In 2021 I made a decision that has had tremendous impact on my life – I started film school. In 2023, that decision played out in ways that I never could have imagined. This is the story of how I made Shakespeare in the Diner: Macbeth, and how this film changed the way I look at what I can achieve.
Spring 2023 directing class: What movie should I make?
In the spring semester I had a choice. I came up with two loglines for a project to take on. One was Do Over, a pony movie, in which a time-traveling tween and her adult self go on a quest to find a pony. I mean, I’m a pretty horse crazy person, and I’ve never been able to afford a horse, so write what you know, right?
The other was a concept that I had been thinking about since lighting class a couple years before. Could Shakespeare in the original language be adapted to a modern American setting – specifically, the American diner? Diner scenes are everywhere in American cinema, and they have a distinct language and style. They can be funny, ominous, and everything in between.
Could this work? Or rather, could I pull it off?
There wasn’t a lot of time though. I had to write a script, put together a cast and crew, and find locations, all in a compressed timeframe. And so I made the decision to go with Do Over, learn what I could, and then prepare for Shakespeare in the Diner when I had more experience under my belt.
And since Do Over has won an award at each film festival it has screened, I think it was the right decision.
The Summer of Shakespeare: Preproduction
Okay, I had registered for portfolio class for fall 2023. I needed to get cracking on the Shakespeare if I wanted to get this thing off the ground. So in between post-production on Do Over and my day job, I needed to figure out what play I wanted to adapt.
Initially, I was going to try Julius Caesar – so much plotting! So much leaning in and whispering over cups of coffee and scrambled eggs. So much stabbing! But Julius Caesar is more about wide spaces – the market, the forum – and it didn’t seem right.
And my favorite play, As You Like It, wouldn’t adapt well to a diner either, since it takes place in the woods.
Macbeth, though. Yeah. Macbeth is nothing but bad people doing bad things, but first planning the bad things, and then talking about the bad things, and then deeply regretting the bad things. Perfect for sitting at a table over black coffee and congealed eggs!
All summer long I read and re-read the play, identifying the dialog and scenes I wanted to focus on. By the time the fall semester rolled around, I wasn’t close to being ready. But if I was going to do this thing, I had to move forward.
I am the first to admit that I got so lucky. I worked closely with friend and actress Kristin Johnson, who is well-known in the Austin theater scene. She agreed to come on as Lady Macbeth. Then I had to find the exact right Macbeth. He had to be able to handle the Shakespeare and bring a modern sensibility to the role.
It’s pretty much a given that Macbeth is a bad man who thinks he’s a good one, because when he finally goes bad, he can continue to lie to himself. “I deserve this, this is my reward for my goodness.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because Walter White in Breaking Bad is a total Macbeth, and Skyler White is Lady Macbeth (she breaks bad too).
When I met Bryan Headrick, it didn’t take long for me to see that I had found my Macbeth. So now I had my power couple.
Still, I was running out of time. There were a lot of roadblocks with putting together such a large cast. I was turned down by a lot of people! It was too weird, not the right time, too much work, too weird, they were busy with other projects, too weird (“I’m sorry, what are you trying to do?”)
But we put the word out and I begged, and I reached out to people, and my professor reached out to people, and somehow it touched people who were like, yeah, I can do this, and we got the following amazing cast:
Macbeth……………… Bryan Headrick
Lady Macbeth………..Kristin Fern Johnson
Witch One……………Ashley Salinas
Witch Two……………Elizabeth Ciolek
Witch Three………….Molly Burke
I can’t say enough good things about every single one of these actors. They brought enthusiasm and craft and creativity to their roles in a way that just floored me, both in rehearsal and during production. I ended up adding scenes and dialog for the smaller roles just because I wanted them to stretch themselves and have fun.
My cinematographer, Ethan Dubois, and lighting designer/gaffer, Andy Shaw, were the first people I reached out to. I’d worked with them before on various projects, and I knew they would get what I wanted to do. We discussed plans for the mood that I wanted. We developed storyboards, lighting maps, shot plans, and more. Not everything went smoothly – I discovered that sometimes we would agree on a concept but have very different ideas on what that actually meant. Oops. This wasn’t a bad thing though. We had strong ideas about how this project should work. I deferred to Ethan on all things camera, and Andy on equipment. (Well, with the exception of the smoke machine. Look, I saw Living in Oblivion, and I knew exactly what was going to happen with that damn thing. But the next one, Andy, I promise. You can have the smoke machine.)
