Making its way online for World Mental Health Day and inspired by her own experiences, coupled with a desire to encourage open discussions about mental health with teenagers and children, Danielle Kampf’s NYU thesis film Presentation tells the story of a high school girl faced with the challenge of overcoming crippling social anxiety in order to deliver a class presentation. DN caught up with Danielle to discuss the evolving development of Presentation from TV pilot to short film, working with child actors and her experience of studying at NYU.
As a recent graduate of NYU Tisch how do you feel your time at the school helped to develop your skills as a filmmaker?
I think my time at NYU really taught me how to collaborate with my peers and listen to the voices of everyone I’m working with. It starts with the workshop nature of the classes. Good directing isn’t a solo task, it’s about gathering an army of people who are talented at what they do. It literally takes a village to make a film and this became the most relevant while making my thesis film. We had a crew of 20+ people and department heads who were all extremely passionate about contributing creatively. As a director, it was my responsibility to make sure they were all able to their jobs to their best abilities. Now I’m working on the set of a popular TV show that has a crew of well over 150 people and I’m happy my NYU education prepared me for that.
How did Presentation develop as a project?
Presentation was written as a 60 page dramedy pilot in my junior year of college and then filmed as a proof of concept for my thesis film as a senior. It was made in a year long production class at NYU. The first semester was for pre-production and workshopping scripts and the second semester was for production.
We filmed in April of 2017 for 6 shooting days in Long Island, NY. Our school location was in Mineola and our house location was in Plainview. The Mineola School District was extremely supportive of our student crew and the subject matter of the film. We purposely scheduled the shoot to be over their spring break and they allowed us to have free range of the location. We filmed in one of their classrooms and one of the guidance counselor’s offices. I can’t thank them enough for how accommodating and kind they were every step of the way.
My goal with this film/future series is to open up a more available dialogue to teenagers and children about mental health.
We shot Presentation on the camera that NYU provides for their thesis students which is the Sony F5. Many of my classmates were using their budgets to rent cameras like the Alexa or RED but unfortunately with a budget of just under $10,000 we didn’t have the funds for that. Rather, we used our budget to rent G&E gear to ensure the camera we were using was well lit. I’m happy with the choices we made in that regard and feel grateful to have worked with such a talented DP (Nadia Gilbert) and Gaffer (Konstantin Lyubimov).
Good directing isn’t a solo task, it’s about gathering an army of people who are talented at what they do.
What was your process for building convincing performances with your younger cast members?
One of the biggest challenges as a director was working with two young actors. The lead, Emily, was 15 at the time of filming and Lily who played her younger sister, Lizzie, was 10. We played board games in rehearsals to get to know each other and to create a causal and non-intimidating environment. I had them make up a fact about their character with each turn so they felt as though they had contributed and that a piece of themselves was in the part which I believe is vital in giving a truthful performance. In pre production I had also made them playlists of the music their characters were listening to in the time the script was taking place.
Has the experience of making this short altered the approach you’ll take for the series version of the story?
Making this proof of concept film has definitely given me a new perspective on the pilot. I wrote the pilot to be much more satirical and comedic in tone but the short came out more dramatic and grounded than I had expected. Ever since filming wrapped I’ve been consistently writing new scenes and making revisions to the pilot script in hopes to one day bring it to life again in a form longer than 12 minutes.
What do you hope Presentation brings to the wider discussion about mental health?
My goal with this film/future series is to open up a more available dialogue to teenagers and children about mental health. Growing up I learned very little to almost nothing about mental illness in school and when I started experiencing feelings of anxiety in middle school, I was unsure of what they were and turned to Google for answers which can be cold and isolating. I thought I was literally the only person my age who had these feelings and that there was something wrong with me when in reality, I’m sure many of my peers were feeling the same way. I hope that when people see this film they feel less alone and they consider discussing mental health more openly, especially with minors.