ISA award-winning Craig Bettendorf: “There is still some hesitation to pick up or fund LGBT projects”

Craig Bettendorf, the creator and director of ISA Gold award-winning “Treading Yesterday”, talks on the challenges involved in the development of the series and gives some tips for the newcomer’s independent filmmakers.

ISA: What made “Treading Yesterday”, the series come into being? Why now?

Craig Bettendorf: The creation of “Treading Yesterday” has a compelling story-line of its own. The initial writing of our double-episode pilot came into being as a storytelling device, created to convey a sense of perspective to my friends, Matt & Ivan, both Millennial’s who had little frame of reference as to how today’s broader acceptance of LGBT people came into being. As we concluded our first table read, both simply demanded more. Offering the episodes in a historical-fiction format allowed both to experience actual historical events through the lives of “Treading Yesterday”’ fictional characters. And although growing legal and social acceptance of LGBT people has been experienced throughout the past five years one must be mindful of the fact that a shift in the political climate could bring a swift reversal of these hard-fought victories. This makes “Treading Yesterday” even more relevant today than it was three years ago when the first pilot episodes were written.

Treading Yesterday
Treading Yesterday

ISA: What budget did you have for the “Treading Yesterday”? Was it scary or enough for the project? Did it restrain some ideas? How did financial supporters welcome a gay-oriented theme?

CB: “Treading Yesterday” was envisioned as a web-series. As the entertainment industry quickly began to evolve in its opinion of the importance of web-based content, offering a select few a shot at television or streaming, our business plan changed quickly in order to adapt. The storyline of “Treading Yesterday” hadn’t been seen before combining the elements of the LGBT, Drama and Sci-fi genres made it stand out as unique and different leading us to invest in a two-part television pilot in order to ensure that our audience was able to fully grasp the concept over two thirty minute viewings. The original budget to produce an eight-episode web-series was spent long before we completed the first of our two pilot episodes. Without giving away the exact budget details suffice it to say that it was necessary for me to sell my home in order to bring both episodes to completion. Although we originally expected a production company to embrace the concept from script to screen it was necessary, primarily due to the uniqueness of the storyline, for us to self- finance. This gave us far more creative control of the project as we selected the production crew, director and post-production teams. In the US you must hire a registered stockbroker to package your film project and sell it to accredited investors for funding. This is a highly complex process that we were able to side-step as a result of self-funding. Finally, there is still some hesitation to pick up or fund LGBT projects. All independent filmmakers are trail-blazers and being an LGBT independent filmmaker or having an LGBT project puts you squarely in the mix of this amazing group of people who put everything they have on the line to tell their stories. This we share in common.

ISA: How long was the shooting and which were the main challenges on the set?

CB: Our shooting schedule was well planned and executed because we hired an established production company. We successfully shot both pilot episodes in twenty days with a few days for pick up shots. Staying anywhere near the projects original budget was the greatest challenge. In hindsight resources could have been much better spent had this not been our first filmmaking experience.

ISA: What kind of direct involvement did you have on the set during the shooting and in the post-production?

CB: I was on set every day of the shooting schedule and worked closely with the director, actors, and crew to ensure that the spirit of our script was maintained. Post production was an enlightening process. As scenes were cobbled together they were shared with the director and me for any needed revisions. I also selected and negotiated all of the music played throughout the episodes in order to ensure that each scene had the emotional backing of a great soundtrack.

ISA: This is a work with an incredible dynamic among the cast. What is the secret to achieving this?

CB: Casting is probably the second most important factor in the success of an independent film, second only to the story or script. I often compare the story or script to the two slices of bread that hold a sandwich together while the cast serves as the ingredients inside the bread that make the sandwich satisfying and memorable. Although residing in Los Angeles offered us an amazing talent base from which to select our actors, it was in the selection of each and in the pairing of each to others, checking them for general chemistry and relatability brought the genuineness of the relationships we hoped to convey to the audience. We began like most projects with table reads during which the actors began to relate to one another. We also created a Facebook group-page where they could interact with one another off set, plan events and get-togethers all of which enhanced their relatability to the audience. As we await the pick up of our series several continue in friendship and comradery by acting in one another’s side projects all of which keep their skills sharp and improves their believability as friends on the screen. Most of our reoccurring cast of twenty are now like family and that’s a great place for us to be.

