Interviews

The making of HIGH SCORE by Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow

A Case Study
Narrative | Dramatic Features
Film Name: HIGH SCORE
Genre: Social Horror Film.
Date: July 2020
Directors: Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow
Executive Producer: Serena Ryen, Ethan Itzkow, Bob & Mayra Javier, and Hayley Hogan
Producers: Jessica Sharples and We Make Movies
Associate Producers: Ester Jiron, Carlotta Summers, Wild Cat Film, and Jeremiah Kipp (consultant)
Writers: Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow
Cinematographer: Jorge Arzac
Production Company: Schmeh Films, We Make Movies
Budget: Production was $10K and post-production was about $7K
Financing: Serena Ryen, Ethan Itzkow, Bob & Mayra Javier, and Hayley Hogan
Shooting Format: Digitally
Screening Format: 17:9
World Premiere: Chelsea Film Festival
Awards: N/A
Website: www.SchmehFilms.com

indieactivity: What is your film about?
Serena Ryen (SR):
HIGH SCORE follows a burgeoning white supremacist as his personal life unravels around him and he descends into an abyss of online radicalization and extremist conspiracy theories. It’s about how domestic terrorists are becoming radicalized over the internet to a very real and very racist conspiracy theory called The Great Replacement.

Ethan Itzkow (EI): The story was unfortunately inspired by an onslaught of real-world events, and making this film has been our way of fighting back against these home-grown terrorist attacks by exposing their roots.

The Official Trailer for HIGH SCORE written and directed by Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow


Tell us about the festival run, marketing, and sales?
Serena Ryen (SR):
Our festival run has been a dream so far! We had our world premiere in October with the Chelsea Film Festival, where the film was awarded the jury prizes for Best Short Film {Petit Prix} and Best Actor for Ethan. Ingrid & Sonia Jean-Baptiste and their team are truly extraordinary – they put together such an exciting event.

Now, the film is having its West Coast premiere with the 16th Annual Oscar Qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival, which was a goal and a hope of ours from the beginning of our process! The festival’s incredible directors had invited our first collaboration CASHED to screen at their monthly event in 2019, where it won the Audience Choice Award and a special camera package. The synagogue shooting in Poway happened not far away that same evening, and I remember Ethan literally turned to me and said “I want to make a film about hate.” We even worked our post-production schedule around their deadline, so we’re thrilled that they chose the film as an official selection to screen alongside films boasting such humbling names as Steve Martin and Jeremy Irons.

And next, we’ll be screening with the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival in January 2021!

Ethan Itzkow (EI): It’ll be awesome to see where else it goes from there. Interested distributors can reach out to us at highscoreshortfilm@gmail.com.

Give the full Official Synopsis for your film?
Serena Ryen (SR):
After a young man is fired from his job as a result of his casually offensive behavior, he finds the perfect people to blame: minorities. Newly inspired by the white supremacist ideology of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, we watch as he sinks into the darkest pits of the internet and takes the ideas he finds there as his own…

The Poster Art for HIGH SCORE is a short film written and directed by Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow

Development & Financing?
Serena Ryen (SR):
The screenplay wasn’t adapted from prior source material, but Ethan and I did have a period of intensive research before we started writing.

Ethan Itzkow (EI): We started by diving into the facts behind some of the real-world events that motivated us to make the film, such as the Tree of Life massacre and the Poway synagogue shooting. We were especially concerned with unpacking the profiles of domestic terrorists both at home and abroad. We also, unfortunately, had to immerse ourselves in some of the darkest places of the internet. Far-right, anonymous social media channels contain some of the most disturbing, sickening material I’ve ever seen, especially in encrypted chat apps. We ran into the Great Replacement conspiracy theory almost immediately upon leaving commonplace social media spaces and found roots of the conspiracy theory in Nazi materials dating back to the 60s and 70s (though it draws on centuries-old antisemitic tropes as well). Once the headspace that this character lives in and the internet-based habits of such a person became clear to us, we wrote the first draft fairly quickly.

Serena Ryen (SR): Once we sit down to write something together, one of us (usually Ethan, but not always) will word-vomit out the first draft. Then the other (usually me, but not always) will come around and finesse it. Then we’ll play with it together until we’re either happy with it or we just have no choice but to move on, haha. There’s no particular formula we follow; we go mostly on instinct.

