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Filming on a Deadline: The Making of The Swordswoman

If making a film in 48 hours sounds intimidating, crazy, and exhilarating fun, you’re right — about all of it. And it just may be the excuse you need to create a film that explores the story you’ve always wanted to tell. That’s what inspires filmmaker Sam Weston, who made his entertaining short film The Swordswoman for the 48-Hour Film Project. Sam runs Battlemage Films, a production company in Minnesota that allows him to pursue his creative dreams. He joined us to tell us what inspires his love of fantasy stories and the making of The Swordswoman.

How did you become interested in filmmaking?

Back in junior high, I was an avid reader of fantasy books like Harry Potter and Eragon — typical, right? — and so, naturally, I wanted to write fantasy books. They were your standard teenage effort: I played into lots of cliches and overused tropes, gave it an out-of-left-field sappy ending, and by the time I was “finished” it was maybe fifty pages. Tops.

It was only later that I figured out I was basically writing movie scripts in prose form. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll just write fantasy movies instead! That way I can get these ideas out there in the way they’re meant to be told.”

It’s been about ten years since I first decided to make fantasy movies, and I’m proud to say I’m closer to that goal than I’ve ever been before.

The Swordswoman was made for the 48 Hour Film Project. How did you become involved in that?

Sam Weston, The Swordswoman - interview on The Fantasy Network News
A still from “The Swordswoman,” featuring Beth Brophy in the title role

At the time, I was a founding member of the now-disbanded Arrowhead Filmmakers’ Co-op, a collective of filmmakers in our region who wanted to get our work noticed on the national and global stage. Bringing a 48-hour film competition to Duluth was one of the first goals we brought to the table when we formed. We reasoned that we could showcase the best our region had to offer.

What sparked the idea of the story we see in The Swordswoman?

The 48-Hour Film Project specifically pushes people to make brand-new short films within the 48-hour time span. Nothing can be written beforehand. We had to include a line (“What’s the matter with you?”), a character name (a former athlete named Duane Debuchy or Darla Debuchy), a prop (a lock), and one of the two genres we draw from a hat: in my team’s case, our genres were Historical and Musical.

Constraints make it really fun to get creative.

The moment we got our prompts, the team and I met to figure out the story together. Fortunately, I had already “added” a constraint that we were going to make it a fantasy movie, so right away we settled on our athlete character being a former tournament swordfighter. From there, we figured out how she became a “former” swordfighter, and one easy way to add depth while also giving her a good antagonist was for a rival to have her shot in the knee.

I’m not saying it’s a good story. We came up with this in less than an hour, and I wrote the script in four hours. But it’s the best we could come up with given the time we had.

What was it like doing a film that fast?

I have to say, first off, that “The Swordswoman” wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well as it did if I hadn’t worked with a talented team of people who had fun bouncing ridiculous ideas off of each other. I forget who suggested it, but we used the lock as a motif to show the rival’s allegiance to the king’s assassins.

Sam Weston, The Swordswoman interview on The Fantasy Network News
A still from “The Swordswoman” with David Aldridge, left, and Don Millikan, right

Costumes were provided by William Swift, who had to pick them before knowing the script (because it hadn’t been written yet!), and then in the dead of night hitched a 3-hour ride up from the Twin Cities with our cinematographer, Chris Groschen, and our producer, set cook, actor, and morale guy, Don Millikan.

One of my favorite moments comes in the climactic fight, where the rival kicks the swordswoman in her knee just to really hurt her, and that little detail came entirely from our fight choreographer, Wyatt Buckner.

What challenges did you face during filming?

The first location of the shooting day was blocked off by a maze of construction, so we had to find a different location in Duluth. We spent the first 2-3 hours of production just getting all the people to the same place. I have to give credit to our Assistant Director, Anissa Peppersack, for keeping all our heads on straight.

Then there were other times we would have to wait for people in the backgrounds of shots who wore modern-day clothes. The beach location on Lake Superior where we shot the scene with the goddess isn’t too well-traveled, but enough people know it that we had to work around where there were kids playing and teenagers climbing on rocks.

Another big challenge we had, oddly enough, was that because we had so many things to focus on at once, we actually missed a few lines and a whole scene when we shot things until, around lunch, one of our cast members said “Oh crap! We forgot to shoot the scene where the rival taunts the swordswoman and lays out his evil plan!” Luckily the contest’s base was at an old church building with some exquisite stonework, so we were able to just hop outside and shoot it really quick. It’s that kind of on-the-fly problem solving that I just live for.

Sam Weston, The Swordswoman, interview on The Fantasy Network News
Cast photo from “The Swordswoman.” From left: Beth Brophy, Justin White, David Aldridge, Henriette Soderlind, Clara Davies, and Don Millikan. Photo credit: William Swift

We also just had to be efficient with our time. Throughout the shoot day, we had to keep sending new footage off to our editor, Adiranna Buckner, and she would edit all through the day and way past midnight. Once that was done I had to pick up the hard drive and drive it back to our base so our sound designer, Nick Gosen, could do the necessary cleanup, effects, and prepare to re-dub some lines in the morning with our cast.

