From Short Film to Unexpected Feature: How In Reality Came to Life

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Liz Manashil is a filmmaker and the manager of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative.

A few months ago, before I had a baby, I encountered the anti-romantic comedy feature film In Reality, which I immediately fell for. As I told the filmmakers later, it was the movie I needed when I was in my early 20s.

What started off as a short film project, which writer/director/star Ann Lupo hoped would help her get over being friend-zoned, turned into a feature film that takes you on a rollercoaster ride through the fantastical mind of a young woman falling in and out of love.

Struck by the filmmakers’ energy and commitment to their work—as they dedicated several years to bringing their story to life—I asked Lupo and producer Holly Meehl to walk me through how they got this film off the ground. In part two of this interview, we delve into how they devoted the same amount of care to releasing it into the world.


LM: Let’s talk about conception. Please break down for us the exact moment you came up with this film and its various iterations.

AL: The idea first occurred to me in February 2015. I’d been in this purgatory of being friends with someone I secretly hoped would eventually return my romantic feelings. This had been going on for a year, and suddenly I snapped. A year was too long to be stuck like I was, and I realized I was the only person who could really get myself out of this state. It also struck me that this wasn’t the first time I had been in unrequited love, and that in reality (no pun intended), that had become my relationship default. I wanted to figure out why that was. So it started as a way to get over this guy, but it quickly became an investigation of myself in order to grow and change in the ways I knew I needed to. And the best way I knew how to work my way through an internal problem was to make a film about it.

It started as a short. I would tell the story, recreate some of the scenes, and explore some larger love themes. I thought it would take a few weeks to complete and be 10 minutes tops. I’d get over the guy, put it up on Vimeo, maybe get a Staff Pick, and then call it a day. But the scale and scope of the project quickly escalated as soon as my teammates (Esteban Pedraza, Aaron Pryka, Nadine Martinez, Holly Meehl, and Miles Jackson) came aboard the project. It grew from the 10-minute short to three 10-minute shorts to a digital miniseries of six 10-minute episodes—and then eventually, after two years of production and development on it, we were given the opportunity to add 30 minutes to the completed miniseries and make it into a full-length feature.

What inspired you? Do you think there are other movies like this out there? If so, what are they?

AL: I was listening to a lot of This American Life at the time and loved the complexity of otherwise simple stories. I was inspired by Bianca Giaver’s video “I Love You” (which was produced by This American Life) and thought that was a cool form—some kind of hybrid between documentary, magical realism, and narrative fiction. I also saw The Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley around the same time, which is a feature documentary that uses really interesting recreation techniques to tell a very intimate personal narrative. I used those two films as the guides for how I would tell this story. I wanted it to be part documentary; I didn’t want to write a fictional story and pretend it wasn’t about me. I wanted to be my own guinea pig and see what kind of change I would go through if I put myself in the most vulnerable and open place I could by being the subject.

It also was very much my intention to make something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. My favorite movies have always been those that exist outside of the genre box or are an explosion of a particular genre. I wanted to make something that would be an experience to watch and would hopefully inspire people to say, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

For Ann: Why star in the film? Do you love to act? Was it to save money?

AL: While I’ve only barely taken “real” acting lessons, I love acting, especially creating eccentric characters. I did musical theatre growing up, and once I got into filmmaking I made a lot of short films with my family and friends, and I would always act in them. It never felt high stakes or pretentious, it was just about having fun and making something that was a pure enjoyment of the process. So there was never a version where I wasn’t going to act it in. Acting was by far the easiest part of the process for me.

For Holly: What inspired you to take on this film as a producer?

HM: Ann and I knew each other growing up, but we hadn’t crossed paths in over 15 years when we happened to run into each other at a networking event at IFP [the Independent Filmmaker Project]. We met up for drinks, and Ann told me about an idea she had for a short film exploring a failed romantic relationship that she was still in the process of getting over. At 25 years old, I could totally relate to the agony of being “friend-zoned” and the obsession that springs from unrequited love. Ann wanted this film experiment to be honest and relatable but also funny and fantastical, and I was immediately on board with the tone of the project. I’ve always loved romantic comedies, and this seemed like a fresh take on the genre.

At the time, I had produced one narrative web series but was primarily producing feature documentaries. I was still very interested in getting more involved with narrative films, and as In Reality blended doc and fiction, it felt like a natural way for me to flex my producing muscles. I also knew that Ann was extremely creative and talented, and I wanted to be a part of what she was making. I started showing up to shoots she was doing on weekends with her friends from NYU, and slowly the story started to build from short to digital series. Having prior experience with budgets, schedules, and fundraising, I was a natural fit to the small team of friends she had gathered to help her with the project, and off we went. We had no idea that two years later this project would turn into a feature film.

Can you talk a little bit about the makeup of the primary team, how you met each other, and how you got the project off the ground?

