“Reel Conversations” highlights filmmakers behind official Real to Reel Film Festival Selections. On this episode of “Reel Conversations,” Thomas Manning speaks with the crew behind the short film “The Journal,” Including director/actor Sydney Rowlette, DP and editor Connor Thomas, and producers Miracle Smythe and Brian Segovia.
“The Journal” tells the story of a girl who is affected by depression, and reveals the daily struggles of the illness. She writes all of her negative, self-hating, pessimistic thoughts in a dark journal. As she seeks help through medication and therapy, she realizes the effects of her negative thoughts and shows the journal to her therapist. To symbolize the progress she is making, the girl decides to burn the dark journal. We see her at the end with a light journal, where she now writes positive affirmations that are much more helpful to her well-being.
Thomas Manning: Leading off, each of you can take the chance to give a little background on your filmmaking careers and what led to the production of “The Journal.”
Sydney Rowlette (Director/Actor): We all met for this project in a club called Fresh TV at our school, Elon University. For me, this was the first film I ever made. And it is the first of many, I can already tell.
Connor Thomas (DP and Editor): I’ve always been interested in film, since I was a little kid. I would do vlogs with my younger sister, little things here and there. And then I got into football hype videos for a while. But I always kind of wanted to get into a more creative, narrative style. So this is my first approach in the creative field with this kind of style. I’ve done documentary work, and I’ve worked on the football videos, as well as productions of commercials, but now I’m entering this different kind of genre. I can see myself picking up more on this narrative, voice-over type of creative outlook in the future.
Miracle Smythe (Producer): I have zero experience in filmmaking, so this was a really great experience to find out what I want to do in the future and kind of gear myself up for that. I loved our crew and the experience. Connor, Sydney, and Brian are all very talented. So it was a really good opportunity to kind of see where I want to find myself in the future, and I had so much fun making it.
Brian Segovia (Producer): For me, it was a great opportunity to work with a lot of talented individuals. I’m a journalism major, so I’m not necessarily in the whole cinema and TV realm. But I did learn a lot from from all of you guys. And for me, this was great because it really helped me understand that I want to go into documentary work in the future.
Thomas Manning: Looking to the film in particular, it looks like it was an extremely personal passion project in many ways, and probably took a lot of emotional fortitude to create something like this. What was it like balancing that personal approach, while also making sure you had a focused artistic direction as well?
Sydney Rowlette: I wrote the whole piece, and I wanted to bring a few elements of my own personal experience with depression into it. But, I didn’t want to make a story only about myself. So it was easier to write such a dramatic emotional piece by sticking to our storyline that we had, and having a focal point, which is the physical object of “the journal” within the film to always come back to. So I think that was very helpful. But we did receive some mixed reviews on the final product from the rest of our class.
Miracle Smythe: Yeah, everyone had their opinions on how we should depict depression and how we should go about telling the story properly, to make sure that we didn’t convey anything in an offensive way. There were definitely challenges on how to kind of fortify everything. But at the end of the day, I think that we really did a great job. We also had Sydney to look to for guidance, to make sure that we weren’t steering in any wrong directions. But having the physical “journal” as a focal point was definitely helpful, as Sydney mentioned.
Sydney Rowlette: It’s also important to remind our audiences that “The Journal” is a fictional narrative piece, not a PSA. It’s just one depiction of depression. It’s not going to encompass everyone’s experience with depression or other mental illnesses. It’s just one story that we hope relates to a lot of different people, even though it may not relate to everyone.
Thomas Manning: A question for both Connor and Sydney, regarding the outstanding shot selection. How exactly did you go about blocking and coordinating each shot, and then aligning them so that each shot flowed so well into the next cut? I was just really impressed with the motion of it all.
Connor Thomas: I wanted to take a dramatic, cinematic approach, but also convey somewhat happy tones. Almost to have the colors just take you away. I wanted to have a darker feeling in the beginning, and then transition to more colorful imagery at the end. And so we set out to invoke the emotions of what Sydney was feeling as the actor/character, and what we wanted the audience to feel during this. I really wanted to focus on getting up there with the person, and seeing her emotions, seeing her face. But I also wanted to get some wide shots to capture our overall environment and what was around us. And as you mentioned, I like to flow from one shot to the next. So I made sure that we were cutting those together accordingly, because I also edited this film. I focused on keeping Sydney on one side of the frame for one shot, and then shooting her from the other side in the next shot, so that everything flowed naturally. We used a lot of sliders and dollies. If you want to hit technical specifications, we shot on a73 with Sigma 35 Art and a Sigma 50 Art lens. Those lenses in general have certain characteristics to them with their bokeh, with their colors. And that really helps bring you into the overall feeling of peace that we were trying to capture.
Sydney Rowlette: I definitely don’t know near as much about camera work as Connor, so there’s no way that we could have decided on our different shots without his guidance. We obviously had some scenes that were based on something very specific to the storyline. We also just added a few inserts of everyday kind of things, like taking the anti-depressant pills, something I do every day.
