Thursday, March 19, 2020 may seem like a long way off for most us; but remind a filmmaker that their movie will premiere in seven months and it's a good bet that they'll flash you a smile usually reserved for high-stakes poker.
"The adage in movie-making is: 'There's the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit.' And those can be all very different films," said Scott Burkhardt, director and screenwriter of Girls Are Strong Here, winner of the 2019 1 Potato Screenwriter Award at the Sun Valley Film Festival. When Burkhardt's script won the top prize at this past March's SVFF, he and producer Celeste Matika knew that the clock was already ticking. The festival's expectation is daunting: The 1 Potato winner must be financed, cast, storyboarded, shot, edited and scored in time for its premiere exactly one year later.
"It's not unusual to be tweaking a film right up the last minute before a film is screened at a festival," said Matika. "It's not just the edit. It's the color correction. It's the sound design."
Matika flashed a smile to Burkhardt, soon after their cast and crew had pulled an all-nighter of shooting Girls Are Strong Here on location in Boise.
"It's a fascinating process to work with Scott because we consider all of the different ways to play a very specific beat in just one scene. We ask ourselves, 'Why don't we shoot an alternative take on this same scene?' That's one of the many ways that a scene can really come to life. In some ways, it's almost as creative as the writing. Wouldn't you say so, Scott?"
"Absolutely," Burkhardt said. "Yes, my script won the 1 Potato award, but a script changes over time. The locations that we found here in Boise, the cast that we brought together... we're all finding these amazing moments while film that we were never expecting. You bet; it's an evolving thing."
The conceit of Girls Are Strong Here couldn't be more perfect for the times: It introduces Saed, a Syrian refugee eking out a living as a mechanic in a modest garage in an unnamed American city (Naylor's Auto Repair in Boise is the film's all-important backdrop). Saed's faith is tested in his new home when an American teenager and her mother are stranded at his garage overnight. Already unsure about raising his own daughter in the U.S., the teen confirms Saed's suspicions that American girls are "disrespectful" and "headstrong." But when an abusive boyfriend catches up to them, Saed recognizes that the teenage girl's strong will is what allows her to survive. It's a story of empathy that asks us to reconsider our ideologies and assumptions.
"No, when I wrote the screenplay, it was definitely not by accident," said Burkhardt. "The things we all have in common trump the things that separate us. And please not that small 't" from trump; not capital "T" for Trump."
The 1 Potato initiative has a major caveat: The film must be shot in Idaho.
"We scouted for weeks and weeks, and Scott and I looked at a lot of Idaho locations," said Matika. "But we found this perfect spot in Boise we wanted to use for the garage."
That meant Matika had to knock on the door at Naylor's Auto Repair to ask a question not usually heard in these parts: "Can we film our movie here?"
"I was thrilled when they said, 'Hmmm. Well... OK, I guess.' People have been very generous here. Let's put it this way: We weren't chased off the property," said Matika, followed by a hearty laugh.
The next biggest challenge was casting, particularly the layered role of Saed. The central character is played by Los Angeles-based actor Adrian Tafesh.
"It's a pretty amazing journey for me. I was born in the States, but my own grandparents were refugeed from Syria some 70 years ago," said Tafesh. "When I got an email from Scott about being in the film, it was one of those moments that you dream about but think it probably will never happen. But there was the email. I submitted a video to audition, the ball started rolling and I got the part."
Tafesh said he's particularly thrilled at how Burkhardt's in-the-moment directing can capture some unexpected moments on film.
"My craft is all about how truthful you can be in the moment. It keeps it fresh, but it requires you to be malleable and athletic, in a sense, and ready to take anything on," he said.
Most on-location scenes for Girls Are Strong Here have wrapped in Boise, but there is much work to be done to craft a movie worthy of the 1 Potato honor. But the clock is ticking. Come hell, high water or anything equally dramatic, the cinema lights will dim on March 19, 2020, and the full filmmaking experience will be complete.