Media Production Mentoring

Free online film school designed with beginning filmmakers in mind.


Short Film: Brent's Back

This is an adaptation of a 2,000 year old story from the middle east. It is the first short I've produced purely for practice/art and not for a class, festival, or my free film school. Brent's Back has similarities to Applejack and the scene Needle Pulling Thread in that I am working to bring ancient stories into modern contexts. All three were shot very quickly without lighting equipment or--apart of Applejack--microphones. These are examples of what I have been able to do with zero-budget film making. [NB: Always get your cast and crew food.] Most of the actors have never formally performed or been trained.

Behind the Scenes

The idea for Brent's Back started one Sunday morning when everyone else was singing in church and I felt like I was an outsider. But I got an image in my head of being at a party where the host has left a space for me next to him but I don't feel like joining in.

Outsider at a Party

I realized that the story fit well with the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 and following). I felt exactly like the older brother would have felt. I quickly got a draft written and sought out a bit of feedback. Hearing my idea, several people--including my dad--mentioned that my story lacked the historical context (Luke 15:1-3). The story lacked impact because it was missing its catalyst for meaning.

That's when I realized I needed to end my film with a title card:

Terrorists and pedophiles where hanging around him...

I got some push back from this idea because people felt like this was too strong. They recommended that I use something a bit less aggressive, like, "homosexuals and abortionists" or something. Similar thoughts had crossed my mind, but in today's culture, abortion and homosexuality are not culturally sins. It would work for a conservative Christian audience, but I'm publishing this to YouTube. I had to push further to find groups whom the majority of the audience would agree it'd be unwise to spend time with "those people."

Accessible to Culture

The story suffered from another cultural barrier: None of the original "shock value" elements evoked any kind of response. Pigs? Refusing to come inside? Even the idea of disrespecting your parent has lost impact. So I needed a way to bring these uncomfortable themes into a day and age when few things make people uncomfortable. The solution I uncovered was to make the father figure into a knocked up teenage girl. This left her character vulnerable, open to cultural pejoratives, and in an awkward space stuck between two competing ideals: grace and healthy boundaries. The older brother could come in and--legitimately--blast her for being inappropriate and foolish.


Having the older brother take care of the girl also allowed me to hint at a few other themes and ideas easily missed in the original story. For example, the fact that the money blown on the party was technically the older brother's. I originally spelled it out in the script, but cut that segment of dialog because it wasn't super clear and didn't help push the story forward; you can see me act out the moment to the cast and crew at 2:14 in the BTS video above.

For all the thought and agony put into the script, I did almost no pre-production. The film suffers for it. I couldn't get a cast or crew together. My friends are all very busy and a few of them had to bow out. This made planning almost impossible. I eventually just had to choose a day and hope people showed up. The day before we filmed, I still wasn't sure who was going to play a few key roles. It was terrifying.


That stress, unfortunately, discouraged me from actually doing the work of pre-producing my film. When we got on set, no one knew the script, what--exactly--we were filming, or what I needed them to do. I was hoping to shoot from 8pm until, perhaps, 11, but that was overly ambitious. The script was seven pages long and I think we had a total of 22 people on set. We got our first shot at 8:30 and wrapped the last shot at midnight. Not too bad, all things considered, but I was over-the-top stressed the whole time.

This was not helped by the fact that I couldn't get my microphone to send a signal to my camera right before we started filming. So after 30 minutes of fiddling with it, and getting behind on our shoot schedule, I decided to just record audio straight off the camera. This was incredibly frustrating, so much so that I didn't even bother to turn off the refrigerator, further compromising the audio.

I added the party music in post, and used an EQ filter to pull out most of the highs to give it the bass-y "outside" sound, and then removed the filter when I cut inside. When the music starts up again at the end, I had trouble deciding where the sound was "coming from"--was it outside or playing inside? Realistically, it should have been coming from outside, but the sound before had been inside. So, I played with it a bit and covered up the problem by starting a new song when Cal goes to the window.

There is, of course, much more to talk about with any production, but I'll stop there. If you have any questions, let me know!

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor

P.S. See more short films by Luke Holzmann here:


John Holzmann said...

I was struck by two things, Luke, and have one question.


1) I have heard the original story many times. And it touches me a little. But this version is the first that got me to cry. I cried for the older brother who finds himself unable to join in; for the girl who is willing to love him despite how he shames her in front of her guests; and for the guests who are treated to the shocking/embarrassing dress-down.

2) Despite knowing the "original" story, and despite having you tell me who he is, I never got a sense from the movie who Brent is. I watched it twice and still don't "get" it.

* I hear the girl say something to the "older brother" character about "your brother." But I couldn't understand the relationship(s). Why would this guy--the "older brother"--be providing housing for his (younger brother's?) girlfriend? . . . Or, despite what she says--and the absolute weirdness of having her suggest he may want to have sex with her--is the girl actually the sister to the "older brother," and Brent is her boyfriend . . . who got her "knocked up"?


Why can't you overdub the voices? Isn't that what commercial studios do? Or does that require technology way beyond what is available to you?

Oh. And one last


I had no idea the "older brother" had the baby in the car with him as he came home. --Or was that what you had imagined in the script, but you jettisoned that idea as well when you found your baby was so laid-back?

John Holzmann said...

Oh. I should have noted: I loved the performances by both of your leads. The girl, especially, with her expressions in the close-ups. VERY tough role to play--how do you love someone who has just completely humiliated you in front of all your friends?--but she pulls it off with aplomb.


Unknown said...

I intentionally left Brent in the background. He's not the focus of the tale. My hope was that having him have his arm around her in the hot tub that it'd be enough. But I didn't give that moment enough time when we shot it, so there wasn't enough to let that sink in. I probably should have cut between them and Cal a couple of times but I didn't have the footage for that.

As for the relationship, it's complicated and messy. Cal takes her in out of a sense of righteous obligation, doing what is right by taking care of his abandoned girl. But it irks him to no end that he's "cleaning up" his brother's mess who--by the by--got to have "all the fun." I think this theme is in the background of the original tale; there's a hint of jealousy that the younger brother got to have some wild times and still come back to everything. And I gave a nod to the sexual tension that would exist in such a situation which, I feel, is an imperfect echo of the "I don't even get a goat" complaint.

ADR/looping/re-recording/dubbing is really hard work. I do not have any special equipment for that. Plus, it's really hard to act with just you voice in front of a mic. And to get it to sync again is another layer of difficulty. I could have probably done it for a couple of the really poor quality sound bytes, but it wasn't worth the effort. As I said above: It was more important just to finish my movie and move on.

The baby is very much there. We cut to her in the car and he is carrying her when he comes into the house. Also, he hands her off before punching the door, and Jesse picks her up before going back outside. Editing made the "blanket" stand-in less noticeable [smile].

Yes, the actors are amazing! I am thrilled to be able to work with such talented people.