On a cold Saturday morning in December, the air in the natatorium at the College is warm and hushed. The quiet pool is empty of people, but workers are busy around the edges, getting prepared—not for a swim event, but for something out of the ordinary. Student interns clean windows, a man fiddles with a large light, in the balcony a woman sets up a table covered with make-up. Another woman walks around with a handheld video camera, checking angles. At the middle of it all is David Miranda Hardy, associate professor of film and media culture, who has written a screenplay for a feature film and who is, on this morning, directing a shoot of two scenes from the script.
The purpose of the shoot is to create a “proof of concept,” explains Ali Salem ’16, one of the producers of the film along with Ioana Uricaru, also an associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury. The creation of a full-length movie out of Miranda Hardy’s script is in its early stages, and a proof of concept will be helpful to raise funds for the final production of the film. With scenes in hand to show investors, the filmmakers can say “Look, we have this for you so you can visualize what the film will look and feel like and see how well our team can execute.” The proof captures the quality of the directing and producing as well as the strength of the story.
The road to this point has involved a steep learning curve for Miranda Hardy, Salem, and Uricaru. Miranda Hardy had a great deal of experience in film in Chile, where he worked as a sound designer for many years, creating a sound studio for film from scratch with his mentor. After earning an MFA in film at Temple University through a Fulbright Scholarship, he also gained experience writing successful scripts, one of which became Bala Loca, a popular Chilean series eventually picked up by Netflix and nominated for a Peabody Award. But he had never written a full-length feature or directed one, so he was on a new path now.
Uricaru also had a lot of successful filmmaking experience of her own in her native country of Romania and had written and directed Lemonade, which won several best film awards in international festivals and earned her a “Someone to Watch” nomination through the Independent Spirit Awards. Salem had done projects with both professors in college in the Film and Media Culture Department and after graduation had worked in marketing strategy for Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers; he’s now the director of growth strategy at HBO Max. Both Uricaru and Salem were excited to join Miranda Hardy in his project when he presented it to them. However, as the film’s producers, they would also be learning a new process.
The script came out of a pandemic challenge Miranda Hardy gave himself to write something in English for an American audience. He wanted it to reflect what was happening in the culture and society in this country. He says, “I’ve long been interested in the moral complexities inherent in contemporary sociopolitical issues,” and the subject matter for his script was clear to him early on. Sexual violence, particularly on college campuses, was a global theme that intrigued him with its multifaceted implications. As a professor working with students, he says, “They are telling me all the time what they go through. I run creative workshops where students often work around issues of sexual violence. It’s a problem everywhere.” He knew he wanted to base his story on a college campus, and he decided to center it on a professor who has been accused of sexual misconduct, writing the story from the perspectives of the professor and his accuser.
When Uricaru and Salem signed on as producers, they spent a lot of time with Miranda Hardy talking about the storyline, which had already been through several treatments. Miranda Hardy was finding he couldn’t fully connect with the professor, Bruce. An idea that had long intrigued him was what would the wife of an accused sexual offender be going through? “What does she know? What does she believe? What are her incentives to believe one side or the other?” He eventually knew he needed to write the story from the viewpoint of Bruce’s wife. Her name is Mara, and when she learns her husband has hidden a sexual misconduct complaint from her, she develops a secret friendship with his accuser, without revealing her identity to the young woman. Miranda Hardy says, “I thought it was very interesting to see this from the perspective of a character who is both a victim of what her husband has done and eventually sort of participates in the violence. I felt it was a rich space to contribute to the conversation.”
During about a year’s time, from fall 2020 to fall 2021, the three worked basically in isolation, developing the script. At one point, Salem showed it to a producer he’d interned with in college, and the producer really liked it. He suggested Miranda Hardy apply to the Sundance Development Lab—Sundance, as in the famous film festival. Salem says, “David interviewed with their whole team, and they liked him and the project and the voice he was bringing to it, and they selected him for the Screenwriters’ Lab that January of 2022.”
For Miranda Hardy, the lab was a “phenomenal experience.” He says, “You get these opportunities to have fantastic readers coming to you for a two-hour meeting, one-on-one, and they have read your script with care, and they come with a lot of notes and ideas. They respect your work and voice and approach it with a ton of care. The script got a lot stronger.” Once a writer is accepted to their program, Sundance partners with them and establishes a relationship with the project that only ends when it’s finally produced.
The second fortuitous thing Sundance did was to accept Uricaru and Salem into their producers’ lab. Following that, the two also did a program through the Producers Guild of America. Salem says, “The context of both programs is really geared toward creative producers, which means you have been on the project since day one, have helped develop the idea, and will be there through production and postproduction.” Salem explains a producer is both a sounding board for the director on their creative ideas, trying to help them execute the best version of their vision, and the one who handles casting, legalities, financing, and the actual production infrastructure. The programs focused on those aspects of producing and helped fill a large gap in Salem and Uricaru’s production knowledge.
The three came away from their Sundance experiences ready to move to the next steps of the project. Sundance suggested filming the proof of concept and provided some funding. Middlebury also provided money through Miranda Hardy’s faculty professional development fund. Miranda Hardy chose scenes from the script and the three worked on setting up the shoot. “Sundance was very clear: don’t try to make a teaser,” says Miranda Hardy. “What they were emphatic about was that they wanted us to test the material, try the dramatic; so I chose what I think are the two most difficult scenes at the center of the film.” The scenes take place in a pool, so they contacted Bob Rueppel, who is in charge of the natatorium, and he opened up the space for them and was very supportive. They found their cinematographer, who would be behind the camera, and surrounded her with a strong local crew, which included students from the Film and Media Culture Department. They only had two days to set up and complete the shoot (and even had to take a break Friday afternoon so the swim team could practice), so they knew they had to get it right. Miranda Hardy says, “Everything was shot in one day with many, many moving parts, and if anything had gone wrong, we didn’t have any default.” He drew storyboards for the scenes so every single shot was thought out, complete with drawings and notes, and he shared them with the team so everyone was on the same page.
Mara, the wife, and Arielle, the accuser, are in this part of the story. They have developed a relationship and, while trying out some logrolling in the pool, share some intimate confidences, including things Mara does not want to hear. For the proof of concept, the actor who plays Arielle was found through a casting call on a website called Backstage, and the actor who plays Mara is an alumna who Miranda Hardy and Uricaru had heard read in a Theatre Department event at Middlebury. The scenes were challenging and emotional, but Salem says, “They both absolutely knocked it out of the park.”
Since then, Miranda Hardy, Salem, and Uricaru have edited the scenes and sent them off to postproduction for sound and color. They’ve also been checking off the boxes of to-dos they learned about in their production programs. For the full production, they have already found an actor to play Mara and are working on getting the actors for Bruce and Arielle in place, cementing their core cast to put in front of financing partners. They’ve written a 50-page business plan and set up an LLC to support the film. Uricaru says they are getting an education while developing the project. “It makes me work some underused parts of my brain, which is really energizing!”
Getting all the legwork done is important so they can begin serious financing conversations. It’s all a bit intimidating and scary, Salem admits, to shepherd a project through all the avenues, champion it, and make things happen.
But the bottom line for Salem is that he believes Miranda Hardy has created an incredible project. “One of the best things about David is that he makes this work that has crazy, strong political implications, but he never loses sight of making a film that’s really watchable and entertaining. It’s a suspenseful movie, but it also leaves you with burning questions.”
Miranda Hardy adds, “To me, the power of cinema has to do precisely with finding the place of moral complexity where hopefully you can pose the questions, not necessarily provide the answers. You can illuminate the complexities of a big phenomenon like sexual violence, not only as what he did and what she suffered, but also as the environment that accommodates it, the system that keeps it going.”
The trio hopes to get the film into production this year, but it depends on variables they can’t predict the timing of, like securing financing and filling out the cast. Once they are ready to go, they plan to shoot the film in Minnesota, which has a 25 percent tax credit, a supportive film board, and a large crew base. They’d love to be in Vermont and use Middlebury for the college scenes, but Vermont does not have such incentives for filmmakers.
Meanwhile, Miranda Hardy will keep working on his script. “Screenplays are these funny things that are an object in themselves, but an object with a purpose that ends in a film. They are a work in progress and I will probably keep doing drafts until the day we shoot.”
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