Stray Bullets is my fourth film and my first feature. My previous short films, the first of which I made at 13, all deal with the theme of the strength of friendship in the face of adversity. The idea of a film like Stray Bullets had lived in my mind for years – I referred to it as my “epic” because I knew it would transcend all of my previous works and have a sense of scale which they lacked – but I waited to start writing until I felt I had the chops to do it justice. Originally, Stray Bullets was to be a fifth in my cannon of shorts, one that would take me out of my comfort zone and challenge my writing and direction. The movie was slated to have a runtime of about 30 minutes, but still with roughly the same dense plot of the final feature, minus a few additional elements. However, in what seemed to be a much-anticipated conversation, my mother advised me that it seemed to make more sense to write it as a shorter feature rather than a longer short, a medium shunned by many festivals. From that moment on, I was starting to make a feature film at age 14.
Knowing I’d have my work cut out for me, I began the writing process with an outline in summer 2014 and had completed a draft by April 2015. I sent the script to actors James Le Gros and John Speredakos, both of whom I had grown up watching and had had in mind for the leads in Stray Bullets, and they quickly responded with words of encouragement as well as their commitment to the project.
By the end of June, we had assembled an essentials-only crew comprised of my own friends as well as interns and other collaborators from my father’s indie production company. We had purchased a 1974 Dodge Dart from craigslist, spent a week decorating our key set piece, and rented a Red Dragon camera for a sum so handsome it made us all the more eager to get our money’s worth, and shoot a movie!
A particular film that stayed with me throughout the writing and preparatory process was Jeff Nichols’ 2012 drama “Mud”. The relationship of two adolescent boys with a threatening, mysterious, but also enticing older male figure with a dark past fascinated me, particularly within its isolated setting of the Arkansas wetlands. My film borrows from many of the characteristics of Mud, which first inspired me years ago to make my second short “All For One”. That being said, I believe the real purpose Mud has served has been to help me find my voice in film, at least at this point in my career. I never actively thought about the scenes in Mud while writing Stray Bullets because the film, in my mind, had become more of a collection of ideas and images to draw upon rather than a story to plagiarize. Stray Bullets also has heightened, gritty action and tension inspired by my love for 70s crime thrillers – represented most obviously in my film by its true star, a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom. Working with what I know has always allowed me to picture my own film in my mind before shooting, rather than referencing others.
We shot for 16 days, the first half of July. We began the shoot with the opening scenes to the film featuring my co-star Asa Spurlock and myself, which afforded the crew, and me most of all, to get warmed up before we brought in “the real actors”, a highly anticipated event. Our second week began with intense days that took us from the streets of Brooklyn to the George Washington Bridge and palisades parkway, all the way back to our main location of upstate New York – a harrowing first two days with James Le Gros and John Speredakos, but also immensely successful. Days moved quickly and efficiently because we had carefully shotlisted and storyboarded every setup of the movie, allowing us to feel comfortable to make new choices on the spot when we wanted. Our dailies were transcoded every night for the cast and crew to watch in the comfort of our upstate house, home to the entire crew for the duration of the shoot. We labeled the tradition “the daily show”. The footage was looking good – moral was high, and would remain high. We were having a blast.
As production came to a close and the cast and crew went their separate ways, I was struck by how alone I felt in the task that lay before me. Still, I remained diligent, and edited dozens of hours of footage down to a 90 minute cut within a few weeks. Then something that most filmmakers don’t have to put up with reentered my life: high school. I began my sophomore year of high school in September and had to learn to manage my time spent on the movie and my time spent on my Trigonometry homework or my Canterbury Tales reading.
Against all odds, I was able to edit the entire film while still applying myself in school and playing in my band, with my fathers help, of course. However, my biggest creative challenge still lay ahead: composing the score. I had used pieces, film score and otherwise, by Cliff Martinez, Brian Eno, and Philip Glass (to name a few) as temporary music in my edit to help myself understand what mood I was hoping to evoke with the score. I worked with a fellow musician and friend from school to help get started with developing chord progressions and sounds for the music. I soon felt confident enough to continue on my own and compose an entire feature film’s worth of music. We recorded in only 4 days, inviting friends of ours from upstate to come down to play bass, cello, and violin. I played most of the other instruments, expanding upon previous ideas and coming up with totally new ones in the moment.
With a finished score and picture-locked film, we worked with James Siewert to design our visual effects and title sequence, a very specific vision I had held in my mind for months. I did my best to articulate what I envisioned , and he did a fantastic job of interpreting my efforts. The rest of our post-production process took place at DigIt Audio in downtown NYC. I spent many weekdays after school in the color timing studio and ADR recording sessions while totally ignoring homework assignments expected of me the next morning. The end felt very near. Last on the list was the sound mix, a looming 5-day event with the boss at DigIt, Tom Efinger. During that Final week, we worked with Tom to shape the sonic arc of the film while John Moros, our unrelenting sound designer, worked simultaneously in the next room over. I always say that the film improved most dramatically in those five days, and at the end of the fifth, we called a wrap on Stray Bullets.
- Jack Fessenden