Connor Thomas: We actually shot two different houses. When she’s taking the pills and when she’s on the laundry machine, that’s one house. And then when she’s in the bath tub and when she’s at the bed, that’s a different house. And then we also shot around Elon’s campus in different areas. But I think each house had a purpose in different scenes to help serve the story.
Sydney Rowlette: I will say my personal favorite shots are the close-ups of the journal itself. Miracle was our production designer, and she did all of those drawings, and filled up a bunch of pages that looked so beautiful. The close-ups of those images in the journal are wonderful.
Thomas Manning: So Miracle and Brian, how was your approach as the producers making sure that you all stayed aligned creatively throughout the course of production?
Miracle Smythe: Well, it was definitely kind of challenging at some points, because everyone had their own ideas of what paths we should take and which direction we should go. And we were trying to be artistic, but also technical. So there was definitely that challenge, and there were some instances of friction, but we were still able to get the filming knocked out in about four days.
Brian Segovia: Yeah, I agree with Miracle. It was just a matter of trying to stay on course with the story we were telling. And I think everybody had different opinions on how we were supposed to tell the story, but we were able to stay consistent with the core concept of Sydney as the centerpiece of our story. And we were trying to kind of demonstrate the things that she’s going through that many people don’t really understand from the outside. So I guess that kind of resonated throughout the entire piece.
Thomas Manning: I was really impressed with the musical score from Luke Atencio. Discuss his work a little bit.
Connor Thomas: We actually got this score from a music bed, which I’ve used for some of my commercials and documentary work. So I found this piece from Luke, and he’s just an amazing composer. We were thinking about getting someone from Elon to try and compose it, because we would have loved to have another student work on the project. But then I heard this piece and liked how it fit so well with our film.
Thomas Manning: Yeah, I had wondered if you all worked directly with Luke, or if this was something preexisting. It all just aligns so perfectly.
Connor Thomas: It actually was just something preexisting, and it happened to flow extremely well. And that’s the reason why we did it. We had that option if we wanted to get some Elon people, but I think having that music already available helped us push out the film sooner and faster.
Sydney Rowlette: Since this was technically a project for a class, we only had two weeks from start to finish to complete the entire thing. From creating and writing the script, to developing the rest of the finished project. We had two weeks and it was supposed to be a fun project, right? But I think we decided to take it very seriously. We were all just so proud of it, and so was our teacher. And so we decided to take it to the festival circuit.
Thomas Manning: That kind of leads in perfectly to my next question: How have the opportunities provided to you all from film festivals made you feel about their general impact on young filmmakers as yourselves?
Miracle Smythe: I definitely did not think that a simple club project could grow into something that would be going to a film festival. And I didn’t even find out until one afternoon, when Connor and Sydney came up to me and said, “oh, yeah, we kind of submitted it to a film festival.” And I was a little confused, at first, but thought it sounded really cool. I think that this project meant too much to just leave it in our little Fresh TV club. I think it really deserved to get more recognition, especially with the story behind it and how many people it could touch.
Sydney Rowlette: And I actually had the opportunity to go to Cinema Sisters International Film Festival, which was another film festival that “The Journal” was accepted into. And it was very interesting to see a different community of filmmakers outside of our little Elon bubble react to our product. It was very rewarding to see what other people thought of it. Actually, it was at Cinema Sisters when someone pointed out to me how much they loved certain shots in the film, and how they tied the whole piece together. This gave me a new appreciation for different parts of our project.
Thomas Manning: Is there anything else you want to share about the course of the film’s production that I didn’t touch upon?
Sydney Rowlette: I think it’s important to remind all audiences to view “The Journal” as a story, not a PSA about depression. Some of the constructive criticism we received was actually very helpful. We actually did end up taking a few visuals and a few scenes out of our final cut because they could have been misconstrued as insensitive. So that was actually very beneficial because of course, I only know my point of view. And even though the story doesn’t portray everyone’s point of view, it was very helpful to hear other people’s stories.
Thomas Manning: And is there any way people can find you all on social media or keep up with your work online?
Connor Thomas: You can find me at ThomasFilmProductions.com or @ThomasFilmProductions on social media.
Sydney Rowlette: Anyone can find me at my personal Instagram @SydneyRowlette.
Miracle Smythe: Just look me up on Instagram, “Miracle Smythe,” I should be the only one there.
Brian Segovia: I also add some content on my Instagram, @BrianMSegovia.
The Cleveland County Arts Council will host films like “The Journal” for the 21st Annual “Real to Reel International Film Festival.” The festival will be fully online this year through Seed & Spark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring official selections Sept. 9 – Oct. 9, 2020.
For over two decades, Real to Reel has showcased thought-provoking films from around the world and offers opportunities for cinema-lovers to embrace the independent vision of this unique art form.
For more information, visit the Real to Reel International Film Festival website.
Thomas Manning is a member of the NCFA, and also the co-host of the television show and radio program “Meet Me at the Movies.” He has served as a production assistant and voting member on the Film Selection Committee for the Real to Reel Film Festival. He is currently studying film, television, and English at Gardner-Webb University.