Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 6/6 “It’s a Wrap, or Making the Most of What You Have”)

If a film is making a baby, it’s making a baby with about fifteen thumbs, twenty five pinkies, a few abdomens, three heads, twelve livers of varying size and color, a couple of spleens and seven eyes and then passing it on to someone to say “Here, it’s a boy. Or a girl. Or… something. Make something out of it and let us know how it turns out.” You have a good idea of what you started to create. But in the end, you have very little idea what you actually have.

There is no possible way to overstate the importance of a good film editor.

Initially, when our final script ended up ringing in a hefty 12 pages, I made the decision to cut, cut, cut!!! I was pretty merciless. It was an interesting exercise, for this still-inexperienced writer, in making decisions that every writer makes. What is this scene adding to the story? How is this advancing the story arc? What is this line really adding? This is funny, but is it taking precious seconds away that we need to keep our film under 7 minutes?

The end result of this slaughter house madness of editing was an 8 ½ page story that was tight, funny, well-paced, and a minute and a half too long, if the page-per-minute rule was any guide. I made the decision at the time to cut even more, but found myself unsatisfied with the story that remained. The transitions toward the ending were clumsy and sudden. But coming in at just under 7 pages, I didn’t think I had any better script. I shared each revision with my co-writers, and then began shooting.

Well, there is a judgment call in filmmaking that every director and his team needs to make: do you make the cuts from the script in advance, as I did; or do you make the film the script as-written and leave it to the editor to use the extra material to create something useful in the allotted time?

I made my call based on a simple need to make this, my first time as team lead, first time actually directing a short film, as simple a process as possible. But after a few discussions with my team, knowing that my shortened script was not something I was happy with, we decided that maybe a happy middle ground might be the better route.

So we re-added some of the scenes I had cut, spent the next three days getting all of the scenes shot. We still ended up cutting most of the same material. But I have to say it was the right call. Rob, our editor, was able to pull together more than a few bits from the scenes we’d shot. If we’d left it the way I had it, I’m certain — while we would have found solutions to the clumsy bits I knew were still there — we wouldn’t have had as much material for editing, and the end result could easily have been lacking.

Showing The Films


Film submitted, our fair share of adult beverages consumed in relief and celebration, and a lot of meditation and sleep to catch up on the madness of a week’s hard work, the time came for….

…for a long, long wait. The festival, itself, was a month after the 7 Day Shootout submissions.

This builds more than a little anticipation.

But at last we had our chance to show off SAFTA’s inaugural film. Presented in the company of 24 teams, the largest in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival, our film, “Man Overboard”, was the second one to be shown.

We got our laughs.

We got more than a few laughs.

For that alone, we were all proud.

And we were in good company. There were many great films shown, some technically outstanding, some strong in story, some in pacing, some in dialog. I had friends acting in or otherwise involved in most of the other submissions. Even if we didn’t get any awards, it was great to be able to attend a festival showing as an actual contributor this time.

The awards ceremony, though, was an event unto itself. Given that the film festival covers not only the 7 Day Shootout submissions, but also a wide variety of general submissions for short films, features and documentaries, the theater was filled nearly to capacity.

Awards were presented in two tranches: general submissions first, and then the 7 Day submissions. Categories for the general films were generally limited to Best-Of types, broken down into documentary, short, feature, and so forth. The 7 Day awards, though, were much more complete. Best acting (male/female), best supporting (male/female), best example of each genre, best use of element (that is, best use of an East Tennessee landmark), best story and three places for best film.


We hoped for at least Best Actor, as our lead was really outstanding. But then, there were other terrific actors, too.

In the end, we didn’t get Best Actor. But we did get Best Use of Element! (We used a very visible statue on Gay Street of a man in a boat to set off our character’s love of fishing, and to heighten his transformation into a pirate, and there was a terrific shot where our pirate removes his peg leg — yes, our pirate had a peg leg by the end of the film — and the boatman’s arm offered us a terrific reveal!)

 What We Learned

What did we learn?  SAFTA is, after all, primarily an environment that allows you to look at what you do objectively and critically, to learn how to look at what you create to find ways to grow as a creative. It only makes sense that we “eat our own dog food”, as it were, and use this project as a teaching moment.

First and foremost, our takeaway is that we are two mindsets in one organization. Prior to joining SAFTA, there were already well-established processes and expectations. The whole point of doing a light-touch film project was to flush out how these processes would work in the context of filmmaking. And it’s not so much a matter of “Do poets work differently than screenwriters?”. It’s an organizational issue. How do we, as people in that organization, work together? How well do we communicate? Are our objectives and expectations in sync?

