Road to My First Feature: The Origin Story

by Featured Filmmaker Tayo Amos

It’s funny…I wasn’t planning on writing a feature film screenplay during my gap year after college. But that’s what happened.

I was living in Barcelona for a year of “artistic exploration”, or at least that’s what I told my family. Yes, I did spend a lot of time reading, watching movies, writing, and reflecting but I also spent a lot of time meeting people, going out for tapas, dancing, and, of course, sleeping or should I say siesta-ing?

Yet, I was getting restless. Sure, I had all this free time but it didn’t really seem like I was getting anywhere.

So I decided that I needed to create something. I had a camera, I had a tripod, I had a laptop — the three tools that I have used for my filmmaking career so far and I’ve done a good amount. After meeting more people in Barcelona, I convinced enough friends to be in a web series inspired by my time studying abroad in Barcelona two years ago as an undergrad in college. (Yes, I went back to the city I studied abroad in. Because Barcelona is just thatawesome).

It was a crazy fun experience. Even though we didn’t finish the whole series (that’s for another post), we made a comedy trailer and two episodes.

“Just Landed” Trailer

One of the main actors, Simone, and I clicked. Although she was only in the trailer and a promotional video, she had a natural acting sensibility that I vibed well with. While shooting the trailer, I complimented her on her acting skills and she said that she actually wanted to be an actress as a profession. At the time, I didn’t think we would do any projects together since she was from the East Coast and I currently had no plans to go back to the US, but I told her to keep in touch.

Fast forward a couple months to January 2015. I had plans to go back home to celebrate my sisters’ graduation from high school and college in June but wasn’t sure what to do after that. As much as I loved living in Barcelona, I couldn’t see myself flying all the way back to a depressed economy where the only job I could get would be to teach English or club promoting. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those jobs but I knew I wanted to film and create and these jobs was not what I wanted to spend my time on.

Then, I received a timely message from Simone asking how the series went and if she could use the links for her portfolio. After I gave her an update and the go-ahead, she asked me what my plans were for the summer. I responded that I had none yet and she said she had no plans either.

Then, a lightbulb came up in my head. I messaged back boldly:

Want to make a movie?
Ok, it was less dramatic than that. But I had a small seed of a movie idea and her message sparked a small fire that has been burning slowly for awhile.

Let me explain…

During my time reflecting in Barcelona, I spent a considerable amount of time looking at directors and their careers. My three favorite directors (in no particular order) are Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight Rises, Memento), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También) , and Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, Selma). Despite their varied careers and films they create, the most common similarity between these three directors is they all didn’t go to film school. (Ok, Cuarón dropped out but he didn’t graduate). Instead, they shot low-budget features — Nolan directed Following, Cuarón made Sólo Con Tu Pareja, and DuVernay created I Will Follow. These films had varying degrees of success but the most important thing these films allowed them to do was to make another movie.

That’s the hardest part to get started as a film director but weirdly the easiest: Just make a movie.

When my family told me I would have to come home to celebrate my sisters, I realized that coming home to the Bay Area would be a great opportunity to do what my role models have done: use my resources and surroundings to make a movie. I would use my friend’s houses, borrow equipment, whatever I had to do to make it happen.

Lastly, I had another actress in mind, my good friend and muse, Gabby. Gabby and I met at Stanford and, while she has no ambitions to be an actress in the future, is an exceptionally talented one and I have used her as an actress in a few of my projects.

Second Place Winner of Stanford’s Poetry into Film Festival in 2013

Smile (For Nabila) from Tayo Amos on Vimeo.

Getting that message from Simone made me realize that, even though these two actresses never met, that it would be really compelling to write a story about two friends — one black, one white — who both are dealing with the challenges of growing up after graduating from college.

After I got the go-ahead from my actors, I started writing. I came up with a synopsis and a title — 501 MILES: Two estranged childhood friends go on a road trip from Palo Alto to San Diego. I wrote two drafts of the screenplay in March. At that point, the plan was to shoot the feature in June.

Then June came. I pushed filming back to August.

Then August came. I pushed filming back to the unforeseen future.

I got very frustrated with myself. I managed to get a producer, a director of photography, and interest but I had no idea what I was doing. I read books and articles and contacted people. Then, I realized I was making two HUGE mistakes.

I was forcing the project to happen on my own schedule.
The script was not ready.
I was so caught up in getting funding, getting actors, figuring out locations, figuring out schedules that I realized I was forgetting the most important starting point: Make the script great.

Because anyone can make a movie. Heck, I could have flown Simone out and shoot my two actors walking around my hometown and edit something coherent together. But in order to make a good movie, I have to spend some time and due diligence on the script.

Because with a good script, you attract the right people (and hopefully) the funding to go with it.

Although patience is not the strongest virtue of mine, I know I have to take the time to make the strongest script I can. And fortunately, I have my very talented and patient sister as a co-writer.

So even though I don’t know our shooting dates as of this moment, I choose to take the time to make this film the best I know how. Stay tuned.