Ethan Cartwright, 2011 Kellyville High School graduate, launched a Kickstarter Campaign in March to fund a his first feature film, a thriller titled “Sins of the Fathers.” He needed nearly $8,000.00 to make it happen, and he reached his goal with less than 24 hours left in the campaign. Hopefully, that’s the kind of edge-of-your seat feeling you’ll have watching his movie, too.
Cartwright isn’t exactly a new hand to this game. He’s already written, directed and edited five short films of his own, and worked as a crew member on three independent feature films (all of which come out this year), and taken up live action role playing. We caught up with him to get more of his story and how he got to where he is now.
How I got here
I’ve been wanting to make movies since I was around four years old. I like to say that Star Wars changed my life and made me want to make movies since I was about four years old. We used to put on little skits for our family when we were but wee little Cartwrights. One day we were introduced to the magic that is Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and that cemented it. It was just such a strange, hilarious film that had me hooked when you first see the coconut horses. From there we went on to discover Flying Circus, which got me really interested in sketch comedy.
Some time in the late 2000s, my brother and another friend and I decided to start filming our own comedy sketches on crappy handi-cams. We called our marvelous little YouTube program Castle Poopenstein. We were eventually discovered by our high school art teacher, who thought our stuff was hilarious. That was a huge boost for me, and the first real sign that any of us were actually good at the whole comedy thing. We kept it up until we graduated.
During my junior year, I started attending Central Tech’s Interactive Multimedia class. I learned a lot about Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier Pro CS5.5, and Final Cut Pro 7, as well as some AfterEffects.
I stayed there for a year after graduating high school to finish the program. During that time, I’d decided to go through with my old idea of directing movies. I had no equipment or any real experience at it, so I decided that I was going to go to a film school. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one in Oklahoma, so I wound up looking out of state. My cousin Trey had gone to Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) and lived in Nacogdoches, Texas, so SFA came highly suggested. I decided to give that a shot. Within the first semester, I’d already met a lot of great, super talented people that were just as into making movies as I was.
We skipped over film theory and went straight into production. That’s one of the big things at SFA is that they focus more on the process of making a film and less on theory. Day one, you get put into a group, given a camera, and told to go make something. So we did! I worked on three different shorts that semester, the last of which was a 20-minute “mockumentary” called What Doesn’t Kill Us about zombies trying to gain their civil rights.
For the next year I flew pretty low under the radar, being was a good student, doing well on tests, and got a reputation as a hard worker, but I usually didn’t participate in writing and had only directed one section of an ill-fated short with a title I can’t remember. It was pretty bad.
Then, one semester it fell to me and a girl who had also started in the Fall of 2012 to come up with something to shoot. I had recently taken up Live Action Role Playing, so I thought it’d be fun to do a video about it.
That video eventually became Park Day, which was the first project I wrote and directed. It turned out pretty well, I think. It’s at least pretty cute. The next video we shot was Sarah’s, which was also pretty good. We rounded out the semester with The Codes, a short on which everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Actors dropped out, crew couldn’t work it…that video went into a hole where I don’t think about it, and was remade a few months later in a much better version.
Having done Park Day and a couple cute little things for a digital media class, like InAnimate (embedded below). I realized I was going to get a reputation for making cute, pleasant little videos. I didn’t want that, so I decided to go a full 180 and make Near Death (embedded below), a dark psychological thriller where the “happy ending” is the protagonist finally being able to die. It was the first serious short film I ever made, and still one of my favorites. I had a great crew, who from that shoot onward I always tried to work with.
In the summer of 2013, I got to work on my first feature as part of the documentary crew. The movie was called The Fast One, and just being on set was a super educational experience.
So you learn, you get faster, you get better, and typically your own films become more professional and ambitious.
That’s a great thing that the SFA Film program does. Every summer they take a student-written script, put together a crew made up of students, get an industry professional to come in and be the Director of Photography, and shoot a feature film. It gives great hands-on experience that you’re not going to be able to get anywhere else. Lots of students (myself included) think they know how to work on a film until their first feature. After that, you realize that you never really knew anything. So you learn, you get faster, you get better, and typically your own films become more professional and ambitious. Plus, you leave college knowing full well whether or not you can actually work on a set, or if maybe filmmaking isn’t for you.
One of the most important things I learned working on short films is that I’m not a camera operator. That was a pretty big realization for me. I have shaky hands, no intuition, and couldn’t compose a shot to save my life. That said, I also learned how to depend more on my friends. I’ve also learned the importance of hustling, and that if you have a truck then you are a very desirable crew member. Hah!
For the Kickstarter film, I decided on a thriller mostly by accident. I actually had the first act of a comedy film written for a screenplay class, but it wasn’t really realistic to make with our budget constraints, and took place in Dallas. It just so happened that I’d recently gone on a neo-noir and thriller kick, plus, I’ve long had a fascination with thrillers, especially early Christopher Nolan films like Memento. It helped that thrillers can be relatively small scale, low budget affairs and not suffer for it.
I spent three weeks stuck on one scene before deciding to completely rewrite it, then ended up cutting the scene anyways.
I started writing Sins of the Fathers from the end. I had a cool idea for how the film would finish, so then I just had to make the rest of the movie lead up to that. The hardest part was writing the middle. I spent three weeks stuck on one scene before deciding to completely rewrite it, then ended up cutting the scene anyways. It was a grueling process fueled by coffee and hatred, but by golly it got done, whether it wanted to or not.
The biggest takeaway I want people to have from this movie is for them to leave the theater feeling like they just watched an actual movie. There’s a certain stigma attached to student films, like that they’re cheaply made, no one really cared, and that the whole thing was just for a grade. I want people to watch this movie and be blown away by the fact that college students made the whole thing from the ground up. I also want people to really care about the characters and the directions that their lives lead them, and how it all ends.