Following the recent release of her debut feature film Spent (2017), I was able to ask Lisa Mikitarian a few questions about how she came up with the idea for the film, her influences and her favourite scene to film.
How did you first get into film making?
You grow up loving/escaping to film, and find storytelling has become a part of you. But there’s life. You join the army, get married, have children, settle in rural Virginia. A couple of decades pass. But during those decades you also go back to school and are fortunate enough to have some incredible professors who mentor you in the nuanced art and mechanics of storytelling. A small publisher in Tennessee publishes a collection of your short stories—asks you to make a promo video for it, maybe turn one of the short stories into a short film to help with marketing. So that’s what you do. In the process, you remember how much you LOVE film. You also learn that it’s become accessible—even to a wife, mother, new-grandmother living in rural Virginia.
Spent is your feature debut, what can we expect from the film?
You can expect to see evidence that I might have had too much fun writing, directing, and producing it. I was like a kid who had been given the mega-box of 120 crayons, and then used every single one of them making her first picture. You can also expect a film that hearkens back to films of the 40s, 50s, 60s. There’s set up, longer scenes, more intricate dialogue, a satisfying payoff. Spent sits in the crossroads of artistry, story, farce, and family.
Where did the idea for Spent come from?
After the promo video for the short story collection was made, I wanted to learn how to write a screenplay. A film student friend of mine offered to help with the “how to’s.” He gave me a prompt: write a story about a miser whose family spends his money while he’s dying of a brain tumour but then has a miraculous recovery. The plan was to make it on a small scale with me observing the process. But then a professional cinematographer from LA came to the project—that changed the scope of everything—and my role in it.
What were your inspirations for the look and style of the film?
I’ve been asked this question a few times and have given different answers because so much goes into a decision like that. Today’s answer: at the time I was writing Spent, I was feeling melancholic about how rough the world could be and how rough we could be with one another. No era is without serious problems, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere but here and now—but each era also has positive attributes. In small town, mid-century America there existed a certain respect within families, and neighbourhoods, and community. Even in social upheaval, we have the example of Martin Luther King Jr. Films of bygone eras conveyed some of that respect, too. Characters could be cheating, stealing, killing left and right, but they did it with aplomb and a modicum of civility. That’s the path I decided to take my characters on.
The film has a vintage 1950’s look and feel, although with the use of mobile phones it is likely to be set in a more present time. Why did you decide to integrate the timeframes?
First there was the micro-budget. I knew there was no way I could make a real period piece. And some old towns really do feel like they’re in a time warp, so it didn’t feel like a huge stretch, but then I started having fun colouring in the sets, wardrobe and props, and music, and maybe it got out of hand. I purposely added in cell phones and contemporary references because I wanted the film to have a timeless feel. Some of the characters (like the Schumacher Family) are stuck in a time of their own doing, while other characters in the town just really love their vintage.
Were there any elements in the finished film which were different to your original script?
Definitely—one example is that I added a prologue to explain why a bride (doll) was stuck in a birdcage. We edited it out at the last minute and put it in the credits. I also wanted an explanation of what happened with the two villains—that ended up as an Easter egg. My favourite change-up happened when Sonya Kalian offered to cater several meals for us if I could give her a small speaking role. Hell, yes—feeding a cast and crew is expensive! I wrote in Nurse Pruitt—her exchange with Herbert is one of my favourites. And can she cook!
What was your favourite scene to film?
I love the “Hat,” and the “Drugstore,” and the exterior “Car Dealership” scenes. The “Rat in the Diner” scene has the best cast and crew memories associated with it. I did my best to find a rat handler for filming, but finally had to settle for Uncle Milton’s Remote-Controlled Rat. We could barely get the thing to work. My favourite scene in general is a mere insert I thought of after the principal photography had been done—the climax scene needed something to break it up—enter the “Toppled-Stonehenge Squirrel” scene. It’s the one people mention most often—it’s become my number one, too.
Do you have any new projects which you are working on?
I’m currently working on a limited mini-series called “Huxley Bound”—it’s a multi-generational murder mystery with an unusual premise set in a town full of layered characters.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to make their first film?
Give it your all as fearlessly as possible at whatever skill level you start. Realize there will never be a “perfect” time to make a film. Know that if you do the best you can with what you have, you’ll be at a different skill level when you finish than when you started. When you are finished, don’t kick yourself for what you missed or could have done better. Be thankful and humble enough to learn from constructive criticism. And lastly, from beginning to end, enjoy/employ the support and camaraderie of the indie film making community. It’s a different animal than the writing community or really any other I’ve ever been a part of. Rowdy, enthusiastic, thoughtful–they’ll give you encouragement when you need it most. And believe me—you’ll need it.