Before and “After” — the story of my first feature film

There are literally thousands of movies made every year. Fall into a Netflix clickhole and you’ll discover titles you never knew existed.

Regardless of their artistic merit, lesser known movies (such as the awesomely titled Big Ass Spider) share something in common with bloated blockbusters: they are the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people — writers, directors, producers, production designers, cinematographers, grips, caterers, composers, etc.

Making a movie of any kind, on any scale, requires several gallons of blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the completion of any movie is something to be celebrated.

I’m a filmmaker, but most of my time is spent trying to make movies, rather than actually making them. It’s an uphill climb and it can get tiring (I touched on that in this post). Sometimes I wonder, when will the ground level out? When does it become — well, easier? That’s when I have to force myself to take a deep breath and remember:

I made a movie.

Like, a real one.

A feature-length motion picture, with a beginning, middle, and end.

It played in theaters.

In select locations, people actually went to see it.

It was called After. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s ok — most people haven’t. Because of the sheer proliferation of content out there, it’s easy for some movies to get lost in the mix, even good ones.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to argue that After is a criminally-overlooked masterpiece.

But it is a movie. And this is the story behind it:

Home video cover art

When I began writing the screenplay that would become After (based on a story by Jason Parish and myself), I had a low budget production in mind. The basic conceit was a simple one: a guy and a girl meet on a bus and strike up a conversation, which is abruptly cut short when the bus crashes. They wake to find themselves in their respective beds, as if it were all a dream. But soon they discover that their town is completely deserted. Da-da-dum!

Part of what excited me about the idea was that it felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone — one of my all-time favorite shows. What’s more, the premise seemed simple enough to achieve with a modest budget. The cast would be limited — primarily just the two leads. And that whole bus crash business — we could do that off screen.

The Twilight Zone: “Stopover in a Quiet Town”

But my simple premise evolved into this script — which includes a wall of smoky darkness surrounding the town, a mysterious stone door with thousands of keys littering the ground below, and a bloodthirsty monster on a ridiculously long chain.

So much for being budget-conscious.

I realised I was in over my head. There was no chance I could pull this off without a miracle.

So, I say this with no irony whatsoever: Thank God for Don Culwell.

Don came with some mutual friends to a premiere for a short I made called Devil’s Shoestring (another story influenced by The Twilight Zone). After the screening, he mentioned, perhaps out of politeness, that we should find something to work on together.

I told him about After and he was intrigued. We set a meeting to discuss the project and how we might pull it off on a low budget. His company, Magnetic Dreams, specializes in computer animation, but at the time they hadn’t ventured very far into visual effects.

VFX Producer Don Culwell

We weren’t sure how it was going to work, but Don was adamant about being involved. I think we found common ground in our eagerness to attempt something crazy. At the time, we had a projected budget of around three million for the film, if I remember correctly.

Early VFX test — January 2010
Concept art by Rickey Boyd

The only problem? The money was nonexistent.

My business partner Brandon Gregory and I put a pitch packet together and presented it to potential investors over a period of several months, but no one was willing to take the risk.

Brandon suggested we talk to some longtime friends of his, Michael Gangwisch and Chris Schmid, two Germans who live in Nashville and run a shipping logistics company. Mike and Chris were movie fans, but had never considered getting into the movie business.

We pitched the story to them and they liked it, but the price tag was an obstacle. They brought in their friend Scott Healy from the UK, and the three of them agreed to finance the picture, but only if we dropped the budget to $650,000.

In case you don’t have your calculator handy, that’s $2,350,000 less than our original goal. So, clearly we would have been idiots to take them up on their offer.

We immediately took them up on their offer.

Michael, Chris, and Scott founded Quite Quick Productions, LLC (which I’m now a partner in, years later) for the purpose of investing in After. The name is taken from a line spoken by Alan Rickman’s character in the movie Love, Actually. Not kidding.

Executive producers Chris Schmid, Scott Healy, and Michael Gangwisch
Producer Brandon Gregory on the day we signed the paperwork — July 29, 2010

Things were moving forward — but we would have to rethink our story.

