from the mind of Rob Bowen
whatsabudget is my brainchild. my artistic voice visualized and focused through a cinematic narrative. it is my retreat from the world, and my attempts to make sense of it. an independent spirit naturally fit in the world of independent filmmaking.
in 2012, I began making short films as a means to explore and teach myself this potent and expressive medium. over 30 short films later (and growing), I continue to use this short form storytelling tool to hone and grow my voice as an indie filmmaker and artist.
latest release - a miss and a hit
Back in 2019, we rolled forward on an idea to make a comedy web series with a handful of guest directors, each taking on a different script I had penned to comprise the first series of the show. Of those six episodes, only two were actually shot. Of those two, only one had been shot enough to be completed. Of that one, only half of it was shot correctly, while the other half suffered from the growing pains of being my first full project with the new BMPCC 4K camera. It would be a few weeks later, while working as assistant DOP to the wonderful Nicole Morpurgo (Sugar, Martini) that I would learn my mistake of setting the ISO too high at times and capturing a less than ideal and clear image. I felt bad for having let the cast and crew down like that, and as other pieces for the series kept not coming together, we eventually had to let go of the idea as a whole, and move on. Works in theory, anyway.
Fast forward to early 2021, and I, like I imagine many were, was desperately in need of a laugh. The pandemic had been successfully weighing on me in ways I was having a hard time completely combating. I was just coming off the release of Travelers Through Time (2020), and having gotten to work again with Brent Wilkerson (Life’s a Tarantino Flick, Artiface Destiny, la Chasse) in a comedic context, was an absolute joy. And I kept hearing Brent deliver one particular line in my head, over and over again, “Oh my god! I got your fucking Hot Pockets, Trina!” and I knew I had to go back to the folder where my shame lived, and revisit The Hit once again. After I looked through the absolute magic we had captured that day, which seemed like a distant memory from another life, I knew I had to be okay with the rest of the series not coming to pass, and actually let go of what was supposed to be, and the follow up chapters that would have in various ways completed an arc for each of these characters introduced here, and just let it be. On its own. To be its own beast.
As I moved through the edit, seeing the long, patient and trusting shots and choices (first time Whatsabudget Films Director, long time collaborator and awesome human being) Chloe Carr went with in the film, drew me in immediately. The stellar performances by each of the cast came rushing back with tears of laughter, instantly reaffirming my decision to revisit this short and edit it together as a standalone film apart from the series. Ultimately nodding to these cut threads with a single shot in the trailer that was left out of the final film edit itself. But there was so much awesome that had been shelved from Michelle Niebergall’s (Life’s a Tarantino Flick) performance as Corrine. Or in Halston Seeley’s (Level 6, Ackla Tev) fantastically nuanced and timed portrayal of Trina. And just like Brent, I too had a hard time keeping a straight face and getting through each of the takes with that gentle, kind spirit that is Sean Forrest (Ackla Tev, Kingpin, Life’s a Tarantino Flick) with his natural comedic sensibilities shining through and leading to choices that would break Brent nearly every single take!
Yes, production wise, from my angle as Producer and Camera Operator, there were some unfortunate rough edges that could have been avoided, but from their side, it was all magic! And all so deserving of getting the edit finished since there was so little outside of that which it lacked. I needed to film some light b-roll and foley FX to cap it off, and replace what shots no longer fit for the standalone film (minimal really, and all the links to those threads via the dialog were left in the story……because Goonies never say die!), but that was really all it needed to be given this new lease on cinematic life! In talking to Chloe as we sought to bring the film back from this early retirement, she expressed “that she knew there were issues and struggles getting it to where it is now, but DESPITE that, I always had the feeling that we would find a way to release it. It was just too good of a story to let it fade away.” Looking back over the film as it came together, I was instantly transported back to the set, and the single day shoot that we had to pull it all off in, and was reconnected to all the laughs and warm smiles of creative comfort and collaboration that filled the air and day. And, as I have said to so many in the past, I truly believe that kind of energy and sense of fun totally gets translated into the film and gets conveyed to the audience. Absolutely on more of a subconscious level, but it’s there.
