Producing The Caretaker

How to create an award-winning short

12-min read

Aman Adlakha had the vision to create a film that blends magical realism with a gritty narrative: serving the deeper theme of taking care of one’s family — and the lengths one will go to do so. I merely served as his personal piggy bank. In this writeup, I dive into how we brought this project to fruition and the challenges encountered along the way, including producing a movie during a global pandemic.

Chapter 0: Conception

I remember the first conversation on Christmas day, where he showed me the initial draft of his script. It wasn’t so much his forcing me to read it during a party surrounded by intoxicated friends, but more his insistence which compelled me to join this project. Also, the story was pretty good. Later, we went down to his room and he showed me his research, the screenshots from films he wanted to emulate, and a series of visual references he had collected over the course of the year. Irishman, Joker, and The Lighthouse. I had worked with Aman on numerous projects before and noticed a continuous improvement in his storytelling which further pushed me to get involved at the ground level. The only problem was that I would be in New York and the shooting would take place in Los Angeles. He graciously invited me to the premiere of the film but not the actual production. Worrying.

Reading the script in low light while house music played in the background (diegetic sounds; I’m a filmmaker too) was surreal. As the director/ writer, and later the editor and color corrector(?), Aman managed to weave a story together I’d not normally read or watch. The first draft was in my hands on the 3rd of January, 2020, but the script lock only happened around Valentine’s Day.

To supplement this writeup, I searched for questions one should ask a director post-mortem, and teachwithmovies came through, although I’ve just now realized there were so many better questions on the next page of the website which I conveniently ignored. Oh well.

If you had a chance to ask the screenwriter a question, what would it be?

I am the screenwriter. Bruh.

If you were writing the screenplay for this movie, would you have changed the ending? Explain your answer.

Wtf are you on right now.

Didn’t work as well as I had expected.

Chapter 1: Development

Synopsis: Matthew, a single dad, struggles to make ends meet while working as a nurse for senior citizens. His desire to get rich and give his daughter a good life results in a bizarre sequence of events that change the course of their lives.

I wasn’t as involved in pre-production as I would have liked but I ended up hosting weekly standups to check on the progress and to see if we were on track. Aman posted the casting notice on Breakdown Express and held auditions on the 30th and 31st January, with callbacks a few days later. Before we could hold these interviews, we had to prepare the sides, which are the lines from the script that an actor must learn before an audition.

Did you come to respect any of the characters in this movie? If so, who was it and why?
Respect is a weird term to use. The goal is to make them distinct or similar in ways that serve the story I’m trying to tell. There are moments of reflection and even comparison throughout that reinforce those ideas, e.g.: Sal seeing a younger version of himself in Matthew and even in their relationships with their kids. Sal lost touch with his children and Matthew’s actions all point to him ending up in a very similar, grim situation.

A brief breakdown on the roles which we were casting for:

Matthew (Father, mid to late 30s, any ethnicity) — a single, struggling dad, always looking for shortcuts to success, sometimes at a great cost to himself. He has a tough exterior but it is clear that his love for his daughter is his strongest motivator. 

Jo (Daughter, 8-13, any ethnicity,) — Precocious and intelligent, Jo has always been the smart one in the family. While other kids may spend their time playing on the swings, you would almost certainly find Jo hidden away in the nooks of the library devouring a book about magical creatures in faraway lands. She’s had a tough life after her mother passed away and spends a large portion of her day at home with her dog to keep her company. If there’s anything Jo loves more than books, it’s Benny. 

Sal (60 and above, any ethnicity) — Formerly a traveling businessman, in the final stages of his life, Sal now finds himself isolated. Well-traveled, one can only imagine the stories and anecdotes he has collected along the way. However, he now realizes that his need to be on the road comes at a heavy price — estranged from his wife and kids, he is all alone in his castle of riches and has no one to share it with. Matthew takes care of him in his spare time.

We managed to cast Christopher Parks, Ivy Paige, and Carson Grant for each of these respective roles.

Who was your favorite character in the movie? Why?
Can’t answer that.

Who was your least favorite character in the film? Why?
Same answer.

Usually, cast & crew aren’t paid in student shorts and involve other forms of compensation, like gas remittance​ and meals. Where necessary, we remit the specialized roles for their time, like the sound designer and composer. The call sheet consisted of other filmmakers and working professionals willing to work on the project. We were running a tight ship, with a limited budget and barely any room for error. For complete transparency, I’ve uploaded the major above-the-line costs below —

Another way we saved an exorbitant amount of the budget was by sourcing a relatively unknown camera brand, Kinefinity. An excellent alternative to RED’s, we used Canon mounts to leverage their frontrunner MAVO to achieve an UltraHD full-frame picture. Also, by saving money on the camera body, we could put our capital to use by grabbing a great set of cinematic lenses on ShareGrid, the rental website we used for equipment.

On ShareGrid, a weekend rental costs the same as a single day lease. This is an industry-standard discount and gives access to the ordinary layman/ student who doesn’t shoot during a typical work-week or works on big-budget productions. We ended up using Thursday’s as a buffer to test and figure out the technicals.

Our cinematographer, Harit, tested out the camera extensively before we finally used it for The Caretaker.

Chapter 2: Changes

With our equipment ready, all that was left to shoot was the short. Fortunately, we were working with a 4-5 person crew, instead of a full crew, which meant we had a tighter feedback loop. Delays occur, this project was no different. The plan was to start slow, in close vicinity to LA, and if things went wrong we could revert and reset for another day. For the locations close to USC, the cast could commute on their own, but the Bombay beach shoot required logistical planning. The night before the shoot, our production designer and director went to prep the area and by the time the actors showed up the next day everything was ready to go.

To add insult to injury, Aman faced a flat after returning from a coffee run at Bombay Beach and had to change the tire while also attempting to keep the coffee warm.

And the broken mirror. When you’re working on a rented property, you’re supposed to account for resetting the layout when you’re done. Our talented production/ set designer, Rachael Garcia, had already taken pictures of the previous setup but one of the mirrors we had brought for miscellaneous use broke mid-shoot and was left in the backyard. The cleaning lady arrived later that day and ended up telling the owners the crew had completely trashed the place. A fun conversation.

The desert scene in Lancaster was over-ambitious and almost completely fell apart. The weatherman mentioned a torrential downpour, which would have delayed production, and dampened the mood of the entire set. Fortunately, there was no rain on the day of, but we could see the clouds lingering over our heads, like a sick omen.

Was there something you didn’t understand about the film? What was that?
Not sure if this is referring to the script or development/ production but things always change from script to screen and with this project the ‘magical’ aspects of the story were something that became a lot clearer as we found our set and cast our actors because it helped me contextualize some aspects of the script to fit those choices that we made.

By some miracle, it didn’t rain but stayed overcast. This was particularly egregious in the driving scene, which we had to constantly correct in post because the color balance shifted multiple times. With heavy winds, the tent kept blowing over, which meant resetting on numerous occasions. On top of that, our youngest actress, Ivy, was freezing. With 5-6 pages of dialogue in the tent, which meant 8-9 setups, and losing daylight, ultimately the hardest decision we had to make was to completely rework the scene since we wouldn’t be able to do sequence justice. We had to compromise and work our movie magic and fake the interior of the tent in a decrepit Los Angeles neighborhood. This on-the-spot creative producing was taxing on the director, and on this particular weekend, Aman barely managed to get four hours of sleep.

What did you like least about the film? Why?
Having to wake up at 5 am more than once. Not my thing.

When you’re shooting in interior locations it’s 10x easier to control and micromanage every aspect of the mise en scene. Sometimes along the way you have to come to terms with ‘the plan’ not working out. What is the best possible way to get quality footage without sacrificing performance?

What feelings did you share with any of the characters in the movie?

Their motivations had to feel justified so it helps to picture yourself in their shoes. I also love doggos and magic.

It wasn’t all bad. One of the best days we had was at Matthews's apartment set and the coveted dinner conversation. The actors were way more comfortable, and everyone on set was in their groove. As the executive producer, this was great to hear, because this was also the most expensive location, coming out to ~$520/ day, ignoring other incidental costs. This was also the most thoroughly scouted apartment location, and Rachael had made a whole diagram which we followed to the tee. Thanks to her, we knew the entrance and exits, what clothes actors were wearing, and the schedule like the back of our hand. Pre-planning was key, and all of this meant we wrapped ahead of schedule, getting our money back for the remaining few hours.

The first successful day of shooting was crucial and set the tone of the entire production. In hindsight, starting our shoot with two exteriors where we had little control was a bold choice.

Did you learn anything from this movie? If you did, what was it?
Approaching everything from an ‘is it essential to the story’ viewpoint can help to keep costs down and also narrow the focus of what you need to spend your time working on. We had a very small crew on this project, so it was important to prioritize our time and energy towards what was crucial and not worry about the grandness of anything.

