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The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

Independent Film Production: A Professor’s Perspective

Khris Baxter, the screenwriting professor at Dickinson, gave a lecture focusing on how independent films come to fruition. Baxter, an accomplished screenwriter, producer and co-founder of Lost Mountain Entertainment, produced the film “Above the Shadows,” which stars Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Megan Fox and the comedian Jim Gaffigan. Baxter highlighted the production process and how this film went from screenplay to screen.

Baxter described “Above the Shadows” as a “magical, realist tale.” It follows the character Holly (played by Thirlby), who shortly after her mother passed away from cancer becomes completely invisible to the outside world. Eventually, she comes across a disgraced MMA fighter named Shayne Blackwell (played by Ritchson), who can see her. Holly works with Shayne to restart his career with hopes of being able to be seen once more.

The director, Claudia Myers, is a personal friend of Baxter’s. “We’ve been part of a screenwriting group that’s been around forever,” said Baxter. Myers teaches film at American University and a MFA program at Columbia. 

Baxter emphasized that making “independent films is difficult, especially nowadays.” The largest hurdle to getting a film off the ground is securing funding. Baxter emphasized that in order to secure funding, talent needs to be attached. “The only way to raise money is to get talent for the film … much has to happen before you get to the set, or even pre-production,” said Baxter. He described the process as “tedious and mundane.” In order to boost their chances of securing funding, Baxter signed popular actors, including Megan Fox and Jim Gaffigan. “Megan Fox equaled money for us,” said Baxter. “We needed somebody of that caliber to be in the project to close financing.” 

Regarding location, Baxter and the production team chose to film in New York City. During their time of filming, 23 other film projects were going on at that time. Baxter explained that they chose New York City to film in because of their generous tax credits toward film production. “Independent filmmakers chase tax credits,” said Baxter. These tax credits allow filmmakers to produce movies at a cheaper cost. 

Baxter also highlighted that producers look to use locations that can be multi-purpose. “Certain locations you may want are cost prohibitive. You want a location to be a swiss-army knife,” said Baxter. The production team used a large school and Catholic church to film a variety of scenes within the film. “We got very lucky with a very large Catholic church and school … up in Mount Vernon … we had multiple rooms and multiple locations. One of the cost savings in any film is not having to move locations,” said Baxter.

Most independent films take place indoors, using interior shots because “they’re much cheaper to film and you can control everything … the downside is that things feel closed in.” Baxter’s team used a drone pilot to get a lot of b-roll of New York City. “Drone photography has opened up independent film,” said Baxter.

Sometimes, film crews need to improvise. The director wanted a particular scene where Holly was swimming naked in a pool with other people, showcasing her invisible lifestyle. “We had a roof deck pool lined up for the shoot, it was all good until we got our days mixed up and it was no longer available,” said Baxter. To solve this, the production crew used an apartment from a colleague of Baxter’s wife and shot Holly walking back from the pool with an improvised sign making it look like she was walking back from an apartment pool. There was also a scene in which Baxter had to use a bus to film. To get all the necessary shots “we went around this half mile loop probably 20 times.” 

“Above the Shadows” is available on streaming applications such as Amazon Prime Video, and it can be streamed on Peacock and Tubi.

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