Death to Prom: A Filmmaker Q&A

Death to Prom
When we heard about the locally-produced indie film Death to Prom, described as "a gay teen romantic promedy," we had to learn more. In this Q&A with co-director and cinematographer Jeremy Wilker, he dishes on the importance of the film for today's teens, why it's cool to make a 100 percent Minnesota-sourced production, and what success means to him.

Stephani Bloomquist: You met Matt [Stenerson, writer and co-director] during a photo shoot for Target. How did the film come about through that?
Jeremy Wilker: Matt is a stylist in his day job and I am a digital tech on a lot of photo shoots. He had seen my first feature film Triumph 67, which screened at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Fest a couple years ago. He responded very favorably to it and mentioned he was a screenwriter and he had some scripts. He showed up the next day with three scripts. I was shocked he had three, much less one, and the first one I read was Death to Prom. By the time it was over I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is like John Hughes, this has got that vibe, it’s got that sensibility. I want to watch this and the only way I can watch this is, I’ve got to make it.’
So I came back the next day and I said, “Matt, we’re going to make this film” and he was like, “What are you talking about?” Because he had submitted to some script competitions and some screen writing labs and he’d gotten to the semifinal rounds at a couple of them but he had written the original draft six years prior. I said, “Well you could spend another six years and not get any traction on it, or we could make it next summer, you and me, we could do a Kickstarter campaign and raise funds and we could do it ourselves.”
He kind of blew me off for the first couple days, but I just kept talking to him and I think probably within two weeks he had come around and said, “OK let’s do this thing.”

SB: What is it like to have all those people support your project through Kickstarter?
JW: It’s very humbling. I think we had 415 or so backers on our campaign and there’s all these people believing in you. You want to live up to their expectations. There is an unspoken pressure to deliver something they enjoy. My obligation is that I’m going to do the work. If it takes two or three years to make it complete and finished and good—as good as I can with the resources I have—then I’m going to spend every waking moment doing that. Because that’s my part of the agreement when somebody makes a donation. It’s micro patronage, so of course the people doing it have no say, they just expect it to get out in the world. But I expect it to be kick ass.

SB: Around the same time you were holding your Kickstarter campaign Zach Braff was asking for $2 million via Kickstarter for his movie I Wish I Was Here. What do you think about a celebrity using this platform?
JW: My initial reaction was, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.” But after I thought about it and I saw the excitement he was generating, I changed my attitude about it because he brought a lot of new people to Kickstarter. Any more exposure for that is good because it means there are more people on the site. There are more people familiar with crowd funding.
The first one I did was in 2010 and Kickstarter was really new, so we spent a lot of time just educating people on what Kickstarter was before we could even do the ask. It’s become more prevalent in the consciousness of people with Kickstarter, Indiegogo, platforms that do similar things. It’s not a surprise, it’s not a thing they have to get over anymore, now they think, “Oh, Kickstarter! This looks like a great project.”
I think ultimately with celebrities it’s good, but “celebrity” doesn’t equal success. Melissa Joan Hart, who was on Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon, did a Kickstarter campaign that was a huge crash and burn. She was trying to raise $2 million and she only raised $50,000. Just because you’re a celebrity, doesn’t mean it’s a guaranteed win if you do a Kickstarter campaign.

Frankie, Rene, and Sasha in Death to Prom

SB: What are your realistic hopes for Death to Prom?
JW: We’re super realistic about it. The indie film world is a lot different than the ‘90s when Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out and it was a huge indie hit. I think people still think that world exists, and it really doesn’t. You’ve got a glut of films being produced every year, Hollywood and non-Hollywood, because the barrier to entry to the technical part of it, to the actual gear and the process, it’s never been more affordable. You can buy a really good quality camera for $1,000-$4,000. You can buy Final Cut Pro 10 for $299 and it kicks butt. So you can do all these things. You can do color correction on your desktop. You can do 3D animation on your desktop if you have those skills. So the barrier to entry is super low, but some of the film festivals we go to, we talk to the directors of these festivals and they’re small festivals that get 800 submissions and they only program 50. There’s just a massive quantity of stuff and a lot of it is not good and so you’re competing with all that. How do you wade through that tsunami of films? It’s tough. You’ve got to just work and not give up because it’s just never ending.
For us, because it is micro budget, we don’t have a big debt hanging over our head that we have to worry about, so we'll play some festivals, we’ll spend a few months on the festival circuit and see what happens and then we’ll just self distribute it because those tools are really accessible now: you can get on iTunes fairly easily, you can get on Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video. You could put it up on YouTube and give it away for free.

I went out for Sundance the last three years and my first two years I was just figuring out how Sundance works. I set up a lot of interviews with distributors and I really learned a lot. Secretly, of course, I did have that dream. I thought, “Oh one of these distributors is just going to love me so much and love my film so much they’re going to buy it and it’s going to be great.” But, of course that didn’t happen. I mean Sundance, jeez. It’s an amazing film festival, there’s a lot of high quality films there. Again, hard to compete when you’re not at Sundance with a film, you’re just at Sundance. Everyone was super generous and had coffee, spent at least 30 minutes talking to me about what they look for, how their business model is and so I learned a lot, it was very fascinating. You’ve got to shoot for the moon but if you don’t ever have your feet on the ground you’re just going to be horribly disappointed.