Chapter 3: Complications

Permits are the bane of guerilla and indie filmmakers. I understand the need for bureaucratic paperwork to protect locations and provide blanket insurance for any sort of liability that might occur on set but they slow down the creative process. While we managed to secure permits for almost every place we hit a roadblock for one of our exterior alleyway locations. With our second weekend shoot around the corner, we turned to our mentors for advice. The USC film professors (who will go unnamed) encouraged us to move forward with production and deal with the consequences, should there be any.

What did you like best about the movie? Why?
I loved the effort we put into building the world, especially with such a limited budget. We could’ve easily spent more on fancy equipment and VFX but I thought our focus would be better directed at creating a sense of momentum and tension through the environments we put the characters in. Looking back at the cut, it seems to have worked so I’m glad.

Chapter 4: Birth

Editing over Zoom calls during a pandemic was taxing. Over the entire month of March, we hunkered down and edited the film on LA and HK timezones. We went back to the drawing board multiple times. One of the first scenes we edited ended up being the one we cut from the film entirely. By March 26, we had the first rough cut and received feedback from friends regarding changing/ removing scenes. Over the next week, we reworked sections of the film and even interchanged scenes to see if this affected the flow. The first half of April was dedicated to color correction and grading. I forgot the number of times we watched the film front to back, but by my estimates, we had spent close to 60 hours working on revisions.

What were you thinking as you finished watching the film?
Which time?

The first draft was around thirty-five minutes and I immediately shut it down. There was no way any sane person in this day and age would watch a half-hour short online. The pandemic was affecting our ability to promote the film. Communicating with our audio engineer and composer was difficult. We commissioned Jagrati Marwaha, a visual artist to design our title cards with Community’s style in mind.

Had the pleasure of working with the creative genius that is @artelixir on my latest project, The Caretaker! Here’s some of her original artwork from the film. It truly would not be the same without her contributions 🙌🏼🙏🏼

some more good news to come tomorrow..
July 22, 2020

Chapter 5: COVID — Complications II

The pandemic had a two-pronged effect on the film, with positive as well as negative connotations. Since production wrapped up in March, just before the pandemic had shut down the entire world, we managed to start editing at the start of lockdown, which meant our entire focus was on pushing out the first cut for internal review.

Did anything that happened in this movie remind you of something that has occurred in your own life or that you have seen occur to others?
Not particularly, my life is very dull in comparison. I’d happily apply to be a caretaker given the recession we’re likely heading into.

The problem was that with everything shutdown we weren’t able to do a ‘normal’ festival run, like attending events and promoting the film through natural channels. Everything was pushed online and using FilmFreeway, we submitted our film to all relevant contests.

Film festivals have deadlines for early entries, and even though we were in lockdown and I was in mandatory quarantine, we knew we had to get our product out. With no response from the first few festivals, things were looking bleak but we managed to pull through.

Chapter 6: Technicals

I thought it would be cool to convert the entire film into a barcode, where each vertical line represents the average color of a single individual frame. Creating the image was as simple as typing a command into the terminal:

python movie.mp4 320 180 

Where the last two numbers are the respective height and width of the generated image. The output —

Interesting to note how the film starts with darker tones and gradually moves towards a lighter palette, following the narrative. The orange spike in the third act is a significant scene, and it’s fascinating to see how easily the program picked up the dominant colors.

What is the message of this movie? Do you agree or disagree with it?
I don’t write too often with a message in mind — it’s more about creating interesting characters and putting them in situations that reveal flaws and some sort of evolution in their behavior. I’m sure if you read into every line and action you could find some hints to thematic connections but I’ll leave that to the audience to interpret as they like.

Chapter 7: Pregnancy

Would you recommend this movie to a friend?
I made something that I worked hard on and it’d be cool if other people saw it. lol

What part of the story told by the movie was the most powerful? Why?
The movie and the story are sort of the same thing in this case so I’ll just pick my favorite moment. SPOILER: Matthew in the bathroom after he murders Sal while Jo’s reading the fairytale. That along with the shot of the door as the landlord comes to evict Matthew — the whole scene just played out just as I’d hoped.

If you had a chance to ask a character in this movie a question, what would it be?
I’d ask Matthew when he’d last worn a different outfit? I am definitely to blame for this.

And now the film —

Hope you enjoy the viewing. Thank you to all the other people who made this possible —

Rob Fabiani, Caroline Cai, Miranda Wilcox, Kyle Miller, Ellis Sutton, Jessica Rahmani, Aditya Vempaty, Scott Johnson, Siddhant Lohia, Rohan Meghnani, Pino Henry, and the Adlakha family.