Nick Scown, a graduate of the University of Utah Film Studies program, sends his first feature film, Pretty Bad Actress—a dark comedy about a former child star kidnapped by a crazed fan—into select theaters and streaming platforms today (co-star Jillian Bell is pictured). Ahead of that release, he answered a few
City Weekly questions via email.
CW: How long has the journey been for you to get your first feature completed and released?
Nick Scown: In some ways the journey started when I first started going to Sundance as a teen and wanted to make my own movie, but Pretty Bad Actress
in particular took more than a decade to grow from a little seed of an idea. Most of that time went into researching and developing the story and characters and writing the script. I lost track of the number of drafts, but it went through many iterations, initially I even set in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, before rewriting it for Hollywood.
CW: What lesson that you learned from your U of U Film School experience has helped you most in the transition from short films to a feature?
NS: I had some great professors at the U, from the theory classes, to the writing and directing ones, but in some ways you learn the most editing. You learn what you need and what you don't, and when I was at the U of U they even had us first edit on these old flatbed machines where you would literally be cutting and splicing the film back together. You quickly learn where an edit should be when it takes so much time to just add or subtract a few frames. Also, something I didn't appreciate when making shorts in school, but became invaluable when making a feature, is knowing all the jobs on set. At the U they were smart enough to have us try our hand at everything—from recording sound, to lighting, to shooting with the cameras. That way when you're on a set, you understand why things take the time they do, and you try to plan ahead for the needs of your crew, so you don't make their job and ultimately your job as a director any more difficult.
CW: What part of the process, compared to making short films, was most surprising to you, either pleasantly or not-so-pleasantly?
NS: The biggest difference between making short films and features I've found is the amount of time one has to dedicate to them. Short films you can often write in a few weeks, shoot over a weekend and edit in a month before sending it out into the world, but feature films require a whole other level of dedication, in part because you have to create and tell a story that will captivate people for two hours versus 10 minutes. I've created some shorts that have played major film festivals in less time than it took to do just the sound mix for Pretty Bad Actress
, but when you are creating something that is vying people's time in this golden age of content, you want to make sure you get everything right, that you are worthy of their valuable time. Even once we had a distributor on board to release the film, it became a matter of finding a good spot on their calendar to release it (which ended up being more than a year later). Your attention to detail has to be picked up a notch, which is time-consuming, but also very creatively challenging and satisfying.
CW: A writer/director wears so many hats. Which of the hats is the thing that gives you the most pleasure (getting the script together, working with actors on set, watching it all come together in the editing room, etc.)?
NS: Each step brings its pleasures and its pitfalls. Writing can be very fun and liberating, because all it takes is a couple of taps on a keyboard to send your characters wherever you want, but once you're directing, you actually have to find a police station or jail to shoot at, so even after you've "finished" the script, you have to go back and write a production draft where you try to solve your production problems on paper, since it's cheaper to do it on the page than on location. Writing can also often be a lonely process, where it's just you playing out the film in your head, and you're never quite sure when it's good enough to show the world. My advice: Show it to whoever you can, whenever you can, as often as your can; feedback is invaluable to finding out where you stand. So being on set, collaborating with talented actors who give life to your words and offer their own ideas and insights is always invigorating, plus when you work with a talented crew, it's not just on your shoulders to find solutions to problems. You've got a small army of artists helping you make the best film you can. Editing in some ways is like writing; you have the ability to change so much with just a single tap on the keyboard—cutting a scene or adding a close up look that says more in a single image than a paragraph monologue could have. Editing ends up being this middle ground where you can change a lot, but you still have these restrictions based on what you shoot on set, forcing you be a creative problem solver once more.
CW: Has the evolution of distribution methods for films—streaming services, on-demand, etc.—changed the way you think about being a filmmaker now, vs. when you first considered being a filmmaker? For example, does "making a movie that people see in a theater" no longer seem like the paradigm for considering that you've "made it"?
NS: I have always loved going to the movies. I was an early adopter of MoviePass, and have been taking full advantage of it while it lasts, so for me, I'm always thinking of the big screen as the final canvas that the film is presented on. At the end of the day, though, we're telling stories, and so whether you see a movie at Brewvies or the Broadaway or on your iPhone, if you've done your job right, no matter what the format, the viewer should understand the particular story you're weaving. Shakespeare wrote for the stage, but it still works on the page. Formats change, but great stories are great stories.