I can’t go back now and make that phone not ring.
I wrote and directed The Phone Rang, a dramatic short film about a teen who blames himself for his friend’s suicide, which is revealed through flashbacks. The film really delves into the human psyche and the aftermath that suicide leaves for those who remain. The film is one long take, over 4 minutes long. The main story is the teen’s therapy session, but there are also flashbacks woven in. There were many technical aspects involved in producing such a difficult film, all of which I will detail below.
My film school teacher told us to challenge ourselves. We were told to write a script before the next class, the typical requirement for the class I attend at NJ Film School. And, also typical, I had nothing. No uber-developed characters, no edge-of-your-seat plot lines, no cool dystopian worlds. Nothing. I tried writing various script ideas, but they all felt tired and uninspired. And there were only 2 days left. Then, I was lying in my bed when it hit me. Well, to quote myself:
Then, the idea struck me like lightning, flooded through my brain like a tsunami, echoed throughout my body like thunder. I had an idea.
Maybe not that dramatic. But I did know I had an idea. I didn’t know all the details of the script, definitely not of the execution, but it was an idea. And that’s how the phone rang.
Can you tell me what happened when you received the phone call?
We open on our main character, the patient, sitting in a therapist’s office. The therapist asks him to recall what happened when he last saw his friend. This is when the scene transitions.
I don’t see why, how this could help, but…come on, don’t die on me now, we’re almost there!
The friend is now sitting beside the patient, and the pair is playing video games. This is a flashback. The patient notices cuts on his friend’s arm, but when he asks about it, the friend gives a flimsy excuse.
Patient: Did you do this?
Friend: No, um, my cat scratched me, it’s nothing.
Instead of pushing further, he stops. He does not feel the necessity, the time constraint, until it’s too late. But we’re not there yet. We transition back to the therapist’s office.
But, but he wasn’t okay. He was far, far from okay. He, he…
I could’ve done…something. I should have done something, but I didn’t, and now, it’s…it’s too late.
The therapist tries to convince him that he can’t blame himself for his friend’s actions, and that it would be beneficial for him to move on.
It’s too late now. I can’t undo what I did, or what I didn’t do.
Note: The last part of this line was not there originally. It was a great suggestion by my assistant director and script supervisor Emma Dowling.
I can’t go back now and make that phone not ring.
The phone rings. We are no longer in the therapist’s office. He picks up the phone. He finds out that his friend committed suicide. Regret floods his mind, his heart, as he finally understands the severity of his friend’s mental health and the gravity of his persistence in helping his friend get help, before it’s too late. But it’s already too late.
This is why I titled the script “The Phone Rang.” It is in the perfect tense, meaning it is a completed action. It happened. There’s no way for him to make it not have happened, which is his main struggle throughout the film.
I had a very specific vision for the final moment, so I’m gonna quote the script for this last part.
Unable to think clearly, PATIENT puts the phone down. We dolly back, leaving PATIENT alone in the dark. Alone with the news of this tragedy. Alone.FIN.
Working With the Actors
I spent a lot of time with the actors developing their characters.
When directing actors, I try to remind them that every action or line of dialogue has a reason. I don’t mean a reason why I put it in the script, but rather why their character does it at that moment, says the exact words that they do. Their character has motivation.
In the case of the therapist (Ellie Bruno), her actions are driven by her personal obligation to help her patient. She is calm yet assertive, especially as she tries to work with the patient’s stubbornness.
Although the patient (Sam Kasmin) wants this to work, he does not believe in his own recovery. He does not see a future in which he does not blame himself for his own inaction during the last days of his friend’s life. Although his therapist insists that his friend’s suicide was not his fault, he refuses to accept this. He finds difficulty in expressing his emotions to the therapist, due to the personal effect his experience has had on him. He also sees right through the methods his therapist uses to try to help him.
The friend (John Rosenberg) puts on a fairly good front around the patient, pretending that everything is alright. When the patient notices that his friend has cuts on his arm, the friend considers telling his friend that he has been cutting himself, but, not wanting to put the burden of his own mental illness on his friend, he instead decides to fabricate an explanation. Feeling hopeless and alone, he ultimately makes the decision to take his own life.
Developing These Characters on Screen
One detail I knew before I even wrote the script was that the patient would have a stutter.
The patient has trouble expressing the whirlwind of emotions he feels about his friend’s suicide, so I thought a stutter would reveal this while making the viewer uncomfortable just as the patient feels in this therapy session. It requires extra effort for him to get the words out and vocalize what he is trying to say. He does not stutter before he receives the phone call, which shows how the phone call is really a defining moment which divides his life into before and after. This also helps separate present day scenes from flashbacks without changing the location or cutting to a different shot, both for the audience and for Sam, as the shift can help guide his acting.
While writing the script, I tried to develop an uneasy dynamic between the therapist and her patient. I was inspired by a video made by Nerdwriter1 about The Meyerowitz Stories and how Noah Baumbach realistically portrays a dysfunctional family through realistic dialogue.