SB: To you, what would make Death to Prom a successful film?
JW: When you make a film it’s like you’re standing in the middle of town with your chest ripped wide open saying, “Criticize me.” And everyone has an opinion and they’re never the same. You can have a screening back to back and the audiences will react completely differently. So it’s interesting to think about what does success mean. For me, if we have a screening and there’s 200 people in the audience and one person comes up to you and goes, “Oh my god, that’s my movie, that’s me.” That makes it worth it. The other 199 people could say it sucked, but when you make that connection with one person it's like, OK that was completely worth it. I made a connection with another human being and I inspired them somehow.
So, for us, and for me, the success is just that people enjoy it and tell their friends about it. It doesn’t have to be on the level of Iron Man 3 or whatever. Our success is much more moderate and much smaller. I think if people continue to watch it and continue to talk about it, that’s success for us because we have no main actors, really, in our film. I mean, we’re tiny, we’re from Minneapolis. Success is just that people care, people watch it, and tell their friends about it. Pretty realistic dream of success for us.

SB: Why was it important to have every aspect of this film locally made and sourced?
JW: Because we get overlooked so much and there’s no reason for that. We’ve got a lot of great resources here. A lot of location resources, we’ve got weather resources, obviously. We have the huge theater community, so you’ve got talent that can get in front of a camera and perform. You’ve got a lot of people on the back side of it who work for post-production houses who work in advertising at the agencies. There’s a lot of stuff going on under the radar to the rest of the world, but we’re “flyover country” and I hate that phrase.
It’s a point of pride with me. We can make films here that are cool and awesome and look good and people enjoy. We don’t have to go to LA, we don’t have to go to New York. It just chaps my hide when films like North Country get shot in New Mexico and Gran Torino, which was a St. Paul story, move to Michigan. And we had Young Adult, which was a story based in Minnesota, they were only here for three days to get B-roll. You know what? Our stories could and should be filmed here. I’m a firm believer in that. So I just put my money, my time where my mouth is when I spout off about this kind of stuff.

SB: How did you choose which bands would be on the soundtrack?
JW: They’re just bands that Matt and I love to listen to. We listen to Radio K a lot, we listen to The Current a lot. In my youth we were down at First Ave all the time. Not so much anymore, I have kids now. It was just stuff we like listening to and stuff that we sought out and thought fit really well. The bands have been super supportive and I love featuring Minnesota music on the soundtrack because we’ve got so much great stuff going on musically here.


The balloon dress, made by Matt Stenerson for Death to Prom 

SB: You mentioned Matt is a stylist, so did he style the characters?
JW: We had wardrobe people and our three big gowns featured in the film were designed by Christopher Straub, who was on Project Runway. But Matt did a lot of it. He’d just go to thrift stores, vintage stores, and just put stuff together and so much of it is so cool and so fun. I think the fashion is awesome in it.

SB: Would you say that the character Frankie is modeled at all after Pretty in Pink’s Andie?
JW: You’d have to ask Matt that question directly. He wrote the script based on his life and his friends.
I had an interesting conversation yesterday, I was over at Mounds Park Academy speaking to the students and showing them the film and I met with their GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) and we had a conversation for about an hour about how gays are represented in mass culture media and how there’s a lot of stereotypes played up for humor about the gay man who’s into fashion. And I thought, of course we’re going to have this conversation before they watch my film, because Rene is totally into fashion, but Matt’s a stylist, Matt is a real person. He’s not a stereotype. His friends are not stereotypes. Those are things he and his friends were completely interested in. But it goes much deeper than that.
Matt has said, when he watched Pretty in Pink, he always thought, “Wow. What if Duckie was the main character and was just out and it was just normal. It wasn’t a big deal.” And that was his motivation for starting to write Death to Prom was, he always felt like Duckie was gay, but because of his environment or comfort level he couldn’t be out about it. So he wanted to see that movie and that’s what led him to start writing it.
But both Matt and I are big fans of the Andie character in Pretty in Pink.

SB: For you personally, why was it important to make this movie?
JW: At the time I read the script, there was a lack of that sort of sensibility in teen movies. A lot was the crass, Superbad, which are hilarious, but super crass. They don’t have that inspirational feel that John Hughes always had. Now we’re starting to see that with The Spectacular Now and Perks of Being a Wallflower. I feel like it’s in the air. People are thinking about making those types of films again, which is great.
The other two reasons are my sister had come out recently, before I read the script and that was a period of turmoil in my family. I was expecting it to be bad amongst my family members for a long time. They came around pretty quick, which was awesome, but at the time, I was the only one supporting my sister.
The other thing was, it’s a movie, it’s not going to cure cancer, it’s not going to solve the problems of the world, but all the stuff that was going on in the Anoka school district with the bullying and suicides, every time I heard another news story about that, I was just livid and felt sick and I wanted to do something, but the only thing I could think of was to go picket the school. And that’s not going to help anybody. So when the script came along I realized I could make a movie. I could put out a piece of art that some kid can see his reflection in and go, ‘Oh, my people are out there. They might not be at my school but they’re out there and I’m going to go find them.'
When I watched Pretty in Pink, I mean, I was Duckie. I was the kid who, during the ‘80s I had the Prince haircut and I was the first boy to get my ear pierced in school and I got a lot of harassment for that kind of stuff. But those movies, it’s a touch point, it’s an identity recognition thing and those movies, when you watch them and you see yourself in there, that has a big impact on people. It stays with you and can motivate you and can give you some solace if you’re feeling alone. Those things, I guess, are what made me super motivated to make this movie happen. Plus, it was just really fun; it’s just a fun script.
Death to Prom opens Thursday, March 6, with a premiere showing, pink carpet, Q&A with the cast and crew, and a party at Theatres at MOA. It will run through March 13, 2014.