Walking With Lilith: A Diary, Part I

It started as a short film.

Back in 2007, Brittany and I sat down in my room. I had a pad of paper. I was itching to make another short film. I’d just finished a David Lynch tribute film, entitled Crawlspace. It was my first foray into “serious” filmmaking. Looking back at it now, it’s a goofy little film, but one that I enjoyed making.

Originally, Awakening was going to be a twenty minute film about a young woman who gradually loses her sanity in the confines of her home for reasons that I wasn’t entirely sure of at the time. Basically, it was just going to be a day-in-the-life study of madness. No budget Polanski.

Later, while I was an intern at Art Within Productions in Atlanta, I started to expand it into a feature. Still, I didn’t know where I was going with the character or her struggle. I did manage to bang out a few pages – some really depressing stuff, as I was really depressed at the time – but I had no idea where it was going. I was blocked, so I shelved it.

When 2015 came around, we gathered a small crew and made a short film called, A Beautiful Silence. Brittany and I wrote it together. It concerned a young woman in the middle of a faith crisis – a subject that was very close to my heart at the time, and in a lot of ways, still is. Once I had a final cut, I immediately sent it in to the festival circuit. A Beautiful Silence was accepted as an official selection in nineteen film festivals, winning two awards. We didn’t see that coming.

A year later, I wanted to experiment with some of the themes in The Awakening of Lilith, and particularly, I wanted to attempt something with a darker tone. I wrote a draft of Fugue in about an hour. I sent it to Brittany. She approved. Soon, we were sitting on my porch going over the screenplay, which dealt with themes of loss, grief, and memory.

On October 28, 2016, I got a phone call from the sister of one of my best friends, Tristan. Tristan is a young man that I worked with. I sort of became a big brother to him, someone that he could look up to. I took him under my wing. He was an intelligent young man with a heart of gold – just a godsend to the world. I loved him dearly. We had much in common – an interest in the arts, most especially. We also had something else in common – a struggle with depression. Tristan would come to me in those times that it seemed it was too much to bear. But, as depression does, it would taper off from time to time, and he’d be okay. Or at least I thought so. It turned out that Tristan was dealing with demons that were stronger than what he could handle. The phone call that I received on October 28, 2016 is one that I wish had never happened. It was Gabby. She was worried. Tristan was missing. He left suicide notes. She wanted to know if he was with me. He was not. She began to panic, as did I.

About an hour later, I found out that we had lost Tristan to suicide.

Losing a loved one to suicide was something that I had dealt with before. In 2011 – on October 30th – I lost my mentor, Bruce Gentry, when he took his own life. But I grieved for both in different ways. Bruce was my mentor. The stages of grief were the same, but the emotional experience was different. He looked after me. He nurtured me. But with Tristan, I was the mentor, in a way. I was the older one, the protector, the counselor. Tristan was only nineteen. It’s not supposed to happen. There’s too much life left at nineteen. The grieving process was hell. It was a whirlwind of “what did I do”, “what could I have said to make this different”, and “why didn’t I say this or that”. With no other outlet to put all of this misery into, I turned to writing.

Fugue took on a different tone at that point. We weren’t just dealing with a simple mood piece anymore. Now the thing was fucking personal.

On December 6th, 2016, my best friend, Bradley Andrew, Brittany, and I shot Fugue late into the night at Brittany’s apartment. It was the first time that I had ever met or worked with Bradley. He was our boom operator, but I would soon find out that he was a jack of all trades – willing to learn anything he could about the process. His knowledge and love of cinema matched mine in many ways, and I realized that, throughout all of this, I had gained a brother.

Bradley and I sat together in the library a few days later and edited the nearly eleven minute film. I continued to work on it for a few more weeks. Shortly, we had a final cut, and I immediately entered it into festivals. It played at several, most notably the South Carolina Underground Film Festival and the Tryon International Film Festival in Tryon, North Carolina. Frank Calo, a film producer, saw the film at the festival and compared it favorably to the work of Ingmar Bergman. The film made quite an impact on those who saw it. Brittany’s performance as Lilith was a thing of beauty, and I couldn’t wait to let her explore the character in more depth. Brittany and I have always worked extraordinarily well together. She doesn’t require many takes to give me exactly what I need, but she will push me to do more takes, and I always oblige. Brittany Renee Smith is not a mere friend. She is family. She is my sister. And she always delivers.

As I was still grieving, I continued to work on the screenplay for The Awakening of Lilith. I basically threw out much of what I had written before and started from scratch. I poured all of my heart and soul into the piece. I kept Tristan and Bruce at the forefront of my mind as I was working. In a few months, I had a draft that I was happy with. Brittany read it, but was a bit overwhelmed. I sat with her and explained the piece in detail, all the complexities of the script. Once we were on the same page, we did several table reads over time. Hearing her read the words off of the page as Lilith was magical. It was heartbreaking, bittersweet. Almost too real. But I knew we had something special on our hands.

And I knew that our journey had just begun.

To be continued…

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