It’s worth noting that this was the first time I had directed anything with a proper crew firing on all cylinders. On my feature film, Gleahan and the Knaves of Industry, I had done about fifty percent of the work just out of necessity. But having a whole team to rely on with “The Swordswoman” was just so freeing — yes, even with the short time frame.

I’m actually way more proud of this short than I have any right to be. Again, I don’t think it’s good, but it helped me prove to myself and my peers that, with a crew, we can make some really fun stuff. Kind of like… a proof of concept for the whole team, you know?

You wrote and directed the short. And you’ve acted in other films. How do you feel working in these areas has given you added insights into filmmaking?

Well, let’s be clear: I primarily think of myself as a writer and director. A lot of my acting credits on IMDb are just bit parts, either because a friend wanted me for a specific reason or because I couldn’t find someone else to fill a role that I filled pretty well.

But getting to the heart of what you’re asking: I think it’s important for any filmmaker to have a working knowledge of every part of the film production process. So there were times in my life where I would practice photography to understand shot composition. I made Vines, back when that was a thing, to try editing jokes in a really short format. I still do a lot of work on the GNU Image Manipulation Program and Inkscape to better understand compositing and VFX. I’ve got on-stage acting experience, I was a choir kid, and I soak in everything I can about the cinematic language, all to round out my knowledge as a filmmaker.

Battlemage has made some other shorts too, and even some commentary about fantasy filmmaking on YouTube. Tell us about that. 

Oh hey! I see you’ve done some digging.

Yeah, I’ve been trying for a while to put some video essays on the Battlemage channel to talk about cool fantasy movies and examine the ones that I think missed the mark. But — surprise, surprise! — making video essays is hard! I’d still like to get more cool videos out there, but to really pull off that vision and get ideas out in a fast enough timeframe, I’ll need to pay a small team. I’ve lost count of the number of cool videos I wanted to make that just never happened because I didn’t have the time.

Sam Weston article, The Fantasy Network News
Title card from Battlemage Films’ recut of the short film “Jedi Coworker.”

And then, every once in a while, I’ll come up with short joke-videos like “Screaming Cowboys but it’s Dragons” that I could hammer out in a couple hours because it’s a simple concept and I already had the footage on hand.

Our YouTube channel is a mixed bag right now. But I have my fingers crossed that we can turn it into something fun for a lot of people some day in the future.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a filmmaker for you?

I always see film as my calling, the thing I’m meant to do. But I guess the biggest reward is just being able to see these ridiculous ideas I came up with in my head actually come to life on the screen.

On a more day-to-day level, I love how I can work with people who are even more talented than me. We can just talk about a concept for a few hours, and then a few days or weeks later, they come back with something real. And then, once I’ve repeated that with enough people, all the individual parts just slot together and become one cohesive whole. After that I just sand out the rough edges, present it, and everyone who was involved gets to see their work in a whole new light.

That’s an incredibly rosy version of what this life is like — there’s a lot of frustration and hair-pulling too — but I’m happy with all of it, good and bad.

What do you have planned next?

My main effort right now is raising $1 million for an urban-fantasy conspiracy thriller called Wizards of the Underworld. This is a feature-length movie set in an original fantasy world that features a blend of magic, mystery, modern aesthetics, and political intrigue on the level of a High Fantasy epic. We’ve got three awesome producers on board and a talented crew that’s just waiting to be activated so we can start pre-production and shoot in August and September here in northern Minnesota.

Sam Weston interview, The Swordswoman - on The Fantasy Network News
On location at the shore of Lake Superior for “The Swordswoman.” Photo credit: Don Millikan

Aside from that, I have a short film that may or may not shoot this winter depending on some outside factors like COVID safety, and there’s a TV show I’ve been shopping around for a couple years called Arthryn and the Errant Worlds that would really let my team flex their worldbuilding muscles.

And, finally, I’m excited to announce that we’re in the final stages of making a Director’s Cut for Gleahan and the Knaves of Industry. I’ll have more details on that in about a month, give or take.

How can fans stay connected with you?

I’m pretty active on TikTok of all things (@awsamweston), and my larger film projects show up on the Battlemage website and YouTube channel.

About Michele

Michele has been writing and editing professionally since 1997. In 2017, she launched full-time into her own copywriting and editing business, serving marketing firms, service businesses, nonprofits, book publishers and consulting firms, as well as indie authors. She serves as Editor of the science fiction website and The Fantasy Network News. Michele is also co-founder of Writing Well Creative Writing Workshop and a partner in Three Point Author Services.

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