Ethan Itzkow (EI): We also asked for feedback from our producers, our amazing DP Jorge Arzac, and some trusted friends in the industry. I think we went through 13 drafts of the script and kept making little tweaks right up until production. In terms of financing, we were lucky enough to have private investors interested in covering production and coming on as EPs.

Serena Ryen_indieactivity
HIGH SCORE is a short film written and directed by Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow

Production?
EI:
Production was a whirlwind of a process. We were on another project traveling through South and Central America during the entirety of pre-production, so all of the planning and script development was done remotely. Serena and I couldn’t be in Los Angeles to tech scout the locations, so our producer Jessica Sharples was like our boots on the ground, visiting locations and sending us photos. We arrived in L.A. just a couple of days before production started and then had four days to get all the coverage. That meant each day had to move really efficiently; we ended up getting about 160 different shots after everything was said and done. I thought that was nuts because I had story-boarded about 140 shots. Somehow we had enough spare time to play around with Jorge and achieve shots that hadn’t been part of the plan. He’s a tremendously inspiring artist to work with, so those spontaneous moments end up being some of my favorites.

The first day of shooting was probably the scariest because we had to film the main character’s entire emotional journey that occurs while he’s at home and which also involved completely redressing the set three different times. We also shot the scene we call “the bookcase scene” that day, which was a One-Take-Johnny. (I don’t want to spoil anything for the audience, but we had only one take available to us for a semi-dangerous stunt.)

We spent three more days shooting all the main coverage, and Serena, Jorge, and I would get the B-roll during the drives to and from the location. Basically, every waking minute of those four days and the days leading up to the shoot was devoted to making this film. It was really helpful that most of the post-production team were also on set because whenever something wasn’t working, we could think forward into the future edit and determine what we could do without and what we had missed in the storyboarding process. Jorge was invaluable in those moments.

A day or two after production wrapped, I spent the next three weeks assembling the rough cut of the movie. It was especially difficult, not only because I had to emotionally separate from watching myself onscreen, saying and doing horrible things, but also because the rough cut was the first time we were integrating some truly disturbing imagery into the film that we painstakingly selected from the internet. It takes a toll to look at that kind of thing every day. It also required a lot of talks with our lawyer about what we could and couldn’t use without violating copyright. I’m not sure which is worse: sorting through conspiracy theories or copyright law. They’re both pretty hellish.

Ethan Itzkow_indieactivity
Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow (Directors) with Cinematographer Jorge Arzac on the set for HIGH SCORE

Once the rough cut was done, we worked really closely with Jorge, who was like our one-man-band miracle of post-production. Our whole post-production process was done completely remotely because of the pandemic, which was a crazy experience but I think brought us all even closer together as collaborators. We navigated so many unique problems together, as so many filmmakers and other collaborative artists are right now. I think the film is even stronger because of it.

Festival Preparation & Strategy?
SR:
Our awesome producer Hayley Hogan totally streamlined and spearheaded our festival targeting strategy. Now that I think about it, maybe HollyShorts and Chelsea were the only ones we knew we wanted to target right out of the gate, and both have worked out! Hayley has helped us keep our heads on straight amidst the sea of spreadsheets, that’s for sure.  We’re still awaiting some festival notifications, so it’ll be exciting to see where else it plays after Cinematters this upcoming January.

We created a long list of target festivals across the country (and a few international), then we shortlisted our top priorities. When COVID hit, we revisited the list again to zero in on festivals that are Oscar Qualifying and ones with which we had existing relationships.

The Release?
SR:
HIGH SCORE made its world premiere on October 15th, 2020 with the Chelsea Film Festival (called a top 10 Best Film Festival in North America by USA Today) where it won Best Short Film and Best Actor!

Advice from the Filmmaker?
SR:
Train yourself to follow your intuition. There are really no rules or “right” ways to make a movie. Trust your instinct and accept the support that comes your way.EI: You’re not responsible for knowing every skill needed to make a film. You are responsible for being able to communicate your needs effectively and bringing on talented artists to fill in your knowledge gaps. Know what you want and how to ask for it.  

Serena Ryen_indieactivity
HIGH SCORE is a short film written and directed by Serena Ryen & Ethan Itzkow

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