Even the greatest filmmakers have to start somewhere – and that somewhere is often a student film or a homemade movie where our fledgling auteurs get their first real taste of what goes into telling a story for the screen. These projects often get a bad rap (and for good reason – most student films are achingly pretentious and preoccupied with aping the work of their inspirations), but in some instances they can serve as an interesting time capsule highlighting the birth of genuine talent. That’s what we’re bringing you today.
Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino have forged fabulous Hollywood careers for themselves in the past two decades, but before they became famous (thanks to Clerks and Reservoir Dogs), they each struggled to get their first films off the ground. Neither was entirely successful – which should be uplifting news to anyone struggling to launch a film career.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can all look back at these failed projects and have a good laugh while also witnessing an important moment in both men's evolution as artists.
Before Tarantino became a huge star, he worked on a project entitled My Best Friend’s Birthday with Craig Hamann. Tarantino took Hamann’s 40-page script and expanded it to 80 back In the early ‘80s, then they spent four years trying to actually shoot the film. The results are interesting, if not entirely entertaining.
Anyone expecting one of QT’s violent sagas is in for a surprise. My Best Friend’s Birthday is essentially a comedy – one Tarantino himself has described as a “Martin and Lewis kind of thing.” The story focuses on a guy who tries to do something cool for his best friend’s birthday, only to have his efforts backfire. Tarantino also got in front of the camera for this one – and it’s pretty great seeing a really young QT.
The filmmaker did finish the film (he estimates it cost $5,000), but a fire destroyed roughly half of it. As such, only 36 minutes remain. Tarantino is critical of his early work, but recognizes its importance in his development – calling it his “film school.” We agree that it has some issues, but you can also see flashes of the future Tarantino in it – which makes it well worth watching.
Unlike Tarantino, Kevin Smith actually went to film school (even though he only stayed four months). And while everyone knows the stories about how he funded and made Clerks, not everyone realizes that the filmmaker’s first project was a student documentary entitled Mae Day.
Smith and his future producer Scott Mosier came up with the idea to make a short documentary about Emelda Mae – a pre-op transgender woman who worked at the school. The film was a group project, with other students serving as crew and everyone getting the same grade based on the finished product.
Unfortunately, Smith and Mosier didn’t do a lot of preproduction and things only got worse when Emelda Mae disappeared. With their grades hanging in the balance, the duo got inventive and crafted Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary, an 11-minute short that highlights how everything went wrong.
What’s really great about Mae Day is that it’s a surprisingly clever faux documentary before they became so common. The interviews are hilariously earnest (and occasionally indignant), but Smith and Mosier play the whole thing for laughs – almost using their classmates and instructors as patsies in the larger joke. Our only wish is that Smith had filmed a reaction to the screening -- we're genuinely curious as to how people reacted to the finished short.
Mae Day is certainly rough around the edges and showing its age, but Smith fans should certainly give it a watch.
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