After Film School: A Chat with Filmmaker Lauren Barker
Emily Koopman: It’s been a while since we graduated from film school. What were some of the first things you did, film-wise, after graduation?
Lauren Barker: A few months after graduation, I moved back to my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t know if there was any film industry there or anyone making films, but I did a little research and went to an independent screening where I met a few people who make films as a hobby. I had a short film script in my back pocket that I wanted to direct, so I started talking about that with my new film friends and was able to direct it about a year later.
Emily: Congratulations on wrapping your first feature! This was a script you workshopped at VFS, right? How much has changed from your first to final draft? When you wrote it, did you know you also wanted to direct it when it went to screen?
Lauren: Thank you! Yes, this was the second feature project I wrote at VFS and we workshopped it. A ton of things have changed from the first draft; it’s interesting to look back on it, because over the last four years, I was trying to get it made, and I would have people read the script to see if they were interested and get their feedback. That was invaluable because even though I didn’t take every single note that I got, some people had great feedback that helped me strengthen the story. There are a select few things that I can think of that I had in the first draft that made it to the final, filmed version. Overall, though, a lot changed for the better. Early on in the writing process, I was actually considering trying to sell it by sending it to hundreds of companies that accept unsolicited screenplay submissions. Our mentor, John Meadows, had done the same with his feature screenplay a decade earlier and he got the one yes that led to the film getting made. Another VFS graduate, Seth Lochhead, did the same with his screenplay and that became the 2011 film Hanna. I was inspired by those two examples and felt like my screenplay was marketable. Ultimately, what changed was that I grew so attached to the story and the characters during the writing process. Knowing I wanted to direct in the future, I decided that I wanted to produce Cohabitation independently.
Emily: How did you know or decide that Cohabitation was going to be your first feature?
Lauren: It was my only feature screenplay for a while—I don’t count the first ever feature I wrote, which taught me a lot about feature writing but is not good —and even after I had written a couple more features, Cohabitation was the strongest screenplay I had. It had the most developed story and characters since I had spent the most time on it. On top of that, I was really excited to make it. I loved that it was a thriller, and even though I knew that would create producing challenges, I also knew it would be a story and film that people would be excited to work on and to eventually watch.
Emily: Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day looked like for you in pre-prod, production, and post?
Lauren: Once we finished our crowdfunding campaign, pre-production was all about organizing and figuring out our needs. My producer was super organized and helped me lay out what we needed to get done and when leading up to production. Reaching out to potential crew members, location scouting, script revisions, rehearsals, and coordinating equipment are all part of preproduction, so each day was wildly different from the last. During production, I would arrive on set each day and check in with my producer, AD, and DP, sometimes all together and sometimes separately. With all of them, we would discuss the day, particular needs if there were any, and what I was thinking for the shots that we had planned. This helped us tackle issues head on. After that, I would check in with the actors once they arrived, and I would ask them about their scenes, what’s happening in the scene and how their character is feeling. If we had time and/or it was a big scene, we would also rehearse so that they could get a feel for the scene. Then, we would start shooting, and the rest of the day would be about getting our coverage. There were a select few days when we also had to take a break and location scout for upcoming scenes or do a fight rehearsal as well, but mostly once we got settled in, it was about shooting our scenes. Post-production also includes a lot of different tasks, so some days I’m meeting with my editor to go over footage, other days I’m reaching out to potential composers, colorists, and sound designers, and I am also working on getting more funding for post.
Emily: What about distribution plans for the film?
Lauren: I want to send it to festivals, and I’m in the process of looking at deadlines for specific fests so that I can create a festival strategy. From there, I’d love to set up some other screenings around the country. I’ve looked into some distribution companies that help independent filmmakers get their movies into theaters for one night if you pre-sell enough tickets, so there’s no financial risk for the company or the filmmaker, and that sounds like a great way to spread your film far and wide. After that, I want to get it online and on DVD so people can stream it on services like Amazon, iTunes, and more.
Emily: How does completing a feature feel compared to completing a short? Is there a different sort of satisfaction?
Lauren: Features are just so much more than shorts. Not only in length, but the amount of preparation, the amount of days you shoot, the number of crew and cast members you work with; everything is just so much bigger with a feature. Because of that, yes, it is SO much more satisfying to wrap a feature.
