Opinion

How a Micro-Movie Success Story Fueled ‘Dead Air’

Indie filmmaker Kevin Hicks shares the secrets behind his lo-fi indie thriller

I’ve found that any level of success is often just as much – if not more – a matter of timing as it is talent.

But it makes no difference if you find yourself “in the right place at the right time” without a key to open that door.

Needing to MAKE something (rather than TALK about making something) after a nine-year lull was just one of the reasons why we directed “Doppel” – our self-starring, improvised found footage film, shot on a smartphone.

Doppel Trailer | 2020

The other was to hopefully use “Doppel” as a means to “getting to the next one.” With more and more online platforms springing up, it made sense to be producing movies in what seemed to be headed toward a “seller’s market.”

That was before COVID.

In March of 2020, while we were finishing up our “Doppel” deliverables and awaiting our April 14th release date, Hollywood immediately shut down, along with much of the rest of the western world. So, envisioning a scenario where there would be even LESS new movies out there, spread across more and more platforms, wasn’t a hunch – it was simple math.

Now that “Doppel” had opened the door for us with a legitimate distributor, we decided we needed to make another film. The sooner, the better. But we were still limited with our financial resources, not having “enough success” yet to raise any significant amounts of money. There were also the social restrictions that were in place as a result of COVID.

So, we needed to be “small” for a number of reasons.

We decided we would, once again, use our house as a primary location. We also decided that, once again, Vickie and I would be in it (subscribing to the Edward Burns theory that, if you cast yourself, you know at least one of your actors is always going to show up). After tossing around some ideas, we homed in on an idea surrounding some kind of “haunted radio.”

Vickie went to work on the script, and about a month later, we had “Dead Air” ready to begin pre-production. With me and Vickie taking on two of the leads, we would need a few other actors – a third lead, a couple of day players and three kids.

Dead Air TRAILER | 2021

At this point, “Doppel” had been released. Seeing that progress prompted a good friend of mine, Mark Skodzinski, to reach out and get involved as an executive producer. He was also willing to play one of our small parts. He also had two daughters with some theater experience. So, from one source, we would be getting some very appreciated financial support and three cast members. Not bad.

Another friend of ours, Chris Xaver, agreed to play the third lead (and found us the secondary location we would need). Others we have worked with in the past filled out other on-screen and voice talent needs, leaving us with the part of a 10 year-old boy yet to fill.

The Secret to Films Featuring Children

Our previous experiences – primarily in commercial video production – have taught us that, when casting minors, you are auditioning the parents just much as you are auditioning their kids. You see a lot of shows out there that cast siblings – and not just twins and triplets to rotate on longer shoots. It’s a safe guess that at least some of those castings happen to limit the number of parents involved.

Our 10 year-old boy turned out to be a great kid with great parents. We found him through an associate of ours, who knew about the project and suggested her nephew, Luca, for the part. We met with Luca’s family and fell in love with all of them instantly. We offered Luca the part. His only demands were donuts and pizza.

We were now fully cast! On to the crew…

Since the majority of the movie was dialog-driven, with characters predominately static in most scenes, we decided to add a camera and shoot two angles simultaneously. Our lighting schemes (once initially set up), needed only a bit of tweaking from scene to scene. The show called for minimal set dressing. All of these factors cut down on our crew needs.

So we ended up with two camera operators, a boom operator, and a script supervisor. No other keys or crew. No PAs. We even decided to forego an Assistant Director and run the set ourselves. (That would work for this particular show, but would give us a false sense of accomplishment, which would inevitably bite us in the ass a bit on our next show, “The Forever Room.”)

The plus side of shooting a dialog-heavy movie with two cameras was that we could bust through the entire show in seven days. The down side of all of that was that we had to shoot about 12 pages a day, covering over 600 total lines between me and Vickie.

So, even though we were saving time and money by casting ourselves, we were stretching things a bit by wearing so many hats. The result was, I wasn’t always wearing my “director hat” as squarely as I would’ve wanted to.

RELATED: Low-Budget ‘Exit O’ Captures Joys of Indie Filmmaking

The result was never anything that I couldn’t live with – or even anything that anybody else would likely even notice – but I decided after that that any parts I might play in future shows would be minimal. It wasn’t a disappointing decision, since acting – though fun in small doses – is not why I’m doing this.

Lonnie Park came back on as our composer, and would also track two songs for us. One of those songs we wrote – “Old Stories” – needed to sound like an old crooner’s tune from the 30s or 40s. What Lonnie did with it was brilliant – an arrangement that nailed the sound of that period, right down to the crackle of the turntable needle.

It’s nice to be life-long friends with a Grammy-nominated musician.

No Red Carpet, No Problem

Once again, our “premiere” was a small screening for those involved in the project. Everyone seemed to enjoy the movie and follow the third act twists without any problem. 

We were already anticipating that Freestyle Digital Media was going to pick it up, and they did – offering us a deal immediately after their first viewing of it.

Making “Dead Air” confirmed one thing that I already knew about filmmaking – movies are a LOT of work. And no matter how small you try to make them in terms of cast, aesthetics and logistics, they still require an enormous amount of time, effort, and attention to detail if you want them to turn out right.

We still felt that the “seller’s” opportunity was just as promising as ever, so we immediately began work on the next one – which would see us bumping things up yet again, while still remaining lean.

It would be a risk to make yet another film before seeing how “Doppel” (and now “Dead Air”) would play out. But making films is inherently a risk to begin with – and with the studios still dark, the timing and opportunity still seemed to be on our side.

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Kevin Hicks is a full-time video producer, writer and film director. Owner of Hark Productions (commercial video) and co-owner of Chinimble Lore (film & entertainment production), he lives in Lansing NY with his wife, writer/producer Vickie Hicks.

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