The final say on lighting and effects though, was mine. And I couldn’t have done it without either of them.
Making a movie is a group project. I needed a strong producer and assistant director who could help me put together a crew and keep me on deadline. Together with Zachary Merritt, my producer and first assistant director, we put together a mighty crew of grips, soundies, scripties, A.C.s, and P.A.s (production assistants are the backbone of any film set).
Chuck Foster and I worked together on a 48-hour film a few years back and became friends through that shared experience. He came on as second assistant director, and his presence and experience in running a crew helped make the film set environment an extremely positive one. Chuck is one of those guys who is a rarity – born and raised in Austin. He’s embedded in the Austin community as a volunteer and nonprofit board member. He’s a good guy to know and I am looking forward to working on more projects with him.
Wardrobe, Set Design, and Hair and Makeup
I also needed professionals who could bring the production to life. Nancy Smith brought years of film set experience and set design. Aaron Torres and his brand Sleep Never, and Jennifer Rose Davis, of Archive Theater, elevated the wardrobe to great heights. Celisa Martinez brought HMU talents and an understanding of lighting design that took this production from a student film to a professional one.
Now we needed a diner. My original plan was to film in The Omelettry, a local Austin breakfast and lunch space. It would be perfect. Just one little problem – too expensive. I thought I could make it work, but with four days of filming, it would have been prohibitive.
But Austin Community College had restaurant space. The Eatery 73 on the Highland Campus was barebones and modern, but I knew we could transform it into a diner. So after getting permission from the Culinary Department, we were ready to go. Nancy, the set designer, got into gear. And with her hard work we changed this:
Two weekends, Four days
October went by in a flurry. We had only a short window for two rehearsals, one with (almost) the full cast, and one with just five actors in Scene II. We were filming the third and fourth weekends in October. Saturdays were full days, just shy of 12 hours. Sundays were only six-hour days. Somehow we had to fit 14 scenes into that timeframe.
Complicating that was on our first day of filming, the school actually closed an hour early. We got a grace period to get two more shots, and then had to pack everything up. Fortunately, we were able to leave the equipment in the restaurant, now locked and patrolled by police.
Originally, Scene 10, the death of Banquo, was going to be filmed on the street near campus. But the forecast called for a cold front with rain, so I needed a plan B. I got permission from the school to film in the parking garage. In the end, while I remain wistful about the original setup, as the plan was to film along the street with natural streetlights and additional lighting adding drama, the parking garage setting was a great fit for a climactic and emotional scene.
The end result
Filming wrapped on Sunday night, around 8-ish. We produced a professional quality film in four days of shooting, albeit with weeks of pre-production. Cast and crew brought their A game. There were moments of sheer magic. While there are things I wished we’d gotten, and some choices I might make differently, I can honestly say that I got 95% of the shots and the performance I wanted.
The film is far from finished. We’re in post-now, which means editing, color grading, and finally audio, music, and more. I put together a trailer with music for the film department showcase, to show off the stellar production and acting. Realistically, there are about six more weeks of post before I can consider anything close to complete. I want to make sure the production values are as high as I can possibly afford, to honor the work that everyone put into this project.
The next step after delivering the final cut is festival submissions. I’m aiming high on this project, because I think it deserves all the attention possible. I’m biased of course, but it’s not just me. Everyone involved knows we worked on something special. Someday everyone will know it.
So that’s Shakespeare in the Diner: Macbeth. A project born out of a “hey, what if?” that I had in lighting class has become a reality. It’s trite to say never give up on your dreams. More specifically, I’d say, always keep working to find a way to make your project happen.
Two and half weeks before we were set to film, I didn’t have my cast yet. I started to think about pivoting to a different project, a script that I already had on hand. With a quick modification, I could have had it ready to go.
But my professor encouraged me to stay the course, and he reached out to his network, and I tapped a few more resources. A week after that we were at our first rehearsal.
I’ll leave you with this picture of the last day of shooting. This wasn’t the full cast and crew. We’d wrapped on almost everyone by this point. But this gives an idea of how big a production this was.
Will I do another Shakespeare in the Diner? Already scheming on it. Stay tuned…