In The Phone Rang, the therapist and patient find themselves having two different conversations at the same time, talking over each other in a way that indicates the disconnect between them throughout the session. The patient is willing neither to share much with the therapist nor to let her take away the blame he pushes upon himself. During these moments, as I told Ellie, the therapist is frustrated, and finds that she must be assertive lest the patient ignores her words of wisdom, for she feels the necessity of her job. Therefore, the few times she speaks up is when the patient is interrupting her and she is losing control of the situation.
By the end of the film, the patient is mad not at the therapist, nor at his friend, but rather at the situation and at himself. His outburst is triggered by the therapist saying it would be beneficial for him to move on.
“Beneficial” would have been dealing with the situation while it was happening. Before I received that phone call.
Another relationship we worked to develop is that between the patient and his friend. Since we only see them together for 20 seconds, it was important to me to establish their dynamic very quickly, so the viewer really understands the pain the patient feels concerning his friend’s suicide. In the script I wrote that they fist bump, but when they were rehearsing, it felt off, so I made a handshake for them to do. Although it took a lot (and I mean a lot) of practice, they eventually got the handshake down and made it look natural.
With only a few suggestions from me, they really captured the essence of the story and each of their characters’ motives, and I was amazed to see the characters I wrote on paper come to life before me.
Now for the fun stuff.
There were so many technical aspects to making this film. And is that really a surprise, considering the various setting shifts throughout a single shot?
There were many details to consider, from camera movements to set movements.
Let’s jump into it.
The Camera Situation
I had a very clear vision for capturing the entire film with only one shot.
We placed the camera on a tripod, and that tripod on a dolly. We used a 35mm lens, so we could capture the entire film (including the wide frame at the end) in one shot without the close-ups looking fish-eye.
We essentially had 5 different shots throughout the film:
While filming, Beth Polito moved the dolly forward and back, Logan Calder panned and tilted the camera, and Lauren Plattman adjusted the focus, all combining to form the 5 desired shots. All three did an amazing job, and were completely focused on their tasks the entire time. (Pun intended? Maybe?)
Changing the focus is a very difficult job, and the quality of the shot depends greatly on the success of the focus puller. The viewer will quickly notice if the shot is out of focus, even if only for a few seconds. One problem Lauren faced was that, if the shot went out of focus, it was difficult to figure out which way she had to change the focus to fix it, so trying to solve the problem could end up making it even worse. This is why the focus puller’s job is very important: keeping the shot in focus at all times can make or break a take.
Wow, rhyme much?
We placed t-markers on the ground so Beth knew where to stop the dolly, and used a follow focus so Lauren could find the perfect focus. Luckily, Beth, Logan, and Lauren were great behind the camera, because the dolly movements, panning and tilting of the camera, and focus-following all look natural.
It Was Lit
Since we don’t have different sets to distinguish different scenes, we set up distinct lighting for each setting.
We used 3 distinct lighting set-ups:
For the TV room, I wanted a bright, blue light shining on the actors, resembling the light a TV would cast during a gaming session. To accomplish this, we used 2 DraCast LED‘s from the sides, along with the Rifa Lightbox overhead.
The different lighting indicates the scene change to the viewer. For the shift from the therapist’s office to the TV room, our gaffer, Emma Bertram, had to turn off the Kino Flo’s and turn on the DraCast LED’s, all at the same time. She did this using extension cords, so she could simply click the on-off buttons to control multiple lights at once. Here is the result:
One problem we had while rehearsing was the timing of the lights. Because it takes longer for the lights to turn on than off, the scene would go dark for a second after one turned off but before the other turned on. To fix this, I worked with Emma to get the timing right. By the end of that rehearsal day, she had perfected the technique.
For the final scene, I pictured the patient standing in a total void. As I stated earlier, he is utterly alone. For this scene, I imagined, and this might make zero sense but hear me out, moonlight illuminating the patient from above. Very dramatic. We kept only the overhead Rifa Lightbox shining down on the patient, like a spotlight, like our character is the only person left in the world, like he is lost. Lost in the news, lost for words, lost in denial, sadness, anger, regret. Lost and alone.
I adore the shift to this final scene, cued by the sound of the phone ringing.
I think the shadows on his face add to the effect.
Emma did amazing at perfecting the timing of her lighting cues.
Sounds Like a Great Time
Sound was a question from the start.
Since the film is only one shot, we couldn’t rely on different shots for each character’s audio. We thought about using wireless microphones, but ultimately decided on a microphone on a boom pole, which our boom pole operator, Daryn Davidson, would have to rotate in order to record the best audio for each character. Luckily, Daryn is very skilled on set, so she was able to capture perfect audio by placing the pole on her shoulders and rotating toward the speaker.
Meanwhile, Sofia Dorrego, our sound person, wore headphones and informed the rest of the crew if the audio was messed up. The sound of a loud train interrupted us twice during the shoot. It is important to wear headphones so that you notice these sounds which, even if you can’t hear them, the microphone can.
