April 28, 2014
SCA Family Stories: Mark D. Manalo
The Director of Present Trauma Speaks to Students
Present Trauma is a short film by an all USC crew that tells the story of a Marine suffering from PTSD. The film was recently honored with the Best Drama Award at the School of Cinematic Arts’ First Film festival, which was held at the Director’s Guild of America Theatre on April 17. SCA Family stories recently sat down with Mark D. Manalo to discuss his process, his strategies for tackling tricky material and why working with an untrained dog might mean asking for a migraine.
The crew of Present Trauma included writer Jeff Chanley, producers Tim Astor & Thembi Banks, cinematographers Xi Guan & Noah Kistler, production designers Takashi Uchida & Stephanie “Yayá” Valentin, editors Lindsay Armstrong & Matthew McGregor, sound designers A.R. Parslow & Jacob Strick, and assistant director Matthew Halla.
Let’s start with your name and graduation year. My name is Mark Manalo and I graduated in December 2013.
Tell us about Present Trauma. Present Trauma is a psychological drama about Keith, a Marine veteran who is struggling with a severe form of PTSD and is trying to get back with his estranged family. When his son finds a stray dog one day at the park, Keith takes the dog into his home where a unique bond forms between the two—ultimately changing Keith's life in a way that he and his family never expected.
This was part of 546, correct? What is 546? It’s a highly-selective and advanced production class at the School that allows students to focus on one of the key filmmaking disciplines of directing, writing, producing, production design, editing, sound design and first assistant directing. The student focuses on one of those positions for the entire semester and gets taught very specialized skills from some of the best faculty. The final product is a 12-minute film from a budget of approximately $12,000. The selection process in and of itself is quite a challenge. Well over one hundred scripts are submitted by graduate production and writing students every semester. About thirty or so of those are then chosen to be on a short list.
At the same time, there are about twelve directors who are selected from about 100 or so applicants that are placed on the directing shortlist, and 20-30 producers are placed on another shortlist. There’s a bunch of different factors going on. Basically, what happens is that one director, one writer and one producer team up to pitch their chosen story to the faculty.
There’s usually about twelve stories per semester that get pitched, and of those, three get chosen to be made into a short film the following semester. The key crew positions are then chosen through an interview process setup by the producer and director of each selected team.
I can’t imagine my USC experience without this class. I took it twice. Once as a sound designer, and once as a director. 546 really teaches students the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and it prepares students really well for the next level.
What drew you to the story? The writer, Jeff Chanley, and I had co-edited a documentary in a 547class called A Second Chance. It actually went on to win the Gold for Documentary at the Student Academy Awards in 2013. The film was also featured on cinema.usc.edu last year. There was a story that came about from that documentary about a Marine whose life was saved in a very interesting way when he was going through a hallucinatory episode.
That story didn’t actually make it into the documentary because the doc was focusing on a different character, but it stuck with me and my co-editor. When 546 script submissions came around, I suggested that we should revisit that story.
From that, Jeff took that moment of a Marine’s life being saved while experiencing a hallucination and made it into a complete story. He built the world and characters around that moment. It was then chosen for the short list. We were very fortunate.
It’s got elements of mental illness. Suicide. Veterans in bad shape. Were you nervous about tackling this material? We were very nervous. All through the script phase. All through the production phase. Post production. Up to the screening, we knew it was a very sensitive topic. At the same time, it’s an important subject matter—not just to us but to society today.
We felt that even though it was a very sensitive subject, we wanted to tackle it head on but, at the same time, be respectful to the people who might be going through similar situations.
Is there any advice that you can offer to students about tackling something this sensitive? For me, I know that these are the types of films that I want to make. Films that take on serious issues. My advice for those who feel similarly about the types of stories that they want to tell would be to find a theme or characters that you really believe in, and fight hard to make sure it comes across on screen in that way. Much easier said than done, I know, and I do understand the art of trying to find the balance between knowing when you’ve gone too far or when you haven’t gone far enough.
What did you use as your barometer? We talked to a lot of Marines and soldiers with PTSD. We showed them the script and got their advice. There were mixed reactions. Some felt it went too far, but most thought that it was right on.
That was our barometer so that we could see things from a unique perspective and how those affected by war would react to the story. We didn’t want to offend people, and at the same time, we wanted to tell a compelling story in an interesting way. The response thus far has been overwhelming positive, especially from those in the audience who have spouses or other family members dealing with PTSD. They’ve felt that the film did justice to this topic.
Let’s start with the physical production. You had children. Dogs. Firearms. Flashbacks. Everything you’re told to avoid for an easy production. What was the thought process here? My team and I wanted a challenge, and we wanted to set ourselves apart from the get-go. That’s why we all came to USC film school.
We knew from the start that one of the hardest things to deal with was having a dog as one of the main characters. The film’s small budget wouldn’t allow a trained acting dog. We definitely looked far and wide for one that we could afford, but that proved to be impossible. The dog that we ended up selecting, Brooklyn, was not a trained dog. He wasn’t an acting dog. He was the producer’s friend’s dog. It’s funny because, right after we pitched, one of the first things the faculty wanted to know was how we were going to work with the dog. How we were going to train the dog. In all honesty, I had never worked with an animal as one of the main characters in a film. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was. The dog would often not do what we wanted him to do in front of the camera when we were rolling. Even simple things like sitting still and looking in a particular direction for more than two seconds proved to be difficult. There were several times where we had to do ten or more takes for simple actions and, in the end, the editors, Lindsay and Matt, worked their magic in the editing room and took pieces from many different takes to create the illusion of a fluid performance from the dog. A real performance. It’s a testament to the editors. It was a huge challenge.
What are some of the things that you took from this production process that you’re going to use in your professional career? One big one is to find people to work with that are not only talented, but that you can trust. That’s one of the biggest, key things that I learned from this. This film wouldn’t have been as successful as it was if it weren’t for the people that I found to make it.
Did you rely on your gut or more on reputation from school? It was a mix. Mostly my gut. Some reputation. In 546, all of the positions, except for the director and AD, are designed to be a pair of students working in tandem. I tried to find two people for each position that had a base line of talent and strong work-ethic but, beyond that, brought interesting things to the table that their partner would not necessarily see. It was a way to get new ideas and to let them brainstorm as many ideas as they could get. It was then my job as the director to filter in which ideas I thought were the best for the film. It was, I feel, an effective way to get novel solutions to problems.
I felt that, because we tried to find people who were different and interesting, the film benefited from that in the end.