When I was 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 features under my belt too. But they were so bad, I gave up during 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 totally blew it. I went back home, feeling bad about the interview. And my wife asked an important question:
“Baby, do you really 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, a lot of the 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 11pm on a Friday night 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 to YouTube and about two people liked it, which was kinda cool to me. 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 being 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 cool 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 thing I bought at a thrift store. Before I knew it I had about 20 minutes of material that kinda looked like something when I strung it all together.
When I saw that the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival was accepting submissions, on a lark I hit them up. I asked if they would be interested in showing 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 3 months to write a feature, film it, edit it and get it ready 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 composed of miniature props and sets and watch the clock.
Next thing you know, I only had 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 everyday.
I cried at first because I was filled with fear 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 life long 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 have to 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 got to watch my 94 minute movie. And my feature movie was bad. But kinda good too.
It was bad because it needed another 6 months of editing. It needed to go through private screenings where I would get feedback and constructive criticism. Where I would 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 totally campy and fun, even with all the imperfections. The audience seemed to like the action and suspense sequences, and they laughed at a bunch of the crazy comedy. After all, the scorpions can talk, and I play a movie stuntman, in an orange, head-to-toe lycra suit.
After the screening at the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, I had some private screenings and with people I trust for feedback. I took the notes, and I cut the film down from 94 minutes to 55 minutes. I later cut the film into a series. It’s now 5 episodes, 8-11 minutes each. The story flows way better than before.
Here is the result of storage unit filmmaking. It’s the pilot episode of “Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions.” More episodes are still being sound designed and mixed, so they are coming… But this should give you a pretty good example in the meantime.
Recently a working screenwriter discovered my films online. He reached out and told me there are agents and managers 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 smaller 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 realized you can accomplish great things when you can get out of your own 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 myriad short films and documentaries. He is an avid educator of low budget filmmaking techniques, believing it is through hard work, mistakes, repetition, failures and self reflection that a filmmaker learns and gets better at their craft. He has taught multiple master workshops for various organizations including the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. Find out more about Les here.