There was so much to love about making this film, and getting to work alongside Chloe as Director, with a handful of my favorite people, back in a much more connected time and place. Before Covid-19 fully made the scene here, and sent our sense of normal forever scrambling in the dark, no longer tethered to our daily lived realities. The Hit was so much of what I love about comedy, especially with the dark shadows it can so wonderfully thrive in, all realized in a short, potent film that looks at relationships, humanity, Capitalism, and Mortal Kombat (my first overly bloody gamer go to for violent desensitization, a nice art imitating life joke played at in the film). So I am exceedingly proud of this short piece of comedy we have here, and that I decided to resurrect from the ashes of dropped-Producer-projects past, and present The Hit to our online audiences for their viewing (fingers-crossed) pleasure. Perhaps it will be just the laugh you need today.
free hugs and nightmares from beyond
Back at the start of the summer of 2020, Alex Abundis and I had been discussing plans to launch a new horror short anthology series, and so we’d begun seeking submissions from other directors who wanted to have their shorts produced for the series. During these talks, Alex, whom I had always known to be a horror film stan, expressed his life-long dream of being a Scream Queen. That was all it took for me to pen a new short for the series that gave him the lead role, and me a chance to explore some themes the pandemic was already causing to course through my system, only a few months in. Especially the troubling trend I was noticing from the outset of those opposed to enacting safety measures and restrictive orders attempting to use our humanity against us. As I was already missing being able to wrap my arms around my loved ones, being a hugger and all, this turn was something out of a horror story to me. And so I turned it into one that I could express and deal with cinematically.
I was already shifting gears to be able to write films I could do during the lockdowns, with very few people on set, and this was one of the first I penned in that vein. And while we were putting the pieces together for the rest of the submissions and getting ready to be able to launch into production on those, we took a couple days and shot what was to be the first chapter of the series. Unbeknownst to us, lockdowns would get even heavier as summer and fall moved on, and we had to hold off on the plans to push on with the other productions in the series. Bringing several of my cinematic inner circle together, many of whom would end up being a staple in all the productions we managed to pull together during the year, we got this dark little short sorted with no problem.
With Alex taking the lead role, I brought Brent Wilkerson (la Chasse, Life’s a Tarantino Flick) along for the ride to play Simon. Our entry point for the horror hijacking of our world, and one of my absolute favorite people to work with ever, and he once again proved how potent a performance he can deliver, even with so few lines and only a couple of appearances on screen. I also wanted to work with Laura Benitez (Film 2000) again, and this gave me one final opportunity as she was set to move out of state by Summer’s end, so luckily she was available and up for tackling the role of Issa. As Erynn Mitchell (The Flu, Mirror Mirror) was also preparing for her big CO exit to state west for one of Cali’s graduate film programs, this gave us the chance to collaborate once more beforehand as well. Given that Cliff Cage (la Chasse, Red Ever Grows Red Ever Tires) and I had already been collab’ing on The Quarantine Zone shorts, I asked my old friend if he happened to have another cameo in him. This just in, he did.
Jo Black (Empty, Ackla Tev) was also working on several projects with me, as we had been collaborating on several different visual ventures and stories before the pandemic wrenched all those plans up with its infectious style, so when I mentioned this new series with Alex, he asked to be involved, and Young Success Cinematics was being born as he came on as an Executive Producer. Bobby Hadden (Ackla Tev, The Flu) was also on set with us, always a pleasure indeed, so I had him do a walk through cameo as well for the film. Jo was intended to be our Hugger in the film also, but owing to scheduling issues that arose, I ended up having to step into that role, which ultimately was fitting given that I was the hugger who was missing the hugging when I penned the piece. Once we had all those pieces together, the only thing we were really missing was how we would bring all of the series entries together. We needed that thread to unite them. And so Nightmare Nancy, aka The Dream Weaver was born! As was the series opening.
Alex and I worked out the details on our central Crypt Keeper-esque figure who would not necessarily intro each short with a brief expectation setting monologue, but would instead act as the gateway/gatekeeper of this universe of nightmares and horrors to come. I reached out to Cheyenne York (Socks, The Wastelander) in the winter after Alex and I hammered out the specifics of the opening sequence to see if she would like to be our Dream Weaver, and she jumped at the chance. After we discussed the look we were going for (based on a poster design I had down for the series), she got back to me almost immediately with ideas and pictures that encompassed everything we were looking for and more! We linked up one afternoon for a quick, cold couple of hours to knock out the opener, and Nightmares From the Beyond, had its opening and first chapter all in the proverbial. It was about time to bring these nightmares into being!
