“So, What Did We Learn?”

Writer-director Brian Duffield on making Spontaneous for three years in three countries for multiple owners before a pandemic.

I am extremely tired.

Making a movie is like running a marathon, except to be honest I don’t even know how that analogy works because I’m too lazy to run a marathon. But it sounds right, as all clichés do. I remember picking friends up after they ran marathons and how they’d basically look like E.T. dying in the river (spoiler: E.T. really just ran a marathon before Michael found him) and think to myself, This is why I will not be a running a marathon. I just made a movie and instead of it lasting for an annoying afternoon, it lasted for almost three years.

So yeah, I am extremely tired. But I’m also ready to go again as soon as possible.

My movie Spontaneous is, at its most reductive, the exploding kids movie. But it’s about how we deal with things that we have no control over, when there’s no bad guy to blame, and how we have to accept that’s just part of life. So of course, that also turned out to be the lesson I took from making the movie.

Did you know that you should not shoot scenes that take place in the summer in a snowstorm? While I don’t recall this being taught to me in film school, I believe I knew this information before filming. But sometimes you get dealt the snowy hand, and even though we re-arranged our schedule to try and avoid the snowstorms as much as possible, it still found us on our one entirely exterior day. We were just a couple days from wrapping our 21-day shoot and the biggest chunk of the day was, naturally, the longest scene in the movie. Without being too spoilery, it’s in the third act and is one of those scenes that the movie just doesn’t work without.

Me, being an idiot, as it snows for the 12,000th time. (Photo by Max Scholnick.)

So, naturally, it was the day we got slammed with the most snow and we were barely able to shoot any of it. It was a bad day. So bad that my wrap gift from my assistant Max was some art he had made of me on that day, stomping away to figure out how exactly we could finish the movie without, ya know, the end of the movie.

In the end, I figured it out not by myself, but the help of a cast that didn’t (publicly) mind that they probably almost got pneumonia for no reason, and a crew that worked their ass off. And so the scene, which takes place entirely in a graveyard one summer’s night, was shot in three different locations on three different days, predominately on a warehouse floor covered in fake grass. Filming wrapped, with a few seemingly fixable holes to fill. I flew home from Vancouver on Saturday and went straight into editing on Monday. It was March 2018.

Film school also did not prepare me for what would happen if the studio that financed your movie sold to a conglomerate and laid off most of their staff (including your producer). The unfinished movie was put into a lull because, to put it bluntly, no one was quite sure who owned what we had just shot and edited. But now, with an incomplete movie and a now pregnant wife, I was again left with the question, How the hell do I finish this movie?

Kaitlyn Bernard getting drenched in blood for the second time in Spontaneous, the most of anyone. (Photo by Max Scholnick.)

The answer was, you guessed it, not by myself. After a string of pathetic Twistian Please, sir, may I finish my movie, sir? e-mails went unacknowledged (or maybe I just had the wrong e-mail addresses), assistant Max (who at this point had been promoted to a producer) and a bunch of people that had nothing to do with the movie banded together and helped film what we could. We shot scenes in my garage and in my almost-born daughter’s nursery. Friends gleefully covered themselves in blood we made in our kitchen. A scripted shot of our lead actress Katherine Langford being pregnant had been excised so we could shoot our warehouse-floor ending a year prior. My wife, not pregnant when we had filmed the movie, was now extremely pregnant and shot the scene herself. Katherine, now in Europe, rooted for us over text.

My daughter was born a few weeks later.

By the end of 2019, things started happening. Some 18 months after filming wrapped, we got a post-production supervisor! They were great, and I highly recommend having one. The footage we had stealthily shot in my house was placed into the cut (we never heard if anyone noticed). My daughter visited the sound mix, walking nervously around as high schoolers exploded on screen and we debated how an exploding teenager should sound. She walked around the music studio as our wonderful composer Joseph Trapanese, on the movie since 2018, finally got to finish his score. We spent hours on color correcting, fixing things that probably only I would care about. The to-do list that had been open on my laptop since 2017 got smaller instead of bigger for the first time in years.