We found ourselves with a grand total of one tense moment among the core team, an issue centered on my decision to cut material from the script rather than allow the 12 minute script to be filmed and then cut in post. The tension, we decided, was partly a matter of my efforts to inform my co-writers of my changes not being sent with enough urgency to get their attention. Everyone on the team has day jobs, and everyone put in a lot of time in the story planning and writing. Having my mail bombs of script adjustments pile up in their email inboxes, from their perspective, didn’t adequately convey the extreme measures I was taking on the script.

Once they did begin to appreciate how much the script had been altered — and more to the point, how much the story suffered due to the extreme cuts — the flip side of the tensions made themselves apparent. Out of their very real anxiety over how poorly our first SAFTA production could potentially be received, we had a discussion about reintroducing the missing story elements. However, as we discovered in later discussions, I was in director-mode, and was unprepared for how to process in changes to the story on my first effort as team leader and director. The story I had hacked out of our first draft, such as it was, was a story I owned in my mind. I had complete mastery of it. I knew how I wanted it shot, I had ideas of how I might approach the gaps I had left behind. The sudden introduction of new elements by the writing team, members of whom I held (and hold) enormous respect (and who secretly intimidated me just a bit) put me in in a state of anxiety. I no longer had mastery of what I was filming. My ADD-addled brain lost its ability to hold any thought longer than a few minutes. And every time we moved to a new scene, now that the writers were there, I was finding that every decision I was making was not the decision we had previously agreed upon, so I was, naturally, getting reminders — read that from the perspective of my increasing anxiety as “I was getting corrected” — and my stress levels started to climb.

Now, from the perspective of film and stage performance, there is an understood gospel that one never undercuts the director’s decisions. Especially in front of other people. Ask most actors, and they’ll tell you that even if the director is doing a questionable job, continuing in the production as-is is preferable to having any single actor defy the director and challenge her or his decisions in front of the cast and crew. It’s considered unprofessional, arrogant, and it creates an atmosphere of tension among the cast that affects the way they work together.


As an actor, I will go to great efforts to turn my frustrations with disorganized or misguided director decisions into deeper focus on my own performance, or strategy sessions with other cast members. If I feel the problems with the director are dire, I may consider approaching the director privately to see if I can somehow bring up my concerns and give the director a chance to consider new options.

Here, we were dealing with a group of writers, some of whom were core SAFTA leadership. I was unprepared with new story elements I had no mastery over. I was anxious. And they were — as senior team members — providing me helpful reminders when I was misremembering our plans.

Well…. put simply, we discovered that we needed to take a close look at how we communicate, and how each member of the team is prepared and supported in their role of the process. Erin and I call it our “first marital spat” (we have been friends far longer than we’ve been co-board members on SAFTA and have always enjoyed frank and intense conversations on pretty much any topic, so the tensions we both felt were of extra importance to us). In future project, we decided, we plan to spend more time exploring the process in a way that ensures we have a strong story going in, that we have a story that will be flexible enough to allow the editor options should scenes be dropped or altered, we plan to find ways to appreciate the role of the director — whoever that person may be — and support her or him in ways that minimize tension and conflict.

I learned first-hand new ways that my stresses can undercut how I work — and that’s always a good thing. It ‘s the only way you learn to find new solutions.

And SAFTA learned that we had talented team capable of winning awards!

 Final Cut

We’ve already begun work on another film project, a collaboration with Jamison and Tiffany Stalsworth on a Knoxville Horror Film Festival Grindhouse Grindout competition. With them in the lead, SAFTA provided actors, the space of the farm and a bar, costuming and props and our time. Each time we work with new people, we learn more about the local community and how we can serve it most effectively, and we learn more about the process of making movies in the 21st century.

We plan to shoot a short film every quarter — a short film is planned for late December — and are currently in planning stages for our first feature length film. Workshops on various aspects of filmmaking are also gearing up, with assistance from the many filmmakers we have in our network.

And we’d like your involvement, too. To find out more about SAFTA and our programs and services, please visit our Facebook page or our website. As we continue our work, we’ll be posting our videos online.

If you’d like to take part in a workshop on screenwriting, acting or any technical aspect of filmmaking like cinematography, editing, lighting or sound, let us know. Or if you feel you’re ready, submit a screenplay or story idea, or just come and volunteer your time! Our entire Performing Arts group has lots of room for growth, and we would love anybody with vision and dedication.

Besides, where else can you get writing, firearms, cooking, cinematography and painting assistance all in one place?

No place else but at Sundress Academy for the Arts!