As always, I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did to bring this horror short to life, and all the hard work and talent that went into it. Alex (The Call, The Flu) and I discussed when we wanted to get it pushed out and the series launched, and decided that after 2020, and the absolute eff of a year that it was, we didn’t want to keep waiting any longer. We wanted to get each chapter or short in the series released to the public as soon as they were ready. And so it is with such pleasure that we kick off this brand new journey into the world of horror with Free Hugs, Nightmares From the Beyond – Chapter One
2021 - tension comes to call
Back in the fall of 2020 I got a special visit from my “sister” (her family has sort of unofficially adopted Angie and myself back many moons ago), who was back in Colorado for a short spell and was looking to do some acting on a few projects while in town to add to her reel once she returned to L.A. After only getting to work with Nayla (By the Blood, Film 2000) on a couple of occasions before, I decided that I would find a few different projects to place her in, during the couple weeks she was in town. Given that we were already in the middle of filming Travelers Through Time when she landed, I wrote the Proud Boys commercial break into the piece just for her to appear in, but then I wanted to give her another lead role to tackle whilst in town as well. So I turned to my vault and started looking through scripts I had previously penned that might be a good fit, and that would still allow for us to keep numbers on set as low as possible.
Given that Nayla was in a high risk category as were her folks for different reasons, we wanted to be just as cautious as we had been, but also aim for the smallest numbers of those on set as possible to keep things even safer and more guarded. That’s when I came across The Call, a short I had penned years earlier after an incident locally had me considering the tension and terror someone who’s loved one is caught up in a tense situation must experience. One where information is not easily obtained, but that information which is available is not always helpful. And what that struggle would look like, as opposed to the regular focus of such a story that drops the audience directly into the action and situation itself. Almost like The Zeppo episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with more focus on the tension and helplessness the outsider would experience. Being so separated from the action and information, and overall, the ability to do anything at all but stress and worry.
The script originally only had the one character, and it was written for a male lead, but after some slight reworking of the piece to make it fit Nayla and more up to date, I was able to present it to her with Terra as the lead character now. I had also originally written the newscaster, the only other voice we hear in the film, to be only that of a disemobied voice from the screen. It was a character we were never intended to see in the first draft. However, as I was reworking the script, I found opportunities to expand the role and work it into the story a bit more, even bringing this, somewhat antagonistic, amplified character into the film in tormenting, fun, new ways. This was further owing to the fact, that I once more wanted to work with Alex Abundis (Free Hugs, The Flu) on a project, that gave him more to do than his cameo appearances in both The Quarantine Zone shorts we shot in 2020. Especially since it would be a minute before his leading role in Free Hugs was ready to release.
Both responded extremely favorably to the script, and so we were ready to roll on and make this film (one I had almost given up on the idea of making after it had sat unproduced in my folder fiilled with fictions for years), but one whose tension and tale I had always favored and wanted to see come to fruition. So this was a wonderful moment of univeral symmetry bringing all these pieces together to finally make this a reality. I also really loved the new draft of the film, that took the tension and more and really elevated it in my opinion, so I was anxious to see what these two would do with the parts. With those two in the roles in front of the camera, I took on the roles behind the camera to ensure once more that numbers were low, and we could make it happen in the small window of opportunity we were being presented with. It was also fitting, given that the three of us were the three in my circle who had been doing the most isolating and staying home over the year as the virus raged through the nation, owing to the immuno-compromised and otherwise higher risk loved ones in our lives. So to have it be only the three of us together to make this piece happen, seemed beyond appropriate for the times.
And thus, our first release of 2021 was born! The Call, nearly six years since it was first conceived in my mind, had finally found life with a new script packed with purpose and intent, and my cautious Colorado film fam on board! The film, still drawn somewhat from elements and moments of my own life, Angie and I getting separated for hours in New York City via the subway back in the late 90’s, to my Grandfather’s stroke resulting (from my father’s perspective) in large part due to the news coverage that dominated his days following 9/11 and the ways he would get worked up by said reports, make this still a personal tale at times, even though the exact nature of the narrative was drawn from outside experiences. Thus, seeing it come together was still a very meaningful and gratifying experience (as all my cinematic creations have been in their ways), and I hope that it proves an ejoyable one for the audience it finds as well.
another trip through the demented dimension
Back when I penned The Flu, and first entered into The Quarantine Zone idea, I knew I wanted to attempt at least a trilogy of shorts based around this time of madness and the comedies it could inspire. Even though the pandemic has continued to drag on, and since we had really heavily leaned into the social satire arena on the first zonal foray, I wanted to shift gears a bit on this second trip, and give the comedy and focus of the film a bit of a different direction. Oddly enough, I ended up mining my own childhood adventures for the underlying story to center the comedy around. So not only is this film based on a true story, we goes to a much less dark place with the social commentary than the last dip into the demented dimension. And so Travelers Through Time was born!
