Written by Brennan Huizinga
The following is the “final reflection paper” for my Fiction II class, for which the film Strawberry Milk (originally titled Face without a Mask) was made. The film and this paper were created over a year ago, and I felt it was an interesting look into some of the production of the film, as well as my mental state at that time. Let me give some context before we go in.
“I couldn’t bring myself to slap a mask and a quart of hand sanitizer on [my films] and say ‘this is the movie I wanted to make.’”
During this time, I was in a bit of a rut— making films for class was fun, and a great learning experience, however the restrictions and time constraints inherent in any student film often made it difficult to really put myself all the way into a film. The preceding short I had made, The 46th Annual Easton High Spelling Bee, was a technically exciting and gratifying experience— though its premise and plot had no real bearing on my life or artistic psyche— going into this next film, I wanted to delve into a more fleshed out concept from myself— however, the now full-fledged pandemic lashed out even more restrictions, forcing me into a very tight circle of possibilities… I proceeded into a film that I felt (at the time) I had no true connection with. An unequivocal “COVID-19 Film.” It was shot on 16mm, an opportunity I had been long awaiting to seize— though not at all in this manner. It was a really difficult time, where I felt like I was trapped, doing laps on the same track of less than personal short films… A rough place to be after feeling the joys and gratification of creating Something Blue, which had been such an intimate project a couple of years prior.
With that said, over the past year I’ve come to realize how much this film really does mean to me in many ways— how it is shaped by myself and the feelings I’ve had in my own life— but I’ll reflect on that at the end of this blog.
One more piece of context— I’d never intended for this writing to be read by anyone other than my professor, whom I had a great amount of respect for and a trusting filmic relationship with. I say this because some parts may come off as more pretentious and sappy than one might usually be comfortable sharing. But hey, this is the 640 blog, so let’s get into the thick of it. Here was my immediate reflection on the film and its process:
Kurt McCool in a still from Strawberry Milk
On Face without a Mask, I was the director. From the start, I was terrified of shooting on film. I was excited, don’t get me wrong, but I was very nervous about every element, including the complexity of the script we had prepared. Knowing this may be my only chance in a great while to shoot on film, I tried to write something that would put the camera in as many situations I could, so I could learn how it would react and behave in any environment I might have the chance to use it in again. That obviously became a huge challenge, because we never got comfortable with where the camera was— it was always changing and moving around, in new locations and lighting scenarios. And all the while not knowing if any of it was even being exposed was a huge weight on my shoulders (no pun intended.) Additionally, there were smaller, casually placed elements in the scripts that were obviously large production components when putting it together. The make-up always had a question mark next to it, no matter what stage of production we were in, and it was just another thing that I felt I had to personally juggle, because I didn’t think anyone else would have quite as good a grip on it as me. This also bled into the production design, where despite my having a wonderful production designer and assistant, I still felt like I had to hold tightly on to every element and make sure it came together. Those were all things I knew were going to be challenging from the start. A challenge that was slightly less foreseen was working with an actor I hadn’t known at all prior. The times I’ve done this before, it’s gone smoothly, I think mainly because there was more time to converse and get comfortable with each other; however, the speed and chaos through which we had to work made it difficult, but nonetheless Crystal Hardaway gave the film exactly what it needed— that looks of unsuperficial attraction and care that our lead needed to find. The main challenge was time. And obviously, I wasn’t trying to do some magic trick and say “look, we did this in two days!” It was because we didn’t have any more. It was the only way it could get done, I had to tell myself, but if I’m honest, I think I could’ve tried to make it less tight.
My biggest victories, I think, were in the crew. We worked really well together, and nothing was out of the limits. If I said, “well, I wanna move that 1K on the roof that’s hanging by a thread for the third time today, but I don’t know if it’s worth it” someone was already out there getting it done. I was so proud of the way we worked in the house, getting things done right on schedule. And of course, seeing every frame perfectly exposed and focused was also a huge win. I think that was my proudest moment, just getting that footage back. But then again, I did have a moment after putting the last reel in the can, where I looked at the SR3 sitting on my bedroom floor— something that looked so big and scary a week prior—
and thought to myself, I’m not scared of you anymore. It honestly looked kind of like my Sony a7sII, sitting there. Just a tool. And I felt really content.
My favorite part of the shoot, and almost any shoot I have with Kurt McCool, is when he and everyone else gets comfortable enough to laugh and joke and make subtle jabs at one another. It just gives me so much confidence.
