With its colliding strangers each afflicted with the heavy baggage of their own problems, Grant Conversano’s third year University of North Carolina School of the Arts short Where Mothbloods Bloom, considers if small gestures of kindness can prevent us from falling into the brink by illuminating the pathway back to our own souls. DN invited Grant to tell us how he secured the key narrative elements of a semi truck and a late night gas station for the film, and why the experience of making Where Mothbloods Bloom felt like a turning point in his progress as a director.
Where Mothbloods Bloom was my third year film at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. At our school, you have to pitch ideas to the faculty and then there is a lengthy script development process, each year from about 50-60 pitches they select about 8 films to go into production. In 2015 I was in my sophomore year of film school making my first student film that became Pigeonhearts starring Lucas Hedges and Emma Geer.
My roommate Kevin Cutrara who was producing Pigeonhearts was sitting across from me on the coach when we both released we had one week to come up with a pitch for a third year film to present to the faculty. Without thinking I immediacy asked him, “Do you want to write a film with me?” He said yes, and we went to the library to come up with a story we both wanted to make. That brainstorming session led to us writing ‘TRUCKERS’ on a whiteboard and we thought there was something there to explore.
We are both from a middle class background in North Carolina and felt like we could relate to the life of a truck driver who spends all their days and nights driving alone far from their family. It felt like a metaphor for the life we getting into as filmmakers, becoming estranged from the world we grew up in, traveling all the time, feeling isolated, wondering if our work life is worth the sacrifice. That was in October of 2015 when we started writing this script.
Some of the faculty were very enthusiastic about the idea, but many were skeptical, I remember one teacher asking us point blank how many truckers we knew? I had been in a truck cab when I was in third grade once, so this question set us on a year of research on truckers, everywhere I went just thinking about truck drivers, I bought a CB radio and put it in my car and would try to listen to conversations between truckers on the highway.
We ended up filming a short documentary just asking truckers about their lives and learned an immense amount there. It changed our idea of the character from some old white dude who looked like a retired Josh Brolin, to realizing that truck drivers are very diverse in age, class, and race, and we felt like making our hero Zane a young father who was just getting into truck driving and who has to weight the cost of being away from his family verse the benefit of having this job. It became a more active and dramatic circumstance.
My obsession with watching trucker vlogs, reading everything I could about truck driving, and meeting as many truckers as possible grounded our writing and helped us feel like we could sincerely write from this perspective, but we still didn’t really find the story until maybe a year into developing the script.
After a student OD’ed in the school bathroom, I started researching the Opioid epidemic that is now well documented but at the time not as many people were talking about it. I read Dreamland by Sam Quinones which really broadened my understanding of how we got to this point in our country and this research led to the characters of Darren – a young heroin addict and his girlfriend Autumn who has been in this toxic and abusive relationship with him for a long time. The story started to emerge as a night where everything falls apart for all these characters and how Autumn and Zane connect. We always knew we wanted Zane to meet a stranger but we had to get to know that person’s situation too.
The script kept getting more personal and specific, the faculty never cut us from the script review process, but it felt like a miracle every time we advanced to the next round because our story was so ambitious for what was made at the school. It all takes place at night, we needed to control and create a gas station, we needed a semi truck, we had moving vehicles, stunts, and there was no high concept genre element to rely on, it was all about the actors carrying the story. The school told us repeatedly to cut the semi truck but we never budged and said it had to be about a semi truck driver. So the school said fine. We will give you the summer to find a gas station and a semi truck and if you can prove to us you have a plan to make this movie we will green light it. Kevin spent the entire summer hunting down a semi truck and through his hustle made one appear, and so we were greenlit to shoot in February 2017.
There was no high concept genre element to rely on, it was all about the actors carrying the story.
Casting the film was incredibly important and difficult, we saw so many people. I met Jacboi Howard (Zane) on the set of a different project in December of 2016 and the moment I met him, I knew he was the one. Joshua Pagan was a friend, but once we saw his performance as Jasper in Anne Baker’s The Aliens we were sold he could do it, then I saw Ahna Demaro in a student play and also pretty much decided then it would be her.
