How To Utilize A Painful Past in Creating a Successful Film

Screenwriter Mark Renshaw discusses his personal investment in the award winning short film Surrender

Surrender is the 2016 short drama by Director Christopher Carson Emmons. It centers on the inner life of a struggling alcoholic (Aram Hekinian). In the following essay, Screenwriter Mark Renshaw discusses his personal investment with the film and his hope for its impact.

Addiction of any sort is rarely placed front and center in mediums that are designed primarily for entertainment.  If a character in a film or television show has an addiction, there will be references to this woven throughout the story, but the full consequences—the unglamorous, bodily, mind-numbing and tedious ones—are too often absent.

I’d argue, there are two types of addicts in mainstream entertainment: the stunningly gorgeous addict (who partakes of their vice sans serious consequences) and the downtrodden, hopeless bum. A handsome actor can be (and often is) cast as “the alcoholic” or “the addict.” We will see him drink excessively; he may appear tipsy, in a comical way. But, we will rarely see him vomiting bile, wetting his bed, speaking from a dismal emptiness.

Often the sheer number of lies, the levels of manipulation, the mental and physical abuse an addict causes gives way to more cliché tropes: the vagrant who scours through the trash in desperation, the pale, shivering junkie attempting to find a vein, the girl selling herself on the street for a fix. Such characters are far from the day-to-day reality of the typical addict, but maybe that is the point.

Functioning alcoholics hold down good jobs, have nice homes, they look after a family. Inside, though, they are falling apart—physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is only towards the end-stage of this horrendous condition that people become aware. By then, quite often it is too late. This is the common, but mainly invisible, life of an alcoholic. And, this was the story I learned to tell. With Surrender, I wanted a realistic depiction of the experience of addiction. The process of making this film taught me the extraordinary value of tapping into deep personal truth and pain.

Aram Hekinian as David in Surrender

With my first film, No More Tomorrows, I learned of all the many challenges of bringing a project to fruition. I believe that my high anxiety over costs, schedules, locations, casting, and various other constraints resulted in the lackluster first draft of Surrender. I was writing as a producer, not as an individual with a story worth telling. When I approached Director Christopher Carson Emmons with the script, he was initially uninterested. Even my promise to finance the project could not convince him to become involved. He urged me to go further, to dig really deep and dredge up the horror of trying to live through a sober day.  The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that addicts are “driven by a hundred forms of fear.”  I really identify with this and worked to imbue each scene of Surrender with the multifaceted terror I understood and avoided returning to.

In Surrender, the main character David desperately tries to function, yet every waking moment is a horror. To create this dread, I revisited—fully and with sustained commitment—all the fear and anxiety of my own struggle. In addition, I recalled the awful stories shared by fellow alcoholics I’d met along the way.

There was no holding back; I ignored all practical concerns about the making of the film and simply tried to recreate something of the profound truth of alcoholism. Suddenly Chris was more than intrigued; he was passionate. As it turned out, I’d written a script that was challenging to produce (especially on the proposed budget), but we both wanted to try and make this happen.

Aram Hekinian, Jade Elysan, and Alyssa Maria App in Surrender

Wherever possible, I changed locations to those we could more easily secure. If an FX shot was too expensive, I switched it or dropped it altogether. Some elements had to be abandoned, but we always managed a way around or created replacements. For example, I wrote a scene to represent David’s metaphorical “rock bottom” and the lifeline he’s about to be offered. It is set on a railway bridge overlooking a raging river.  David repeatedly throws his bottle of booze into the watery depths, only to discover a new bottle has appeared on the ground next to him. Full of despair, he is prepared to leap but is interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. Beside him is Emily, who is linked hand-by-hand to a long line of people; this community stretches around the globe, ending with a man called Steve who stands directly opposite Emily. I was attempting to represent the global reach and enduring support of Alcoholics Anonymous.  From the bridge, I cut to an actual intervention scene: Emily and Steve in David’s bedroom.

Chris loved the symbolism but it was way out of our resources. He did manage to get a hold of a rooftop in New York, so I altered the scene to David preparing to leap off the building. He’s rescued by a several people holding hands in a chain and then we switch to the intervention scene as before. I was hoping we could use the crew and make a lengthy  human chain, but in the end we had to make due with three actors.  It wasn’t what I originally intended, but it was a suitable replacement. Here I learned another very valuable lesson. It’s better to write too much than it is to hold back and risk diminishing the story.  You can always trim the script, but it’s impossible to expect others to visualize what isn’t on the page.

Marisa Roper in Surrender

The post-production was lengthy for a short film; it took around 7 months. This is often the result when working with small budgets and with volunteers. Visual FX, in particular, was a protracted process. But patience is another virtue one learns when producing an independent, low-budget film, and I feel only appreciation for the efforts of so many. Our Visual FX guy, who is a friend of mine, went above and beyond the call of duty, spending in excess of 40 hours just to get one shot just right. He never asked me for a penny. I owe him favors, big time!

Despite the challenges, I do feel like it was all worth it. Surrender achieves my personal goal of representing a true and harrowing journey through the darkness of alcoholism. And it does so without pulling any punches. Even the title is a nod to the fact that alcoholism is a battle that no one can win on their own. It is only when we admit defeat that we can take the first step towards recovering from this largely ignored and sinister condition. My hope is that this film inspires those who are suffering to seek the help that they so desperately need.

And Surrender has been a professional success as well. The film featured at the Depth of Field International Film Festival. There it won Exceptional Merit awards for Film, as well as awards for Best Lead Actor, Best Score, and Best Screenwriter. In addition, Surrender was awarded Best Narrative Short Film at the Los Angeles Film Awards, an Honorable Mention Award for lead actor in the Top Shorts Film Festival, and it won first place at the 8th Annual MCNY International Short Film Festival in New York. Surrender featured at Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles and Sunderlands Shorts Film Festival in the UK. It will showcase soon at The Art of Recovery Festival in Florida.

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