Creativity isn’t limited to the world-class sculptors, artists, and musicians I have had the opportunity to interview here in the past. Creativity is a combination of inspiration, opportunity, effort, and execution. It can show up in obscure corners, as it did with one of my best friends Nathan Weidner. Nathan is a teacher at Canal Winchester High School where he teaches French and Film Arts. Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced him to my book Love Is Never Past Tense. He wanted to write a screenplay for it, which he later did. We connected immediately and became the best of friends!
At our first meeting, he told me about his daughter Meah. I listened without interrupting as he shared her story, a story that is both tragic and inspiring. Even then, her inspiration had him hard at work on a screenplay. He told me that he had finished the first draft in one week and that the result had left him in tears. This was the first of sixteen drafts. When I first saw a draft in 2014, I could feel his emotions running through the pages. I could barely imagine how anyone could endure it.
In addition to his full-time job as a teacher and more than a full-time job as a parent and grandparent, he has created and released three film projects. Today, you can see the result of that inspiration, opportunity, effort, and execution in his newly released film A Story For Winter. on Amazon Prime.
I invited Nathan to my blog to share the process of making an independent film, the story, and the story behind the story.
Hi Nathan! Can you give us a synopsis of the story?
The story is about a small-town doctor who gets called to a home that adopts special needs children. On one of his visits, he gets snowed in and passes the time telling stories to his patient, a little girl named Winter. What he doesn’t realize is that she lives these adventures out in her mind like a typical child, but eventually he falls into a dream in which he goes on the adventure with her, and the experience helps him to heal from some significant hurts from his past.
I understand the script was years in the making. Where did it start? And why?
Hi Janna! I got the idea many years ago when I was watching my daughter, Meah, sitting in her wheelchair laughing and having a great time. I always wondered what was going on in her mind, and I imagined she might have special places she goes to where she is unfettered by her disabilities. In February of 2009 I had just completed a film I had been working on for the past 5 years, and I started thinking of what I wanted to do next. I came back to the idea of this story and decided it was time to write this one. I wrote the first draft in one week – it just flowed out of me.
How is the actual movie different from the first draft?
The central story always remained the same, but a number of subplots changed over time. Initially, Owen’s wife, Connie, had a supportive family who encouraged her when she became concerned about Owen, but her family eventually evolved into a more chaotic group that shows up uninvited to her house at Christmas. By doing this I was able to juxtapose Owen’s family experience with Connie’s and pose the question of whether it’s better to have a dysfunctional family rather than no family at all.
Another big change was the fairy tale that Owen tells Winter. Initially, it was a story about kings, queens, and castles, but it eventually evolved into a tale based on Celtic folklore. Finally, the backstory between Owen and his mother changed considerably between the first and last draft. Originally, there was no resolution between the two of them, and she was written off as a bad memory, but I eventually realized that it was important for Owen to make peace with his past, and I changed how the film ends in relation to the two of them.
And with that, the film goes from a writing project through a production project. Making an independent film is a lot of work. What sent you off in that direction?
This was always a script that I wanted to shoot, myself. I was too invested in the story. I once had an offer to option the script to another production company, but I turned it down so that I could retain creative control over the project. I tried to make this film through traditional means, getting investors to finance it as a low-budget film. I developed a budget of $500,000, which is still fairly low compared to the budgets of most studio films, and in 2012 I came close to getting investors to give us that amount. However, at the last minute they pulled out, and for 9 years I tried to locate other funding sources but was unsuccessful.
What finally got the production up and running is pretty amazing. I was teaching a video production class in December of 2019, and one of my students turned in a video that he had shot on his iPhone, and it looked phenomenal. I began to entertain the idea of shooting my film on the iPhone, which is very cost-effective. Then, in May of 2020, I had another student turn in a video that starred one of our school’s most gifted performers, Adam Ashton Scott. He played a troubled young man on the verge of self-destruction, and his performance blew me away. I realized right then that he could play the lead role in my film. These were the seeds that were planted in the back of my mind, but they continued to grow over the course of the next year, and by the spring of 2021 we had set a date to start shooting the movie. Everything came together so easily that it was unreal. For 9 years I couldn’t have shot the movie regardless of how hard I tried, but now it was as if the movie was shooting itself and dragging me along for the ride.
So how long did it take to shoot the film?
