Melissa B. Miller Costanzo‘s new feature, the romantic comedy The List, starring Halston Sage and Christian Navarro, is out now on VOD through Universal Pictures. Her first feature as a writer-director, All These Small Moments, starring Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James and Jemima Kirke, came out theatrically in 2019. Working in the art department on such award winning films as Indignation, The Fighter, and Precious, she developed an eye for detail and a perspective defined by experience. Her first feature as a producer was The Tested, starring Aunjanue Ellis, which was accepted to the prestigious IFP Independent Filmmaker Lab and Emerging Narratives at IFP Film Week and took home the top prize at the American Black Film Festival.
There are many guideposts in a person’s career to show they have arrived. Money? Sure. Awards? Definitely. Missing your kid’s birthday? Well, stay with me here.
My first movie, All These Small Moments, was shot in New York City, where I live. I’d get picked up to go to set, then get a ride home at the end of the day. I was sleeping in my own bed and was with my family.
I had a young son at home, and even though my husband was picking up a lot of the slack, I still had responsibilities at the same as I was prepping for the next day.
However, my second film, The List (which comes out on August 22), is set in Los Angeles. It’s a rom-com about a New Yorker who, after finding out her fiancé has slept with someone on his celebrity free-pass list, goes to L.A. to try to sleep with someone from hers.
The producers had spent months trying to figure out how to shoot an L.A.-based film in NYC. The movie was going to be non-union, but the producers weren’t confident we could fly under the radar enough in New York.
“That show Tommy with Edie Falco did it!” I said.
“That show Tommy with Edie Falco did do it, but that show Tommy with Edie Falco had network money.” We did not.
We also considered shooting in D.C., New Jersey and other locations that would have kept me closer to home, but those would have meant making creative sacrifices to fit the story.
We ended up finding producing partners based in L.A. who had shot many non-union films in the same price range.
When it was finally confirmed we’d be shooting in L.A., the strangest sensations came over me. It reminded me of when I was pregnant and was convinced the whole time I was going to have a boy, but when the nurse actually told me I was having a boy, I burst into tears.
Or, more accurately, I felt like that Kristin Wiig character on SNL who couldn’t hold in the surprise of the surprise party so she jumped out the window. I was suppressing an unbridled joy, but I was also afraid. My face was hurting from trying not to smile. I too was about to jump out the window.
I was genuinely going to miss my family, but I was eager to start working and keep working all hours of the night and talk film theory with my D.P. over empanadas whenever I wanted! And to scout, scout, scout on the weekends, no matter who I inconvenienced!
There would be no cacophony of “Mom, Mom … Hey Mom, Mom!” There would be no ESPN morning shows!
So why, on the second day of shooting, was I sobbing uncontrollably into my Gelson’s Ceasar salad?
I remember I came home from set after a pretty good day. But it didn’t just happen that day – it was every single other day as well.
I’d get a tightening in my throat every time I walked in the door. Like I was going to lose my shit. But then, almost simultaneously, it would go away. I think it was just the big aloneness I felt. I was alone on this movie, alone in L.A., alone in this apartment.
How I felt while shooting The List mirrored what had happened on my first film as well. I had a good preproduction, my first day of shooting was easy (thank you, first A.D.), but on the second day, I felt like I lost all control. Like I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I’d be found out.
On All These Small Moments, I could just lie in the fetal position in my own closet and complain to my husband and tell him I wasn’t going back, but here I was stuck. I tried to call my husband, but he didn’t answer. I tried to call my parents; they didn’t answer either.
Jesus, I felt so alone. My lead actress then called to ask me something and I tried to hide how I was feeling, but I think she got suspicious when I started crying while discussing a pleated skirt. She ended up doing a great job of consoling me. Thanks, Halston!
After that day, I found myself increasingly adjusting to being away from my home and my family. It was the routine of it all; I didn’t have much downtime, so I threw myself into work.
What was also keeping me going was knowing I’d be flying home for my son’s birthday and his first day of school.
Until I wasn’t. The producer pulled me aside one day and let me know that because of Covid protocols, they couldn’t risk me flying back to New York.
“But I’ll take precautions – I promise!”
“We can’t risk it.”
“I suppose he’ll have other birthdays.”
“That’s the spirit.”
That was supposed to be a joke, I thought to myself, not a conversation closer.
Covid safety aside, I was getting a taste of what prioritizing meant if I wanted to have a career as a feature film director.
I started to rationalize. He’s only turning nine, it’s not like he’s turning 10! Then I’d be a terrible mom. Now I’m just following protocols. He’ll understand.
When you are faced with a situation like this, with it comes this sort of underlying feeling that if you are not willing to make certain sacrifices, you can bet your ass someone else will.
I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I could not take the time to step away from the film at all. I was at the head of this movie and I had responsibilities. My family was going to have to take the hit with me. They didn’t ask for this, but they were a part of it.
On a macro level, it was just a blip, but blips can be pretty all-consuming when you are living inside of them.
I know I’m not the first and I most certainly won’t be the last to go through something like this, but it doesn’t make it any easier! I can’t help but think, Hell, I missed my kid’s birthday … am I officially a director now?
Featured image shows Melissa B. Miller Costanzo on the set of The List. Image courtesy Universal Pictures.