By: J. Batzli

The story behind Little Anna is one of perseverance.  Before making it to Shore Scripts, the script had been intended as a thesis proposal for my Screenwriting MFA at the American Film Institute, from which I graduated in 2017. It was originally conceptualized and co-written with Dorian Tocker, a director in my program – at the time, I knew little about directing – but he ultimately decided not to move forward with its production as a thesis film.

I was naturally disappointed since that meant I was basically out of luck as far as seeing it produced. I wasn’t required to work on a thesis film, but like any writer, I wanted to see my work come to life on a screen, and I (more than some in my cohort) had experience with and passion for the process of filmmaking in addition to writing. With graduate film school came all of these resources that could so easily propel short films forward, into film festivals and beyond. Without that, I was unsure how I could ever get the story off the ground. I was tooling around with the script, making endless changes, while still wondering whether it was even worth it to bother. But I loved the story of Little Anna, and I didn’t want to give up on it just yet.

Fast forward to 2020. A global pandemic, endless lockdowns, political turmoil; that’s a story you already know. My place of work had shut down, and I was living on unemployment, just trying to get through it like everyone else. My writing group had loved the updated script for Little Anna, and so had everyone else I’d sent it to. You know a script is ready when no one has any more criticisms for it, and that’s the point I had finally reached. I’d never been much for submitting to contests, not having tons of extra cash, but with Little Anna, I felt like I had a real shot. It was something special. I also knew it was one of the only ways I could possibly get the film made, regardless of the odds. So, I submitted to Shore Scripts and a few other shorts contests. And crazily enough, it worked! I started seeing emails come in telling me I’d made the second round, quarterfinals, and even semifinals in various competitions. It was so validating to see a story that resonated with me resonating with other people. Finally, just before Christmas, I received the email that changed everything: I had won second place in the Shore Scripts Film Fund 2020.

Because I had a wealth of connections from my time in grad school, setting the stage seemed like it would be a breeze. I called up a few friends in various positions (cinematographers, producers, etc.), and began thinking about what the film would look and feel like. On my first call with Dave Beazley, we talked about directors and whether I had any ideas for who I might want to hand the project off to. Here’s the thing, though… I didn’t want to hand it off.

The script had been with me for so long that I couldn’t imagine giving it to someone else to interpret. So I told Dave I wanted to direct it myself. I had gathered so much knowledge in school and spent so much time developing my artistic voice. It would be a challenge, but I knew I could do it.

Even though I was proud of myself for taking up the mantle of director, there were points where I really wondered if this whole thing had been a good idea after all. Even outside of pandemic considerations, my producer Mike Hogan and I ran into so many problems – our original idea for location didn’t work out, the dates were pushed more than once, and we couldn’t hold onto a DP to save our lives. The cinematographers I was partnering with kept getting booked on feature films that rendered them unable to commit to Little Anna. They were my friends and amazingly talented artists, so of course, I understood that big career opportunities were a priority. In a way, it made me feel confident that the people I wanted to work with were so talented to be getting jobs shooting million-dollar movies. At the same time, staring down the barrel of production with weeks until the shoot and no DP… well, it was stressful, to say the least.

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Just in the nick of time, I was introduced to Evan Weidenkeller, a then-current Cinematography Fellow at AFI. Evan was a pro with tons of experience, and he really felt like our hero at that moment, immediately picking up the pieces of the prep work my previous DPs had done and molding it into something that was both mine and his own.

We only had two days for production, so we worked at breakneck speed, completing just under 40 camera setups in those 48 hours. It was absolute madness, and when it was over, I felt like I had blacked out. I had no idea whether we had something that would make a film or not. It looked fantastic, but had we gotten everything? Would we wish we’d picked up that shot we dropped? I wasn’t sure. Was all of this worth the struggle?

Yes – of course, it was. Before Shore Scripts came along and sent us on this rollercoaster ride that is film production, Little Anna was just words on a page. The only reason the film could exist was because of the Film Fund. Not only did it give me so much confidence in my script, but it also gave us an enormous funding bump without which production would not have been feasible. The support of Shore Scripts radically altered my path not only with Little Anna but as a filmmaker. Now that the film is inches away from being complete, I’m so proud of my entire team, and so grateful to the Shore Scripts team in turn. A feature version of Little Anna is next, and I can’t wait to dig in!

So, without further ado, here are the two most important things I learned along the way:

  1. Never assume you have the best idea in the room. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and that’s what should be celebrated about it. Don’t be precious. Kill your darlings. Listen to your team. If someone offers a smart solution, take it! The best director in the world can’t make a film alone. Surround yourself with people you trust to help you shape your film into something even better than you could’ve imagined. Lean on those people. They will be your support when something inevitably goes wrong.
  1. Don’t lose hope. Missteps and bad luck will happen. Making a movie is so hard – making a good one is like a miracle. When you’re the leader of a team, it’s on you to roll with the punches and keep things moving. Fight for your vision, but also realize it’s probably not going to turn out exactly like you thought it would. That’s part of the beauty of the process, seeing what comes out in filming that you never would have imagined. Good luck is just as inevitable as bad luck.

Although I considered myself a filmmaker long before Shore Scripts came along, the process of making Little Anna taught me lessons for life, and the past year and a half has shaped me so much as a person and as an artist. You don’t have to be in the industry to write a great script or direct a great film. Mostly, you need a solid story that you’re deeply passionate about. Don’t stop fighting until you get there. And if you need help, Shore Scripts can undoubtedly give it to you – I certainly couldn’t have done it without them.

A Minnesota native, J. found a love for film while recovering from a serious spinal injury at age 18. She then attended NYU Tisch and most recently completed an MFA in Screenwriting at AFI. In 2020, she was a Nicholl semifinalist with her feature script CRUSHED and was later named a winner in the Shore Scripts Film Fund for her short film Little Anna. Learn more about Little Anna here!

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