Per his Filmmaker’s Comments, Jody McVeigh-Schultz made this film in rebellious reaction to the endless “happy endings” he has endured via mandate in his extensive Reality TV experience. He delivers a polarizing protagonist, in hopes redemption can be appreciated in even the smallest of steps.
I’ve never been interested in easy stories, stories where you see the ending a mile away, stories the audience knows won’t disappoint or disturb them. And yet from 2006 to 2013, I worked almost entirely in crafting such stories as a reality TV editor for shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Duck Dynasty and TLC’s Policewomen franchise. Coming out of USC, I began working as an editor, and the editing jobs were in Reality, pure and simple. I’d often push the limits of what I could get away with: try to take a quirky Duck Dynasty joke in a weirder, more subversive direction, or highlight a moment that was controversial during a police call, but those attempts usually didn’t make it past the editor’s cut. In many ways, Echo Lake, written while I was helping make Duck Dynasty a national phenomenon, is a response to that experience… the experience of making the most palatable, universally wholesome, inoffensive television possible.
Of course, the truth behind those shows– the real awfulness of urban policing, the actual story behind the conservative Robertsons of Duck Dynasty, the very real problems with gifting someone a mansion and its mountain of property taxes– that stuff is infinitely fascinating. But those stories weren’t “Reality TV friendly.” So with Echo Lake, the idea was to dedicate myself to a story I’d never get to tell in my day job, to tell the unadulterated truth about a character and trust that the audience could take it, even if that character seemed unlovable, or even infuriating. Thus, Will, our unlikely protagonist, was born. In many ways, Will is an exaggeration of all my worst qualities balled into one. A great writing teacher once told me to always write the thing that scared me the most, and so I try to do that as much as I can stomach it, to make myself as vulnerable as possible. No, I don’t drink like Will does, but there’s a version of me that has been there. There’s a part of me that wants to smash my tennis racquet, and pout, and ignore every awkward confrontation and dreaded responsibility in my life too. There is a part of that in everybody. Like most people, I’ve just learned to control those tendencies and behave like an adult. Will has not.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given the note to make Will more likable. That said, I hope that people see the humanity in Will, a character who needs more than anything to be able to grieve (for his father, but even more for his lost childhood, his lost sense of family). And yet, grieving is something Will has no idea how to do. He doesn’t even know how to tell the woman he loves that his father is dead. He’s that terrified of dealing with the baggage. He’s buried it that deep. I hope audiences will come to empathize and root for him, because that experience of not knowing how to grieve is a universal one.
Along those same lines, I promised myself that I would treat the audience as smart, alert viewers, who deserved to be left in the dark sometimes, to trust that they could find their way without being hand-held at every step. While I was working in reality, the exact opposite was true. A producer once told me that the story had to be clear enough that a viewer could be doing the dishes and still follow it. Every interview bite had to perfectly spell out each new story beat. Every competition challenge had to perfectly set up the eventual reaction at “judges table.” I’m not interested in making a film for someone who is washing dishes. I want to challenge an audience and trust that they are smart enough, patient enough to go to tough places with the film.
Certainly, as a first film, there are plenty of things I would do different. Not every single moment is as understated and authentic as I’d like it to be, but that’s the nature of making a film. I do know, however, that I made the type of story I could be passionate about, a story about a character and an experience that could never end up on a reality show, or even a mainstream film, and I hope that resonates with people.
Below is an Q&A with this fearless LA filmmaker!
Q: What inspired ECHO LAKE?
A: At the time that I wrote “Echo Lake,” I was working as an editor on the reality show “Duck Dynasty” and I was desperate to work on a project with more depth and nuance, that had personal significance for me. So I decided to write a script that I knew I could produce myself on a micro-budget, and the most logical, deeply personal story idea centered around a cabin in Lassen National Park that my father’s family has owned for generations. I knew the area and I knew how epic and unique the scenery up there was (volcanic formations, fire ravaged woods, a cinder desert). So, I figured I would set part of the story up there to simplify production and allow the scenery to naturally improve production value. The storyline of a man inheriting a family cabin from a father he resents, just felt like a natural way center an internal conflict around that amazing place.
