Film Challenge Retrospective: Keeping Up with the Cloneses

Howdy, folks!
Thanks for stopping by This is Andrew, here again to share a new story for our Film Challenge Month retrospective series! In this installment, we’re going to delve into the hardest of hard science fiction with Keeping Up with the Cloneses, our entry into the 2014 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project.

 I was giving some pretty extreme duct tape direction here.

I was giving some pretty extreme duct tape direction here.

Going into that weekend last June, the Jackets were once again facing a transition: our beloved brother-Jacket, Marcus, was preparing to move to Columbus, Ohio to begin a year focused on his writing. We knew this would be the last time in a while that the three of us would be working together in the same place, so we wanted to make the 48, which is already a special occasion, even special-er. To assist with that, we filled out our team with some of our favorite collaborators (Craig Larson on sound, Sam Johnson on camera, Katie Vannelli performing) and a couple of talented newbies (actress Debra Berger and composer Jack Barrett). For the Jackets’ roles, Eric edited, Marcus wrote and assistant directed, and I directed.
Before we get into the real sciencey stuff, let’s watch the film. Please don your safety goggles, hard hats, and oven mitts now…

You can now remove your protective wear. Thanks for watching the film and for following standard safety procedures! (We don’t have insurance!)

As Marcus detailed in his All’s Chair in Love and War article, we carried many excess requirements into that shoot and left most of the assigned requirements in the dust (save for the character). In response to this, we went into 2014 with as close to a blank slate as possible. Two actresses, one house, and the following assigned requirements:

Character: Trey or Tricia Sneaderman, Government Employee
Prop: A bell
Line of dialogue: “I asked you not to do that.”
Genre: Fish Out of Water

With just those elements in mind, we, of course, developed a story involving an inexperienced government scientist creating a bunch of death-prone clones with the goal of teaching one to act like the original person, a swim-shooting dictator’s daughter. (Working title: Putin It Together!) Obviously.

As this and our other work can attest, we are inclined towards complicated, detail-rich stories, even during these time-based challenges. We never intend for this. We actually go in with the opposite in mind: keep it simple, dummies! When Marcus handed me the finished Cloneses script in the witching hours of the night, my weary brain wasn’t thinking logistically. I was pleased with his success in arranging the ideas from our brainstorming, including the required elements, into an engaging, entertaining story. So I approved the script.

However, by the following afternoon, I was beginning to question my judgment.

Wait… How are we going to drop a giant tree branch on Katie’s head? Will that read on camera? How are we supposed to have Katie fall out of a window? Hold it! There’s a DEATH MONTAGE in here?! Ain’t nobody got time for that!

As each of these problems arose, I realized with increasing frustration that I should have considered the reality of these complex scenes when I first received the script. Just because they were possible to achieve, doesn’t mean we had the time to achieve them. 

As a result, several on-the-fly brainstorming sessions were needed throughout the day to essentially rewrite the problem scenes. Every solution we developed harkened back to our original goal: simplicity. We had to look at each problem scene, determine the underlying goal, develop a simpler action, and execute it clearly. A giant tree branch became a large rock. Falling out a window became dying spontaneously. The DEATH MONTAGE… was cut out completely. 

In the midst of shooting the last scene around 9pm on Saturday, Eric, who had been editing along with us as the day went on, came downstairs to drop some knowledge. The cut he had assembled of everything we’d shot so far was only three and a half minutes long. With the scene we were currently shooting, it would maybe reach four - the minimum running time set by the 48. In efforts to concentrate and simplify the story, we had incidentally and ironically over-simplified. I don’t remember being very happy about this. 

Thankfully, as I watched what Eric had cut, I saw how many of the individual scenes were working, but overall the piece felt disjointed. It needed some connective tissue. That was when Marcus got the idea for the dictation scenes. They would bridge the gaps, and we could shoot them in a single camera setup. They would also become some of the best moments in the film. (“I don’t Snead a man! You Snead a man!”)

The rest of that weekend is a blur to me. I remember that the export came down to the wire, and I’ll never forget how Eric thought it would be fun to make a Vine video when the export finished, wasting at least six more precious seconds! I only let him live because we made it to the drop off in time.

A year removed from these events, I still get a little tense thinking about this shoot and all the stop and go and stop and go. Then I watch the film, become very happy, and remember that those breaks weren’t misspent; they just weren’t expected. I’m more open to on-the-fly revision now, but I’m also more considerate of our limitations. I’m very thankful to have had such a patient and flexible team on the Cloneses shoot, who supported the changes - despite the time they took - because we really were improving the story. The way I see it, Eric, Marcus, and company were guiding me as much as I worked to guide them. 

Our extra time and energy was first rewarded at the debut screening. I remember sitting in the Riverview Theater with the audience, watching the film on the big screen, hearing the crowd laugh in all the right places. We couldn’t have asked for a better reaction.

When the film was selected for the Best of Fest screening, the team was giddy with excitement. After the response the film received during the first screening, I couldn’t wait to show it in front of an even larger, more rambunctious crowd. Once again, it didn’t disappoint. Giddiness slowly transitioned into euphoria as the award winners were revealed throughout the night. Best Sound Design (Craig and Eric). Best Actress (Deb). Audience Favorite for our screening block. Best Writing (Marcus). And then…

Best Picture.

I couldn’t process it at the time. When the film’s name was read, it felt like my body was on autopilot for something it wasn’t expected to do. There were hugs and high fives. I stuttered through some kind of an acceptance speech. Eric and I took a selfie with the audience to send to Marcus in Ohio. We went out into the lobby to celebrate with everyone. Then it was over.

Eric and i really could have looked happier with our mouths way more open.

Pictured from left to right: Debra Berger, Eric Carlson, Andrew Neill, Katie Vannelli, Craig Larson

As I mentioned in my article for Put a Ring on It, I’ve consciously worked on leaving behind my competitive tendencies. Such thinking was selfish and never got me any closer to the top prize. I have no control over the judges’ tastes and their choices. Rather, my responsibility is to my team and to the story we’re telling. I have to dedicate myself to them with passion, respect, humor, and the belief that we’ll find our way through. The process will always be stressful and frustrating at times, but when I surround myself with awesome, creative people, I know that it’s an experience worth having. That is reward enough.

Though winning 1st place is pretty damn awesome, too!