In the end, for this film, I think I contributed everything I needed to. I gave clear direction and we made a great environment, and I think everyone felt comfortable with me manning the helm in a certain sense. I think I also collaborated well with everyone; I do have a habit of grabbing things that need to be grabbed and doing them myself, if I feel the need to, but I think I’ve hit the best balance I can in regards to that, until the unions start fining me for it. There’s really only one thing I think I missed the mark on with this film.
My heart was in the film, not the film. From the start, when I heard we had to make a pandemic movie I rolled my eyes and just prayed to god COVID would just go away. I had some ideas and passion-driven projects I wanted to utilize 16mm on during this class— things I’ve thought about for years— and I couldn’t bring myself to slap a mask and a quart of hand sanitizer on them and say “this is the movie I wanted to make.” I got really depressed going into it honestly, and I just wasn’t sure what to do. But you can't give up the 16mm opportunity, I told myself. I wrote a script that I felt would push college celluloid to its limits, in hopes of learning everything I could about it. And it was a doozy putting it together, and I learned so much. And I got it back in the mail, and I watched it, and it looked great. I had set out to do what I had wanted.
But then that was it. Everything in the edit clicked right into place, where I wanted it and how I wanted it. My intention is not for this to sound arrogant, but to be honest, it was too easy. And I know now, after toiling over the boring battle I’ve had with it, that my heart just wasn’t in this film. It didn’t say anything that I cared about saying, it wasn’t expressing the emotions I’ve felt. It’s made people cry, laugh, and give huge smiles even at it’s stages of infancy but— in the end, I didn’t feel the passion I’ve felt for everything else I’ve made.
I told someone when I was writing it that I was treating it as a 16mm film test, and damn it, that’s all it feels like to me. I get sick thinking about that.
And then [one of my classmates], god bless [their] soul, said [they] felt these feelings that were so relatable to [them], and was so touched, I just couldn’t bear it. I felt like such a fraud and thought that if that’s how someone feels about my work, I should be ashamed for putting only half myself in it, because they deserve the whole lot more.
So yeah, that’s what I learned. I learned doing anything like that again isn’t worth it, and I should focus on the things I need to make, even if I’m giving up using a fancy camera. I feel like that all sounded so pretentious; I’m not Scorsese sitting coked out in a hospital bed deciding to turn his life around and make Raging Bull, but we all get that way sometimes. Please, pardon my sap!
Needless to say, I was not in the best place and was extremely (if not overly) critical of my own creative progression. I really did feel at the time that I did not have my heart in the film; a sentiment I had expressed with members of 640, and those feelings lead to the ultimate delay of the film being shown.
Looking back on this writing is really interesting to me. I can now see the overthought I had put into everything around the making of this short. I was so overly concerned with my creative and personal growth that I began to believe I was going in circles. That I was not making films that were intimate to me, and that I was falling down a deep chasm of flash and show without emotion— without true artistic personality. I’m sure that it is possible for people to grow stagnant in this way… but I know now that this was not me. I was not trapped, or running in circles. I was expressing from myself in this film, even if my superego was allowing the false anxieties of stagnation to believe I wasn’t.
I grew up with deep cystic acne, leaving my chest now with deep, bubbling scars that flourish hideously under my shirt. I’ve never wanted to delve into this part of my person (the previous sentence alone is disgusting enough, do we need a moving image?). I realize now, however, that this film is well intertwined with the self-consiousness and fears I have associated with this affliction… The secludedness I sought for my body, and the relief of hiding I’ve experienced is undeniably a reflection to this short— and in the same way, the desired relief of acceptance I’ve grown to have and achieve is equally present. It is— my god, it is— a personal film as deep as my scars.
I think at the time I was scared to even think about that relationship. I was not going to reveal this to anyone in regards to making the film, and the feelings I wanted to present; I was too uncomfortable and ashamed to even present it to myself. But nonetheless, it bubbled up unconsciously through my art, because in the end, that is how films are made. Films are rarely engaging nor emotional to people without their presence, and people who truly love to make films will find those things coming about even when they’re too scared to believe it themselves.
Kurt McCool overlooking Grand Rapids in a still from Strawberry Milk
Obviously, the hardships I’ve had with my chest scars are nothing in comparison to people with severe facial deformities; in many cases it’d be described as a cross far heavier to bear. But I hope that this film gives to others the feeling of acceptance and freedom that it’s made me ponder in the year following its making… a reminder of not only of the beauty to be found in the hardest of times, but also the sometimes callus differences that make us unique.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, Strawberry Milk, you can watch it here. You can also follow 640 films or Brennan Huizinga on Instagram for more insight into the making.