Filmmaking, like woodworking, not having any roommates or owning a boat, seems like one of those things that a lot of us would love to do, but feels forever out of reach. It’s too expensive, you’ll never get a cast and crew together, where are you gonna put the boat? Right? Wrong! (Well, two out of three.) Budget doesn’t have to be an obstacle to filmmaking.
We spoke with writer/director/producer/creator Danielle DiPaolo about Evolved, the short film/pilot that she recently finished filming on a broke Brooklynite’s budget. Evolved (which premieres Wednesday night at the Landmark Sunshine as part of the NY Shorts Fest) is a social comedy that follows two brothers as they struggle to stay woke amidst the inherent privileges of being white men in America. We asked DiPaolo about the project, the ins and outs of crowd-sourcing and about how we GET it, Mark Duplass.
First off, tell us a bit about Evolved
Okay! I think everyone thinks they’re evolved in some way. Some of us have more blind spots than others.
I feel like for most people there’s a gap between our progressive values and our ability to perfectly put those values into action. Even Roxane Gay is a shitty feminist sometimes! That gap is really ripe for comedy. And the struggle to close that gap is a sympathetic one.
So the main characters in Evolved are two brothers who really want to walk the walk. But they tend to overdo it, or underdo it. Either way, they wind up being the nice guys that finish last and look like assholes. I really love characters like that – well-intentioned people who get in their own way. I think most people can relate to that. I definitely do.
In the pilot, single-dad Nate Reynolds (Michael Cruz Kayne) wants a promotion at his hyper-masculine office. But, when an equally-qualified African America single mom (Chanel Carroll) is also up for the position, Nate has to choose between sticking to his principles – being pro-affirmative action, wanting more women in the C-suite, etc. – and getting what he wants. Meanwhile, younger brother Ben (Ken Beck) – who never forgets to ask which pronoun people prefer – wants to ask his girlfriend (MK Morrissey) to settle down and marry him. But, when she proposes a ‘rumspringa’ Ben must prove he’s as evolved as she is. He sets out on a heroic quest for a meaningless one-night stand.
We have fun.
When did you realize that fully producing a pilot was something that you could actually do?
I have to give Viri credit for thinking we could do this crazy thing. Viri and I are in a writers group together called Crosstown Bus. We were all down in Austin for the Austin Film Festival. And we were at some sponsored brunch event on a rooftop. Viri and I started talking about what we really wanted to do. Viri said she wanted to direct more. I said I wanted to write and eventually direct my own work.
At the time, I had just finished writing a different script called Half-Way (a screwball comedy set in an all-girls rehab facility). Viri said if we wanted to, we could probably shoot that script together. And everything sort of stopped. I put down my breakfast taco. Viri is such a positive person. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking hypothetically. I remember searching her eyes to see if she was serious. I said if she thought we could do it, we were doing it. We cheers our sponsored mimosas and took a bite of our free breakfast tacos. To be honest, I still wasn’t totally sure we were actually going to be able to do it. But that was the beginning.
Then, by the time we were ready to start planning, I had finished writing Evolved. And the script had been accepted into the final round of the Sundance Episodics Labs, so it felt like it had some legs. Viri and I met for a drink and looked at both scripts. Viri had done a thing called ‘lining’ the scripts (I still don’t totally understand what that means). She broke out what each production would require (the locations, number of actors, major props, approximate number of shooting days, etc.)
Both Evolved and Half-Way were going to be about equally challenging and costly. We talked about what we liked about each project. I was more excited about Evolved at the time. It was fresher in my mind and felt a little more alive. But we were still waiting on the decision from Sundance. We considered pushing the production. Ultimately, we decided not to wait. It didn’t end up getting into the Labs. So I’m really glad we just went for it.
You funded Evolved entirely via Kickstarter, any advice for your fellow crowd-sourcers?
Yeah, we did. Doing a Kickstarter was definitely its own beast. It wasn’t quite as much work as the production itself, but almost.
The best piece of advice I got going in was from a friend of mine who works at Kickstarter, Taylor Moore. He said that if you can front enough cash to get you through the production (i.e., whatever rentals, transportation and food you need before or during the shoot) you should time your Kickstarter so that it’s open during the shoot dates and it finishes after your production wraps.
The reason is that while you’re on set shooting, you’re generating a ton of content and there’s all this excitement and updates are happening in real time. And that’s so fun! And the whole approach you want to take with your Kickstarter is “hey, we’re having this big fun party, don’t you want to join us?”. And your friends and family will be so excited that you’re doing the thing that you’re most passionate about that they’ll want to support you and be part of the process.
So yeah, it’s a smart way to do it if you can. But of course, if you time your Kickstarter this way, you’re taking on a good deal of risk. Because if you don’t hit the goal and you’ve already done five days of shooting, you could wind up in debt and without a finished project. That’s no good. But those high stakes are pretty darn motivating. You’ve got skin in the game so you better hit that goal!
And then in terms of hitting the goal, it’s really all about getting in front of people often and in fun ways. We did a series of updates called “Featured Feminists” where we profiled members of the cast and crew. That was a fun way to get our backers to learn about the team and how awesome they were personally and professionally. I loved writing those updates because I was so proud of our cast and crew. Everyone really was amazing!
How did you get cast and crew involved?
Casting Evolved was an absolute dream. I came up through the UCB community here, both improv and sketch programs. So I knew most of our actors, either from working with them or just watching them on stage over the years. When it came time to assemble the team, it was an embarrassment of riches. There are so so so many kind and talented comedy people in NYC. And the best part was that since I knew these people as performers, I already knew I was asking them to play a role that was in their wheelhouse. And then everybody just knocked it out of the park.
When you work with improvisers obviously you get way more than what’s on the page. That’s just the nature of improvisers, we all mess with with each other and do dumb bits. And some of those dumb bits make it into the movie. Both of our leads, Michael Cruz Kayne and Ken Beck, are talented and generous improvisers.
The one major role I didn’t have an actor in mind for was Rachel (MK Morrissey). MK was incredible. Her background is in musical theater (she toured with Wicked!). She was recommended to us from a mutual friend and fellow Crosstown Bus member, Kim Kressal, who has a great eye for talent. We didn’t hold any auditions. MK just showed up and nailed it.
The crew was mostly friends, too. We did a live reading of Evolved maybe a month before we started pre-production. Afterward we announced that we would be shooting the script. We told everyone if they had skills or time or equipment or just an interest in helping, we would find a place for them.
That’s actually how we got our DP, Kieran Delaney, who turned out to be a total magician. Kieran is a friend and I had seen some of his work in the past. So I knew he was talented. He came up to me after the reading and threw his hat in the ring. I grabbed onto that hat and didn’t let go. We’re really proud of how professional Evolved looks. Kieran is really the main reason it looks as good as it does.
We hired our sound guy but the rest of the crew were our kind and generous friends who offered to spend 5 days of their lives with us for little or no pay. Oh boy, I’m going to get emotional.
What advice would you give someone else thinking of making a short or pilot who maybe thinks of budget as a major obstacle?
Definitely do it. Whatever it is. Just one scene. A sketch. A trailer. If you really want to do it and you think you might be able to do it, do it.
We hear all the time now that we’re living in an age where we all have cameras on our phones blah blah (we all heard your SXSW keynote, Mark Duplass!). But, I mean, it’s true. You don’t want to make something that looks like trash, obviously. But I think especially with comedy and short-form stuff, you can do a lot with a little. And you can make your own style. Not everybody is going to make slick Tarantino movies (and thank fuck!). Use money as a constraint and get creative about working within that constraint.
My best advice is figure out what you think you need for the budget and then add like 10% as a buffer. Because you never know when you’re going to run over your phone in a production vehicle.
Any way you do it, there’s always going to be an element of working backwards. So, if you know you have X amount of money to shoot the thing, make sure the thing costs X dollars. Or, you know, X dollars minus 10%. You figure it out. You use the cheaper location, you figure out how to combine shots, limit company moves, etc. Ask for help and never forget the miscellaneous buffer. You’ll either use it when something goes wrong or you’ll buy beer for the whole cast and crew on your last day. Either way, it’s essential.
Where can we see Evolved!?
We’re screening it for the first time ever this Wednesday at NY Shorts Fest. It feels silly to call it a World Premiere but I guess it is that. It’ll be at the Landmark Sunshine, which apparently is being torn down? That’s what some man at a party told me anyway. Evolved is screening with five other short films in Program #6 at 9:55pm on May 31st. Everyone is invited. I think tickets are still available. So grab ‘em up!
Also, my parents will be there. They’re pretty great. You can meet them for free with the price of admission.
Would you do this whole thing again? Will you do this whole thing again?