This past summer, I wrote a Christmas short film, a spoof called Manger Things, and in the Fall, I produced it with Elisa Booker, the Children’s Director of my church here in Brooklyn, Trinity Grace Church Park Slope. The young guys over at Infinity Finite on YouTube, Ethan and Christian Locy, directed and shot it. Ethan directed. Christian shot it.
Check it out, right now!
If you’d like to read more about how this was put together, then read on!
Back in 2015, I’d written a Christmas play for the church; and to go with that we shot some interviews with the kids to use within the play. Those videos were a hit and everyone loved seeing the adorable children up on the screen. The play was well-received too, with lots of people enjoying the clever dialog delivered by the kids. However, that morning was very stressful, as we frantically finished the set pieces and rehearsed the blocking with the kids. And even though I’d written the play, I’d also found myself involved in producing it and on the morning of, suddenly ended up backstage as a Stage Manager. I decided then and there that the following year, I would suggest that we do the whole thing as a video, so there would be no “morning of” stress. I mean, I’ve run a whole theatre company, but that’s nothing compared to wrangling three dozen children who’ve only rehearsed two or three times.
When I finally mentioned the idea of a short film instead of a short play to Elisa, in the Spring of 2016, she was totally into the idea. We agreed that a modern retelling of the Shepherds’ story, by the children, would be a fun way to go. Something we could set in Brooklyn, near where our church meets, so we could shoot during the church services, instead of rehearsing a play! Easy peasy!
Now this was all about the time that Stranger Things had been released on Netflix and everyone and their dog was binge-watching it. I hadn’t started watching it yet, but the idea of “Manger Things” came to me one day – kids going on an adventure to discover something amazing? We were doing the shepherds’ story of visiting a manger after all! And with kids?! It made perfect sense to me and Elisa agreed. And neither one of us had even watched the series yet! Ha!
It was also around this time that I thought of enlisting the help of the Locys. They’d been putting up short films on YouTube for a while and I’d seen their abilities grow and felt that they had the skillz to be able contribute positively to the project and that with some solid producing help, we could make a great short together. Elisa asked them if they’d be into it, with their parents’ permission, and they said yes!
I’d already written a thorough outline for the piece when I finally began binge-watching Stranger Things; but after I finished it, I knew the ideas would mesh together pretty well. I tweaked my outline, made a few notes of some jokes I wanted to add, turned on Stranger Things in the background, and got to writing! I finally sent Elisa the script on September 25th. Less than 3 months before the scheduled “screening”!
We had a pre-production chat on October 11th, where we talked casting, scheduling, and crewing up – we thought it’d be neat to get some of the film professionals in our community to join us on set and provide mentorship to the Locys. Thankfully, many of those pros agreed and we had some great help on set.
We settled on five shooting sessions of about three hours each. For anyone who’s counting, that could be one looooong day or two reasonable days. But for us it was four shooting days – four sessions during the church service, plus one afternoon session at a private family home. We were dealing with kids after all and while it wasn’t a union shoot, I’m pretty familiar with union rules for kids. They exist for a reason. I didn’t want to burn those kids out! A three-hour shoot session was the perfect amount of time. They gave it their all and worked really hard each time we gathered together. If it’d been any longer, I think they might have begun to loose focus.
In the weeks between our shoots, my husband, Ryan Fritzsche, and I cut together the scenes we’d shot that weekend. Then we sent them to Ethan Locy for notes. Then we’d send those scenes to our composer and sound designer who sent us beautiful and interesting sounds back to try. That process is a little different than normal (usually you lock the whole cut first before involving the composer and the sound designer); but we knew that at the end of the project, we’d only have a week from our locked cut until we screened so we wanted to get ahead of the game. These pros were up for the challenge and I think it sounds awesome. Many people have commented on the score especially, so I want to give a shout out to the composer, Eric Marshall of Young Oceans. Thanks, Eric!
So we trudged on, shooting every Sunday morning for three weeks. We took a two week break at Thanksgiving, and then we finished up with one last shoot at the beginning of December. That Saturday, Ethan joined us as we watched the now completely strung together short film over and over. By the time he left, the cut was locked. Then my patient and long-suffering husband dove in even further! When he emerged a week later, the VFX had been painstakingly executed and sound was mixed. We were ready to screen!
That Sunday morning, I had nothing to do, except bring my own daughter to the rehearsal for the one song the kids were singing and bring my son to his classroom at the appropriate time. Otherwise, I was able to sit back and let the morning happen. I was much less stressed; but I was also nervous. Would it be well-received? Would people get the jokes? Would the kids be proud of what they’d accomplished? Still, I was grateful to not have to hid behind the curtain and wrangle cats, I mean kids.
Once the film rolled, and the first giggles of laughter washed over me, I was able to relax a bit. But I found myself mouthing the words – I’d lived with the cut for so long! So I moved to a corner so people couldn’t see me literally biting my tongue. As more laughter followed, along with a silent reverence when we finally meet the Baby Liberator, I knew we’d done it. Perhaps it was simply a unique project for a unique audience in a unique year. But it was certainly worth it.
That said, I hope that even now, in 2017, new audiences can find some joy in this strange but lovely manger story. If you have, please leave a comment below. Much love.