Writer/Director: Melissa Finell
Producers: Melissa Finell, Megha Kohli
Budget: Under $300,000
Financing: Private Equity/Grants
Production: 21 days, September-October, 2014; spring, 2015
Shooting Format: RED Epic
Screening Format: DCP
World Premiere: LA Film Festival 2016
Distributor: Random Media
Awards: 2013, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television: Production Award
Serena is a misanthropic microbiologist, great with bacteria but horrible with people. After crossing a line with a colleague, Serena is forced into sensitivity training with Caroline, the bubbly woman assigned to be her coach. Caroline and her sunny disposition represent everything Serena hates, but she is determined to make Serena an acceptable human. While Serena does her best to get rid of Caroline, she may have finally met her match.
Development & Financing
“I’ve always really been drawn to misanthropic characters. The kind of people who say everything that’s on their mind and would rather be factually correct than socially appropriate,” says writer/director Melissa Finell of the inspiration for Sensitivity Training. In late 2012, Finell was pursuing her MFA in Directing at UCLA and already toying with an idea for a female-driven buddy comedy when she attended a talk given by representatives from the Sloan Foundation, who were at UCLA to promote their support of projects with scientific themes. It was perhaps a week after attending the symposium that Finell was struck by the idea that a scientist driven by precision and absolutes might well struggle with exactly the interpersonal difficulties that plagued her protagonist, Serena, and that dropping her character into the world of microbiology and immunology strengthened her story exponentially. What better milieu for a character with overwhelming instincts to protect herself from messy and unwieldy feelings?
Finell submitted a treatment to the Sloan Foundation for a grant through UCLA, and was selected as one of five finalists—each of whom was connected with a science advisor who consulted on multiple drafts of a short script before the application was finalized. Finell’s science advisor, Dr. Jessica Lynch Alfaro, helped her to craft Serena’s research in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and her themes and character arcs grew even stronger. With her advisor’s guidance, Finell even invented a new bacterium from a legitimate genus to create an important story twist, and found ways to use Serena’s foil, Caroline, to ask the science questions an audience might need answered. By the end of the academic year, Finell had submitted a polished script for a lengthy short.
In the fall of 2013, Finell learned that she had won the annual Sloan Production Fellowship, worth $30,000, which was designed to fund her thesis film, but the director knew that rather than make an expensive short she wanted to use the funds as seed money for a feature. With most of the science already in place, Finell now enriched the character journeys and expanded the plot, and began to think about fundraising.
“I knew that there were different versions of the film,” Finell recalls of building the budget. In order to keep costs down, she constructed the script with fewer scenes, characters and locations, but felt strongly that the story didn’t lend itself to a micro-budget. “It demanded a certain production value and aesthetic,” she says, but being a film student gave her access to production resources at lower rates, and to a talented pool of classmates eager to work on the project. “I wouldn’t have been able to make the film look the way it did without a lot of in-kind locations and the generosity of my very talented film school colleagues.” UCLA made it possible for Finell to shoot one of the University’s labs, screening theaters and multiple exteriors for free, and several labs donated equipment that the art department used to dress her major location.
One of Finell’s mentors supplied her Mar Vista home to double as Caroline’s house. Emphasizing the modest nature of her production, the filmmaker negotiated a reduced fee to shoot the exterior of a Laemmle theater.
Finell applied for and received multiple grants through UCLA, generally ranging from $5,000-$23,000, which left roughly a third of the budget to be raised through private equity. Drawing from a small pool of friends and family, Finell brought in several equity investors to close the gap.