Q: When the idea come about and how long did it take to make it?
A: This movie has been in the works for forEVER, haha. I wrote the script in spring 2012 and shot in August 2012, with pick-ups later that year. Being an editor, I felt strongly about cutting it myself, but that proved difficult considering that during the editing process I was working a day job the entire time– first on “Duck Dynasty,” then horror movie “Old 37,” and most recently “Drunk History” for Comedy Central. After trimming and hacking away we finally locked picture in December 2014 at a cool 86 minutes (my first cut was 2 hours, 10 minutes!)
Q: Is this your first independent film? And how did you get it off the ground?
A: This is my first feature. I self-financed with savings from seven years of reality editing jobs. But that also meant that we made this on a micro-budget with a skeleton crew, so everyone involved put in long hours and made huge sacrifices to make it happen. I can’t thank them enough for that. The goal is that this film will allow me to properly finance my next project with a larger budget.
Q: Making a movie is hard. What do you think was the biggest challenge on this one?
A: Murphy’s Law is not a myth, man. Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. We had to switch our main cabin location two weeks before our shoot, and then, in remote northern California, we had two flat tires and an equipment truck that needed to be towed out of a dirt rut, all in the first three days. On a project like this, with less room in the budget for contigencies, things like can be fatal, but we made do. Definitely hardest of all, though, was starting our shoot with 2 days of filming on a hiking trail. We got all the epic shots of the Cinder Cone by hiking 10 miles over two days, all with film and camping equipment on our backs. That was brutal, and yet, seeing those shots in the film now I know they were worth the trouble, but in hindsight I never should have scheduled that on day 1.
Q: What is your favorite scene of the film?
A: The absolute emotional center of this film is a scene where Will listens to an audio tape of himself and his parents when he was a child. He’s driving back through the central valley in CA, it’s golden hour (just after sunset) and it’s the first moment he’s able to really emotionally release and grieve in the entire film, and we let it play out in one long shot of him trying not to cry. Anybody who has driven that stretch of California freeway, from LA to NorCal, knows the kind of feeling that driving through that glowing expanse of plains and far off mountains fills you with. It’s nostalgia, a sense of freedom, sadness. Most of all it’s the feeling of returning home. I also have a super personal connection to that scene because the audio I used is actually of me when I was a child with my own parents (who graciously agreed to let me share that with the world). If I had hired actors to recreate that kind of audio it never would have felt as authentic as it does with real people recorded in the 80’s with a real tape recorder…. Also, crying while driving is the worst. I’ve done it, and it’s the worst, haha.
Q: Who is your favorite character and why?
A: Well, I certainly feel the most connection to Will. In many ways he is a version of me, perhaps an exaggeration of some of my worst qualities all combined, like an “alternate universe me” where I never figured shit out over the course of my twenties. I once had a writing teacher tell me to try and write the thing I was most afraid of writing, and so I tried to do that when it came to writing Will’s character, to try and make it personal and vulnerable as much as possible. Certainly, Will acts like a jackass at times throughout the film but I do think that people will empathize with him because he feels authentic. Honorable mention to Otis (the dog Will inherits with the Cabin). Writing a dog character is nice because they don’t say much.
Q: If people can’t go to the screening, where else can the see it?
A: Right now only at festivals. We are planning to tour several more fests throughout the US and are currently planning a few more LA screenings and screenings in Northern California and Philadelphia (where I grew up). Hopefully, that will all culminate in a VOD release sometime in late ’15, early ’16. Check with echolakefilm.com for future screenings.
Q: Are there any other films you are working on or want to do?
A: So many things I’d love to do, from narrative to documentary to podcast/radio drama. Most concretely, I’m currently writing a feature script about police violence and the issues around normalized harassment of poor, minority communities by police and government as a whole, which is perpetrated by normal people who find themselves combatants in a war against the poor communities they ostensibly “serve.” The story is told through the lens of a faux policing reality show, and will show the contradiction of real police work with the mythologizing about police heroism that those shows do.