The making of SOFA QUEEN by Jenny Kleiman

A Case Study
Narrative | Dramatic Features
Film Name: Sofa Queen
Genre: Comedy / Dark Comedy / Dramedy 
Date: September 30, 2019 
Director: Jenny Kleiman 
Producer: Jason Leiva, Sinclair Rankin, Isabella Olaguera, Jenny Kleiman
Writer: Jenny Kleiman
Cinematographer: Joshua Echevarria
Production Company: The Royal Wild and Leiva, LLC
Budget: N/A
Financing: Sofa Queen was self-financed in part by family, friends, my own savings, and in-kind contributions.
Shooting Format: 6k / Red Dragon
Screening Format: 1:85/ DCP
World Premiere: Sofa Queen’s live premiere was with the USA Film Festival  (right before Covid restrictions hit) followed by a virtual premiere with Lighthouse  International Film Festival
Awards: N/A

indieactivity: What is your film about?
Jenny Kleiman (JK): 
Sofa Queen is a 12-minute dark comedy centred on Martha, the matriarch of a failing family furniture store, who attempts a last-ditch effort to reconnect the store’s power and her fractured family when an electric outage threatens their final “Going  Out of Business” closeout sale. Through a series of unfortunate events and her own misdeeds, this marginalized woman becomes the star of the show in an exciting twist ending. 

The Promotional Trailer for Sofa Queen, written and directed by Jenny Kleiman

The story was born from my fascination with “Mom n’ Pop” stores and their wonderfully, terrible local commercials, but at its heart, the film is a feminist commentary on women’s role in the family, business, and the world at large. I was inspired to write a character struggling against the ageing process- a seemingly endless battle that controls many women’s entire narratives until it’s inevitably lost. When youth,  looks, family, and work- EVERYTHING which previously defined this one woman’s life come to a grand finale, how does she start over?

Tell us about the festival run, marketing and sales?
Jenny Kleiman (JK): 
Currently you can watch Sofa Queen in the HollyShorts Film Market from November 16-22, 2020, but we’re nearing the end of our festival run. It’s been such an interesting festival season with all of the Covid changes, but nevertheless an amazing experience.  We were able to connect with audiences across the world and screened with so many incredible festivals including Austin Film Festival, Lighthouse International, Golden  Door, Soho International, USA FF, Lady Filmmakers, and more. I’m proud to say, we’ve taken home some big awards too; our next goal is to find a great distributor in the hopes of sharing Sofa Queen with an even bigger audience!

Screening History: 17 Festival Selections, 6 Awards, 6 Nominations Jury Prize for Best Short (Comedy) and Filmmaker’s Jury Prize for Outstanding Acting Ensemble at Film Invasion LA, Best US Comedy and Best US Producers at the Venice  Film Awards, Best Women’s Short and Best Dark Comedy at Indie Short Awards and also nominated for Best Director (Jenny Kleiman) and Best Indie Short. The film was an award finalist at USA Film Festival, Dumbo Film Festival, and Los Angeles Independent Film Awards, and Enderby Filmmaking Fellowship eligible at Austin Film Festival.

The Poster Art for Sofa Queen (2020) written and directed by Jenny Kleiman

Give the full Official Synopsis for your film? 
Jenny Kleiman (JK): 
Caught up in nostalgia for her once happy family and thriving business, Martha  physically readies her family-owned furniture store for their final “Going Out of  Business” closeout. However, emotionally unready to move on, she refuses to sign the  sale paperwork despite pleas from her ex-husband, the “Sofa King,” and their grown  sons.. When the store itself presents a new challenge, in the form of a power outage,  Martha makes a final attempt to save her legacy – by stealing electricity from the gas station next door. Culminating in an exciting twist ending, this marginalized woman  becomes the star of the show. 

Development & Financing?
Jenny Kleiman (JK): 
Early 2019, I completed a new draft of my coming-of-age feature script, American  Princess (the #1 trending script on The Black List in March 2019) and a feature I’m co-producing, Fleurs, was optioned out. The producer of that project wanted to spend time working with the script, so had some free time in my schedule. It was prime time to make a short to serve as a calling card for my directing skills.  

I wanted to write something with a bit of razzle-dazzle, but basically the complete opposite of that intention— a story about the inner-workings of a family business—  kept drifting up. My dad, uncle, late grandfather, and great-grandfather owned a family real estate company, so perhaps subconsciously, I was riffing off my inside knowledge of that entity (although, I should mention the men in my family are a far cry from my  Sofa King, Gene).  

However, I didn’t really have an access point until the character of Martha came to the surface. I’m a huge advocate of workshopping in a writer’s group (humble plug- I run screenwriting workshops called Working the Wound because it’s where you move away from the essence of a story to a full narrative arc. I wanted this project to have a  feminist theme, so in exploring my mosh-posh of ideas, I started scratching at that angle and found myself writing this older woman protagonist. I was excited by the concept of taking a woman, whose life was a bit sad and drab and giving her the opposite- a moment in the limelight. And further, although the film world is changing a  bit, older women’s stories aren’t explored very often.  

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Martha (Nikki James) in Sofa Queen (2020) written and directed by Jenny Kleiman

I brought a total of 18 drafts of this project to my writer’s group, so the group members knew it intimately. One of them being, Sinclair Rankin, who ended up coming on as a  producer. Sinclair was just coming off shooting his short, Drown the Clown, with the incredible line producer, Isabella Olaguera. Jason Leiva, my neighbour at the time and a  great director in his own right, and his company, Leiva LLC, provided in-kind services and insurance. The three of them really jolted this project toward production. 

Let me start by saying that I think all directors should self-fund a project in their career- because, boy does it make you stay on budget and work fast. We had a lot to do in a very small window of time…  

We held two days of combined auditions and callbacks- I thought it was going to be a  laborious process to find our Martha- but Nikki James was the second audition on the first day. Meanwhile, Tait Ruppert (Gene, The Sofa King) was the very last audition on the last day. It’s never what you worry about that presents a problem, but it’s the opposite.  In these auditions, we were so lucky to find our supporting actors Paris Peterson, Ben  Paul Williams, and Gabrielle Arles in the mix. Our cast had all the talent and chemistry as well as enormous patience and focus which made my job so much easier. 

Since I’ve worked mostly on the screenwriting side of film since I moved back to NYC, I  came into this project without a New York-based team. Therefore, the brunt of crewing up landed on my line producer, Isabella Olaguera. She handcrafted what I think is the most amazing below-the-line talent in the greater metro area. Seriously, I must have saved my karma up because this entire crew was composed of relatively new connections, and we all worked together like magic. They also showed up for multiple overnights after basically just meeting me! The insanity of their willingness and commitment is not lost on me.  

We shot for three overnights in a furniture store in Clifton, New Jersey. Overnights are really tough, but especially when there are so many soft surfaces to fall asleep. The store,  which is very much in business despite the film’s script, opened every morning at 10 am. Each morning, we had to completely break the set before we could go home. On the logistics side, almost everything went without a hitch thanks in part to my dream team- our DP, Josh Echevarria, and AD, Dina Graham. However, each product comes with its set of challenges; ours was the dance number.  

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Martha (Nikki James) in Sofa Queen (2020) written and directed by Jenny Kleiman

Even before we shot the dance sequence, the trickle-down effect of its importance was affecting our schedule. For instance, all of Nikki’s exterior shots had her laying on the ground in a tank top- but there was a random cold snap despite the fact the shoot was mid-May. Because of the dedicated scheduling around the next morning’s dance block,  we had no choice but to move forward with those exterior scenes anyway- at 5 am in 40-degree weather. I can’t believe Nikki came back the next day. Seriously, all of my actors were such troopers. The ensemble had only 6 hours total of rehearsal time to learn the choreography (provided by the amazing Andy Frank) and each of them truly busted their butts to try and make that scene perfectly happen. 

