How We Survived Making Our First Feature Film Without a Crew, and the Greatest Fly Attack of Our Lives

Lifelong best friends Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff share adventures from making their debut feature The Planters alone in the desert.

It’s the spring of 2015 and we’re driving in the middle of nowhere – no humans, no human structures, no cell phone reception. Our gas tank is on empty. We’re here because we’re scouting for a feature film we don’t yet know we’ll put on hold so we can shoot another film instead. We’re here because we met in third grade and never stopped being best friends ever since. We’re here because we didn’t get gas when we should have.

In this moment, we’re sweating and thinking, “Great, the car’s going to break down and we’re going to be lost to the earth, picked up by some creep, shot in these majestic, low-rolling mountains of New Mexico. At least it’s pretty here.” In this friendship, we have a tendency towards hyperbole.

Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder during the making of The Planters.

Hyperbole in the sense that, a couple days later, we’re walking out of a tattoo shop in Austin, Texas, with unplanned, matching tattoos signifying 20 years of friendship – tattoos that for some reason still hurt to the touch today. Hyperbole in the sense that a year after permanently injecting ink into our skin, we’re caravanning on another road trip – this one to the desert to go shoot and star in a feature film without any crew but ourselves. We’ve prepared for a six-week shoot at this point, our tiny cars packed to the brim with sound and camera equipment, costumes, props, and our beloved script. We’re giddily bobbing our heads to music, recklessly blasting off into a future we could never foretell – a six-week pipe dream that turned into 127 days of shooting our first feature film.

Had we known that we’d be sacrificing the bitter end of our 20s to film The Planters, we probably wouldn’t have done it. We couldn’t know then that we were literally about to be living inside of Groundhog Day for two years, without Bill Murray and without snow, but with each other and 115-degree Fahrenheit heat instead.

Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder, best friends since third grade.

The day we relived over and over was this:
Wake up to the sounds of our collective cell phone alarms. Eat bowls of oatmeal and discuss the day ahead, or current planetary aspects in the sky. Proceed to the bathroom to do our own hair and make-up. Chatter about new pimples and hairs that won’t behave. Find the shot list we’d prepped the previous Sunday on scraps of paper or in notes on our phones. Set up the camera accordingly. Fasten lavalier mics to our chests and shotgun mics to microphone stands. Hit “record” on the camera and run into frame for test shots. Review the footage on the three-inch camera monitor. Try and try again until the shot is right. Press “record” for real. Get lost in make-believe. Lose track of time and space. Sweat through our thrift-store costumes in the AC-less air (we turned it off for good, clean sound), or just plain old hot air if outside. Powder our faces. Try to keep the make-up on. Just. Long. Enough. Drink water, but sometimes not enough. Break for lunch. Rinse, repeat. Break for the day. Offload, organize and review footage. Cook dinner. Eat. Rehearse the scene(s) for the following day. Fall into a deep sleep of desert dreams.

Multiplied by one hundred and twenty-seven.

Collective madness can be a healthy thing. Had we called it quits on this reality before the journey ever began, or even midway through it, we never would have finished this love letter to our friendship in the form of a film. We also never would have faced the greatest fly attack of our lives.

Near the end of production, we went to shoot exteriors for two locations and found ourselves somewhere in New Mexico we’d never been before. It was a quaint town with abandoned buildings, fabled to be the site of the last public hanging in the state. We were in good spirits, fueled by true-crime podcasts and the knowledge that we were just days away from the very end of filming.

Alexandra Kotcheff lines up a shot while filming The Planters.

We worked without interruption for most of the day, that is until around 4:30 p.m., when an ominous man drove up in a tan station wagon with the windows rolled down and a gun on his passenger seat.

What are you ladies doing out here?” His voice was hoarse, like loose gravel.

Hannah replied innocently in full costume – a wedding dress with a blue helmet locked to her head with a stainless-steel chain: “Oh, we’re just shooting a little art project!”

He looked her up and down, then darted his eyes to Alexandra, clothed in brown overalls, braids and army boots. “Well, you ladies best be going knowin’. It’s almost 5. The flies are coming.”

He drove off without another word. We squealed and screamed: “He’s going to come back!” “He’s going to kill us!” “Let’s get this last shot and get the fuck out of here!”

We scrambled and shook, fearing for our lives but pushing through the panic as we couldn’t possibly leave before the last set-up! We couldn’t know then that this shot would never see the light of day, as a year later we would viciously strike it from the film. We also couldn’t know that, as the clock struck 5 p.m. on that day, we thought we were going to die in New Mexico (for the second time), as a horde of flies, biblical in proportion, would swarm our clothes, faces, hair, equipment, and our rented van. The man wasn’t going to kill us. The flies were.

We cried. We laughed. We caught flies in our mouths, howling with tears and laughter.

Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff in The Planters.

We didn’t run out of gas in New Mexico that spring of 2015. And we didn’t get eaten to death by flies in the same state a few years later. If we could make it together through the growing pains of blossoming from curious, precarious eight-year-olds into wiser but equally unpredictable adults, we could make it through anything. Through sheer delusion, hysterical faith in one another, and countless belly laughs that would make most lose bowel control, we survived to watch our first baby being birthed into the world.

How we wonder what joyful, freakish escapades the second will bring.

 

All images courtesy of Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff and copyright The Planters Film, LLC.

Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff are the writer-directors and stars of The Planters, a film they made on their own without a crew, which is out now in select theaters and virtual cinemas. Leder is a filmmaker and actress who attended New School University in New York, where she received a B.A. in Writing and wrote her first novella. Her first screenplay, co-written with Kotcheff, was a finalist for the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. She directed and co-starred in Auto-Cowrecked, a comedic short which ran in 28 film festivals nationwide. Prior to The Planters, Leder guest starred in HBO’s The Comeback, Love on Netflix, and ABC’s Revenge. She is currently a reoccurring guest star on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show. Kotcheff is a writer, director, producer and actress based in Los Angeles who is the founder of Fire Tiger Films, an auteur-driven production company, where she is currently developing projects for film and television. Along with scripted work, Kotcheff has been involved in multiple non-fiction projects and is currently producing two feature length documentaries. She worked briefly as a child actress. The Planters is her first acting role as an adult.