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Case Study: The Making of the Award Winning “Service Road” by Carly Miller

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Sarah Navratil and Colton Apodaca in Service Road (2019)

Service Road
Date: 12th September 2019
Genre: Dramedy
Director: Carly Miller
Producer: Carly Miller, Sonora Rowan.
Writer: Carly Miller,Sonora Rowan
Cinematographer: Richard Satoru
Production Company: Eagle and Child Productions.
Case Study: The Making of Service Road

indieactivity : What is your film about?
Carly Miller : Service Road is about a hard-nosed female federal marshal escorting a male felon across the desert when their car breaks down, resulting in a day of unexpected conversations and confrontations. The completely original story was developed by myself (Carly Miller) and my writing & producing partner Sonora Rowan. In mid-2017, we’d just finished shooting our eight-minute character study The Bechdel Test and were hunting for a project to both challenge and excite us. So, we wrote Service Road! We felt a 30-minute featurette would give us the chance to tell rich character piece and help us gain experience managing a large-scale production.

We tackled some interesting themes throughout the script. In the beginning, our leads Georgia and Collins don’t see eye to eye – but by the end, they’ve evolved to see each other as more than stereotypes, more than their professions, incomes, and backgrounds. They may not have changed each other’s’ minds, but they have changed each other’s attitudes. We loved exploring their character arcs on screen.

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Carly Miller is a Film Composer, Director and Writer

indieactivity : What is your film about?
Carly Miller : In March 2019, Service Road screened at the Idyllwild International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Indie Spirit Award. Our writing & producing team, Sonora Rowan and myself, were nominated for the Mary Austin Awards for Excellence in Screenwriting and Producing – and I was nominated for the Mary Austin Award for Excellence in Directing. Then, in October 2019, Service Road screened at the Show Low International Film Festival, where I took home the award for Best Director of a Feature/Featurette.

Dramatic Features?
Director: Carly Miller
Producers: Carly Miller and Sonora Rowan
Cinematographer: Richard Satoru
Budget: $20,000
Financing: Eagle and Child Productions
Production: Principal photography lasted 8 days, from January to April 2018. We shot on location in Joshua Tree, CA for the desert portions and interiors were filmed in Vista and Carlsbad, CA. Due to our “weekend warrior” style, post-production lasted April 2018 to September 2019.
Shooting Format: Sony A7sii (1.77:1 aspect ratio)
Screening Format: We also screened the film in 1.771:1.
Awards: Best Director Show Low International Film Festival (2019)
Website: Eagle and Child Productions

Interview: Carly Miller Talks Award-Win, Break Through & Future Project

indieactivity : Give the full Official Synopsis for your film?
Carly Miller : Service Road is about a female federal marshal Georgia Stevenson escorting hactivist-felon Chase Collins to his parole hearing when her car breaks down in the middle of the California desert. She reports the problem to the corrections facility, but learns a rock slide will prevent help from getting to them anytime soon. While waiting for rescue, she tries to avoid conversation as much as possible, but Collins won’t have it. He goofs off and makes jokes until he finally breaks down her walls. They learn about each other’s lives; she’s a latchkey kid from Texas, he’s the son of a wealthy, northeastern banker. However, their conversation takes a contentious turn when they get into a heated exchange over the morality of Collins’s actions…an exchange which challenges their opinions, beliefs, and feelings about each other.

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Sarah Navratil and Carly Miller in Service Road (2019)

indieactivity : Development & Financing?
Carly Miller : Service Road was born during pub trivia conversations between myself and my co-writer/producer Sonora Rowan. After a whiskey or beer (or two), we’d chat about our week for approximately two minutes before excitedly steering things back to Service Road. We knew a few items for certain.

  • We wanted the story to be funny, despite the premise of a female federal marshal being stuck alone with a male prisoner.
  • We wanted it to feature strong characters – especially a strong female lead in Georgia.
  • We wanted it to take place in the middle-of-nowhere desert (the kind you blaze through on your way someplace else).
  • And, lastly, but most importantly, we wanted the story to be about the beginning of a new and… complicated friendship.

The script’s concept was problematic from a filmmaker’s perspective. How do you strand two characters in the desert for twenty minutes of run time and keep things interesting? We solved this dilemma by injecting the plot with an engaging balance of tension, comedy, and conflict. Georgia and Collins begin as complete strangers. As we’ve said, he’s a hacktivist felon with wealthy parents and she’s a latchkey kid from Texas with a strict moral compass. They bond for a little while, passing the time with crossword puzzles and tossing pebbles into Pringles cans, but their conversation grows tense when Collins launches into a defense of his hacktivism and Georgia won’t have it. They throw sharp barbs and stereotype each other, leaving them on shaky ground until help arrives. And even when it does: they realize their relationship will never be the same.

Throughout our story, Georgia and Collins grow to see each other as more than clichés – more than their stereotypes and surface appearances. Granted, they don’t change each other’s’ world views, but they do change each other’s’ attitudes.