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 5/6 “The Shoot”)

Part of the problem with no-budget, time-limited film competitions is you have to find actors, props, locations, crew and equipment, and you have to have it all and impose on people you actually like, and then force them to endure what is generally a big inconvenience.

 And in no area of filmmaking is this more true than with locations.

 A couple of years ago, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition chose Knoxville as the area for their final episode of the series. I happened to have a condo right off the street. I was excited. I was proud. Everyone else I knew was really, really fucking irritated.

 Traffic was a nightmare. Local homeowners had to deal with terrible traffic jams and tell people “no, I really live here, I need to fucking get home!”

 In spite of the fact that SAFTA is made up of people that not only respect each other, but also kind of think everyone else is pretty cool and fun company, the fact is, making a movie is a disruption on the lives of people that, at best, find what you’re doing kind of cool, but aren’t prepared for what is actually being asked of them.

 Put simply, we needed a home and a doctor’s office for our shoot. We had people willing to provide them.

 Tensions were high.

 Yep. You read that right. People were willing to help. Tensions were high.


 A seven minute movie. Get that into your head, for starters. And within that, a scene in a home that will last — okay, let’s think now — less than 7 minutes. In fact something along the lines of 2 or maybe three minutes. Or two doctor’s office scenes, that will, in total, make up a matter of a minute and a half in the final film.

Should be a matter of an hour or two tops, right?

Cue massive, insanely maniacal laughter rolling on and on and on and on and….

I mean, this is an aspect of filmmaking that never ceases to fascinate me.

You can put it all on paper — everything that is required for a shoot. You can itemize that a single scene will:

  • end up lasting maybe a minute in the final product,
  • any single shot, which in itself may represent a few seconds, will require something on the order of ten or twenty different shots from different angles, with different lighting, different acting interpretations
  • each shot will potentially require the moving, checking, retesting, relocating, retesting and relocating (please recurse the previous clauses a few more times) of lighting until the particular 1 second segment of film is something that will be potentially useful for a shot
  • each shot will have a microphone that, when done well, is sensitive enough to hear a firefly fart in the neighbor’s yard, and thus requires silence. Absolute silence. Silence of the very people who are excited that they are taking part in a terrific movie project, and want to celebrate with a gin and tonic, in the company of their friends, while they pass the time, whispering, or maybe not whispering, or maybe laughing hysterically at some joke — or the very people who are running an active medical practice and need to maintain a professional veneer among their clients, and therefore run a business, and therefore…
  • not only does a film shoot require the unloading and loading of lighting equipment, cameras, tripods, boxes of props and costumes, the arrival of actors that think a one o’clock start time is a good indication of when it’s time to take a shower and get dressed, but that each individual shoot will, by microcosmic extension, require most of the props, costume elements, lighting, cameras, microphones, cables and actors — actors in the bathroom, actors taking a smoke break while the lighting was set up, actors lost in the yard going over the lines or taking a phone call, take several minutes on average just getting set up, in spite of the fifteen seconds that will actually be filmed
  • each shot is on a set of an imaginary character that will likely not have your grandmother’s urn on the mantel, or the prized bible on your shelf, or a bed next to the window with the sun shining through that is making the camera useless because the shot is impossible to take, or be as orderly and clean as you had it because — of course — you wanted to make the place look good for guests oh my god what have you done with my are you going to pick up there are dirty dishes on the fucking floor is that red fake blood going to wash out okay that was my favorite childhood blankie for christ’s sake get the hell out of my house and never speak to me again!!!



You could itemize all of this to your happily willing victims who are contributing their homes, and yet when it all actually happens, there simply is no preparation for the fact that even the most “easy, in and out, quick, no problem” shoot could easily stretch into several hours and well into the evening.

So, yes.

Tensions were high.

Our own SAFTA chair loves her home. Loves entertaining, having parties, feeding, sharing alcohol, entertaining at the wonderful home she and her boyfriend have. But they love their home because it’s their domain.

And a film crew, god love us all, is going to uproot you for a while and ask you to love every minute even as you grit your teeth and say “No problem. No problem at all.”

Which is exactly what happened at their home. And at the vet clinic we used the next day in lieu of an actual human-doctor’s office. And at the local university office space we used for a shoot that didn’t even end up in our final submission.

And I love them for every bit they endured.


We did our shoots. We tried our best to minimize the pain we inflicted on the friends who were so generous with their space and time. We tried our best to put Grandma’s urn back in place, then move the bed where we found it, to feed people, to thank people, and to get out of their hair as quickly as we could possibly manage.

And after a very respectable three days of shooting, we had everything that we were going to have. A follow-up conversation with local musician Laith Keilaney to make arrangements for our soundtrack, and now it was up to Rob Simpson, our cinematographer and film editor, to see if we provided him enough grist to make something good.