To give you some context: after discovering that they are alone in their town, our two protagonists, Ana and Freddy, attempt to escape — only to find that a “wall” of darkness surrounds the town and is inching closer every second. When they venture into the Darkness itself, they find a door guarded by a vicious beast (referred to in the script as “the Guardian)”.

After much debate, we had decided to make the Guardian a fully CGI character. But with our constrained budget, we couldn’t afford to feature him prominently — not throughout the film, anyway. So, we decided to take a Jaws approach and save his full reveal for later in the movie. I think this ended up working to our advantage.

Magnetic agreed to produce around 89 visual effects shots for the film, a number based on my early storyboards for the VFX-heavy sequences. This number would double by the end of post-production.

Early concept art for the Guardian

I had a very specific vision for the look and feel of the film, and I knew I needed a great DP to help me achieve that. Several years prior, I had seen a short at the Nashville Film Festival called Falling to the Top, which was shot by someone named Blake McClure. I reached out to Blake and we got together to discuss the possibility of him shooting After. We hit it off immediately. The films I was referencing visually were all films that Blake loved.

My color script for “After”
Blake McClure (right) and I discuss a shot on set

It made logical sense to shoot in my hometown of Franklin, TN, since it was the inspiration for the fictional town of Pearl in the script (I even used real street names — and the number 317, which has a special significance in the story, also happens to be my house number.)

As I began scouting for locations around Franklin, Brandon was exploring TN’s film incentives. On a whim, we decided to drive down to Birmingham to visit our friends Jon and Andy Erwin, who were in prep on their film October Baby at the time. We met for lunch, and over the course of an hour or so, Jon convinced us to shoot After in Alabama.

The incentives were enticing. Not only would we receive a rebate on our in-state qualified spend, but also on cast we brought in from LA. Jon introduced us to Dan Atchison, the line producer on October Baby, and Dan agreed to line produce After. After he gave us the nickel tour of Birmingham, we were confident we could find our locations there without a problem.

Location scout in Birmingham, AL — November, 2010. From L: Line Producer Dan Atchison, DP Blake McClure, 1st AD Justin Tolley.

We had financing, a line producer, a DP, a visual effects team, and some potential locations. Now we just needed to find our cast.

The most obvious choice for casting director was our friend Laray Mayfield. Laray has a decent track record (she’s cast every David Fincher film since Fight Club), but she was busy with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the time. She suggested we hire her son Sabyn to cast the film instead (he occasionally spells his name like this: $abyn). $abyn is a good friend, and ended up not only casting the film, but co-producing it as well.

Casting Director/Co-Producer $abyn Mayfield with Line Producer Dan Atchison

As $abyn sent out casting breakdowns, taped auditions started to pop up in my inbox. We ended up finding most of our actors in Atlanta, with the exception of our two leads.

Casting meeting in LA — Sep, 2010. Casting Director/Co-producer $abyn Mayfield and Producer Brandon Gregory.

Freddy is an aspiring comic book artist who works at a little twin screen theater in downtown Pearl to pay the bills. Laray suggested we meet with Steven Strait, from 10,000 BC and City Island. We had a great, laid back meeting. Steven not only understood the character, but was a legitimate comic book nerd himself.

It felt right, so we made him an offer. And he accepted.

Steven Strait, as seen through the monitor
Young Freddy’s comic art by Jason Parish
Adult Freddy’s art by Jason Parish

For the character of Ana, we took a chance on Karolina Wydra, a Polish actress who came out of the modeling world. Casting someone with a hint of a Polish accent didn’t make much sense, but her audition was really something special — so I went with my gut.

Karolina Wydra’s Audition
Producer Brandon Gregory and Karolina Wydra on set

Production began at the end of November, 2010. It was one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Alabama. Looking back, this seems like an understatement.

Me and Steven on the first day of production

The shoot was a mere 20 days — which, frankly, wasn’t enough time. 20 days is quick for any film, but we were making a fantasy thriller. There were several setups that required green screen and those slowed us down considerably.