The key cast of "Treading Yesterday"
The key cast of “Treading Yesterday”

ISA: How difficult is it to make the audience believe in the characters and feel emotionally linked with “Treading Yesterday”?

CB: The basis of good storytelling is to make your story and its characters relatable. Although our series follows the life of Eric, a gay man it is relatable to most because deep down we are all pretty much the same. We all want to find a purpose for our lives, we all struggle with those things beyond our control and we all surround ourselves with family and loved ones who give deeper meaning to their lives. In this way “Treading Yesterday” is able to bring groups of people closer together by bridging some of the societal gaps with a sense of compassion and the underlying understanding that we’re not all that much different from one another.

ISA: What do you think “Treading Yesterday” can share with the audience?

CB: History has a tendency to omit the lives and works of marginalized people. The LGBT communities have certainly experienced this. It is the responsibility of the current generation to share its stories with the next generation so they are not lost. Oral storytelling only gets you so far in the fog of collective consciousness. Millennials who woke up three years ago to the reality of the Supreme Courts passing of marriage equality often have a deep yearning to understand what brought about this great social change. Through the vehicle of historical-fiction, “Treading Yesterday” is able to offer some of these answers through its use of a multi-timeline story telling. Our pilot episode opens in the present day but by mid-point takes the audience back to the late 1980’s. The continuation of this double-timeline in every episode gives the viewer a look into the past and a comparison to what is being experienced today.

ISA: What cinematic influences have inspired you in the making of “Treading Yesterday”?

CB: When I first began meeting with producers and their production teams most were interested in knowing what the series would look and feel like on a visceral level. I know that I surprised them with some parts of my answer. I loved the look and feel of 2014’s “Need For Speed”. The storyline follows a group of friends who support the protagonist played by Aaron Paul as he sets out on a redemptive quest which shares much with “Treading Yesterday”. In addition, the outdoor cinematography really made California’s beauty and nature a supporting character of the story, so I often used “Need For Speed” as a comparison. I also really liked the mood and vibe of Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’s 2013’s “The Canyons” and often used this film to describe a mood or the feel of a scene we were working on.  Finally, I also cited 2013’s “Locke” in which Tom Hardy kept us on the edge of our seats without ever exiting his BMW. We spend a lot of time in our cars in LA so finding a way to convey a storyline as we inch our way up the freeway was important. Being able to cite these three films gave those who assisted us with our double episode pilot understanding as to what we were hoping to achieve.

ISA: Are you happy with the final result or would you change something?

CB: We’ve been pleased with the end result and are grateful for the talents of all who participated in its creation.

ISA: What’s next?

CB: Winning the ScreenHits Pilot Showcase sponsored by Universal Publication Production Music last April 18, 2017, certainly gave “Treading Yesterday” the exposure needed for consideration by networks, premium channels, and streaming services. We are currently awaiting a development deal that will take our double pilot episode through season one completion and to release.

ISA: Do you have any advice for other independent filmmakers, particularly for the newcomers?

CB: Being an independent filmmaker can be exhilarating and crushing as inevitable set-backs are sure to occur during the making of your film. Please know that no matter where you live that you’re not alone and that other independent filmmakers live near-by.  Tap into your own local filmmaking community and you will receive both support and validation by becoming a part of it. It’s also pretty standard for people in these communities to assist one another with their projects by lending their time, expertise and even equipment to a worthy project. Also know that this decade is the first in which every voice can be heard. Advances in digital platforms and the lowering prices of equipment offer everyone the ability to tell their stories. If you see yourself as a feature filmmaker but don’t have the budget to match, make a short as a proof of concept and use it as your digital calling card. Enter your short film into film festivals and gain the experience that each one will offer you. Create a social media presence for the project (Facebook & Youtube are great first starts) and watch your film evolve as it reaches out into the world and finds its own community.

ISA: What did it mean for you to be awarded in Independent Shorts Awards?

CB: We believe that the relevance of “Treading Yesterday”, the series continues to grow and has a trajectory all its own as more people learn about it. The fact that “Treading Yesterday” was awarded the Best Ensemble cast and the Best Original Story awards speak to its continued relevance in the world. We are all both humbled and ecstatic to receive this validation from ISA through its support of the independent filmmaker.

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