I always love how Hollywood so loosely, yet committedly uses the “based on a true story” tag on the tiniest bit of reality that is then blown up into an extremely sensationalized or exaggerated version of the events for the big screen. So it is always with a bit of the old tongue in cheekiness that I use it myself (only once before in our catalog of shorts, as our fan may remember, back on the comedy piece, The Suitcase). Now here I find myself once again, borrowing from my own timeline to make our first time travel gag from a moment of generous stupidity that left my brother and I banished from getting any sort of electrical or mechanical gifts or toys for many years to follow what we will just call, The Christmas Gift of Grand Idiocy: Un-Gifted (exact year, forgotten, but I was about seven years old, so it was early 80’s…we’ll just blame the cocaine then. JK, I was seven…it was the ketamine back then).
When I first envisioned the script, I had it planned for another one man/one woman setup, but when I wrote the third script in the series as two women leads, I decided to make this two men (and given the fact the two main characters are somewhat based on my older brother and myself, this worked out). Originally, to keep things small and manageable again, I was planning on playing the part of Earl, and had reached out to my talented buddy, Jo Black (Empty, The Spectacular Mind of Mackenzie Banks, Ackla Tev) to tackle the part of William which was based on my brother. Jo, who is always anxious to stretch those acting chops, was on board immediately upon reading the script. Naturally, returning to the Zone meant getting my good friend, Cliff Cage to reprise his role as the host of this demented dimension, Mod Sterling. Owing to the fact that there were a couple of shots on The Flu that I was less than happy with, which I take full responsibility for, and which resulted from the fact that both Erynn and I had to be on screen at the same time.
That meant neither of us was available to operate and monitor the shots as they took place, and I decided that I didn’t want the same thing to potentially happen here on Travelers. So I decided (with restrictions still having been eased enough to have more people on set) that I would step back behind the camera exclusively on this one, and tap someone else for the role. Exclusively that is, save for a minor cameo role reprisal that I had to do. When I think of funny guys in my growing circle of superb acting/filmmaking fam, Brent Wilkerson (la Chasse, Life’s a Tarantino Flick, Artifice Destiny) always comes to mind! Having had worked with him twice earlier in the year already, and once after all the madness of quarantines had begun, so I knew he was being cautious and would be a safe addition to the project if he were up for it. Spoiler alert, he was! Similarly, Nayla Hetman (Film 2000, By the Blood) was back in town from L.A. so she hit me up to see if I had any projects going that could get her in front of the camera too. I knew I would be doing a commercial break in this TQZ installment too, so I started brainstorming a place to work her in as well (never a regrettable decision!).
Micheal Tuxhorn (Life’s a Tarantino Flick, Rule 17 [crew]) was also back in town from Cali grad school and wanted to work together again on anything I had going so he joined the crew too. I also had Johnny Bartlett (The Wastelander, Kingpin), one of the other comedic CO crew I have worked with before, down to clown in the commercial spot I had put together. And since Alex Abundis and I had also partnered on a couple projects this year, I knew he’d be up for a quick cameo for me here too (including an extra special appearance alongside Laura Benitez and their former Whatsabudget co-star Brent from a project we shot in June called Free Hugs). This just meant all the pieces were all falling into place to get this short shot in my birthday month of October, and I was needing the artistic outlet on a personal level too, and although we would manage to pull off this middle finger to the year that is 2020, 2020 hit back in a way I hadn’t seen coming.
Just as we were getting ready to start the cameras rolling on the final day of shooting, and I had the actors in on set in our apartment I felt my phone ring (having yet to remember to turn it to silent), and when I saw that it was Angie’s mom calling my phone, I was confused. I thought for sure, she must have tried to call Angie’s phone, and Angie must have missed it. But as soon as I heard the crack in her voice as she asked if I was home with Angie, that this was not a going to be a good call. And as I feared, it was then I got the most heartbreaking of news. News that I watched hit Angie directly in the chest, stealing her breath away and shattering her heart. Her grandmother, whose recent two week bout with pneumonia that had been accompanied with a hospital stay (and who had just been released only to have to return to the emergency room within hours of getting home with breathing trouble and was then readmitted to the hospital, had passed.