Shooting a scene that takes place within the Darkness

I’m religious about storyboarding, so I came to set prepared, but external factors would often change my best-laid plans. Sometimes we didn’t have a location until last minute, so the blocking I had in my head simply wouldn’t work geographically in the space. In that situation, the storyboards went out the window and I was forced to think on my feet.

Storyboard by Rickey Boyd
Storyboard by Rickey Boyd

Generally, we were forced to cut around ten setups from my shot list on any given day. That meant I was constantly revising the visual language of the scenes in my head.

Art director/co-writer (story) Jason Parish set dressing Freddy’s drafting table
Shooting the carnival scene

For the scenes where the actors had to interact with the Guardian, we needed a stand-in. We couldn’t afford to do motion capture, but the guys at Magnetic decided they could animate the character on top of the stand-in in the footage — in theory, at least.

Dan sent out a request on Facebook, saying we were looking for a tall athletic type for a shoot. The description was just short of saying, “We’re looking for someone who could pass as a pro basketball player.” And we found him.

Charles Smith: Home Depot employee by day, Monster by night. I’m not sure Charles knew what he was getting himself into. Dan probably forgot to mention the skin-tight suit he would have to wear on camera.

Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Herrera with our Guardian stand-in, Charles Smith
Charles in action

I’m sure you’ve heard all that cliche stuff about how close everyone gets while working on a movie together — how they become like a family, yada yada yada.

Anyway, our cast and crew became like a family.

At the end of a long day, we would return to our hotel and have a late dinner or a nightcap. Some of my best memories from the shoot are conversations over a meal at the end of a particularly exhausting (and frigidly cold) day.

One of my favorite locations, a church in downtown Birmingham
The crew of “After”

Most nights I would stay up late editing the footage from the day before. Our sleep schedules were all over the place, as is common during production. I may have eaten some (or a lot) of Taco Bell during this period, but the details are hazy.

Shooting the bus scene
$abyn and Karolina on a break
Prepping for the boat scene
Tannehill State Park in Birmingham AL
Towards the end of our last day

At the end of the shoot, I packed up and drove home just in time for the Christmas holiday. But in my head, I was still editing a movie.

In our naiveté, we expected to have the film out by Fall of 2011. That meant we had a 7–8 month window for post. It ended up taking twice that long.

Or…September 2012

I edited the first few cuts of the film, but eventually hit a wall. It’s easy to lose objectivity when you’re staring at the same thing day in and day out. So, we brought in our friend David Kiern to take over on the edit. David spent a couple months working on After, and is responsible for most of the cut you see on screen.

Editor David Kiern at work

As soon as we had a semi-locked cut, Don and his team at Magnetic began working on the visual effects. They had budgeted three months of time, but — par for the course — it ended up taking twice as long. As I mentioned before, we had planned on around 89 VFX shots, but there ended up being over 200.

Don working on a VFX shot
Rigging the Guardian
3D turntable rendering of the Guardian
“Designing the Visual Effects” Featurette

Magnetic took a great financial risk working on the film, as they were forced to eat into some of their own financial reserves along the way. I’m eternally grateful to them for sticking with it to the end. What they accomplished on such a low budget is truly extraordinary.

In December of 2011, executive producer Scott Healy arranged for me to take a rough cut of the film to Oxford Brookes University in the UK and screen it for the film students there. Their feedback was invaluable and led to several revisions. One person compared the film to Jurassic Park. Clearly they were mentally unstable, but God bless them.

I’m on the left, preparing to take questions from the Oxford Brookes students
I wish.
The truth goes down easier with beer

While Magnetic was busy working on the VFX, my brother Tyler was scoring the film in the office next door to me. Although we couldn’t afford to record live strings, the score is everything I wanted it to be (the soundtrack is available on iTunes).

