As part of her final project at Vancouver Film School, Jessica Lee set out to produce a feature-length film in just 13 days with a team of fellow Film Production students. The ambitious and unprecedented undertaking was a massive learning curve for all, and it definitely paid off. Captive took home a few awards, including the Rising Star Award (Canada International Film Festival) and the Student Merit Award (Canadian Cinema Editors Awards). Most importantly, though, is that the experience inspired Jessica to produce Gone Tomorrow, a crime drama set to be released next year.
We had a chance to ask Jessica about her post-graduation experience, Gone Tomorrow, and what’s up next. Take a look!
The last time we spoke you had just completed Captive, the first ever feature film to come out of the Film Production program. Can you summarize that experience for us?
Jessica: I remember when our small group from Film Production sat down for a meeting and discussed the idea of doing a feature film. We were so excited and from that moment onwards, Captive was all we ever talked about. It was by far the best experience I’ve had in my life. Even after completing my second feature, nothing really compares to the feeling you get when you’re on set making your debut film and seeing the final product for the first time after months and months of hard work.
Talk to us about your life after graduation. Did you have a plan? What happened? Where did you go?
Jessica: After graduation, the team and I were on an extremely high note because of Captive. We were the kids who made a student feature film that got picked up for worldwide distribution. Shortly after graduating, we were presented with a unique opportunity to shoot another feature, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. In short, the brutal world of filmmaking quickly let us know that succeeding in this industry isn’t easy and things will never work out the way you plan. After that ordeal, we pursued other leads in Toronto and essentially started our second feature from scratch. Out of all the uncertainty we came across, one thing was certain: we would make another feature no matter what, and we did.
Now you’re out with a brand new film called Gone Tomorrow. What is it about? What was the inspiration behind it?
Jessica: Five years after taking the fall for his younger brother, a tormented ex-con flees parole to find his kidnapped baby niece. One step ahead of the police, and one behind an unravelling criminal syndicate, he must once again sacrifice everything in the name of family.
The inspiration behind the film was to take the lessons and skills we had begun to craft with Captive and transition them into a real world production and feature film.
You have a great team of VFS alumni involved in this production. How did the experience of Captive infuse the Gone Tomorrow process?
Jessica: You can only hear and read so much in terms of how to make a feature film before you truly need to dive in and get into the driver’s seat for yourself. From Captive, we identified the strong supporting crew we would need to expand and build out our future projects, as well as learning how these individuals worked together on a film set.
For myself, that experience solidified the fact that this was the industry I wanted to be in. It also helped prepare me for Gone Tomorrow. I knew what to do and what not to do at every stage of the process – from development through production and beyond.
How did you cast the film? And how important is casting the right actors to the success of a film?
Jessica: I have a lot to thank from Captive when it came to casting our film. Having a feature under our belts that won awards at film festivals is a huge selling point. When we started reaching out to Toronto casting directors, we were fortunate to land one of the best in the city, and she helped us tremendously by vouching for our team to agents and talent.
Because of her, we were able to land higher calibre actors that our independent budget normally wouldn’t be able to afford. Casting the right actors is incredibly important for any film. They are literally the ones to bring your characters to life so you want to make sure they’re perfect for the role.
How can we watch Gone Tomorrow and what’s next?
Jessica: We are currently in talks with two major distributors (one Canadian and one American) for the release of Gone Tomorrow. You can expect to see it on DVD, TV, and VOD by early 2016.
What can you offer/share with students currently in the Film Production program in terms of advice, or things you’ve picked up along the way?
Jessica: You’re only as strong as your weakest link – this is something my team and I tell each other constantly. Coming from someone who is now in the ‘real world’, take advantage of the safe walls of school. Make as many mistakes as you can and learn from them. Don’t ever assume you can’t get something because you feel it’s too far out of reach. Ask the question first – the worst that can happen is you hear ‘no’, but the best that could happen is you get what seemed impossible just a moment ago. We got the rights to a Jay Z and Kanye song for Captive – things are possible, just ask.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Jessica: This business isn’t for those who need to see the fruits of their labour paid off immediately. It’s a brutal industry and many people end up quitting, and for understandable reasons. I feel like this is a very vital concept to understand and realize before graduating. Everyone will have his or her own path to go on and own way of succeeding in this industry. I can only tell you what I’ve experienced and what worked for me. I was fortunate enough to have a solid team who I met at VFS. We each specialized in different aspects and shared the common goal of wanting to make feature films. When we hit our bumps in the road (and there were a lot of bumps), we had each other to lean on for support. Having a solid team to work with and trust is what got us through the worst times and I know it will be what will continue to get us through.
Check out the trailer for more about Gone Tomorrow.
We'll leave you now with a great list Jessica put together for all you independent filmmakers out there:
- Never ASSUME someone else is taking care of a certain job or task. EVER.
- The things that are being done, never ASSUME they’re being done properly
- You can plan and plan and plan, then everything goes to shit and you need to improvise on the spot. Everyone has a plan until they get hit. – Mike Tyson
- Hire drivers. Hire caterers. You were thinking of handling these two yourself? DON’T.
- When you pay people nothing or next to nothing, make sure you feed them well. It’s the only thing keeping everyone going.
- Even on an indie film, know when and where you have to spend your limited funds. There are some things that you just can’t cheap out on.
- When hiring PA’s, make sure most, if not all, have their driver’s license.
- Don’t sleep on set, especially if you’re a key creative. You’re exhausted from the lack of sleep? Too bad, so is everyone else.
- Know when to cut shots and move on.
- There’s never enough time so control the amount of takes your director gets.
- There will never be enough money. EVER.
- Did you schedule four hours to complete that scene? Double it.
- Back up your footage three times. At least. Seriously. And make sure you store your footage in a secure case.
- If you’re a key creative, no matter what, keep your shit together. Your cast and crew are looking to you and if you can’t be composed in the storm, they won’t be either.
- Sometimes, you have to beg. Forget your pride.
- Always have a phone charger on you. For the outlet and for the car.
- You can never have enough bottled water on set.
- It’s the little things that count. When you’re cine crew didn’t get a break in the past 10 hours, bring them bite-sized food that they can pop into their mouth. You just saved them from starvation.
- What’s on screen is the most important. Everything can go wrong, but at the end of the day, if the footage looks good, then you’re doing alright.
- The bond you get with your crew is a special one. You’re with them for 20 hours a day for a solid month straight. They become your family.