This week, Maplight Filmworks, the production company I started with a handful of friends in Chicago, released The Nation & People of Kwital Watch. It’s available on Vimeo so please go check it out. I want to talk a little bit about the process of making the film, why we wanted to make it, our attempts at getting into some festivals, and why we decided to finally release it ourselves.
We made Kwital Watch a little over a year ago. Our goal was to submit the film to SXSW, which had an approaching deadline of about two and a half months. It was a recklessly ambitious idea that was ultimately unsuccessful at its stated goals but in the end, I believe it was successful in its own right.
The idea for Kwital Watch actually started when I was a child. I wrote a short story simply titled “Kwital Watch” that had to do with a couple of kids stumbling upon a magical world and going on an adventure. It was part The Wizard of Oz and part The Chronicles of Narnia and reflected my early attempts at world-building and storytelling. For a fifth-grader, it was about as successful as you could get because I won our school’s Young Author Award that year.
Years later I had a simple idea for a story that dropped into my brain while on a walk one spring day in Chicago:
A dying matriarch leaves her inheritance to a fictional country.
I loved the possibilities of that idea. There was room for conflict, drama, absurdity, etc. And I knew that the name of the country would be Kwital Watch. There was no real reason for that other than I thought it was a nice little nod to something from my past.
And so I pitched the idea to my partners originally as a feature film idea. And over the summer, myself, Jim Shadid, and Mike Little began developing the idea during weekly meetings at a great little coffee shop called Lovely Bakery, which unfortunately is no longer open. That’s the real tragedy here. That place rocked.
Over time it became clear that developing this idea as a feature was stalling. For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t going to work on the timeline we had in mind. Already busy with other projects, including a 48 Hour film and a series of micro-shorts, Kwital Watch moved firmly to the back burner. But I still hung onto the idea that the central conflict of Kwital Watch was interesting. And after 48 Hour, we at Maplight Filmworks were looking for a project to continue our collaboration and looked again at some of the ideas we had already developed for Kwital Watch. One thing we knew worked was the inciting incident and so we embarked on making a short film out of that basic concept.
In addition to making films, Maplight was interested in exploring the film festival space. I had limited experience with festivals and had tried unsuccessfully before with a previous short, The Detour, to get into some. However, we wanted to try again with Kwital Watch and the idea to get into SXSW was floated. We knew the deadline was looming for submissions so we set ourselves the goal of completing the short and submitting it to SXSW — a little under two and a half months from that point.
If I have learned anything from making films over the last decade-plus, it is that making movies is hard. When you have a very limited budget and you’re asking the time of your friends and strangers it can become almost impossible. And while having more time to prepare the film would have certainly been ideal, I believed that having a firm deadline would motive us to accomplish what otherwise might be impossible. It became a goal that everyone could rally behind. Was it stressful? Extremely. Did it work? Luckily, for us, it did.
I am endlessly in awe of the people I have had the luck to work with. Developing, shooting, and editing Kwital Watch was about as perfect as I could imagine. Everyone who worked on this project was professional, organized, and generally just a decent and amazing human being. Despite any of the setbacks, stresses, or disappointments, I can confidently say that the production of the film was a dream come true.
We shot the film in two days, edited the film over two weeks thanks to the amazing work of Michael Lux and the always-there-to-get-shit-done Jim Shadid, and submitted it to SXSW by the deadline. Then we settled in to wait to hear from the judges. A few months went by and we finally heard from SXSW. We did not get in. And to make matters worse, we requested feedback.
There is nothing like a stranger eviscerating your work to make you question the last twenty years of your life. The script was “lame”, the direction was “poor”, and most baffling of all, “Kwital Watch” sounded like the name of an indigenous tribe which “doesn’t play well”. Criticism hurts and I won’t argue the points even though I can feel my fingers trembling to hammer out a blistering takedown at this very moment. But undeterred we decided to keep submitting until we got into something.
Almost a year went by and we had been rejected from all the festivals we submitted to. I’m sure we could have kept trying. Maybe we could have submitted to some smaller festivals or done any variety of other things. But with wait times on festivals and premiere statuses holding us back from multiple submissions, we found ourselves a year out with no luck and our egos bruised. It’s part of the process.
Having a film at a festival is a nice badge of honor. It can and has helped many filmmakers advance their careers. But at the end of the day, what is really the goal? Why are we spending our time and resources to make films? Is it to get those laurels for the poster? Is it to meet that one person who will help you make the next film that will lead to you making a living as a filmmaker?
Well yes, yes it is. But it’s also about doing something that you feel compelled to do. It’s about answering that drive inside of us to express something and to reach out and share that with someone else. And in the end, if we don’t get the recognition or the security of a paying job, all we are left with is the cathartic pleasure of saying something in a language that is difficult to speak in. Sure, often it comes out garbled and awkward. But maybe what you’re saying will make sense to someone. And hopefully that someone will want to hear more from you.
So we all agreed that it was time to release Kwital Watch online because, in the end, the thing that matters to us was people seeing the film. And we will keep working on more projects, some of which you’ll see in the coming months and we will keep trying to get into festivals. But even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted, I’m glad we made Kwital Watch and everything that came with it. Because there is no next project until you do the one before it.