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Sundown: A New Dawn (Beginnings)

Where do I begin talking about this project? Almost a year after its conception, I sit here reflecting on the journey of bringing my “coming of age thriller,” Sundown, to life. I’ll begin at the very beginning, eleven months ago when I wrote the pitch for my script.

 

Results for- October 2021 - 1 of 1
October 2021 - Early October, when all 'Sundown' meant was the time of day. Little did I know what a turbulent semester this would be, so this is a moment of blissful ignorance, enjoying Hoptoberfest.

 

Fall 2021, the start of my sophomore year, I took Introduction to Screenwriting where I spent most of the term revising a script I grew to dislike by the end of the course. However, our final assignment was to write a new three-to-five-page script. In thinking about what to write, I searched for themes that attracted me. I thought back to a few months prior when I created a pitch for a five-page, no-dialogue film for Studio North’s production committee. In October, the committee was preparing to choose a short film to produce that semester, and I had yet to think of anything to pitch.

Around that time, my Intro class read the first few pages of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) and I then decided to watch the full movie on Halloween. I resonated with the underlying theme of childhood trauma executed with a predominantly Black cast. Additionally, I thought about what kind of story works well with highly visual, extremely short formats. I needed a compelling exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution— all within five pages. With these elements put together, I settled on a thriller about a kid from Baltimore who experiences childhood trauma after he disobeys his mother one night. Intro Sundown.

 

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October 2021 - Initial (and very messy) notes about the story in preparation for Studio North's production committee pitch session. Note the 4:21am edit time.

Writing the origin of the trauma and attempting to inject a semblance of Peele-esque cultural significance into my story, I thought about the phenomenon of “sundown towns” in America. The title alludes to the existence of towns and neighborhoods in the United States that implemented de facto segregation, using signage to usher people of color out of the town after sunset. While the story grew to abandon the idea of racial-based trauma, I enjoyed using “sundown” as a foundation to explore a story about a Black teenager who endures a unique trauma after staying out past sunset. This is where my main character, Mikey, comes in, and where the story of Sundown falls into place.

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October-December 2021 - Cover slide for my 'Sundown' pitch deck. Excerpt from an early draft of 'Sundown.' So many lines to be cut in future revisions.

Though the production committee did not vote for my pitch, I decided to revisit Sundown for my final Intro assignment. I had only created a pitch for the committee, so I moved to write my first draft of Sundown in December. While writing the first draft, I had the idea to incorporate a time jump at the end. After Mikey disobeys his mother and gets caught by a “creature” after sundown, we see him ten years later, severely impacted by his childhood trauma. Though this pushed me slightly over the page limit, I was adamant that the reader (and eventually, the audience) should see the lasting impacts of Mikey’s childhood trauma on his mental health. Feeling confident in this addition, and tired after a long week of finals, I submitted Sundown the night of December 21.

Results for- Dec 2021 - 1 of 1
December 2021 - The night I submitted 'Sundown' for my Intro to Screenwriting course; I made a last-minute solo trip to the last night of Christmas Village downtown. My COVID-conscious gloved hand holding a bratwurst. So cold, but so worth it.

After a tumultuous semester, I felt like Sundown was the victory I desperately needed, especially after weeks of working on other writing I had little passion for. In a way, I felt that the turmoil of my personal life catalyzed my decision to write about such a dark premise. I struggled with excess demands of my time, a less-than-comfortable living space, and the regular stress and sadness that comes with being a college student trying to do it all. Thankfully, I was able to channel my feelings into something productive: a story that I wanted to take further than a final assignment in an introductory screenwriting class. 

Our professor, Titus Burrell, encouraged all the Intro students to submit their pieces to the Baltimore Screenwriter’s Competition for the 2022 cycle. I knew I didn’t want to submit my main Intro piece, which I had grown to dislike for various reasons. After a bit of thought, and some (read: a lot of) external pressure from an impending January 21 deadline, I made yet another revision of Sundown, bumping it out from six pages to fifteen pages. With high hope (but low expectations), I submitted Sundown on the final day of the competition, emailing the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts at 8:00am and running downtown to drop off my script at 3:00pm since it was too late for snail mail. It would be another four months before I heard anything from the competition (spoiler: I only made it to the second round, which I am still proud of nonetheless!).

Results for- may 2022 - 1 of 1
January 2022 - Flyer for the Baltimore Screenwriter's competition.
Results for- may 2022 - 1 of 1
January 2022 - Results from the Screenwriter's Competition. Baby steps (or something like that)!

In the meantime, another opportunity presented itself: the Studio North 2022-2023 grant cycle. The Studio North grant was something I learned about as a freshman, and I always had prospects of applying to it—during my junior year. I had a lot of trepidation about applying to the grant this year, mainly due to my (perceived) lack of experience and absence of an idea to produce. At this point in time, it’s early April, and I had not thought about Sundown in months during the new semester. Contemplating the possibility of applying for the Studio North grant, I eventually found my way back to Sundown and ultimately wrote another revision for the application. Despite my many anxieties, I took a leap of faith and applied to the grant cycle in early May (after much encouragement from Film and Media friends and faculty). In the face of all my self-doubt, I was one of two students to win this year’s production grant— news I celebrated through more end-of-semester stress and a nagging cold.

Results for- may 2022 - 1 of 1 (1)
May 2022 - The Studio North premiere for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 grant cycle films (left to right: Abena Ababio, Ruby Baden, Mary Yan, Ellie Rha, and Brian Song), the day before I pitched 'Sundown,' and two days before I was awarded one of two grants for the 2022-2023 cycle.

This news was as much to my excitement as it was to my chagrin: now, I had to somehow produce a short film. My self-doubts began to creep back in as I looked towards the next year with less-than-positive prospects. However, by this time, I had received coverage notes from the Screenwriter’s Competition, along with pitch notes from the Studio North executive board. Both sets of comments sent me well on my way to beginning a third revision, which I aimed to complete in early June, giving myself approximately one month. Looking at the summer ahead of me, I began to set things in motion to fundraise, cast, and ultimately film Sundown at the end of the summer. With a fast-approaching production timeline and a lot of work to do, I knew I would be dedicated to Sundown as if it were a full-time job. I had much to think about, such as where and how I’ll cast, logistics, budget, art direction, and much, much more. More than anything, I knew I had to trust myself if any of this was going to work, which was the hardest part. Taking yet another leap of faith, I took the first step towards a summer of preparation for my first short film. 

Results for- may 2022 - 1 of 1 (6)
May 2022 - Back home, on a long walk I used to think through my plan for the rest of the summer. I couldn't possibly anticipate the kind of summer I was about to have, but I had my moment of peace before the craziness began.

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