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Carly Miller in Service Road (2019)

The production was self-financed by our filmmakers at Eagle and Child Productions, using a combination of savings and calling in favors. We picked very affordable locations, used friends and family as crew members and extras, and picked a camera package that our DP already owned to keep gear costs to a minimum. Due to savings in other areas, we’re proud to say we fully compensated our cast and crew.

indieactivity : Production?
Carly Miller : Sonora and I both grew up taking road trips to the Sierra Nevadas and Arizona and absolutely loved the dramatic vistas we encountered along the way, which is why Joshua Tree popped up on our radar as an option. After an eventful location scout to Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms (a hilarious story for another day), we zeroed in on a cool campground only ten minutes from town and with a gorgeous, 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. To be honest, it wasn’t exactly the most luxurious location! We ate lunch in cars and camping chairs, used a port-a-potty for our restroom, and charged batteries out of our host’s RV. Nevertheless, the location looks fantastic and was extremely affordable to use. Also our host family was absolutely lovely!

Originally, the story took place during warm weather, but due to scheduling conflicts, we moved production to January. We tweaked the plot to suit the new season and crossed our fingers it wouldn’t rain or snow. Of course, Murphy’s Law prevails. We enjoyed fair skies our first two days of filming before a winter storm hit on our third. Temperatures plummeted to the 30s and 40s. Torrential downpour in the morning gave way to clear skies…and 30-40 mph winds in the afternoon, which rendered most of our afternoon footage unusable.

Though this was the most extreme weather we’d ever experienced on a film shoot, that stormy day remains my favorite of the whole production. We salvaged those brutal twelve hours for all they were worth, improvising, rearranging shot lists, and bundling up under as many jackets as possible. True, we were forced to reshoot a lot of what we filmed, but I’ll never forget the grit and determination our cast and crew displayed that day.

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(L to R) Carly Miller, Amanda Chang, Sonora Rowan

We hiked back up to Joshua Tree for pickups in March, then filmed our final two scenes in north San Diego in April, clocking in at eight-days of production for our thirty-minute short.

During pre-production, our cinematographer Richard Satoru and myself had a lot of conversations about the visual feel of Service Road.

We wanted the story to strike viewers as both realistic and personal. In the beginning, we favored long, meditative takes showing both characters in frame so their relationship could build gradually and genuinely. Then, once they started arguing, we jumped to tighter shots to amplify their emotional intensity.

Service Road’s success can also be attributed to our very talented actors Sarah Navratil and Colton Apodaca. When Sarah auditioned for Georgia we knew, from the moment she walked in the room, that she was made for the part.

We loved her fearlessness in trying out ideas, her insights into the character and smart suggestions in terms of blocking, line reading, wardrobe, makeup, and everything else in between. Her on screen choices make for a complex and intelligent Georgia and she elevates everyone she works with – her scene partners, writers, and director – to a higher caliber. She can be seen on Stargate Origins as the role of Eva Reinhardt.

We’ve collaborated with Colton on all four of my last short films. He’s an accomplished stage actor from the San Diego theater and was named a finalist at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. We love the integrity he brings to his performances. He’s a great listener and solid improviser. His wit and physical comedy inject energy into our montage and he totally sticks the landing during his argument with Georgia, when he turns on a dime from arrogant to remorseful.

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Then there’s Derik Rosario, whom we can’t thank enough. He plays Mackenzie, a corrections officer, and he also happens to be a former corrections officer in real life. He served as our fact-checker during the writing process and delivers a laugh-out-loud, scene-stealing performance.

Tim Tembruell plays Sergeant Wallace with deadpan wit. He’s also the scintillating host of the pub trivia night where Sonora and I first discussed all our brilliant ideas. Our good friend Avalon Roberts delivers some hilarious one-liners as his even more deadpan assistant, Patty.

We also have to acknowledge Service Road’s fantastic first AD Amanda Chang, who kept us on schedule and kept us optimistic even after our most stressful days of shooting.

Our writer & producer Sonora Rowan also served as our one-woman art director and production designer, selecting and organizing every single costume, prop, and set dressing that appears on screen.

Service Road’s editing process involved intense collaboration between Sonora and myself. I edited our first rough cut, which came in at around 34 minutes long. After that we put our heads together and worked through several late-night sessions to winnow things down to just shy of 30 minutes: the perfect length.

Rik, our DP, provided Service Road’s color grade and Michael Packmore, one of our production sound mixers, executed our beautiful 5.1 surround sound mix.

indieactivity : Festival Preparation & Strategy?
Carly Miller : Since our film runs on the longer side, we’re seeking out festivals with a track record of supporting projects in the 15-30 minute range. We’re also pursuing festivals that are truly “indy” and are looking to provide a genuine platform for filmmakers to connect and share their work.

The Show Low International Film Festival in Arizona was a positive experience for us. They provided extensive media & press opportunities and hired official red carpet photographers to capture great images of the filmmakers. They hosted parties every night and gave us a great space to network and get to know each other. We’d highly recommend it to other filmmakers.

indieactivity : Advice from the Filmmaker?
Carly Miller : Three filmmaking tips would be to:
1. Surround yourself with dedicated cast & crew members who will be honest with you and challenge you to be better.
2. Don’t skimp on pre-production. Spend ample time planning with your team and rehearsing scenes with your actors, so there are no surprises on set.
3. Always have great coffee and crafty!

Tell us what you think of the Case Study for Service Road by Carly Miller What do you think of it? Genre? More genre? Lets have your comments below and/or on Facebook or Instagram! Or join me on Twitter @oladapobamidele

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