Tyler Smith working on the score

Once the VFX and music were completed, the film was passed on to Rob Burrell, who became a one stop shop for all of the post audio work. Rob and I had worked together on a few shorts in the past, and I knew he would knock it out of the park.

Rob Burrell, audio mixologist
Pickups in Franklin, TN
Dave Hussey of Company 3 color grading the film

After played at several festivals throughout 2012, and we opened theatrically on 25 screens in the US on September 14th, 2012. Brandon has a deep knowledge of the exhibition industry, so we decided to release the film ourselves. We didn’t really make any money, but it was a fun beta test.

Karolina recording ADR
Steven recording ADR
Marketing materials arriving at my office
Here I am striking a pose with one of our posters

I won’t pretend that everyone loved our film, but it was nice reading some positive reactions:

For a movie that presumably didn’t have a ton of money to work with, AFTER has a pretty slick look. Smith proves himself an extremely gifted visual director, crafting several memorable images throughout the film, some of which include highly impressive CG effects that could be in a movie with a much higher budget. The “fog” that slowly envelops the town is one such sight, and the creature that plagues our heroes is another. There are several nifty sights in AFTER that any $100 million Hollywood product would be happy to have. —Eric Walkuski,
At the heart of the film is ambition, and that should always be applauded, especially when it endears you to the film…AFTER is an assured directorial debut with imaginative ambition and a heart at its center. — Paul Risker, The London Film Review
As with most suspense/otherworldly thrillers, you find yourself hoping it’s not going to settle for a dumb twist or rote predictability: the exciting surprise is how smartly co-writer/director Ryan Smith avoids those pitfalls. The lead performance by Magic City up-and-comer Steven Strait is great, and Nashville’s Magnetic Dreams devised some remarkably good special effects (including a first-rate monster): a couple of simply magnificent images of weird, surreal power will stay with you. — Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene
Smith places viewers in a terrain recognizable from the post-apocalyptic genre, and then exploits our familiarity with similar films as much to confound as to confirm expectations…the SF and horror here come thoroughly grounded in character, and even the hellhound that plagues this locked-in pair is, for all its toothy immediacy, a very personal demon. And so AFTER is ultimately a twisted tale of boy meets girl, in a neat merger of boyish comic-book fantasy and girlish fairytale dress-ups.— Anton Bitel, Little White Lies
World premiere!

The movie business is becoming democratized. Ten years ago, this film would have been impossible to make with our budget. The tools are more accessible now than they ever have been, but it still takes a great deal of courage and determination to see it through to the end.

It’s true what they say: if you want to learn how to make a movie, go make one.

“After” world premiere. From L: Casting Director/Co-Producer $abyn Mayfield, Karolina Wydra, Myself, Producer Brandon Gregory, Steven Strait
From L: $abyn Mayfield, Executive Producers Chris Schmid and Scott Healy, Myself, Brandon Gregory, and Executive Producer Michael Gangwisch
Theatrical trailer

Since its theatrical run, After has been released in several countries, including Germany, Japan, and the UK, thanks to our partnership with Jinga Films.

Mongrel Media was responsible for the North American home video release. In the states, you can find the film on Netflix and iTunes.

Brandon unpacking a standee for CinemaCon in Las Vegas
A frustrating hour later
US theatrical poster, international poster, and Japanese poster

So, what’s everyone up to now?

Karolina Wydra went on to appear in House, M.D., The Europa Report, and True Blood.

Steven Strait had a starring role in the Starz series Magic City and can now be seen on SyFy’s The Expanse.

Me, Blake, and Steven catching up in LA

$abyn Mayfield just directed his first feature film, Boomtown.

Brandon Gregory produced a film called Rounding Third that will be released soon.

As for me — I’ve written some screenplays, made a few shorts, and I’m developing something right now that I can’t talk about just yet — but it’s exciting, to say the least.

Me directing Mike Vogel and Joe Leavitt in a short

After took four years of my life. It was an uphill battle from start to finish. It was physically and emotionally exhausting. I made a lot of mistakes along the way.

But it was a movie.

And I can’t wait to make one again.