic mistake: I mucked up the sound quality. An inexperienced boom operator, too much wind, and other complications meant that the sound for the entire short was unusable. It would never live up to festival selections or peer review.

Through much luck, I found a sound designer who whipped all seventeen and a half minutes into shape for a fraction of his usual fee. He connected with the story of “Acceptance” and decided to help this film reach an audience.

He did perfect work, so I knew I’d want to hire him for “The Hacker”, too. When I calculated the budget, I asked him for a quote, so I knew I’d have to set 900€ (about $1,000) aside for sound design and mixing.


LESSON FIVE: Music is emotion

All musical talent that my parents had to pass on to their kids was given to my big siblings. As a consequence, I was really insecure about communicating with the composer during my first short film.

We were both new to scoring, yet I discovered that a focus on emotions rather than musical theory really facilitated communication.

So when it was time for “The Hacker” and Hartwig agreed to compose the score again, I knew how to approach it. Since Hartwig’s English wasn’t enough to be sure he understood the dialogue correctly, I provided a document which had both a translation into German and my comments on the subtext and emotions I was aiming for.

… and it worked splendidly! I’ll be sure to keep up this method for future scoring needs.

Behind the scenes for “The Hacker”

LESSON SIX: Remote collaboration is easier than expected

The day I finished the first draft of the script, I shared a selfie in a James Bond fan group on Facebook. Why? Because “The Hacker” is based on a fanfic that I wrote.

Among the wonderfully supportive people commenting and liking the post was Rachel Shenton, a freelance editor from the UK. She offered her services — and I was over the moon! Not only was she okay with the level of payment I could offer, she also had a background in the fandoms that inspired the story.

The question of how we’d collaborate gave me some headaches, though. Even in the digital age, the amount of data taken up by the footage of three and a half days of filming is enormous. There was no chance to wetransfer to her, or upload it somewhere even if we had the best wifi connection in the world (due to the costs involved).

I ended up mailing an external hard drive with all the material to her, keeping copies as backup. (Which I ended up needing since the hard drive got lost when it was sent back to me.)

As to editing, we collaborated on Trello, a project management tool that is completely free to use. I still love it to this day.

What we did is divide the entire film in smaller sequences. Rachel would tackle these smaller bits, upload her results for me to review, and based on my comments and the discussion she’s go back to the editing table.

It was surprisingly quick and smooth. Granted, the fact that Rachel is a delight to work with had a lot to do with this, but apart from that, the logistics of collaboration were less of a headache than I anticipated.

Organizing how the finished cut would reach Alex for him to do the colour grading was a challenge, but that, too, worked out in the end.


LESSON SEVEN: Set aside rehearsal time

I took my first creative steps in theatre, so I’m used to rehearsing scenes before a performance.

On my first short film, I hadn’t set aside extra time for rehearsals, though. We went through scenes before filming, sure, but there was no dedicated period just for that.

So on “The Hacker”, I blocked an entire day for practice. The camera team used it to experiment with different lighting set-ups while the leads and I went through the script with a fine-toothed comb.

I had my own ‘head canons’ for the characters, but I only pushed them when what the actors had in mind didn’t provide the results I had envisioned. Together, we spun a cohesive whole, which Ethan (aka Colin) and Shabana (aka Mrs. Marlowe) could navigate and explore during takes.

The extras were only there for a single day, so any rehearsals would need to occur right before filming. For shorter appearances, that was perfectly sufficient, but it did feel a bit more rushed than it could have.

Anyway, I was blessed with a group of incredibly gifted actors and actresses, so I might have just had it easy. Still, it confirmed my belief that investing time and money in rehearsals will be more than worth it.

Jay between scenes with Ethan Taylor and Shabana Hussain, while stylist Nadine Pauser works her magic.

LESSON EIGHT: You need a thick skin

As harmonious as the filming experience of “The Hacker” was – I still think back fondly to the impromptu party we had the night of the second to last day of filming — there were some bumps in the road.

I won’t go into detail publicly, that would be petty. Let me just say that this shoot taught me that you definitely need a thick skin as a producer/director/writer.

Duh, some might say — and I would agree. But knowing and experiencing something are two entirely different things. You might think you’re ready, but life might surprise you.

I’m grateful for the experience, as much as it hurt at the time, since it helped me grow as an individual and especially as a professional.

Processing it all took me a bit longer than I would have liked… but that’s okay. Each their own pace.


LESSON NINE: Failure is helpful

I couldn’t be prouder of the finished version of “The Hacker”. It’s very close to the vision I had in my head, and it allowed me to meet a lot of wonderful and talented people.

On paper, though, the film could be considered a failure. At times, it truly felt that way.

It premiered at my hometown’s cinema much like “Acceptance” had. Those in the audience were captivated by the story and all had one question: What happens next?

Seeing as I intended this short to be ‘proof of concept’ or even the beginning of a feature film, that was exactly the reaction I had hoped for. I thought “The Hacker” would take festivals by storm and be my ticket to bigger projects.

Too bad that film festivals didn’t agree.

To be fair, I did not submit it to many festivals. Given my limited budget, I decided to be quite selective and aim at established, renowned festivals in addition to several free ones. Yet before I spent all my allotted money, I had the fortune of showing it to a writer friend of mine who has been judging submissions for festivals in the US for ages.

She gave me very sobering news: “The Hacker” has no chance at festivals. It’s not a classic short film. It’s too open-ended. Not contained enough. Not poignant enough.

Back then, I was still learning to handle criticism. It took me a while to see that she was completely correct.

In that, “The Hacker” can be regarded as a failure since it didn’t reach the festival circuit, or win any awards, or give me the exposure I hoped it would.

However, it did exactly what it was supposed to: help me gain experience. What’s more, it taught me the most valuable lesson one can learn in life — that failure is not final. It’s a step on your journey. It’s a chance to learn and grow. Embrace failure, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s part of life and shapes your path, professionally as well as personally.

Today, almost three years after finishing “The Hacker”, I can think back and feel nothing but satisfaction about the experience… and I wouldn’t chance a single moment.

The entire team behind “The Hacker” on the first day of filming.
Comments
  • I learned much by reading your very encouraging work progress. Thank you for sharing, i can’t wait to watch your shorts soon. Will be on the look out for the Vimeo links. Best of luck with the next projects, no doubt you’re expanding your audience!

    • Gosh, thank you so much for reading and your kind words! They’re so encouraging… Plus, you’re the first to comment on my blog! ✨?

      Once you need a 10- or 18-minute break, you can find “The Hacker” and “Acceptance” on my Vimeo profile: https://vimeo.com/jaypendragon

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