Once the film was cast we worked shopped the script like a play, we had table reads with the actors, and many rehearsals that I would film on my iPhone, we would go off script and let them find things and incorporate that back into the script. Some of our rehearsals were out of the studio and on the street. One night Alex and Joshua improved the circumstances that all lead up to the moment the film begins, how they arrived there that night. At one point they were screaming at each other in a parking lot by the highway, and then they made up, Ahna went inside to buy gas, I told Joshua to steal her phone and go find someone to sell it to, he got out of the car and then she was driving around looking for him for 30 mins, I was in the back seat just watching. I had no idea where he was and there were no cameras or plan. She was really looking for him. I think these kinds of rehearsals gave them something to base their relationship off of so when we got to set they already had a history.
We had a very tight shooting schedule. Only three 12 hour days to do the whole movie and no chance of reshoots. We couldn’t stand around on set talking about character they just had to be in and trust their guts, and we captured it.
After two years of preparing, the semi truck rolled up to set the day before shooting started and that’s when it felt like this whole project was real. Kevin got a truck driver to park his truck on our set over the weekend instead of taking it home, we could shoot inside it and around it we just couldn’t move it once it was parked so we had to create a reason why the truck was stationary in the script, we ended up using this practical concern to elevate the drama of Zane’s situation. He swerved out of the way of a deer, a rookie mistake, and because of that destroyed one of his wheels, and now is stranded and frustrated to be here stuck here all night until it’s fixed.
We couldn’t stand around on set talking about character they just had to be in and trust their guts.
The gas station we shot in was abandoned, we took it over and our art department brought it back to life. Most of the scenes were lit 360 so the actors were free to move however they wanted. We shot for 3 brutally cold nights. I remember the second night it was forecasting snow which would have ruined everything. The school might push our shoot date but we would lose the truck.
The shoot was already very difficult and I was adamant that we had to see the cop car drive by in the frame with Autumn and Zane watching. It couldn’t just be the corny sound effect of cops with lights playing on their face, it had to be a moment of dread we experience with them, that was very hard to pull off, at first we tried to get the local cops to drive by for us because they were on set sometimes, and that didn’t work out so we mounted lights on top of a car and had it drive by then the editor speed up the cop car in post. We also recorded our own siren effect and laid it in there. I’m really proud of that moment because it felt impossible to pull off at the time.
We didn’t know how to end the film for a long time, then Kevin and I started joking that what if it just ended with Catfish, the old man at the slot machine, winning the jackpot? And at first it seemed silly, but then I realized it was all about how we framed it and played that moment. The final frame of the movie was inspired by the work of Edward Hopper and Gregory Crewdson. We pull away from our characters and the story we’ve been following the whole time to see a bigger, perhaps bleaker picture of the world. These three strangers in this gas station alone at night, the clerk, the cook, and the old man on the slot machine, then a guy comes in and buys something and leaves. To me, the poetry of the whole movie is in that last frame.
Peter Brown the editor and I put together the first assembly of the movie in linear order which is the way we wrote the script we showed to the facility and my heart sunk. I thought the film was awful, but at the time didn’t have the language to explain why it didn’t feel right cut together scene by scene in chronological order. Of course, first cuts are always long but I felt like something drastic had to change.
Then we spent a few months making different timelines of what the film could be, rapidly prototyping different structures and forms until we found where the form and content merged and flowed together, that is always the challenge. We found the hook to start the film cold which is Darren posing the dramatic question to Autumn: “So what, are you really gonna leave me here?”
If I can get through this experience and make people feel something with this film I could maybe actually be a real filmmaker one day.
We had so much other great footage of them fighting, but ultimately we boiled the short down to asking and answering this dramatic question. Will autumn leave Darren? And the answer is yes she does, with the encouragement and support of Zane, this stranger she just met. We became more in more interested in using the footage to get inside the subjective experience of the characters’ headspaces, we didn’t want to be just outside of them.
Frankly, there was a steep learning curve on this film. Making this movie really felt like, if I can get through this experience and make people feel something with this film I could maybe actually be a real filmmaker one day. I remember the first screening of this movie at school and I knew it worked, I could feel it in the room and that was a huge turning point in my belief that this career could work out.
As I reflect on this film it wasn’t totally conscious why I needed to tell this story at that time in my life, but I can see that a little more now with distance.