I’ve lived around West Palm Beach for fifteen years, and to my knowledge, there’s only one hill in the whole city. On that hill rests the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts– Dreyfoos, for short.
Dreyfoos is a public high school, grades 9-12. In that respect, it’s fairly typical. What isn’t typical is that if you wish to attend, you’ll have to audition. The school is an arts magnet, and prospective students pick a department: theater, communications, band, vocal, orchestra, piano, visual art, or dance. Dreyfoos draws students from all over Palm Beach county, and for most prospective students and their parents, the audition is a nerve-wracking thing. If they attended an arts middle school, they’ll be more prepared for the rigors and anxiety of the audition process, but it’s still a tense and jittery time. After all, it will determine if your kid will be attending one of the top fifty high schools in the country or their local high school in the less-than-sterling Palm Beach school district.
I graduated from Dreyfoos about a decade ago, a product of the band department (trumpet, if you must know). I became a movie nerd in my four years there, mostly because DVD special editions really hit their stride, and I found that the making of the sausage was just as interesting as the sausage itself. Today, that still holds true. What fueled my movie craze even further was the fact that kids at Dreyfoos were making movies. The communications department had camcorders, shotgun mics, editing decks, and Avid machines. Kids saved up for MiniDV camcorders, which were all the rage because Danny Boyle had just shot 28 Days Later on MiniDV. Apple’s iMovie had been around for a few years, and Final Cut Express had just hit shelves. It was an interesting time for amateur movies: everyone watched everything in 4×3, YouTube wasn’t around yet, and no one carried a razor-thin HD camcorder in their pocket at all times. Those years feel like the dark ages now, and it was in those dark ages that a few classmates and I made our own feature length film.
Back in November, I caught a headline from the local rag on Twitter: “Dreyfoos pair debut first full-length movie“. The pair are sophomore Donnie O’Connor and junior Geronimo Morales, two best friends at Dreyfoos, who at the ages of fifteen and sixteen (respectively) wrote and directed a 122-minute comedy called Evan & Hunter. The film’s synopsis should be familiar to anyone who read this paragraph: two best friends make a movie, hijinks ensue. The film had a local premiere, and is now making its debut on VOD. It’s just hit YouTube, but O’Connor and Morales have their sights set on Netflix.
After reading that article from the Palm Beach Post, I sent the boys an e-mail asking for an interview, to which they enthusiastically agreed. Donnie seems like the quintessential contemporary teen: a tech-savvy YouTube fiend with a camera addiction. He’s in Dreyfoos’ theater department, which means he would’ve played Peter Pan while I played in the orchestra pit beneath his dangling, green-shod feet. Geronimo is in the band department, but has a deep appreciation for cinema. He seems a lot like me at sixteen.
Travis: So whose idea was all this, and where did you get the inspiration to turn it into a feature-length film?
Donnie: The idea to make a feature film was from both of us.
Travis: Before you started, what did you guys know about film production? How did you learn?
Donnie: We really didn’t know anything. I’ve been making YouTube videos since 5th grade, and in 6th grade Geronimo and I started making some really crappy short films. In 8th grade we started working on a web series that was always pretty bad. We just kept working and growing, and last year we made our first professional-like short film, Perfume and Guns. We learned A LOT from that, which helped make Evan & Hunter great.
Travis: How long did it take to finish the screenplay? Did you guys follow industry standard screenplay format?
Geronimo: The first outline of the screenplay only took one day. Donnie and I sat down, we already had ideas of how we wanted the movie to start, the climax, and how it ended. We agreed on a lot of things and funny ideas which helped it move along faster.
Donnie: The first draft didn’t follow any format. We eventually finished the script in about 2 weeks, but wound up adding about 4 more scenes during the rehearsal process. By the time we got to the final draft, we formatted it in industry standard using Celtx.com.
Travis: After the script was finalized, how long did it take for production to start?
