"The Debt" — a short film and the story behind it



I like to say my filmmaking career began around twenty-five years ago, as I scurried around my parents’ house with a home video camera, stitching stories together one shot at a time.

In one particularly adventurous production, I attempted an underwater miniature scene in the bathtub. A die-cast bus (which had theretofore been subjected to various crashes and pyrotechnics) would at last come to rest in a watery grave. The bus survived the stunt; the camera did not (despite being wrapped securely in a plastic bag).

Frankly, I don’t remember many of the films I made as a kid, but what I do remember is that they were made linearly. When my daughter (now 8 years old) sits down to write a story, she doesn’t think ahead to the third act. To her, stories just happen, one moment after another. When she’s older, an English teacher will provide her with the correct term for this (Free Writing), but I wonder if she’ll approach the task with the same freedom she feels now, armed with boundless imagination and no fear of failure.

My first feature film, a fantasy thriller called “After”, was released in 2012. The project was ambitious — not unlike attempting to film an underwater miniature scene with a camera wrapped in a Kroger bag — but thanks to a lot of talented people behind the scenes (and more than a few favors), it came together in the end. Sure, there were compromises along the way, but just arriving at the finish line felt like success as far as I was concerned.

  • My production company distributed the film theatrically in-house(read more about that here) and now you can find the movie on iTunes and Netflix.

2012. That was three years ago, and sometimes it feels like an eternity. The question I get asked on a regular basis is, “When are you making your next film?”

My response is always, “hopefully soon.”

That’s been my attitude for the past three years — years I’ve spent writing scripts, shooting commercial work, and waiting.

IMDB is a wonderful resource, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t show the work between the work, the unproduced projects waiting for a green light. And these are projects I’ve spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on. By IMDB’s standards, they don’t deserve to be listed in my filmography, but they’re real to me.

Maybe I’m rambling. What I’m trying to say is — I love making films, but I don’t get to make them as often as I would like. Occasionally, if I’m feeling creatively dry, I have to get off my ass and go shoot something just for the fun of it. Sometimes I need to be a kid again, Handicam in hand, grasping in the dark for a story.

So, a couple weeks ago, I did just that. Armed with a Blackmagic URSA, a dolly, and a couple friends, I set out with the intention of creating something.

Only— I didn’t know what.

In Tennessee (where I live), it’s beautiful this time of year. In the morning, fog envelops everything, swallowing trees and fields in a ghostly mist.

As I made my way out to a farm at 5:30am on the morning of November 3rd, I had just one image in my mind: a wide shot of a foggy landscape. We can hear the crunch of boots in the cold grass. Slowly, a figure emerges from the fog.

And that was it.

Where is he going? And for what purpose? I had no idea.

I believe preparation is essential to filmmaking. When I arrive on set, I want to have every shot boarded, every beat planned out. But on the morning of November 3rd, that wasn’t an option. It wasn’t an option because I didn’t have any ideas. I was a dry well. But that didn’t change the fact that I desperately wanted to create something.

I don’t particularly enjoy making things up on the fly, but I’m convinced that it’s good for my brain. It allows my instincts to take over, and when everything starts to click, when it’s all working — well, it reminds me that I can do this.

So, I took it one shot at a time.


Nothing was preconceived; it was just — happening — as we went, one moment after another.

Free writing. With moving pictures.

By the end of the day, we had something that loosely resembled a story. I had a first cut completed a couple of days later, and shared it with some friends. They unanimously agreed that it worked as an experiment — or a “tone poem” as I was calling it — but for it to function as a story, more context was needed.

I took their advice, and went out a few days later to shoot some pickups, which ended up being the connective tissue of the piece.

The finished product is something I’m proud of, given the circumstances. It doesn’t encompass the full extent of my abilities as a filmmaker, but it tells a story visually, with no dialogue — and therefore no exposition. I consider this a win.

Now, for a few technical notes. I used all natural light, with the exception of a flashlight that was used for some fill in the bedroom scene.

The Blackmagic URSA is not without its quirks, but when the image is properly exposed, it’s quite beautiful and film-like. Blackmagic claims that the native ISO is 400, but in low light, there is some seriously troubling Fixed Pattern Noise visible. Since discovering this, I’ve been shooting everything at 200. I’m hoping the forthcoming 4.6K sensor will fix this problem.

We shot in RAW 3:1. It gives you all the benefits of RAW, with little visible compression, and takes up roughly half the space as the full RAW format.

For glass, I used Rokinon Cine primes — a 14mm35mm50mm, and 85mm. These lenses are inexpensive and I’ve had good luck with them.

Editing was done in Adobe Premiere and color grading in DaVinci Resolve. Some basic foley was recorded on a Tascam DR-40. My brother Tyler wrote some music for the end.

That’s about it. I had fun making this and I hope you enjoy watching it, but more than anything, I hope it inspires you to go make something yourself, even if you don’t know where it’s going. Sometimes it’s just the discipline, the “showing up”, that counts.

Because it’s important to remember that behind all the business of making films, we do this because we love it.

Ryan SmithComment