When it came to casting, the filmmaker again took advantage of the resources around her. As a directing student, she had taken a UCLA directing class with Charles Haid, with whom she developed a rapport. She wrote a role with Haid in mind, but knew that as a seasoned actor and director, he could also prove immensely helpful with casting. Finell asked Haid to be an Executive Producer and he agreed. He brought veteran actors Amy Madigan, Gregory Itzin, and Michael Laskin (and son Finnegan Haid) aboard in supporting roles, but Finell was still struggling to cast the vital role of Serena. At a party at Haid’s house, Finell met Anna Lise Phillips, and was immediately struck by the actress’s wit and sharpness. After watching a sample of Finell’s work and reading the script, Phillips agreed to audition and blew the director away. “It was very clear that she was Serena. I didn’t look further after that,” Finell recalls. The director also worked with casting director, Kerrie Mailey, who brought in Jill Alexander for the role of Caroline. Because Alexander was traveling, the actress submitted a tape. When Finell spoke with her over Skype, she watched Alexander interacting with her young daughter and knew that she’d found her sensitivity coach.
As she prepped the film, Finell connected with her second Sloan science advisor—microbiologist Dr. Imke Schröder of UCLA. It was Schröder who directed Finell to the labs that donated equipment to dress the laboratory set. Schröder also brought Finell and several of her actors into a working lab to learn about proper procedures—as well as the academic hierarchy that would lend authenticity to the social dynamics of Serena’s work environment.
Principal photography took place over 21 days in Los Angeles in the fall of 2014. “There’s never enough time and never enough money,” Finell says of the production process, but she understood that keeping on schedule was a question of picking her battles. She was constantly revisiting the shot list and attempting to combine shots, and realized as she cut minor scenes that being both writer and director allowed her to pivot when necessary without sacrificing the integrity of her story. Finell credits cinematographer Paul Cannon with helping her to stay nimble throughout production, and believes that the thorough prep the two did together allowed them to capture the vision she’d always had for the film.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
Rather than rush post-production in an effort to make festival deadlines, Finell opted to hold off until she’d locked picture, color-corrected, and approximated a final sound mix. “I think sound is such a huge part of your experience of the pacing of the film, so I’m not someone who sends a lot of work-in-progress submissions,” she explains. With limited resources, Finell brought on editor and prior collaborator David Egan, who was willing to work nights and weekends, even though he was occupied with studio jobs during the day, and post took almost a full year as a result.
Following a number of test screenings that helped to refine the comedy, Finell submitted to Sundance, but the film wasn’t accepted. But for a project homegrown in Los Angeles and as a Film Independent Project Involve fellow, it felt somehow appropriate to Finell when Sensitivity Training was invited to premiere at the LA Film Festival in 2016. In preparation, Charles Haid brokered an introduction to Rachel Aberly of PMK, who came aboard to handle publicity, and the Sloan Foundation newsletter ran a feature on the film’s release. The film was named a “Can’t Miss” film at the festival by The Hollywood Reporter and received an enthusiastic audience response.
Sensitivity Training premiered in the LA Muse section of the LA Film Festival in 2016. Producer’s rep Glen Reynolds of Circus Road Films, who had reached out after seeing the LA Film Festival announcement, joined the team soon after the premiere and began circulating the project to various distributors. Finell entertained several offers in the months that followed (none included advances), and sold worldwide rights in early 2017 to Random Media. The company will also rep the film abroad, but intends to make a push closer to the domestic release date.
Random Media will handle a domestic digital release in partnership with The Orchard in February of 2018, and a limited theatrical release is still on the table. Delivering the film for distribution has come with some additional costs, particularly in terms of music licensing and insurance, and private equity investors have contributed the necessary funds.
The film has played multiple festivals, including the Woodstock Film Festival, and continues to have a healthy life on the LGBT festival circuit. It’s played at Inside Out, Frameline, and has received invitations to multiple domestic and international fests, several of which have paid screening fees of $300-500 that have helped to defray delivery costs.
Advice from the filmmaker
“Always keep in mind that with any feature, as the filmmaker it’s one of the longest term commitments you’ll ever make,” Finell says of the long road she’s still on today. “Tell stories that you’re passionate about, that only you can tell, and that you care about enough to get up every day and work on for five, seven, or ten years.”