Steve Utaski: Opting Out
Seattle-based director/photographer Steve Utaski was in-between projects when he got the idea to do a short film. After some extensive brainstorming, he came up with the idea to make a piece about how difficult it sometimes could be to unsubscribe from spam emails.
We recently caught up with Steve and got to chat a little about the film and his process.
First off, can you tell me about this video and how/why you decided to make it?
I was in-between projects and wanted to do a short film. I challenged myself to come up with a bunch of simple ideas that I could execute at a high level but with minimal expense—small cast, one location, no sound guy, etc. Of the ideas I came up with, this one seemed to check the most boxes as far as being entertaining, fun and affordable while easily disguising the fact that the budget was so small!
What would you say your inspiration was?
It’s so easy to work hard on paying client projects and then take a break until the next big gig rolls around—but you need to remind yourself that as a creative person you’re very lucky to love what you do, and that it’s important to do things for yourself as well. As far as this idea goes, I was on the warpath to clear out my junk email, and I just couldn’t help notice how progressively hard some of the prompts got. I thought, “there’s gotta be an idea in here somewhere..” The script was surprisingly easy to write—although I did consult with a single friend of mine about some of his more epic break-ups for extra fodder.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
I had used the location once before for a project and knew it was a filmmakers dream come true—and it was free—so that was easy. The casting was a breeze, although I fell in love with one guy's performance in the room, but luckily went back and watched all the tapes, and noticed something about Randy’s performance that was so sympathetic. It made me choose him, ultimately. He was the guy doing the dumping—but you still had to like him. There was just this sweetness to Randy that made you want to root for him.
What was it like on-set?
I was humbled and thrilled that my favorite crew all put in a solid day of work for nothing more than a hot lunch! No one got paid. But we have a great rapport, and the day went very smooth. I think we wrapped by 3 PM. All the extras in the film are from the crew as well. Oscar Lofgren, our art director, did an exceptional job in front of and behind the camera. We shot the screen closeups last, and since there was no script supervisor, I somehow managed to miss shooting the pivotal “Opt Out” close up. Going into editing, I almost gave myself a heart attack. Luckily, I was able to do a quick pick-up shoot with a DSLR, and it matched the Arri Alexa footage.
What would you say the most difficult part of this project was?
The hardest part of the shoot was figuring out how to do the computer/email “character”. I didn’t have the money to hire an HTML guru to build a custom form, but I knew I wanted to shoot the screen practically. Actors love working with someone or something—and I really wanted Randy to have something to interact with rather than just making faces at a blank screen. Finally, I landed on setting up a free 30-day Survey Monkey account and built a survey that looked right.
What has the reaction to the video so far? I heard it won some awards at film festivals.
I honestly was floored by the reaction. I thought this was my own little personal beef—but the reception by audiences at festivals showed I hit on something more universal. The festival run has been fantastic. “Opt Out” has screened on four continents and over 20 festivals. And five of them were Oscar qualifiers, which was awesome.
What was your favorite part of the whole experience?
I had done a short documentary early in my career that had a short festival run, but I didn’t prioritize attending any festivals. This time I attended about a half-dozen screenings and cannot say enough what a thrill it is to see people react real-time to your work! I’ve been a creative person my entire adult life and never knew this type of thrill existed.
Any future plans for Opt Out?
After screening at Palm Springs Shorts Festival, I was approached by Conde Nast for exclusive streaming rights to the film—which was an honor. No one makes short films for the money, so it was nice to earn a little something. I have an idea for another relationship-themed short I hope to do later this summer.
So, without further ado, Opt Out: