Stick Doll - Short Film (2021)
I'm finally getting around to sitting down and writing a bit about the production of Stick Doll - now that it's finished, the color graded, the sound mixed, the final cuts exported and the film festival submissions made. (With one Official Selection at the time this was written!)
Stick Doll began when I started my search for a low budget horror short to work on as a fall 2019 project. After doing comedy for 3 years with Yes, Hello! (yeshello.tv) and half directing a cancelled comedy feature, I knew I wanted to make something scary. I posted ads on several writers/screenwriting forums and social media groups and eventually found the Stick Doll script by Philadelphia writer Sara McDermott Jain. The simplicity of the script immediately drew me in. For those who have not seen it (no spoilers) a young woman is haunted by a disturbing visitor from her childhood.
A Stick Doll, dressed in rags, appears on the floor of her bedroom while packing up her ex-boyfriend's things. That was the setup and I loved it.
I setup a meeting with Sara and associate producer Laura Hoffman over a few drinks... and apps and zerts. I mentioned that I wanted to take the script a bit further and show the first appearance of the doll. We thought showing the lead, who at the time was named... Jill I think?, as a child with her friends - who stumble across the doll while playing in the woods.
The script was finalized. I discussed the project with my friend and fellow filmmaker Derek Mindler (who was previously the cinematographer on the previously mentioned canceleld feature film) and he immediately expressed interest - saying the film had "Lights Out" vibes.
I pitched the idea to Miguel Soares who put up the funding for principal photography and we set off to make the film. To save money we shot the film at my house. I repaint two rooms to match the color palette we were going for. Our look book drew inspiration from "IT" and other similar films. At the time we planned on shooting the film at night to really bring the look home. It wasn't until the first day of shooting, when we were about to black-out a couple windows of the house, to shoot day for night, that we thought it actually looked pretty creepy in the daytime and a last minute decision was made to film it in the light.
Marjorie Cabrera was cast as the lead and the characters name was changed to Sofia (to accommodate Marjorie's accent.) The film was shot over two and a half days in Philadelphia PA and the surrounding suburbs. (Ambler and Manayunk) An incredible cast of 5 children were cast to star in the flashback scenes and they absolutely nailed it. Such professionalism and talent in such young actors. It was my first time working with kids in a film and I was just blown away. Another challenge was to find kids who look like their adult counterparts that were already cast. I not only had to find a young girl who looks like she could pass as a young Marjorie - but also cast her sister!
Originally in the script Young Sofia and her sister Isabella had lines - but I removed them after we cast Marjorie because I didn't want the children to have to try and replicate her accent. That could have been disasterous and very, culturally, wrong. So I decided to have them just watch and react. Leanne Parks (who played Young Sofia) and Leela Cohen were PERFECT for the roles. One challenge I DID have regarding Marjorie's accent was finding an actress who could play her sister on the other end of the phone call. I found a Spanish speaking Philadelphia actress Natalia Laspina who recorded her lines in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, using her car as a sound booth, parked in front of my house. The voice of Ryan was recorded by Anthony Notarile while on the set of another film. The sound guy recorded his lines for me.
In all the cast worked out perfectly and everyone did an incredible. job. Marjorie's performance is painful to watch - in a GOOD way! You just want to help her! And Mark Farrell, who played young Jimmy absolutely NAILED it. I had fun "painting a soundscape with his screams". Wrapping up the cast Ta'j and Chloe Joelle Hally were Trevor and Emily who's back and forth dialog makes me laugh every time.
I got the doll out of the car and brought it over to the kids and said "Here! Do you want to see it?" they all immediately said no and tried to walk away from it. That's when I knew the prop I made was done right. Mission accomplished.
One shot that I really wanted in the film was that of the train going over the bridge. I wanted this shot for a couple of reasons. One, it adds an extra dimension and depth to the film. It's kids playing in a dangerous place, paying no attention to those dangers. There could be a dangerous hobo living under the bridge, kids wouldn't care. There actually were homeless people living in close proximity to where we were shooting and I brought security with me just in case. It made the parents feel safer and also protected probably $100k worth of equipment. We had a couple questionable people drive by our set over the course of the half day we were there.
The other reason I wanted that train shot so bad was - we were shooting underneath i76 - a major highway heading in and out of Philadelphia. The traffic noise overhead was LOUD and with heavy reverb. Nock Mazuchowski, the sound recorder, was struggling to keep the noise level at a minimum so that the background noise could be removed at a later time. As a backup plan, in case the noise was unable to be removed, I wanted a practical reason for that noise to exist. Adding some train foley over the scene would perfectly camouflage that highway noise.
