Cancer, a marathon, thievery and a touching story are a lot to pack into a thirty minute film. That, however, is what producer/screenwriter, and American Film Institute (AFI) grad student, Sara Hills is doing in her film, You Got This. This film is the thesis for Sara’s Masters in Fine Arts from the AFI Conservatory. AFI offers two-year Master of Fine Arts degrees in Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design and Screenwriting.
You Got This focuses on two extremely different young women. Lauren, played by Sarah Agor, has a passion for cigarettes and a talent for breaking into school lockers. Suzie, played by Jani Wang, has a passion for running and is winning a fight with cancer. Sara’s story brings these opposites together in a world which tests both their spirits and their bodies as they train for Southern California’s Malibu Marathon. Sara was moved to deal with this subject because of her mother’s and of a close friend’s battles against cancer.
I joined Sara, other AFI students and staff, and volunteers on location and in studio for five intense days of shooting. The AFI program gives students a chance to learn the Hollywood way of film making. On different productions, students swap roles, learning by doing.
As producer, Sara was concerned with a myriad of tasks including payroll, food delivery, getting actors to report on time and gasoline for the generators. While she was keeping the production going, a short distance away her film was being brought to life by fledgling director Simo Manfredi and Hollywood veteran Michael T. McNerney (The Genesis Code , Prison Break, Witless Protection) serving as 1st Assistant Director. I asked Sara if she was worried about what was happening to her script. “Not at all,” she said. “This has been an extremely collaborative process. We all worked pre-production together. Everyone understands what the story is about and I have confidence in the talents of everyone involved.”
Everyone included camera, sound, electric, lighting, make-up, costume, art, craft (movie talk for food), grips and the omni-present production assistants (PAs). PAs perform everything from crowd control to stand-in to gofer.
Day one began with everyone arriving before dawn on location in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Trucks rolled in. Pop-up tents blossomed. “Where’s power?” “Can we set up the craft table over there?” “We need another side on the make-up tent.” “Get the little generator, we need more power.” Cameras got set, makeup was put on and then: Rain.
Rain wasn’t in the script. The troupe carried on, covering cameras with plastic and actors with umbrellas. When the rain got too heavy, everyone crowded under the tents and Sara looked worried.
But the shoot continued. Everyone pitched in, shared umbrellas and spare coats and maintained their sense of humor. Later, Sara concluded that the rain was actually a good thing. She explained that in the part of her script being filmed that day, the main character was at a low point. “Rain added to the depressing mood. It was actually serendipitous, if somewhat cold and wet,” she said.
IN STUDIO AND ON THE AIR
Day two moved the production to Silver Dream Factory in Anaheim. At this studio, which offers special rates for student, indie, web series films, is where the lighting and set construction people under the guidance of Production Designer Grant Redwine, got to shine. The same set started as a coach’s office in the morning and in the afternoon transformed via Hollywood magic into a hospital room. And when I say “Hollywood magic,” I mean is the hard work, enthusiasm and ingenuity of the extremely creative people involved.
It was here also that I became most aware of the walkie-talkies that everyone from director to PA carried. It didn’t matter where you were. You could hear what was going on and when “Action!” started on the set, you got the word and learned to keep quiet.
You also leaned other things when people forgot to turn their walkie-talkies off. In the production office we heard: “That’s pretty good…even for a student film.” That one got a reply from Sara. “Thanks, from the producer.”
My other favorite walkie-talkie moments included: “Go stand in the street,” “We’re one actor short of a rehearsal,” “When the actors get here, we’ll line them up and shoot them” and, this being a film about running, “Barf camera up!”
SUNSHINE AT LAST
The production moved back to Rancho Cucamonga, including Alta Loma Junior High School, then on to Malibu and AFI’s studio. There was a mix of sunshine and just enough cloudiness for continuity with day one’s rain. When filming at Rancho Cucamonga’s equestrian park, the PAs were stationed strategically around the shooting location to ward off horses and runners. No one seemed to mind. “You’re making a movie? Cool. No problem I’ll go around.”
As a screenwriter, I found being on the set a valuable education about the functions and interactions that go into transforming words on paper into images on a screen. Director Manfredi had the time to coach, cajole and encourage her actors because First Assitant Director McNerney was commanding everything else on the set like a general on a battlefield. Meanwhile, Producer Sara kept the lights on and everyone fed. It was controlled chaos — which is a workable environment if everybody knows their jobs, as was the case on the set of You Got This.
Sara plans to have premieres for the finished film, probably next May, in both Los Angeles and Rancho Cucamonga where most of it was filmed. Raised in Rancho Cucamonga, she attended schools and played in parks where her production was filmed. “The people here really helped”, she said. “I owe a lot to this community and all the volunteers.” You can see Sara and other key members of the team talk about their involvement with the film on YouTube.