The Unexpected Transformation of My First Feature Film

 The Unexpected Transformation of My First Feature Film

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FILMMAKER: Matthew J. Thornton

STORY: How My First Feature Transformed from a Traditional Narrative into an Experimental Film

As the writer/director of SILVERFISH, I struck out to make my first feature in as traditional a way as one can when working with no budget.  But over the course of its six-year lifespan, the film has shifted from what I viewed to be a traditional drama during pre-production to an experimental arthouse film in post-production.

This is the story of how such a dramatic change can happen, and why it might have been the best possible outcome for the film.

From scripted beginnings

When the concept for SILVERFISH was spawned, I set about writing with Robert McKee’s story formula at the forefront of everything. I literally typed an outline that I took from his book, Story, and I started plugging my ideas into the model. 

Jump cut from 2011 to 2014, and I had a script—yes, it took me that long—one that followed a three-act structure and contained merging storylines, multi-dimensional characters, and a universal theme. 

The ball was rolling, and so I moved right into casting. 

Though I could not have predicted that my inclination to experiment and break rules would entirely reconstruct the movie set out to make, I can say that I am pleased with the movie we are showing today. And in the long-run, I suppose that is what matters most.
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Of course, due to lack of money, casting was non-traditional by Hollywood standards. But in the Austin indie film scene, I was not doing anything revolutionary. I sent the script to people I knew and had worked with, and I got lucky. Every actor I wanted came aboard.

That said, I knew all along that I would not be able to pay the artists in more than booze and food for their work. However, because I have spent the greater part of my fourteen-year journey in film as an actor (on both paid and non-paid projects), I wanted to find a creative incentive that would lock the cast and crew into SILVERFISH as though it were their own passion project. 

An unconventional directing decision 

After casting was complete, I made what many filmmakers might consider a risky decision.

During our first full-scale pre-production meeting, I relayed to the entire cast that I would be turning their characters over to them during the production phase. I let them know that I wanted the performances to feel as authentic as possible and that I would not be directing their character work unless they needed an explanation about something specific that needed to be seen.

Without realizing it, the film began to take an experimental turn. 

Beyond making sure that we shot clean and usable takes, I did very little actual directing. Before shooting any scene, we discussed and questioned what we found to be important or relevant to the scene or story. 

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Apart from our pre-scene chats, however, the actors had complete control over how they brought the scripted characters to life in front of the camera. They were free to choose wardrobe, tweak character motives, mannerisms, and behaviors, and even change and improvise the dialogue as they saw fit. 

For me, this became a crucial and helpful decision because I had also cast myself in a leading role and was trying to remain attentive to my own character choices. In hindsight, experimenting with a minimalist style of direction gave the scenes and the actors room to breathe new life into the story. The performances were unique, and much to my satisfaction, broke the feeling that every line had been written by me alone.

The actors had complete control over how they brought the scripted characters to life in front of the camera. They were free to choose wardrobe, tweak character motives, mannerisms, and behaviors, and even change and improvise the dialogue as they saw fit. 

As production got into a groove, the shoot began to feel as though we were all building the film together. As an aside, we did not allow the freestyle to break or change plot points and scene objectives. As a point of fact, the actors often chose to stick with the dialogue as it had been written. I found as we continued shooting that anytime the written dialogue was weak or unbelievable, the actors began easily sliding into an improvisational rhythm, freely employing lines that worked for them and improvising those that did not.  

I am proud to say that the backbone of our film is rooted in the viscerally authentic performances.

Smashing and sculpting the film in post-production

I have often heard that films are restructured and retold at least three different times before they are finished—the version that is first written, the version that is shot, and the version that is edited for the screen. For SILVERFISH, this concept held true, and when post-production began, the experimenting continued as I—with zero editing experience—chose to cut the film myself. 

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Right away, I noticed that I was spontaneously making editing choices to piece the film together in a way that was totally different from the more traditional telling I laid out in the script. This scared me a little because we had a clear story with a calculated dramatic structure, and I was afraid if I started down a path of experimental editing that the whole thing may fall apart in the cutting room. 

I stopped working for about two weeks to take a break and weigh the costs and benefits of possibly cutting the movie in a non-traditional way. Finally, after a few in-the-mirror pledges of allegiance not to compromise the story, I allowed myself to scratch the itch to shake things up. It was as if I took my original formulaic McKee-model and smashed it into a thousand tiny pieces. From there, I picked each piece up and started putting them together in a completely new way.

At the time, I was watching everything from Oscar winners and classics to French New Wave and YouTube vloggers. As one might expect, a creole of these styles began to spill into my editing, re-sculpting the telling of SILVERFISH. I should note that this process occurred four different times before I settled on what I was doing and why. 

With scenes and plot points scattered all over my timeline like a jigsaw puzzle, I found that a certain free association began to take place. I found new ways to juxtapose and parallel the characters. I even discovered little running themes across different scenes, of which I had not been completely conscious when I wrote the script.

Split screens. Lots and lots of split screens

Though I am certainly not the first to do so, probably the most experimental editing choice I made was to use a split-screen throughout much of the movie.

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Over the course of several years spent teaching film acting classes, I developed a joyful habit for watching people as they listen, which seems to be at the heart of this editing decision.  

In the beginning of editing, I split-screened all the shots so that I could watch the performances together. At first, this was nothing more than a cutting technique I used, one which I had no intention of keeping. After a while, however, I realized that the splits seemed to add new life to the scenes. It became increasingly apparent that the characters were diverse enough and the performances strong enough that an audience might like the freedom of being able to watch more of the character to which they were most drawn.  

I decided to keep the splits and use them to hold on the actors who were driving each scene. As of this writing, based on sneak-peaks and test-screenings, the split-screen effect is always a point of questioning. But, the general response has been positive.

After a while, however, I realized that the splits seemed to add new life to the scenes. It became increasingly apparent that the characters were diverse enough and the performances strong enough that an audience might like the freedom of being able to watch more of the character to which they were most drawn.  

Looking back on the process of this journey, I am pleased to be able to say that it morphed into the most creative experience I have ever had as an artist.

I began with a clearly scripted plan for the characters, their conflicting journeys, and the big overarching themes I wanted to tackle with the story. But as each new phase of the process began, I found myself being more and more instinctive about the choices I was making. A sort of free association began to occur, and all the ideas I ever wanted to roll into this project began to merge along a single narrative path. 

Though I could not have predicted that my inclination to experiment and break rules would entirely reconstruct the movie I set out to make, I can say that I am pleased with the movie we are showing today. And in the long-run, I suppose that is what matters most. 

If you enjoyed reading about the evolution of SILVERFISH, please check back soon for Part 2 of this article, which will delve into the ongoing journey of marketing our film as an experimental through the festival circuit, and determining our best path for distribution.


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