The movie was two years old at this point, and it was absolutely excruciating to have to revisit it daily, seeing all the things I would have done differently with two years of growth behind me. When people say nice things about it, I am convinced they are lying to me (except when it comes to the performances, which I am more proud of than I can explain and drink this praise up endlessly).

Right at the end of our journey, our New Zealander D.P. Aaron Morton and his daughter filmed some inserts for us. Assistant-Producer Max came up with a joke that made it into the movie, and then also the trailer. The movie had now somehow been shot in three different countries in three different years.

Katherine Langford and I laughing when told it will take two and a half years for the movie to be finished. (Photo by Max Scholnick.)

At our final review screening, we got to look at everything one last time (this turned out not to be true …) and make any last tweaks. My reps came. Assistant-Producer Max came (I should point out that I’ve now been paying him for two years for what was supposed to be 10 weeks) as did our post-production supervisor Jess Fischer, who over the preceding weeks had kicked everyone’s ass, made the movie better and given us the caffeine jolt we needed to see it through. The room was mostly empty when our colorist completed the film. Max gave me the wrap gift that had been sitting in his car for two years. It was February 2020.

Rounds of layoffs began hitting the studio as the result of a merger with another studio. Jess was laid off without getting the chance to deliver the film. “I think the people I would yell at about this also got laid off,” my manager told me. We laughed, because we were so tired. Tom Hanks got the Coronavirus and everything stopped again, as the world ended, and a movie 99.9 percent finished remained 99.9 percent finished. People asked, When is that movie coming out? Everyone needs movies now! I saw the subtextual assumption in their questions, that it’s a problematic movie that just didn’t come together. The angel on my shoulder, who at this point probably looked like my manager, reminded me that outside of a handful of friends and other studios, no one else has seen the movie. The studio, in fact, never sent notes. I hope they liked it.

And then at some point in August, we were told that the film was coming out in October. To quote the end of Spontaneous, it was very anticlimactic. I pre-ordered the movie last week. Now less than a week out, I remain incredibly skeptical that it’ll be released. In my defense, I’m also the writer of that Jane Got A Gun movie whose director didn’t show up for the first day of filming, so I am permanently skeptical. But so far, the internet still works, and our release date of October 6 is just around the corner. I indulged myself and read the first review. It was positive, and a three-year-long nightmare about getting 0 percent on Rotten Tomatoes fades away until the next production.

My daughter turned 19 months old last week.

My assistant-turn-producer Max treating me with the respect I deserve.

When people ask me, What are you doing to celebrate it being done and released? I answer honestly, Hopefully sleeping. I am extremely tired, at the end of the bad-analogy marathon. But unlike a marathon, the movie only got here because a lot of people, some paid (though not enough) and some just friends, carried it (and, to be honest, me) on their backs. I’m pretty sure that’s cheating in a marathon, but that feels par for the course in filmmaking. Suck on that, “A Film by” credits!

So, what did we learn? Katherine Langford’s character wonders at the end of Spontaneous (a line which was definitely stolen from Burn After Reading), and it’s a question I wonder myself. Katherine’s answer, which I wrote, is a lot of screaming profanity, which, yeah, that sounds about right. Good job, younger me. Almost none of what we dealt with was avoidable, or someone’s fault, and that’s just the pleasure of getting to make movies. And when I think back on the last few years, exhaustion and frustration definitely feature. But my friends and I trying to finish a homeless movie is some of the most fun I’ve ever had, and for better or worse, we got it done and it’ll be out, and it’ll be yours to watch while doing laundry or talking to your mom on the phone.

And now, I get to (finally) close the Spontaneous to-do list, and focus on the next movie’s to-do list that’s been sitting here for the past couple of months. Because, to quote the last line in the movie, The fuck else are you gonna do?


Featured image shows D.P. Aaron Morton and writer/director Brian Duffield on the (blood-drenched) set of Spontaneous. All images courtesy of Brian Duffield.

Brian Duffield is one of the most in demand screenwriters working today. His writing credits include The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Jane Got a Gun, The Babysitter, Underwater and the upcoming Monster Problems. Brian’s directorial debut Spontaneous starring Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer is currently playing in select drive-ins and will be available on VOD October 6, and he is in pre-production on an untitled bear horror comedy he is producing with Lord Miller for Universal Studios.