Back to the train shot. In order to plan for this shot I found the name of the railway that owns the particular stretch of track I wanted to use. Specifically over this old bridge. It was owned by Norfolk Southern. I contacted the company, explained who I was, and told them I was trying to get a train schedule between two certain points approaching Philadelphia from King of Prussia. The employee told me they weren't allowed to give me that information that I could be a terrorist. Fair enough. I wasn't giving up.
With a simple Facebook search I found a list of Norfolk Southern employees (specifically engineers) living in the Philadelphia area. (Amazing how easy that is.) After contacting a few employees I found one who was able to give me some information. He said a train passes both directions across that bridge almost everyday but the times vary. He did say the inbound train is usually between 11am - 1pm. This was extremely helpful.
I told our camera crew to be ready to shoot this train. Sure enough, as we were setting up the final jib shot of the film, the train went by. No time to get the camera off the jib... we missed it.
Now I know what you're thinking - but I saw the train shot in the film! It scared the absolute shit out of me! Well, about a year later - almost to the day - I went back to the location with my new Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 6K camera (with the same color sensor as the Ursa Mini we used to shoot primaries) and got shots of the train passing by. I went early, and sat there for about an hour when I heard it coming.
Then the footage went to visual effects genius David Gechman who took the kids from an unused take and digitally inserted them into the new train shot... and did it so well that we did it twice! There are two train shots in the film, neither of which actually have children standing under them. So after a year, I finally got my train shots and in my opinion, in world building alone, were worth every penny and minute spent on them and they've actually become some of the most iconic shots in the film.
Another fun story from that day... originally the doll was supposed to be found inside an old sewer drain in the middle of the woods. I had scouted an incredible location and Derek (DP) and I visited the spot before hand to plan out a few shots. On the day of the shoot he and I were walking down to the location, to begin setting up, when I felt a pinch on my leg. Then one on my arm. I looked down to see myself covered in yellow jackets. Derek realized that he too was getting stung and we both took-off running. They were all over my jeans, stinging me in the arms and armpit. I think Derek and I each got stung 4 or 5 times. Fortunately there were 5 moms on set who had first aid kits who were able to provide us with sprays, ointments and ice packs.
The film was edited over the next year and since I live where we shot the film I was able to get insert shots like the dripping water faucet, record needle closeups and the like at home - as I felt they were necessary. It was quite convenient. The color was done by my friend Tristan Kneschke who is a professional colorist in New York City. Our jump-off point was a "Black Swan" LUT which Tristan then tweaked and did an outstanding job with the color.
The concept of an original score terrified me. I had never had music written FOR a film of my own (only previously used royalty free sites like Soundstripe) or, as a musician, I've written music for my own films before, but never contracted someone else with the task. As a place holder I had used two songs from THE VVITCH and edited the film with that tone in mind. I met Arnaud Drieu on a Philadelphia Filmmakers Group (even though he lives in Paris, France) and we setup a Zoom meeting. We watched the film together and Arnaud took notes. He asked a number of questions that helped him get a feel for what I was going for. My notes were that I wanted something organic, no synth, something with discord, strings, energy and stress. Within a week or so Arnaud had the first track for me to hear and it was perfect. Sorry, i mean... c'est parfait! The second track soon followed - another hit - and with minimal tweaking Arnaud had the score exactly where it needed to be. I can NOT wait to work with him again and would love to even get him involved before my next film is shot, so we can collaborate. The original score can be heard on Spotify, Apple Music or Google Play.
Finally the sound was mixed at Philadelphia Post (phillypost.tv) and this was also a first for me. After working with another sound mixer on the project (who will remain nameless) who really soured the milk for me with his unprofessionalism and inability to take criticism - I was hesitant to entrust the film to another sound mixer. Fortunately the experience I had with Philly Post, and specifically sound mixer Steve Campagna, was absolutely incredible and I will never make a film again that doesn't get this treatment. After watching my film for 2 years, seeing it at Philly Post, and hearing it on their speakers, with someone mixing it live... was like seeing the film for the first time. I can not wait to do it over again - it was a magical experience to witness such wizardry of sound design.
At the time that this case study was written the film was entered into 9 horror film festivals around the world and has had its first Official Selection in the Tokyo International Short Film Festival - and has placed as a finalist. Other festivals include Telluride Horror Show, Toronto After Dark, Salem Horror Festival, Atlanta Horror Fest, Etheral Film Festival (Austin TX) New York City Horror Film Festival and the Brooklyn Horror Festival.
Extra special thank you to everyone who helped make this film possible. The film will be available to view online following its 2021 fall/winter film festival run.