A Recipe for Indie Success: The Tried-and-True Methods Behind Blake Robbins’ The Scent of Rain & Lightning

How was it possible to take a New York Times best-selling novel—spanning more than 20 years and dealing with 13 unique characters and a whole lot of rain and lightning—and turn that into a compelling Midwestern movie?

Just writing that gave me anxiety.

Deep breath. Fortunately this Herculean effort has already been achieved. It’s my film, called The Scent of Rain & Lightning, and it’s about to world-premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival this weekend. I’ll try my best to give you a peek behind the curtain.

It all started when writer-producers Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison (Rudderless) saw my first film, The Sublime and Beautiful, when Casey was a jury member for the 2014 Kansas City FilmFest. Turns out, we not only got along, but we were like-minded creatively on the whys and the hows of making films outside the studio system.

They shared with me their screenplay for The Scent of Rain & Lightning, a “Midwestern American gothic noir” story—the kind of script that George Stevens, Elia Kazan, John Ford and the studios of yesteryear would’ve been falling over themselves to get their hands on. A film with great characters, profound circumstances, cinematic environments and a wonderful role for a powerful movie-star ingénue, in the vein of Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass or Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. We found our equivalent in Maika Monroe (of It Follows fame), and I believe her performance echoes those past screen legends. We were fortunate to surround her with a tremendous ensemble who delivered unique, compelling performances: the brilliant Maggie Grace, Brad Carter, Will Patton, Mark Webber, Justin Chatwin, Logan Miller, Bonnie Bedelia, Kassia Conway, Aaron Poole, Sarah Noble Peck and Meg Crosbie.

Sarah Noble Peck and Aaron Poole in The Scent of Rain & Lightning

My collaborators and I were struck by the idea of taking one of these former studio films from the ’50s and ’60s and mashing it up, if you will, with the visceral independent films of today, such as Animal Kingdom, Frozen River, Winter’s Bone and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The result, we felt, could be a film that stood on the shoulders of those classics, but still felt like it belonged in today’s lexicon of movies.

Here are some of the nuts and bolts of what we did in order make our film. We:

1. Discovered and secured the rights to a fantastic book that, for no good reason, had yet to be optioned. Tracked down the author, Nancy Pickard, took a long road trip to sit down face to face with her, and began a beautiful partnership. This was all taken care of before I became involved, thanks to screenwriters and producers Casey and Jeff.

2. (In the “boring but true” category) Found a big, fat tax rebate. Thanks to the great state of Oklahoma, we ended up spending only two-thirds of every dollar needed to make our movie.

3. Took creative license with the story when necessary. For example, we compressed a 20-year time period into an economical 10, allowing us to eliminate the issue of double-casting our leads. Instead, we had the actors age subtly over the two time periods in our story.

4. Cast our locations as thoughtfully as we cast our actors. We found a fantastic world for our film in and around Guthrie, Oklahoma, which allowed Adriana Serrano and her production design team more time and resources to focus on elevating the look of the film. Next, don’t stray too far from basecamp. I used this approach for both of my movies. The less moving you do, the more shooting you’re able to do… and when you’re shooting a lot, that momentum helps your actors give better performances. So, as in real estate, location, location, location.

5. Found a director who makes good movies fast—yup, I’m talking about myself in the third person; it’s weird, I know. But the fact remains that my first feature, The Sublime and Beautiful, was financed for under $45,000 and shot in 12 days. We world-premiered at the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival and went on to win nine Grand Jury Awards across the festival circuit.

Blake Robbins, actor and director (The Sublime and Beautiful, The Scent of Rain & Lightning)

6. Hired people we clicked with. A moviemaker is only as good as their team. Making Sublime, cinematographer Lyn Moncrief and I developed a shorthand. So we put in hundreds of hours discussing Scent in order to shoot a fast but beautiful, precise, well-acted film. Likewise, my production sound team (who go by the moniker Digital Sorcery) are incredibly gifted and love the adventure of shooting movies. They embraced my wild ideas for a second collaboration on this film. Bonus tip: You want help finding great production sound, ask for recommendations from a DP you trust.

7. Really cared about our actors. It should go without saying, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: Great actors make great independent films. As an actor-turned-filmmaker, I know that in lieu of money you need to motivate your cast with opportunity, good material and a chance to work with other actors they admire. And, most of all, a challenge. Thanks to Jeff and Casey, we were working with a polished screenplay, but our actors were given permission to never have to say a line simply because it was written on the page. Working like this, we had the best that both improvisation and a finely tuned script has to offer. I prefer to start our work together believing that by the time an actor arrives to shoot a scene, they know more about the character they’re portraying than I do, and their thoughts about how to approach a scene are as significant as my own. It’s a sacred relationship I have with them.

Mark Webber in The Scent of Rain & Lightning

So there you have it: a taste of how we pulled our film off. How will you do yours? I look forward to reading all about it in a future issue of MovieMaker. MM

The Scent of Rain & Lightning world-premieres at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, April 25, 2017. All images courtesy of No Coast Entertainment.