Everybody who worked on the film was volunteering their time, so I had to work around their schedules. My two leads were only home for the summer and had to leave for college in August, so it was important that we get it all done before they were no longer available. In the end, we were only able to get them all together on 15 days between June 21st and August 1st. That is not a lot of time to shoot a movie, but somehow we pulled it off, sometimes shooting between 10-15 pages in one day. The cast was so dedicated and worked really hard to get everything done in time.
One of the most challenging aspects of shooting the film when we did was the fact that it is a Christmas movie, and all the exteriors were being shot in June and July. The poor actors had to stand outside wearing winter coats in 80-degree weather, and we had to be certain to keep trees with leaves on them out of the exterior shots. In some shots, we added some fake snow on the set, but most of the snow effects had to be added during post-production.
I barely saw you that summer except for when I put in my little bit. I was really impressed with the young man who played the doctor.
I cannot say enough about how much I appreciate Adam Ashton Scott. Everyone I worked with on the film was phenomenal, but as Dr. Owen Hughes he was the core of the story and had to appear in nearly all of the scenes, so he carried the weight of the film on his shoulders. What he gave me on camera was beyond my wildest expectations. He invested himself completely in the character, and he nailed his scenes time and time again. I can honestly say that there were only 2 times during the entire production when I had to say, “Why don’t you give me that line a different way.” He’s that good.
The film was made in 2021. What challenges did that create?
We did have to contend with the pandemic, but fortunately, the number of cases dropped considerably in the summertime. We never encountered a case of COVID-19 during production, for which I am genuinely grateful.
What was it like turning the vision into a real product?
They say you write a film three different times. Once when you write the script, the second time when you’re on set shooting it, and the third time when you’re editing it. I always had a vision for what the film would look like when I was writing it, but when you get on set with the actors, the environment and the people will bring an energy to the scene that dictates how it’s going to unfold. You just need to navigate around it with the camera to capture it the best way possible. As much as I thought I knew what this film was going to look like, there was no way for me to know exactly how it would unfold until I got on set each day. I can honestly say that it all came together better than I had ever imagined. I sat back and simply enjoyed what was coming through the camera lens, like someone who was seeing the movie for the first time. You would think that, after working on it for so long and screening it so many times, I would grow tired of watching the film, but I don’t. The actors brought the characters to life in such a wonderful way, and I enjoy spending time with them no matter how many times I watch the film.
What else would you like to share about this project?
Meah never got to see the movie that she inspired. She actually passed away just 4 months after I wrote the first draft of the script. I have been asked how impactful that has been on the production of the movie, and I would say that her life and her memory have been a huge inspiration for me to see the project through its completion. I miss her immensely, but I feel a lot of joy in being able to share the story that she inspired with the rest of the world.
How can we see A Story For Winter today?
We submitted the film to Amazon Prime through a service they offer independent filmmakers, and they began streaming the film in December of 2021. I cannot express how overwhelmingly grateful I am that we were able to distribute the film this way, considering the humble means in which we produced it. I believe this is a huge testament to the dedication of those who worked on the film, and I cannot thank them enough for helping us to achieve this milestone.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Do you have any suggestions for aspiring filmmakers, Nathan?
Yes, don’t ever give up! The film industry is a difficult one to navigate for numerous reasons, but if you have a vision for telling stories, keep plugging away at it no matter what it takes. You may need to take a day job to keep yourself financially stable, but once you clock out your time belongs to you, and you can do whatever you want with it. Shoot your movies, learn from your mistakes, and grow as an artist. Take constructive criticism from those who have earned your trust, but don’t allow the negative opinions of others to deter you from working on something you are truly passionate about. If you’re passionate about it, there are others who are going to enjoy what you create, and if you can’t find a distributor to share your work with an audience, go find your audience yourself. It can be done. See more here.
What are your thoughts on the future of independent filmmaking?
Technology has evolved so much over the past 20 years, and the average consumers have equipment in their homes that can create impressive videos and films. This has busted down walls for independent filmmakers, and the possibilities are endless. I believe we will see an increasing stream of self-made filmmakers who operate outside the Hollywood studio system because of this.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you had it all to do over again?
I don’t regret anything about how we made this film, but I do wish that the “me” from 2012 could have had a better understanding of how the following 9 years were going to prepare me to make the version of the film that I was going to truly love. It’s difficult to be patient in the moment, but the waiting truly paid off.