Emily: Now that you’ve had a taste of both, do you have preference when it comes to being a writer or director? Or are you equally passionate about both?
Lauren: My passions for writing and directing are very close, but if I had to pick only one to do for the rest of my life, writing would win. Writing has always been my first love. All stories start on the page, and I love the process of getting a story out for the first time. I love being able to sit down in front of a blank page with an idea in my head and just let the scenes flow. Even revising, as hard as it can be sometimes, is also really rewarding and fun, because I’m making the story better and better as I go. I was pulled toward directing because it’s a continuation of shaping the story. I’m still getting the feel for a lot of what a director does, but through making my first shorts and, mainly, directing Cohabitation, I have learned so much about this job. Talking to actors, making shot lists, making decisions about what you want visually, the feel you want from scenes, it’s all really fun to think about. Directing challenges me in a way that writing often does not, because writing is so natural to me and has been for a long time. Directing is something I have to focus on and figure out, and I love the challenge of that.
Emily: What do you hope to accomplish with your storytelling and future narratives?
Lauren: At the end of the day, it’s all about creating stories that have an impact and that people can connect with. I love stories that inspire social change, but I’m also really drawn to character driven stories that are small but meaningful. One thing I get frustrated with when watching LGBT films is that so many of them are about dealing with being queer or homophobia. That’s the main queer narrative and therefore it’s often the only one that mainstream audiences are exposed to. We should talk about homophobia and the struggles queer people face, but I want there to be more to our stories than that, because there is so much more to our lives. I don’t walk around the world obsessing over the fact that I’m gay, and I want queer narratives to reflect that. I want more stories about LGBT+ people where they’re living their lives and dealing with other problems. I think that can go a long way when it comes to normalizing queer people, queer relationships, various gender identities, and more. I have a few screenplays that I’ve already written with this in mind, and more ideas on the way!
Emily: When it comes to writing a solid script, what do you think are some of the key points?
Lauren: The biggest problem that I see with writing, be it in student short films, indie features, and the like, is that the film isn’t about anything. There is no point to it. The characters don’t have any goals or they don’t know what to do with their lives, and that’s the most boring story. That’s not even a story! Even if you want to make a film about someone who doesn’t have direction, you need to introduce what they like, what they want in their life. If someone doesn’t have direction, it’s not because they don’t have life goals, it’s because they aren’t sure what steps to take to reach those goals. I’ve seen so many films where the main character is directionless and so the story just ambles along and has no point. The story needs to be about something! The character needs to have goals! I will forgive bad dialogue and plot holes if, at the very least, the film is about something. Features need subplots. I remember the first ever feature screenplay I wrote at VFS was really only about one thing. There were two weak subplots at the most. Cohabitation, on the other hand, has four main, developed subplots in addition to the A plot. While you need to focus on the main narrative and you don’t want to shove subplots in without developing them, you need something that’s a bit of a break from the main storyline. If it’s all just about one thing for two hours, the audience gets bored because it becomes too repetitive. I’ve seen a few films like this and while I’m watching, I’m a little bored, and it takes me a while to figure out why. And it’s because the characters are only ever dealing with one problem, and there’s never a break from that. There’s the adage about screenwriting for each scene: Arrive late, leave early. Ultimately, this is a good rule; you don’t need greetings leading into every scene. I sometimes, however, overuse this rule, and then I have to go back and incorporate some greetings or a way to transition from scene to scene, because otherwise you’re jumping from vitally important plot point to vitally important plot point, and that doesn’t work, and it can lead to the audience missing things. Lastly, when it comes to dialogue, work subtext into it. This is still a challenge for me when writing dialogue, but what helps me is to think about what the obvious thing for a character to say is, and then write something different. On the nose dialogue is so painful to hear. Work on this in revisions and add subtext to strengthen your dialogue.
Emily: Do you have any other major projects in the works? What’s next for you?
Lauren: Yes. I have a lot of balls up in the air. I want to make some short films this year. I also want to start shooting a documentary about social media addiction, which is an idea I’ve had for a few years now. I have some feature screenplays that I want to shoot, too, so I’m trying to figure out ways to raise funds so that I can make another narrative feature as soon as possible. Finally, I just started a podcast called Women Behind the Camera, which you can find on Spotify, Apple, Anchor, and most other podcast platforms! Each episode will involve a woman who works in film, and I’m really excited to see where the show goes!