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 3/6 “The Kickoff – or ‘What does Agley Actually Mean?'”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

So goes the old trope, and I’ve lived by it in my many years in the corporate world. Another related one is an old military principle passed on to me as “The 70% Rule”: when beginning an ambitious project, lay out your plans until you are 70% there, and then get moving. After a while, you’ll figure out the remaining 30%, and much of what you planned changes.

These principles quickly proved to be useful.


We had our Kickoff event among the largest number of teams in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival. Twenty-four teams met up at Pelancho’s, drank margaritas, ate deep fried avocado, and thus prepared, we listened as Keith McDaniel welcomed everyone and announced the required elements for this year’s competition. Each team would, in turn, draw their genre from a small pool of cards labeled with such options as “drama”, “comedy”, “action/thriller”, “horror” and “inspirational”. The only other required element was that each film must include some East Tennessee landmark.

Our genre was comedy. Our favored story idea would be perfect. We had this in the bag.

To handle the large number of writers, the plan was to have our writers meet the evening of the kick-off and discuss our story ideas in the light of the elements we were given. Then, everyone would be sent home with instructions to write up their own version of a screenplay for this story. On night number two, we would discuss the screenplays and decide which one was the strongest story, borrowing the elements from the other scripts as needed.


Seeing as we had already had our favored story ready — a story of two generations of women meeting for a family reunion suddenly confronted by an injured man in their yard, and of the ensuing conversation of values, love, expectations, sexuality and adventure while they transported the injured man to a car so he could get to the emergency room — I figured we’d have most of the work done by nightfall. The story had lots of potential for drama, comedy, adventure and was sure to have some real impact.

Quickly, it became clear that I was in the minority in this view. I think there was a sense that if a story was not outright comedic, it might be rejected. In my experience, the film festivals have a wide latitude in how strictly submissions are held to the required elements. In a recent festival, a requirement of a “bounty hunter” in the films resulted in characters who were, in fact, bounty hunters, characters who were supernatural, but simply referred to themselves as bounty hunters, hired thugs — a number of films had characters who simply searched for Bounty paper towels! I felt pretty confident that a comedy/drama would very easily work for the genre of comedy.

After consulting with the team, it soon became clear that the notion of our story as a comedy might not be a perfect fit. I opened the table to a round robin of alternative suggestions.

And the night wore on and on, seemingly forever.

I love creatives of all stripes. Especially writers. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are always strong opinions. SAFTA‘s group is filled with a wide variety of writers. Many are academics, PhDs, teaching classes, already published. Some are in the final year toward a bachelors program. Many are poets, some do fiction, some blogs. Most have interests in more than one or two creative areas. We have painters and photographers. We have performers. We have mixologists, cooks, home-brewers. Everyone has already learned that they are expected to offer their unvarnished critique, and everyone knows to accept critique without taking things personally. No one at a SAFTA workshop is telling you that you suck as a writer. You’ll have to figure that out on your own. Whether you’ve never published a single fortune cookie or poem in your life, or you’ve been a bestseller on the New York Times book review, you can guarantee that every person at a SAFTA workshop will point out the aspects of your draft that aren’t working well, or should be dropped outright. You’ll know the honest opinion of everyone there, and it’s up to you to decide how to use it.

And these were the people I had as my writing team.


In the end, what began as a brainstorming session ended up being a night of thorough debate and prodding of every idea that had been pitched (my own favorite ideas had been rejected in the first fifteen minutes).

I began to despair. Not because this wasn’t constructive, quite the opposite. This was a very exciting way to get our first movie project off to a great start.

Perhaps we could take a classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale/Mother Goose/Disney story and twist it somehow. Have the vulnerable princess played by a dude. Have the knight in shining armor played by a woman. Cool! How would that work, then? These pitches were exciting, and every story had its advocate. But in the end, each one died for the same reason….

The last required element of the 7 Day Shootout is that each film MUST BE LESS THAN SEVEN MINUTES.

And so far, no one had come up with a story that could reasonably be told in that time.

And it was starting to get dark outside.

The room suddenly got quiet. Everyone seemed a bit winded. This should all have been a lot easier, shouldn’t it?

And then one of our team, Courtney Vastine, piped up with a thought she’d brought up a month earlier, an idea that everyone loved, but one that got lost in the maelstrom of ideas and enthusiasm.

“I had this one idea…” she said. “I had this idea I thought would be fun. If a guy sat home with his family and had an accident where he injured his eye and he had to go to a doctor. He gets an eye patch, and starts to jokingly talk like a pirate, and everyone starts paying him attention — “