In all 18 drafts of my script, I wrote in the lights out reveal of the spinning chandelier (a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s Diamond’s are a Girl’s Best Friend). Theoretically, cool- but on a technical level, it took every departments’ collaboration to figure out the flow of that moment. All prep aside, when we actually shot it, everything went swimmingly. I recall we ended up running the dance number 12 times- 12 full takes, and in the final exit, it’s certainly one of my favourite moments of anything I’ve made. I really believe a film is made in post-production; it’s where the film either lives or dies in many ways, but our post timeline was almost as fast and tight as our shoot. We scheduled a cast and crew screening right alongside our first festival submission deadline, so I think the post team only had about 12 weeks total to bring the footage to final.  

Around Week 5, my editor, Shaya Mulcahy, convinced me to do a quick pickup in the furniture store parking lot with just our DP, Josh Echevarria, and Nikki James, Martha. We drove over right before sunrise to get that shot of Nikki staring at the furniture store as it burns down (sorry, spoiler!). Between that pickup shot and the VFX work,  it completely transformed the last scene.  

Our VFX Supervisor, Lucien Harriot of Mechanism Digital (whose resume includes Russian Doll, Hereditary, and Uncut Gems) stepped up to the plate early and helped me attach the wonderful folks at Nice Shoes (colour/finishing) and Rob Kahn and Doug  Moss of Mixology Post (sound design/ mix/ master). For finishing touches, our composer and music licensing team – Blake Crawford and Ethan Converse – literally had mere days to put the music together for the final edit. I think it speaks volumes that the film was a rush job- the final product is a testament to the talented professionals  I was so lucky to collaborate with.  

Sofa Queen wouldn’t have been made possible without all the amazing cast and crew members- all of which put an enormous amount of time and effort into this passion project- which is just the industry’s code word for a very small payout. There are so many junctions where a film can go off track because the final project is such a team effort. I  just feel like I won the lottery. 

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Martha (Nikki James) in Sofa Queen (2020) written and directed by Jenny Kleiman

Festival Preparation & Strategy? 
In the first few months of applying to festivals, we were having a hard time getting placed. I was really disheartened, but truly it was a learning curve – I was going about the strategy incorrectly. This is my first festival run, and like every filmmaker with stars in their eyes, I was crushed by the first wave of rejection letters. 

I sat down with a fellow filmmaker, Roxy Topowrowych, who had a similar experience early in her career. She was kind enough to walk me through some of the festival strategies which worked for her. We readjusted to spend money toward mid-tier and indie festivals, festivals seeking new directorial talent, and festivals pulling directly from submissions. I think the change of strategy has not only allowed us to receive more acceptance, but these fests embraced Sofa Queen with open arms. I’ve received such wonderful support and feedback as well as so many personal emails from the programmers. It’s been really enlightening after a rocky start. 

And later in our run, a few of the big festivals (like Austin and HollyShorts) announced our selection! So the moral of the story, it’s a mix of being patient, believing in your product, and applying to the festivals with your built-in audience. 

The Release? 
We premiered live at the USA Film Festival in Dallas just before 2020 COVID  changes took effect. In addition to their festival premiere, Sofa Queen was further chosen for their 50th Annual Curated Schedule and an awards finalist. Sadly, because of the pandemic and related restrictions, I wasn’t able to make it to USA FF. But, it was a huge honour- and such an amazing fit in terms of selection. A few weeks later, we made our virtual premiere with the Lighthouse International Film  Festival. Most of the Sofa Queen crew is New Jersey-based, so Lighthouse really felt like a hometown moment for us- although the fest’s reputation extends far beyond. 

Advice from the Filmmaker?  
Workshop, workshop, workshop until you’re sick of the script- and then workshop it again.

Tell us what you think of the Case Study for Sofa Queen What do you think of it? Let’s have your comments below and/or on Facebook or Instagram! Or join me on Twitter.

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