Donnie: We finished the script in November 2013, and held auditions in December. Rehearsals were from January to March. First filming day was in March.
Travis: You are both credited as writers and directors. What was your partnership like, and how were duties divided?
Donnie: Our partnership was great! Geronimo and I have the same sense of stupid humor so it was easy to work with him. The fact that he and I are best friends also helped. We divided the writing like so: Geronimo came up with the basic plot. After that, we both came up with basic scenes together, I came up with most of the characters, names, and characteristics, and then we both wrote it together. We directed together, we were both behind the camera. If I wasn’t there one day, Geronimo took over and vice-versa. Also, Geronimo played a small part in the movie (“Juan”) and I played a small part as well (“Betty”). So during the scenes we were actually in, the other one took over.
Travis: What kind of equipment were you shooting with? How did you record audio?
Geronimo: We shot with two cameras– a Panasonic HMC40, and a Canon T3i. We recorded in multi-cam format. We had a shotgun mic plugged into our main camera, and had a boom mic operator holding it.
Travis: What kind of difficulties did you experience during production? Did you have to do re-writes? What was the most difficult thing you never anticipated?
Donnie: One big difficulty was weather. We had a lot of exterior scenes and the weather wasn’t always on our side with that. Another big difficulty was the cast. We cast one of the characters (“Montel”) to a kid who auditioned. Montel is written to be black. The original guy who was cast quit, so we had to find a replacement. We then sadly had to fire the replacement, and replaced him with Matthew Suarez, who’s white. We made that a joke that he’s a white kid who tries so hard to be black and it wound up being hilarious. Also, the actor who played Hunter, the lead character, kept going on vacation during filming! We hoped that filming would end by July, but it didn’t end until September. The scariest thing that happened was a week before the day of the movie premiere, I had my final draft of the movie saved on my computer, me not thinking at the time to save it to anything else, my computer broke! We start freaking out ’cause nothing was working. Like, four days before the premiere we had to go out and buy a new computer and back up everything to save the movie.
Travis: Okay, long question– you two are growing up in the YouTube generation. A kid can upload the right video to YouTube, share it with the right people, and BAM, thousands (or even millions) of people see it. I hate to sound like an old fart, but the first YouTube video in existence didn’t get uploaded until I was a month from graduating Dreyfoos. “YouTubers” weren’t a thing yet. Now, I can shoot, edit, and upload on my iPhone, and the product will look insanely good compared to the DVDs I was burning in high school. How has technology influenced the way young people make content? Is there always a feel of “this could go viral”?
Geronimo: I think all the new technology helps people a lot. I feel like before, you really had to have the right skills, the right equipment and connections, but now with YouTube and all this new social media, anyone can take videos from their phone, edit them and post them for anyone to see. Just look at people who went viral on Vine. They take six-second short videos with their phone and they travel the world now to meet fans. It’s so much easier nowadays for people like Donnie and myself to showcase our talent and creativity to the world. While writing the film we never really had any “viral” thoughts, it’s just something we love doing. If the movie were to “go viral” and the right people see it and all of a sudden we’re off to Hollywood, that would be great, but we don’t write to be viral. We write to entertain the viewers, whether it’s fifteen people who see it or a million.
Travis: What was a typical shooting day like?
Donnie: There really was no typical day of filming. Some were a blast and others were really stressful. I guess if I had to describe a typical day of filming it would be like this– Wake up at 9:00 AM. Geronimo gets driven to my house at around 11. Our amazing executive producer, Dart Drew, comes over and picks us up and takes us to the filming location. Filming starts at 1:00pm and ends whenever. Crew gets to filming location an hour before cast to set up and discuss the shots, and the scene itself. Crew was run by our production manager, Grace Wess. The cast arrives at 1:00 (although they were usually always late). Geronimo and I have a quick talk about the scene. The actors do two read-throughs of the scene with the script, then without the script, then we block the scene and do another run-through. We then take a 15 minute break, the cast get on their costumes and get their hair and makeup done. We then start filming. Some scenes we can get done with 4 takes, others we have 100 takes. My favorite days were the ones where we could chill out, not be so stressed because everyone knew their lines and were on top of their game. Other days could be really stressful, but in the long run it’s all worth it.
