In my late twenties, I promised myself I would make a feature by the time I was 40 years old. I had a bunch of short films under my belt. And technically, I had a couple of features under my belt too. But they were so bad I gave up during the post.
Then life happened. I became a father. And it became easier to replace my feature filmmaking dreams with a 9 to 5 job. I landed an interview at a video production company and blew it. I went back home, feeling bad about the interview. And my wife asked an important question:
“Baby, do you want to teach our child to do something you don’t love just to make money?”
Storage Unit Filmmaking
I thought she was crazy. But her statement rang true to me. So instead of applying for more conventional jobs, I continued finding work as a freelance videographer. That led us to move from Philly to Durham, NC. My wife is from North Carolina, and all her family is there. And we wanted our daughter to be around her cousins and her nana.
As it turned out, many music studios had closed in North Carolina. So bands started renting storage units so they could rehearse. Additionally, one of my friends set up an art studio in a storage unit. That inspired me to rent a storage unit too. I threw up a green screen and some lights. And as a result, I entered the business of storage unit filmmaking!
I don’t know what compelled me to do this, but I also purchased a miniature-scale model 1964 Mustang convertible. Then I went to the storage unit to film myself at 11 pm on a Friday for 3 hours. I made up a scene on the spot and got to work. This is what I shot, composited, and edited together that night:
I uploaded it to YouTube, and about two people liked it, which was remarkable. So I did some research on being a YouTuber. I decided to start a channel where I would do tutorial videos about storage unit filmmaking.
I had no plan, but I was consistent, going to my storage unit studio and making stuff. I was also having some fun. At this time, there was no script. So I started filming what I thought were incredible scenes and sequences, including going over a cliff in the convertible:
At one point, I created a cool sci-fi set using a weird sculpture I bought at a thrift store. Before I knew it, I had about 20 minutes of material that looked like something when I strung it all together.
When I saw that the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival accepted submissions on a lark, I hit them up. I asked if they would like to show the “feature” film I was “working on.”
Remember, there was no feature film. No script. I sent them the 20 minutes of footage I had strung together. To my utter surprise, they said yes! That meant I had three months to write a feature, film it, edit it, and prepare it for the festival. So naturally, I got right to work!
Except I didn’t do anything. I was filled with numb desperation and anxiety. I procrastinated. Even though I knew better, I didn’t do much more than sit in a motel room with miniature props and sets and watch the clock.
Next thing you know, I only had a month and a half left before the festival started. So I got to work. This time for real. And I won’t lie to you. It was a marathon. And I cried every day.
I cried at first because I feared that I would fail and not have anything ready for the festival. But as I got closer and closer to having an actual movie, I started crying daily because I was finally achieving a lifelong dream of mine. Even if I had to twist my arm, force, and trick myself into it… And that’s what storage unit filmmaking is all about.
I Was Making A Movie!
I cut it so close that on the day of my screening, I screened my movie from my Final Cut Pro edit timeline. This is because I had been editing straight since I completed principal photography. I had no time to bounce out an mp4 to give to the festival.
I must give the folks over at PHLAFF mad props because any other festival would have just laughed at me. They should have too. But they put up with my shenanigans, and an audience watched my 94-minute movie. And my feature movie was terrible. But quite good too.
It was terrible because it needed another six months of editing. It needed to go through private screenings where I would get feedback and constructive criticism and learn my movie needed to be edited down to about 65 minutes—maybe less.
My Movie Was Bad But Good
My movie was good because the heart of my theme came through. The story is about a soon-to-be-father stuck in the desert at night, fighting for his life against giant scorpions that want to eat him for dinner.
The movie is campy and fun, even with all the imperfections. The audience seemed to like the action and suspense sequences and laughed at the crazy comedy. After all, the scorpions can talk, and I play a movie stunt performer in an orange, head-to-toe lycra suit.
After the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival screening, I had private screenings with people I trusted for feedback. I took notes and cut the film from 94 minutes to 55 minutes. I later cut the movie into a series. It’s now five episodes, 8-11 minutes each. The story flows way better than before.
Get Movies Discovered Online
Recently a working screenwriter discovered my films online. He reached out and told me agents and managers are excited to see my work. On top of this, I’ve been invited to participate in a film festival panel. And I’m in the process of writing my next storage unit feature. So stuff is happening.
With all this said, the more I focus on big goals, the more minor day-to-day challenges become. I don’t plan to embrace storage unit filmmaking for the rest of my career. But I’m happy I’ve been able to use the resources I have to make movies I can… Because I now realize you can accomplish great things when you can get out of your way and get to work.
A winner of the Philadelphia Film Festival’s Philly Pitch and a Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab semi-finalist, Leslie Rivera has made numerous short films and documentaries. He is an avid educator of low-budget filmmaking techniques, believing a filmmaker learns and gets better at their craft through hard work, mistakes, repetition, failures, and self-reflection. He has taught multiple master workshops for various organizations, including the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival.