MU graduate makes zero-budget movie

Sunday, June 29, 2008 | 5:39 p.m. CDT; updated 4:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Sarah Phillips, 22, checks a shot before filming a scene in a Rock Bridge High School classroom on June 9, 2008. Phillips intends to make her film, "Memory, Loss," with no budget by using a volunteer cast and crew.

COLUMBIA — “I need more inflection. Do you know what I mean by inflection?”

Rookie film director Sarah Phillips, a recent graduate from MU’s Journalism School, fills a lull in filming with instructions for one of her actors, Chris Nester.


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“Yeah,” Nester replies. “I just don’t know where.”

Nester’s been having some trouble with the scene: a quick moment when his character, Topher, corners his girlfriend’s best friend, Mari, in the copy room after school. It’s the perfect moment for Topher to make his move — the last scene of the high school time line in Phillips’ first full-length film, “Memory, Loss.” Nester and actor Kathleen Stewart get closer to Phillips’ vision of the scene with each take, but they aren’t there yet.

“At ‘hot,’” Phillips says. “You can’t think of anything else to say so you say ‘hot.’ You guys are completely in the moment here. You’re not thinking about today, tomorrow, just right now, right here in this copy room. Your world right now is this copy room.”

It’s 6 p.m. on June 9, the third and final day of shooting scheduled at Rock Bridge High School, and Phillips has had to call “cut” because, for the fifth or sixth time in the past two hours, a teacher needs to use the copy machine.

Filming a movie — even one with a hefty production check — is not without its moments of frustration. And “Memory, Loss” has no budget. No one gets paid: no actors, no crew members, no one. Phillips is the screenwriter, producer, web developer, videographer, film editor, photographer, score composer and promotions team for her film.

“I tell my cast and crew to think of it as an unpaid internship,” said Phillips. “At least, that’s how I explained it to my parents.”

So far, the filming experience has been “horrible and wonderful at the same time because I have complete control,” Phillips said.

Shooting “Memory, Loss,”

Phillips encounters zero-budget obstacles on a daily basis. There’s waiting for the lead actor to get off work, taking unwanted breaks while a parent and child walk through Rock Bridge and, of course, pausing while teachers send faxes and make copies. But Phillips is doing quite well sans budget. Her passion for the craft is shown in both her energy and resourcefulness. When she doesn’t have enough extras, she asks anyone the right age who walks by, “Do you want to be in a movie?”

While filming a basketball scene in the Rock Bridge gym, she pulled in a rolling chair borrowed from an office. She was asked if it was for her, a director’s chair.

“No! Panning!” she said. Phillips then demonstrated by rolling herself across the gym. Setting the tripod and camera on the chair, Phillips was able to achieve what she needed: a panning shot of Mari and her entourage of dancers as they leave practice.

Phillips’ filming techniques reflect the same kind of creativity from which “Memory, Loss” was inspired.

She got the idea for the movie the same way she gets most of her ideas: driving in her car, listening to music. The song was about friendship, which caused Phillips to ask herself, “What if my best friend died? How would I react? How would I get past that?” After four or five months of brainstorming on this idea, Phillips finally sat down at her computer and wrote the script in two weeks.

“Memory, Loss” follows two women, Sydney and Mari, from childhood through adulthood, when Mari dies in a bicycle accident at age 32. Past and present events are interwoven as the surviving woman tries to cope with the loss.

“No one was making a film this summer,” said Phillips. “More importantly, no one is making films that are accessible to everyday people who want to audition. I want my films to impact someone’s life, to make them think.”

Heidi Arni, a recent MU graduate with a degree in theater, said she thinks Phillips is accomplishing this specific goal. Arni plays Sydney, the lead character “Memory, Loss” follows through mourning.

“I think Sarah really captures the mentality of people in high school and college,” Arni said. “The script is really relatable.”

The film is being shot in Columbia throughout June and July. Phillips grew up in the city and wants to translate her fondness for it into her movie. She hopes the movie will become a community ordeal, something Columbia residents will get excited about. Already, local businesses have volunteered to donate meals, including B&B Bagel, Chipotle, Kaldi’s and McAllister’s Deli. The business involvement offers more than community support — it ensures that the hungry, unpaid cast and crew stay content.

At lunchtime on June 9, the cast and crew sat in Rock Bridge, waiting for the free lunch from Chipotle to be delivered. The extras were getting squirrelly as they waited, and those more intimately involved in the film crowded around Phillips.

“Memory, Loss” acts as both a learning experience for Phillips and a hands-on way for her to teach young people who are interested in film how to go about making one. She drops movie jargon left and right but never hesitates to explain what it means. She knows exactly what she wants from her actors and is always willing to guide them through the scene to reach her creative goals.

While they waited, Ben Ogawa, Phillip’s current boom mic man, asked her about property rights. He plans to make a zombie movie and wants to use a clip from one part of the BBC’s “Planet Earth.”

Phillips explained the daunting task of getting permission, going through several forms to legally use less than three minutes of film.

“You’ll be fine as long as no one sees it,” she said. “Is anyone going to see it?”

“Not really,” said Ogawa.

Phillips wants to premiere “Memory, Loss” in late August, before she moves to Los Angeles to attend acting school. When editing is completed, Phillips will be added to the list of Columbia’s filmmakers, a group she hopes will continue to grow in number in coming years.

“You just have to do it yourself,” Phillips urged. “There are two types of people in this world: people who talk and people who do. You just need to figure it out and actually do the stuff yourself.”

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