I was telling my cast and crew what happened and that we would have to reconvene at some unknown point in the future, when Angie selflessly bid us to press on, allowing her space and room to be in her grief and in the moment’s wake with us out of the way in the other room behind closed doors, and so we obliged. But emotionally, it was a difficult shoot to get through (even though we were shooting a comedy, the laughs just hit differently that day). I was bouncing back and forth to check on Angie, to sit with her, cry with her, and make sure she didn’t need anything when I could without pestering or overwhelming her more than she already was. Again, our crew and cast were extremely supportive, and there for me too, really reaffirming why I call these people my film family. And while that weight is still being carried, we got through the filming and had one helluva funny short film wrapped and waiting for post.
TQZ - trip through a demented dimension
Well 2020 sure took a turn, huh? The year got underway, and delivered with it a nightmare straight out of The Twilight Zone. As previously mentioned, we managed to wrap our last film, Ackla Tev just as the pandemic lockdowns were getting underway in our area. And during those first couple months of lockdown, as I sat in a state of creative denial, unable to work on the visual side of the spectrum, I ended up pouring all of my energy into writing. Preparing for the moment that the lockdowns would lift and we would find ourselves back in a world of vague familiarity. And thus, The Quarantine Zone series was born. It was only two scripts deep, but it was underway.
Then the news came down, and the daylight returned. Or rather, we returned to the daylight. We had a window, before things started degrading and cases of Covid started rising again locally, where I was able to get together with a handful of friends, under new conditions and restrictions, to make some art happen. Partnering with Alex Abundis on a new horror anthology series, I had the opportunity to shoot a short bit of horror, but with The Quarantine Zone series, I wanted to focus on the complete opposite of the horror we were really faced with, and so I penned some comedies to try and dull the edge of the troubled days we were neck deep into.
But just because I was going to apply the age-old rule of “make ’em laugh!”, that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to take on some of the lunacy that had been rearing its mad-ass head of late during the dumpster-fire response to Covid that we mustered here in the U.S. And thus, The Flu was born! I read a tweet from @ryschutt back in April that got me rolling with this idea, and the fire had more gas tossed on as I wrote from the news stories and daily reactions to our current conditions coming out that I managed to read between the fingers as I perpetually found myself in mid facepalm. Picture The Thinker, but just fucking over it all, and you’re there.
My dear friend, and fellow film studies cohort from my years at UCCS, Erynn Mitchell (Sugar, Mirror Mirror, Ackla Tev) was about to move off for Grad School in L.A., and having been such a crucial, solid ally in the arts and having helped out however we could on each other’s projects, I wanted to work together once more before she left. The Flu presented the perfect opportunity for that. As I was watching how things would likely be once things started to reopen, I specifically wrote this short to be able to be done with minimal crew to minimize risk. In fact, I essentially crafted a series of two person sets to make this short come about. Taking on several roles in the piece myself in order to pull it off. Calling on my old friend, Cliff Cage (Level 6, la Chasse, The Spectacular Mind of Mackenzie Banks), I was able to bring the whole Twilight Zone homage to fruition beautifully.
With a little more help, from a few of my other film family, including my friend and new co-producer on the other project I mentioned, Alex, a wonderfully snarky, satirical and packed with punches short film came out of the gate swinging! I also managed to get a key bit of assist from fellow filmmaker, Michael Bliss, who regularly shoots zombie films and organizes zombie crawls locally who happened to have some zombie horde footage our film needed, and that he was so gracious and willing to allow us to use. The short was also my first since Lather Rinse Repeat to go full Angry Hippie with all the sass and ass that my old podcast, The Angry Hippies’ Podcast, was known for showing. Right down to the fake sarcastic commercials that used to act as segment breaks in the show.
My talented buddy Gordon Lewis, of Roma Ransom and Seraphim Soundscapes hit me up once more with an array of musical possibilities to use for a film right as I was working on the trailer for the film, and one of the pieces he sent me (Shimmy) was a perfect fit for The Flu. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after we got two shorts shot and wrapped, that the restrictions started to tighten again, and so as it turned out, these two shorts (being all we would manage to get shot during our brief time in the sun) were pitch perfect for the moment and circumstances that bore them. And hopefully, The Flu offers our audiences enough of a tongue-in-cheek laugh to offer something of a reprieve from the frustrations these days have wrought.
Rob is available for hire as a freelance editor, director, or writer. He is also available for other comments and inquiries, so hit him up below.
Colorado Springs, CO