AL: The short film would never have become a feature film if our core team had not come together so organically very early on in the process. Esteban Pedraza (co-director/co-writer), Aaron Pryka (co-director/co-writer), Nadine Martinez (cinematographer), Miles G. Jackson (co-star), and I were all classmates at NYU and had worked together on a few projects. There was a level of friendship and trust that had already been established, so when I told them what I was working on in the early days they immediately offered to help. Fortuitously, Holly (who I had known since childhood) and I bumped into each other around the same time and she came aboard as our producer.

Along the way we had the great fortune of being guided and supported by incredible mentors who we lovingly refer to as our “Goddesses.” As first-time filmmakers, we had a lot to learn about how to take this crazy idea that didn’t quite fit into any box and develop it into something that could live on a proper platform and be seen. Freida Orange and Liviya Kraemer (the latter of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Pretty Matches) joined the team in early 2016 after seeing our short proof of concept, and they spent many nights and weekends helping connect us with the right people. Those efforts culminated in us meeting Winnie Kemp and Ellie Wen (execs at Super Deluxe at the time), who we met at Sundance in 2017. They watched the 60-minute miniseries version and encouraged us to make it into a feature film. The project continued to grow because people continued investing their time and money into it, and we were very lucky to have the support system that we did.

Can you talk freely about budget here? What did it take to make the feature version? Where did you find the funds? Are you a secret millionaire? Are you the best in an elevator pitch? What skills led to you having your full budget?

HM: Our budget was extremely unconventional for a fiction film because it never existed until we were already in the process of production. Like a documentary, the film kept evolving over the years, and therefore the budget kept growing. The first money in was from Ann, roughly $25,000 from editing a Ford ad campaign. That took us through the majority of our web series production until the fantasy sequences, for which we raised $45,000 on Kickstarter. We then scrambled together some loans for post-production, and the final iteration of our 60-minute digital miniseries cost around $90,000.

We thought we were done, but then Super Deluxe offered us financing to add 30 minutes to the film and make it into a feature in the spring of 2017. However, the contract was long and complicated, so as we worked it out with our lawyers, I decided to put some of my own savings into the film as a temporary loan. We also gathered some additional loans from friends and family, but although we anticipated paying that money back within a year, we made sure not to take loans from anyone who couldn’t afford it. We were lucky to have that support, because after a year of negotiating with Super Deluxe, their company shut down in the fall of 2018. We never received the money, but we also never signed the contract and therefore retained the rights to the film.

Over our three years of production from short to series to feature film, plus our final post and music licensing, our entire budget came to $260,000. This was what we spent to make the film, bring it to festivals, and deliver it to iTunes; however, it’s important to note that it doesn’t include the deferred fees for our core team, who pretty much worked for free for four years to get the film made. This budget also doesn’t include the money we spent on self-distribution.

Now on to production—go ahead and do the thing. How many days, how many locations, how many crew, how many actors?

HM:

  • 51 days of production between June 2015 and August 2017
  • 24 locations
  • 76 crew, including post crew
  • 74 actors, including extras

It’s important to note that we had to reshoot several scenes when we made the leap from the digital series to the feature version. However, each shoot from the digital series acted as a proof of concept/dress rehearsal for the crafting of the feature, so we included them in our final tally.

When things got tough during production, how did you keep going?

HM: Knowing how hard everyone was working for so little money in order to make a wacky indie film always kept me going. We had a really great energy on set, whether it was 5 of us or 50 of us. That teamwork always lifted me up whenever I got tired. I also am a firm believer in “pop-up” treats at a craft table. A surprise Oreo always boosts morale.

AL: Similar for me—so many people had invested not just their money (on our Kickstarter) but their time and talent, and I was determined to complete the absolute best final product for them that delivered on the original promise and vision. Sustaining the momentum was hard at times, but I would think about how far we had come and how many people believed in the project, and that would always propel me forward to the next challenge we had to overcome.

So you have a film in the can! How long did it take to edit? Sound? Color?

AL: The post process was funny because we were technically editing it on and off for all three years of the production. There are some scenes that were originally shot for the short back in 2015 that are still in the final cut and did not change from their original version. We edited the series version to completion over two months in 2016 and then, just as we were dropping the drives off at our colorist (Samuel Gursky at Irving Harvey), we got the offer to make it into a feature. So after the feature film production in summer 2017, Esteban and I edited for another two months.

Coloring the feature went in stages as well. We’d do an intensive week of coloring sessions with Sam and then step away for a few weeks, watch the cut for the millionth zillionth time, and come back for another week of intensive work. In total, we continued perfecting the post on the movie for over a year (bless Sam’s heart and soul). There was a “festival cut” and then after watching the film with audiences several times at festivals I noticed a few things I felt strongly needed to change before it went up on iTunes—which, luckily, Sam obliged.

James Lavino (composer), Eli Cohn (sound designer), and Jillian Ennis (music supervisor) were all creative accomplices in this process as well The final mix took about two weeks, but of course once we opened up the edit, we also re-opened sound, and luckily Eli was also very patient with us as we made our final adjustments.

In part two of this interview, we explore how the In Reality team executed a successful release strategy to bring their film into the world.

Lead photo: