Above photo: Chris Lowell, Jessica Szohr, and Maggie Kiley on the set of Light Years / credit: Kiley Mullen
If, on set of my short film some boys don't leave, I was told that in two years’ time I'd be directing a full-length version, on film, on location in NYC with a two-month-old baby in tow, I would have laughed...
But that's exactly what happened.
I came to directing after spending several (ok, ten) years as an actor in NY and recently LA. I was drawn to telling good stories, growing bored with not being challenged as an actor, and, with some encouragement from others, applied to the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women. Being selected as one of just eight participants in the Spring of 2009 not only gave me a strong skill set to write and direct my short film, but a major network of support and mentors who have continued to guide me through all stages of becoming a working filmmaker. The short went on to play many festivals, received some amazing awards [including the Student Visionary award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival], and its success began building the bridge to making it into a feature-length film.
Jesse Eisenberg in some boys don't leave / credit: Joanna Wilson
Light Years takes the central character of The Boy (played by Jesse Eisenberg in the short and Chris Lowell in the feature) and tracks his major coming-of-age heartbreak saga: life leading up to getting the girl, losing the girl and attempting to find his way back to that girl. [The film also stars Jessica Szohr and Rose McIver.] Through all stages of writing the feature with my partner Matthew Mullen and reaching out for money and cast with my producing partner Jason Potash, I kept reminding myself that the feature was a longer version of a process I'd already been through. I was right in some ways and very wrong in others.
I won't bore you with a long drawn out document explaining the bumpy road that got me to the first day of principal photography on October 31, 2011. But I will tell you we got there through a lot of favors: casting directors Sari Knight and Mandy Sherman, who came on with a 100% commitment when there was little to no financing in place: Private Equity investors, who'd never financed a film before but took a great leap of faith, and Panavision, who provided me with the New Filmmaker Grant, which allowed us to shoot 35mm, an amazing gift. As with most small movies, the budget of our movie went through several different sizes, and we changed from an LA shoot to a Michigan shoot, then back to LA and ended up in NYC. Eeesh. And I was pregnant through all of this, too—yup.
Rose McIver and Chris Lowell on the set of Light Years / credit: Ahron R. Foster
We hit a major wall in May, and although the film was cast, we were still missing a major piece of financing… and my due date was approaching quickly. We decided to push indefinitely, which really sucked. I had to fight to keep my cast and key crew confident that the movie would eventually come together and not be another tragic indie story of being so close but never taking flight. I put my faith in the universe and went off and had my baby.
Jack Star arrived on August 20 (happy, healthy, wonderful), and on September 15 we faced a deadline of deciding whether we could make the movie happen in the fall or had to push again. We were now looking at possibly shooting in NYC, utilizing the incentives, and going with a smaller budget than we ever thought possible. (And we would have an infant on set.) Gina Resnick and Kyle Heller of Varient came onboard, Jack ended up being a good sleeper, and we all decided we could make it work. Boom.
Maggie Kiley on the set of Light Years / credit: Matt Hyland
There were a few shifts and shuffles, but I ended up with my dream cast and crew (Allison Janney!). Everything worked out as it was meant to. Feeling that commitment from others to telling this story—no matter what the size—was empowering. We shot for 18 days: 6-day weeks, 22 locations (hitting every borough but Staten Island)). We used connections and friends of friends to get access to some amazing spaces.
I would be lying if I didn't admit how challenging it was. I really missed my family (my daughter and husband stayed in LA). I was nursing full time and the baby was either on set or I was pumping in my AD's car. Time was not a luxury. Sometimes background was 15 when it should have been 50. We had to limit set-ups and takes. And it was of course, entirely exhausting.
But it was amazing.
Maggie Kiley on the set of Light Years / credit: Ahron R. Foster
To stand in the center of the magic of a film set and see the story you've been playing out in your head unfold on a fuzzy monitor was incredible. To hear those words finally set free from the page in the Comtek was so powerful. I was bowled over by the level of artistry and extreme dedication I witnessed daily from our little crew. What the designers brought to life with their tiny budgets was extraordinary. How my DP Chayse Irvin was able to elevate the visual storytelling each and every day was mind-blowing. It was a labor of love for many of us, so it was important that the process and end-result goals were clear and respected. We had a great group, and we had FUN. I am astounded by what we were able to get, and I’m so excited to move into the next phase: editing.
Iʼll say that directing the feature was not simply a bigger version of the short. I learned there are many, many more day-to-day decisions to make and moving parts to coordinate. There are stamina and politics and nuanced navigations of what to fight for and what to let go of. There are things I would do differently on the next one, and things I still need to learn and keep learning. But thereʼs a lot about the way this movie was made and the way things went that I am so very proud of. (Jack didnʼt ruin one take!) I relished each and every moment on that set.
Rose McIver and Maggie Kiley on the set of Light Years / credit: Ahron R. Foster
At the end of the day, whether itʼs a short or a feature, itʼs still just about telling a good story. Finding a thread of something real, and drawing it through the long hard road of getting a movie up off the ground and into the air: that’s what it ended up being about for me. That's what I'll always remember.
I look forward to sharing the movie with you. Sometime later this year.
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