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Views from a Micro-Budget Filmmaker

As part of our ongoing look and celebration of micro-budget filmmaking, we interviewed Sean Mannion director of features 'Double Major' and 'Steuben County'.

Q: What was your route into filmmaking and what did you learn from the experience that has carried through to your work in features?

I studied English/Creative writing with the intention of being a novelist or something like that. After struggling through the first part of a novel, I tried writing a short film as a sort of sanity check and because I thought it would be fun. I saw a couple shorts on Vimeo that I thought looked cool so I DM’d the DP. We got coffee and hit off and he has been my creative partner since then. Shout out to Ryan Croft!

I did not go to film school and I think I benefited from not knowing what I didn’t know. I went ahead and just shot the thing and learned as I went along.

Writing, for me, has become inextricable from the process of directing (and vice versa). Through the short and the first feature - going through writing, pre-production, production, and editing – you come to learn what works and what doesn’t and you apply that to the next thing.

Q: Formulating a film that you can make on limited resources can be quite a challenge, do you intentionally write with the idea of something that you know you can do with a small budget?

Absolutely. There’s a reason there are no exploding cars in my films. On my first feature, I thought I was being conscious of this, but I still had written in too many locations and the crew was constantly schlepping around Chicago, begging people/stores to let us shoot in their place.

On Steuben County I really tried to pair it all back: four primary characters, one primary location, and made sure I had specific places in mind for every scene that I knew I could obtain.

Q: Who and what films are your inspiration, both from previous years and modern films/filmmakers?

There are so many. I can’t not mention Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline from 2018. It’s a movie that I probably think about every day and was constantly part of the dialogue while we were editing Steuben County.

John Cassavetes is huge. He’s the OG indie filmmaker. What he does in A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night is about as good as it gets.

Joe Swanberg also looms large. He’s kind of the Godfather of Chicago micro-budget filmmaking. In a lot of ways he built the model for the exact thing I’m trying to do.

Q: Your feature, Double Major is a very character driven piece. How do you approach working with actors where so much of the narrative is driven by dialogue rather than action?

Double Major was definitely very “talky”, probably more than it should have been, in retrospect. I found what worked the best, though, with scenes that were driven by dialogue was to work with the actors in advance of shooting to make sure they were comfortable with the lines. If there was phrasing in the script that sounded unnatural or, once performed, didn’t work for one reason or another, I would have the actor suggest a different wording or tone that felt more natural. I like to collaborate with actors as much as possible and allow them to shape the characters to their own sensibilities. The places where I can tell it didn’t work were where I would force a line delivery or even provide a line reading. Zach Schley, Natalie Seabolt, Noah Laufer, and Lynne Baker were great in that respect.

Q: Steuben County is a really unique piece of filmmaking, the shooting of it in 4:3 really made it feel like you were watching a home video. What was the inspiration behind shooting it that way?

That idea came pretty early in the process. We knew we wanted to have a focused, isolated perspective on the Eddy character (played by Toler Wolfe). We chose to not shoot and over the shoulders on him (there are OTS shots, but they are largely focused on other characters). We also knew early on that most of this would be shot in my Grandma’s trailer in confined spaces. The combination of the claustrophobia and the isolated moodiness of Eddy seemed to fit more nicely with the 4:3 aspect ratio than with something a little wider.

Q: A lot of what Steuben County covers is around the unsaid and what is presented in someone’s head. How much of a challenge was this to present on screen?

It can definitely be a challenge! Though I found that the best thing to do was to spend time and allow the actors the room to work things over themselves. We had such talented actors on this that, in just pointing the camera at them, we could communicate more complex emotion than I could ever conceive on my own. I loved the tight close-ups on faces in this one and I think the actors were brilliant and subtle in those moments. Shout out to Toler, Erin Minervini, and Simone Grossman.

Q: What would be the best piece of advice you can give to aspiring filmmakers who are working with limited resources?

Definitely write to your budget. Don’t be afraid to ask friends or family for favors. Shooting a movie is fun and you can frame it as such when asking people to help!

Also, it can be a long and thankless process and putting things off is really easy to do, especially in post-production. It’s important to keep up the momentum of the project, so I’ve found it important to make sure I work on it, in some capacity, every day.

If you’re directing, you have to be aware that at the end of the day you are going to care about this more than anyone else and it’s up to you to see things through.

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