The ornate interior of Hotel Commonwealth’s Hawthorne bar is uncharacteristically crowded for 9 am on a Saturday, and uncharacteristically quiet. The popular nightlife spot has been transformed into a film set. As some cast and crew members prepare to reshoot a pivotal scene, others, exhausted by a string of consecutive 5 am calls, doze in armchairs and secluded corners typically reserved for cocktail-sipping guests.
The real-life bar is the backdrop for The Bartender, a fictional film that explores the responsibility bystanders have in sexual assault cases. The film’s director, Travis Newsad (COM’18), stands over a monitor, rubbing his temples in anticipation, as actress Natalie Hebert slides into position behind the bar. Darian Stansbury (COM’18), the film’s director of photography, leans in behind Newsad and the room becomes completely silent.
“Action!” Newsad shouts.
The heart of this psychological thriller involves the conflicting emotions the head bartender, Carly (Hebert), feels as she observes the increasingly predatory advances a VIP guest, Alan (Jay Dunigan), makes on his younger female employee, Heather (Isabel Simoes). As the night proceeds, Carly becomes convinced Alan intends to take advantage of Heather and struggles with whether or not to intervene. In the event that she’s wrong, she knows she could be out of a job. But if she’s right and doesn’t step in, she knows the consequences for Heather could be devastating.
The Bartender is one of five thesis films being shot and produced this summer by students enrolled in the College of Communication’s MFA in cinema and media production program, an intense, one-year program for filmmakers.
“[During the genesis of this film] I was on the subway and saw a couple [fighting],” recalls Newsad. “They started cussing each other out. And I thought ‘How far does this have to go before I have to do something?’ [I decided] if he touches her, that’s when I step in. It’s this arbitrary line I came up with. That didn’t happen and they got off the train, and I immediately felt this enormous sense of guilt.”
Newsad says that experience, as well as the barrage of stories last fall about filmmaker Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual assaults, influenced his film. The allegations against Weinstein led to numerous women coming forward to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault in what became the #MeToo movement. Newsad says he wanted to show “what it feels like to be someone who’s on the outside [and] how much responsibility we have to other people to step in and when we should step in.
“We read about all these stories in the newspaper, but by the time it’s in the newspaper it’s too late,” says Newsad. “This film is a way to open the conversation about whether it’s possible to stop this sort of thing before it happens.”
The entire film was shot inside the Hotel Commonwealth over six days. Filming had to wrap each day by 3 pm so the Hawthorne bar could open for business as usual at 4 pm (hence the early-morning calls). In addition to the $4,000 budget allotted to each of the MFA Thesis films through a fund established by COM alum Alessandro Uzielli (CGS’87, COM’89), The Bartender’s production team raised an additional $10,801 from 160 backers through their crowdfunding donation campaign, exceeding their original goal.
To capture such a sensitive story, the director says he was conscious of the need to surround himself with a diverse cast and crew who could offer important insight and guidance.
“My first conversation with screenwriter Joe Apatow (COM’18) was that we could really screw this up,” says Newsad. “I’m a male director, [he’s] a male writer—it already looked really bad. We really [had] to bring on people and experiences that [were] going to augment, amplify, and give credibility to what we’re trying to do.”
As an example, Newsad cites long preproduction meetings with the costume department and the film’s two leading actresses about what their outfits should look like: should they be wearing pants, or a dress? What unspoken signals would either clothing choice give off to a man like Alan? Newsad says that the input he received from his female leads, female script supervisor (Nieves García (COM’18)), female producer (Lelai Givens (COM’18)), and supporting production departments proved invaluable and added a critical perspective.
To make the film feel as realistic as possible, Newsad and his crew made sure that every detail—from the drinks and food to the lighting in the bar and adjoining lounge—felt right.
“The wardrobe, the drinks, the food—all of the fine details had to look like they matched and belonged in that world,” Stansbury says.
That attention to detail paid off. “Nothing felt thrown away,” Hebert says. “Nothing felt exploited.”
To maintain the film’s tension, Newsad and Stansbury carefully coordinated every camera angle and movement. For the pivotal scene near the film’s end when Carly has to decide whether to intervene or not, they prepared a dizzying pullout and pan that moved from the couple in the lounge to reveal Carly’s anguished face. The camera continued to pull back to reveal her alone behind the bar, capturing the sense of isolation she feels. It took 12 takes to finally nail the scene.
The Bartender shoot wrapped in June and over the next several months, Newsad, Stansbury, and Givens will be meeting with a post-production team to edit the film. They’ll also be working with students from Berklee College of Music’s film-scoring program, who will be composing scores for all of the COM MFA thesis films.
The film will debut on December 7, when all five of this year’s MFA thesis films will screen for faculty and friends at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. The other filmmakers chose equally provocative subjects, including illegal immigration, abortion, and strained family relationships.
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After its initial screening in December, Newsad and Stansbury plan to submit The Bartender to film festivals across the country, as well as for consideration in COM’s Redstone Film Festival, which takes place next March.
Paul Schneider, a COM professor of the practice of television and film and department chair, says he’s been impressed by the caliber of this year’s MFA thesis films.
“What we really care about is developing good stories,” says Schneider, “[and] this year I think we have the best scripts we’ve ever had [in the program]. Our hopes for these projects is that they go to festivals, do well, and enhance the careers of the students who made them.”
For more behind the scenes content follow @thebartenderfilm2019 on instagram.
Sarah Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.