While hundreds of Emerson seniors are looking forward to graduating this month, at least one member of the Class of 2017 is eagerly waiting for his first feature film to be completed.
Barren Trees was made by Brandon Golden ’17 and his production company, Project 10K, along with close to two dozen Emerson students and recent alumni, including co-directors Lei Zhenchuan ’16 and Ryan Eatherton ’16, who also wrote and stars in the film. It is scheduled to be sent to distributors May 22, according to Eatherton.
“We really want to develop this company,” Lei said. “Brandon, with his ability and how [Project 10K] is run really provided a platform for young filmmakers.”
The film tells two interconnected stories. In one, a pair of contract killers reeling from their own personal problems head to New Hampshire for their latest job, making a rash detour along the way. The second part tells the story of their victim, a middle-aged man in the witness protection program struggling with identity issues.
Golden said he had gotten somewhat disillusioned about the film industry while working on a set in New York, and had turned his attention to launching a clothing label, when he got the idea for a production company that would give young filmmakers $10,000 to make feature films.
Last summer, Lei, who worked with Golden at a local wearable brain interface maker, came to him with what they thought would be Golden’s first project. It was a script that Lei and Eatherton worked on together their freshman year. Eatherton, who wrote it, described it as a Guy Ritchie–type movie set in Boston that itself was an English adaptation of a script Lei wrote back home in China.
Everyone loved it. There was just one problem.
“What we realized shortly after was for the amount of money we had at the time…there was no way that movie was going to be made, because it had cock fighting and a giant shootout,” Eatherton said.
They decided Lei and Eatherton would develop, and Eatherton would write, a new script with a $10,000 budget in mind. Everyone loved the resulting screenplay, Barren Trees. There was just one problem.
“[T]here was no way it was going to be made for $10,000,” Eatherton recalled. “But we all liked it so much we decided to make it anyway.”
Determined to have complete creative control over the project, and not wanting to make promises they couldn’t keep, the team passed on launching a Kickstarter campaign and Golden was able to scrape together $60,000 between his own money and private investors to make Barren Trees a reality.
“I wanted to be able to say, ‘This is a feature film that we fronted, that we were so passionate about,’” Golden said.
The Project 10K team leveraged personal and Emerson connections to get help and advice from anywhere they could. Golden said he reached out to a former executive story editor for 60 Minutes, and Allyn Stewart, a producer of the film Sully, who told him to “make sure the movie is yours.”
Once shooting started, Lei reached out to Associate Professor Harlan Bosmajian, his cinematography instructor, who has been director of photography on dozens of films and TV series.
“I just started spamming him and said, ‘I’m doing my first feature film, and I need your help,’” said Lei, who worked with Bosmajian in New York on Breakable You, starring Holly Hunter and Tony Shalhoub. (“He was great, dedicated, a hard worker,” Bosmajian said of Lei. “I think he impressed the whole professional crew.”)
Bosmajian said he’s used to getting approached by graduating seniors and alumni about help finding work on a film, but not about making a full-length feature themselves.
“Not a lot of students go for the feature film right away,” Bosmajian said. “It’s a huge undertaking, and it takes a lot of time and resources. And for a cinematographer, you shoot the film and that takes about a month and a half and then you move on with the rest of your life, but for a director, you have to live with that film for, like, two years.”
Bosmajian said he told Lei to do as much prep work before shooting so he and his DP weren’t making creative decisions on set, to keep the lighting simple, and to “think about the simplest way to tell the story and still maintain a sense of style.”
He said $60,000 is a totally realistic budget for a good independent feature film.
“That was actually the budget of the first feature I ever shot as well, which was a black-and-white piece shot in Connecticut,” Bosmajian said. “You can’t shoot Lawrence of Arabia for $60,000, but you can shoot one of the many indie films that have done well; those are doable. Like Tangerine—you can shoot that for $60,000, but it has to begin with the script.”
The script, while totally fictional, takes elements of actual stories from Eatherton’s past. It combines adrenaline, like when the two hitmen, played by Eatherton and Dorchester actor George Walter Hooker IV, decide to rob a restaurant, with periods of introspective dialogue and quiet character study.
“I think it’s really interesting to explore the victim and to sort of have the last day of his life,” Lei said.
Eatherton, a triple threat as actor, writer, and co-director of the film, said he’s always wanted to pursue all of those possible careers equally.
“My idea my whole life is, I will pursue whichever one develops first, but on this I got to do all three,” he said.
Casting Eatherton as Derek, and Hooker, who nailed his audition, as Eddie, was easy, they all said. Casting the mark was a lot harder, until Eatherton remembered that he had a very particular 40-something man in mind when he was writing the character: his dad.
Phil Eatherton had no acting experience, but his son did, and thought he could direct him.
“If anybody wanted this to succeed as much as me, it’s my dad,” Ryan Eatherton said. “So I knew he would want this to go well and he would work his [tail] off.”
On screen, he looks like a natural, Eatherton said. On set he became known as “Phil Pacino.”
Lei said before he came to Emerson he worked for a couple of production companies in China, and he is working to sell the film in that country, as well as in the United States.
Last month, Golden said he had the opportunity to see a rough cut of Barren Trees.
“We were all on edge,” Golden said. “It could have been anywhere from not comprehendible to very good, and I saw it and I started crying, because I believe for the money…it could not have been better.”