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.