Travis: How did you edit the film? What software did you use? What did you learn about editing during post production?
Donnie: I edited the film myself using Final Cut Pro, and I used Adobe After Effects to make the opening title sequence. I was editing as we went along. I’m not sure if that’s how it goes in the industry, but I found it quite helpful and a lot faster. By the time we got to the last day of filming, most everything was already edited. I just had to go and make the final touches, color corrections, all that stuff. The biggest thing I learned is that Final Cut Pro is NOT the software to use for a two-hour movie. When I edit my YouTube videos with it, it’s great. It’s amazing software for short films or 5 minute skits. But by the time the film got to an hour and a half, Final Cut was going slower and crashing a lot. I’ve switched to Adobe Premiere for future projects.
Travis: Lots of teens make short form content, and even though all the tools to make feature length films are so readily available to them now, not many teens make feature films. Why do you think that is?
Geronimo: I think teens stick to short content mainly because it’s easier. We live in a generation I feel where people like to take the easy way out. And trust me, I know how much work goes into making even a 5 minute video– it’s a lot. So I’m not dissing anyone out there only making short content, but Donnie and I like to take it a step further.
Donnie: Really ’cause it’s time consuming. I mean think about it– we wrote the script in November 2013 and the film experience didn’t end until October 2014 with the premiere. That’s almost an entire year on one film. Especially when you’re a teenager, it’s time consuming. In Hollywood, they film for six weeks straight and then they’re done. With school and homework we can’t do that. We had to take weekends off for exams and over the summer people left on vacation. It’s a lot to put on your shoulders. I wouldn’t call anyone lazy for not going out and making a feature film, especially as a teen, but if you want a tip: when you get to that 2 hour mark of something you’ve been working on for a year, and when you’re in the movie theater during the premiere of your movie and you’re hearing everyone laugh at something you wrote and something you’ve been working on for the past year, there’s no greater feeling.
Travis: What are your favorite films and your cinematic influences? What are your favorite films of 2014 so far?
Geronimo: My favorite films are Scarface and The Godfather. Cinematic influences… I guess this doesn’t really count, but Breaking Bad was always an influence because of the cinematography and really cool shots that I wanted to put into our work. Favorite movie of 2014 so far? Evan & Hunter of course!
Donnie: My biggest inspirations are Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. That’s how I want to be. I want to write the films that I act in. Some of my favorite movies of all time are all comedies. I love comedy. I really love spoof/parody films. Like Scary Movie, Airplane, The Naked Gun, Superhero Movie. I love that type of stupid humor. But also comedies like Cheech and Chong and any Adam Sandler film– except Little Nicky, that one was kinda weird. My favorite film of 2014 so far? Probably No Good Deed. I’m usually not into drama/action but this film was friggin’ amazing! The worst film I’ve seen this year was probably Let’s Be Cops. I thought that movie just sucked!
Before speaking to them, I had this silly unfounded notion that O’Connor and Morales would be demure miniature businessmen with wild imaginations– like bonzai Sam Raimis. But it was silly of me to hold them to some imaginary standard of grownupitude. Sure, they’re very talented and ambitious, but the boys and their film are products of the age of Instagram. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but do I have some worries about today’s teens and how they consume and create digital content. I probably owe most of those worries to being nearly thirty, balding, and irreparably uncool. So regardless of how anyone might perceive the artistic merits of a for-teens-by-teens stoner/sex comedy like Evan & Hunter, these young filmmakers have in their possession a crucial, precious thing: a perfect understanding of the contemporary teen audience. And it looks like they’ll continue to use that advantage during their time at Dreyfoos. Their next movie starts casting in about a week.