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home : columnists and contributors : columnists and contributors May 24, 2016

12/25/2013 12:01:00 AM
Essay: Making a movie in Northern Michigan
The cast and crew of “Bestseller” film in the office of Lake Street Media, 325 E. Lake St. in downtown Petoskey, during the first week of production, Oct. 14-20. (Photo courtesy Christina Rohn)
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The cast and crew of “Bestseller” film in the office of Lake Street Media, 325 E. Lake St. in downtown Petoskey, during the first week of production, Oct. 14-20. (Photo courtesy Christina Rohn)

By Christina Rohn, Special to Harbor Light Newspaper

I'm a night owl by nature - but this was pushing it.

Curled up in bed at 3 a.m., with a candle flickering on my nightstand, I read the entire 155-page adapted screenplay for "Bestseller."

With a hand covering my mouth, I flipped over the last page of the suspense thriller and sat quietly, taking it all in. "How are we going to do this?" I whispered softly, my words fading into the night.

Taking on a feature film is not easy task, especially for a small production company in northern Michigan. And doing it with what the Michigan Film Office deems an ultra-low budget can be nearly impossible.

This my behind-the-scenes look into the world and art of filmmaking.

The Proposal

In August of 2012, Christopher Wright, a self-published author out of Topinabee, approached my business partner in Lake Street Media, Scott Castelein, with a proposal. He wanted to make his adult novel "Bestseller" - which was written in 2001 and released in 2002 under his pseudonym Christopher Knight - into a feature-length film.

Wright is best known for his children's book series "Michigan Chillers" and "American Chillers," which he writes under the pen name Johnathan Rand.

Without hesitation, Scott agreed to make the film as lead producer and director of photography. He is a Petoskey native and 2009 graduate of the Institute of Production & Recording in Minneapolis, Minn.

When I was informed about the project, initially I was unsure about my place within the production.

Since 2009, Scott and I have worked to build our production company in downtown Petoskey - originally ScottieRock Productions, but recently renamed Lake Street Media. Our projects primarily include commercial photography and videography.

However, in the summer of 2010, Scott and I had the opportunity to co-direct a music video for Petoskey musician Michelle Chenard.

For us, "Blade" was a creative success. We were paid $1,000 and put every last cent back into the production. We came up with the concept and executed it in less than a month.

We premiered the video at City Park Grill in Petoskey in March of 2011 to resounding community support and applause.

With this experience under my belt, I was extremely interested in directing "Bestseller." However, I decided against putting my hat in the ring because I had not attended film school, was unsure of how to navigate a feature film, and to be honest, the $200,000 budget was rather intimidating.

I'm a writer by trade. With a bachelor's degree in journalism and broadcasting from Central Michigan University, I've worked at several newspapers throughout the state, including the Petoskey News-Review and most recently the Harbor Light newspaper.

I take pride in telling the stories of others. But I was about to throw myself whole-heartedly into this one.

After researching positions on a film set, I felt my abilities could be best utilized as first-assistant director. Little did I know, as a small budget, independent film, Scott and I would be taking on several positions at once.

The First Production

Before we could make the film, my first task was to reduce the page count of the screenplay, written by Travis Goddard of Wolverine.

As a general rule, every page of a screenplay counts for one minute onscreen. As it stood, the 155-page screenplay would have made roughly a two-and-a-half hour film.

Therefore, after several days of editing and revising, I was able to cut it to 79 pages, without compromising the integrity of the story.

"Bestseller" is a film about Chicago literary agent, Anne Harper, who vacations to a cabin in a remote area of the Upper Peninsula. While there, she receives an unexpected manuscript on her doorstep from an author whom she's turned down numerous times. The manuscript - "Bestseller" - is written with Harper in mind. It is about a successful literary agent who is stalked, tortured and killed by a disgruntled author while vacationing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As Harper reads through the manuscript, she begins to realize that the story isn't quite fiction - in fact, it's about to become her reality.

Going into our first production of the film, we hired a unit production manager out of Grand Rapids, who brought several colleagues along with him.

We were given 16 days in which to execute principle photography. The production began on July 15 in Petoskey and was halted six days later in Detour.

The primary reason was due to the poor performance of our unit production manager and one of his colleagues. To top it off, we lost our director to a family emergency on our fourth day of the production. As a result, I was given the directorship - and ran with it.

Another Go

Given the failings of the first production, Scott and I had learned a lot about the film business and its pitfalls, which we were determined to avoid the second time around.

After some research and networking, we teamed up with Collective Development Incorporated out of Lansing to produce "Bestseller."

They brought along with them a team of professionals from the Michigan film industry. Many were like Scott and myself - young, passionate and eager.

Our more than 25-person crew came from throughout Michigan, including Grand Rapids, Detroit, Lansing, Saugatuck, Traverse City and Petoskey.

After two weeks of intense pre-production, during which we locked down cast and crew, shooting locations, props, sponsorships, and accommodations - we were ready.

Our production - which is Michigan Film Office approved - ran from Oct. 14-Nov. 2, during which we had 18 days to film 175 scenes.

It was a marathon, of sorts.

During the first week, we filmed in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Bay View and several outlying areas throughout Emmet County.

For the final two weeks, we stayed primarily within the Carp Lake area, near our main cabin location.

Scott and myself pulled an average of 12-hour days with the rest of the crew, and spent an additional two to three hours going over shots for the next day.

Prior to the first production, Scott and I created a 20-page shot list. This is a detailed breakdown of how you want each shot of your film to look onscreen. It took us two weeks to create, as well as months of tweaking to perfect.

As photographers, both of us wanted to make sure that each frame of the film was interesting, inspiring and evoked emotion.

We were also very strategic in the way we wanted to present this film - as a psychological thriller. We didn't want it to be some cheesy, horror movie. On the contrary, we wanted to give our audience credit.

The older I get, the more I appreciate a good scare. And for me, that doesn't come with seeing blood and 'slasher' films. It comes from what I cannot see.

I am most on edge when I can't see the monster, or 'the thing that goes bump in the night.' My mind conjures up images much more frightening than what we could ever put on-screen.

And, with this in mind, we created images that will hopefully conjure these fears in every last audience member.

Memorable Moments

There were almost too many to count. Everyone on the crew had their own individual experiences, but my favorites included bonding with the cast and crew in some of the most tumultuous weather conditions.

We were plagued with rain, sleet and snow, but this only added to the dreariness of our film and allowed our cast and crew time to bond. Often myself; Nate, my first assistant director; the camera crew; as well as our gaffer and key grips were stuck under a large white tent waiting out the storm.

I loved these moments because it was a time for us to let go of the stress of the shoot and just have some time to goof off. We were on a tight schedule, but had no other choice but to wait out the weather.

In addition to this, some of my favorite moments were seeing the community support from individuals and businesses throughout northern Michigan who had a hand in helping us make our film.

Trout Creek Condominiums of Harbor Springs provided accommodations for the cast and crew. The Famous Polish Kitchen of Harbor Springs and Petoskey, Palette Bistro, Roast & Toast, City Park Grill, Twisted Olive, B.C. Pizza of Harbor Springs, Kentucky Fried Chicken of Petoskey, Jimmy Johns, Johan's Bakery of Petoskey, Sweet Maria's Confections and more donated meals to our cast and crew. The Petoskey Department of Public Safety opened their doors to us, as well as offered up their services to create a crime scene for our film, in addition to Allied EMS.

Businesses who opened their doors to us included Splash Properties, Greenwood Cemetery, Center City Gym, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, the Community Health Center of Northern Michigan, The Maples Resort of Carp Lake, Party Shoppe on Pickerel Lake and Pleasantview Winery.

Fletch's Buick and GMC of Petoskey loaned our production a 2014 silver Audi and a truck. We sure turned some heads when we mounted a camera to the hood of the Audi on Lake Street in Petoskey.

Many homeowners opened their doors to our production, including Beverly Moore of Carp Lake, Mary and John Kostecki of Detour, Jim and Trish Murray, Pat and Lisa Leavy, Debby and Rob Castelein and Gill in Bayview.

We cannot begin to thank these individuals enough for their support.

In addition, we were able to work with some extremely talented individuals to capture aerial footage, which increased the production value of our film. They include Tom and Evan of EAI Aerial in Grand Rapids.

Moving Forward

After wrapping principal photography on Nov. 2, it was only a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

We are currently in the post-production phase of the film, which includes editing footage, color grading, scoring the film and finalizing any last details with audio post-production.

Our goal is to release the film in fall of 2014. Through our work with Collective Development Incorporated, which has ties to distribution companies - both nationally and internationally- we hope to have a distribution deal and theatrical release.

Scott and I are honored to have been a part of this production, and more than anything, extremely proud that this film will feature the beautiful area in which we choose to live and work.

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