We also recorded another take without any camera movements just to capture the audio, in case there was a moment where you couldn’t hear the actor at all. This way, we had the option of using a moment of this take to sub in for the audio of the main shot. However, we didn’t end up needing to use this thanks to our superb sound crew.
A defining moment in this film is when the patient sees cuts on his friend’s arm.
To resemble the appearance of cuts, Chris Messineo, our producer, used red marker, black marker, and spit on John’s arm.
It’s for the art, okay?
People were confused about a decision I made, so let me explain.
So, when John brought a black and a white gaming controller, I had to make a decision about which to give to whom. I chose to give the black controller to Sam (patient) and the white controller to John (friend). People asked me why I decided to do this, since black usually indicates death. I chose to go against this for a few reasons:
- This is the patient’s memory, so it is subjective. Looking back, he sees his friend as someone who needed saving and himself as the one who caused his death, thus the color symbolism.
- The phone through which the patient learns of his friend’s suicide is white. Therefore, the color white in this film symbolizes hints of the friend’s mental illness. Since both the controller and phone are white, every way the patient learns that his friend is harming himself is through the color white. This is symbolic of how the signs were clear, but the patient still did not do anything about it, which is why he later blames himself.
- This one is less symbolic: Black and white contrast better with turquoise and red respectively.
Even though this may seem like a small detail, I find that every detail in a film is important, just as every word choice and use of figurative language is to a book.
Ready, Sets, Go!
The basic set-up was a chair (for the therapist), a couch (for the patient and friend), and a side table (for the phone).
For the last scene, when the patient is completely alone in the room, our actors had to pull away the set pieces. I waited until the camera was tilted up with Sam holding the phone, then I gave the signal for Ellie to pull away the couch and John to carry away the table.
But what about the therapist’s chair?
A few rehearsals made it clear that the chair entered the shot when we pulled back into the wide frame. However, since the chair was not in the shot when Ellie was actually sitting in it, we replaced the chair with a few apple boxes, which we stacked up until it reached the same height as the seat. Since there is no backrest for the apple boxes, they were not in frame no matter how far back we dollied.
To see everything that went on while we were filming, check out this BTS video, which shows a wide shot of the entire sound stage, along with the raw footage in the corner.
I particularly love this BTS video because it shows everything that went on during the shoot: actors moving in and out of frame, set pieces being pulled off, the three-person camera crew, the two-person sound crew, and the lighting changes.
Did you notice how happy we were that we made it through without an error? That was our 11th take.
You may be wondering where I am in the video. I’m in the dark area on the left. Chris, Emma (Dowling), and I sat in front of a screen, watching the footage live to make sure everything came out exactly as I wanted it to. If something happened that made the footage unusable, it was my job to yell Cut! before we spent too long on a lost take.
If you read my earlier post about purposeful shots, or you’re just curious, you may be wondering why I chose to shoot this film in one shot.
I see this film as taking a dive into the patient’s psyche. We follow his train of thought, shifting consciousness from present to past to present to past. This way, we feel intimate with the character, as we truly are one with his inner thoughts.
I was also inspired by, what a surprise, Edgar Wright, and how he used scene transitions in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to portray his character drifting through life, not noticing as it changes around him. (Thanks again, Nerdwriter1.)
In The Phone Rang, the patient is so lost in the past and what he could’ve done to prevent his friend’s suicide that he loses himself in the present. By staying in one shot while changing scenes, we are showing how he is lost in time, constantly pulling himself back to those vital moments when his actions were needed, when his actions had purpose, which he didn’t fulfill. And now it’s too late.
This film could not have been made the way it was without Chris Messineo, nor countless other films I have made over the years.
I started NJ Film School in 4th grade (7 years ago!) and have continued to attend classes every year since. I can not express my thanks enough to Chris for the time I’ve spent there, because it has developed my filmmaking skills and influenced my career path.
I recommend NJ Film School for 4 reasons:
- You will learn the principles of filmmaking (camera placement, lighting, sound), along with practical skills (shotlisting, what to call out before a shot, taco folds).
- It is hands-on learning, so you learn to make films by making films. You will get to try all different jobs, so you really learn all skills needed for you to make a film on your own. Chris finds the perfect medium by helping us make the best films we can while still giving us independence to make the films ourselves.
- The films we make are scripts written by us, directed by us, made by us, so it is a great opportunity to make films you’ve thought about for years but never knew how to make yourself.
- You will make friends, and memories, that you will never forget. Filmmaking is fun, after all.
Note: Chris did not ask me to do this.
Chris, thank you for your continued support over the years.
As I stated earlier, you learn to do by doing. This directing experience taught me a lot about directing a crew and making decisions, which I will carry with me into future projects.
One experience where making a film taught me a lot about filmmaking was a 24-Hour Film Challenge I participated in one week ago today. I recieved a required prop and line of dialogue at midnight, and spent the following 24 hours making the short comedy Lemonhead. You can read more about that experience in my next blog post.
Cut two lemons.