Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

In a matter of months, barring disaster, LSA senior Jason Fine and the rest of his cast and crew — an amalgamation of college students and recent graduates from Michigan to California to South Korea — will have finished making their first feature film. It’s the hardest thing Fine has ever done.

Fine’s production was almost dead before it got off the ground, but he overcame initial issues. The University of Michigan’s Department of Film, Television, and Media (FTVM) didn’t provide the equipment he needed, but he had a $20,000 budget acquired through two grants and a Hopwood win. He knew people he trusted to join his crew, and in August 2021, he told them he wanted to turn his winning script into a movie. Things went well until that fall, when casting began.

“It was a disaster,” Fine said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. After reaching out to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, sending casting calls to universities around the country and many, many auditions, Fine still hadn’t found his lead.

“We were a few days from just saying ‘All right, I guess we can’t do this,’” he said. Then, one of Fine’s classes screened a film by another student. One of the actors stood out. There was a “raw factor to his acting,” Fine said. “He held the screen. You didn’t want to do anything else while you were watching him.”

Film still playing, Fine stood up from his seat in the dark auditorium and asked, “Who’s that actor?” His fellow students, he admitted, were taken aback — the film’s creators had spent a semester making it and he was interrupting. But they gave him the actor’s name: Caleb White.

Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

White is an LSA junior studying film. He started the Caleb White Project, a nonprofit to engage youth volunteers and help the homeless, at age 12. Fine describes him as one of the most positive and driven people he has met. If you asked anyone from the cast and crew if they’d ever had a negative interaction with White, Fine said, “they’d laugh at you.”

When he arrived at the University, White stopped sitting on his long-standing interest in acting and started auditioning. He researched what made a successful actor but came away with no conclusive answer. The difference in professional training among successful actors gave White the courage to “just start,” which, he told The Daily, was some of the only consistent advice he found. He got parts in a few short films, often type-cast as the “douchey” character. As hard-working and altruistic as White may be, looking at him, it isn’t a leap to place him in a frat house. When Fine offered him the lead in his film — a thriller about a high school theater kid swooped up by a Hollywood producer that explores jealousy, sexual obsession and choosing between his two closest friends — White agreed in part because it was something different.

In May 2022, the film’s cast and crew met in New York City. While Fine had orchestrated table reads over Zoom, where everyone brought on a friend from outside the production as an outside perspective on the script, many of them had never seen each other in person. Fine was nervous that their first seven months of meetings were virtual — how were people meant to act like lifelong best friends when meeting in person for the first time? But with morning and evening meetings multiple days a week, the cast and crew developed chemistry even while virtual.

Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

Many of the cast and crew members lived in or near the city. The others flew there. Junior Malcolm Van Sant, who Fine describes as “laid back” and instantly recognizable as an actor, came from UCLA; sophomore Michael Waxman — “just about good at everything he could be good at” — from Harvard; Fine, White and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Maya Boyd from Ann Arbor. On a given day, their cast and crew amounted to 15 people. At one point, five were staying in Fine’s parents’ house, which acted as a “small hotel” as well as the first of many filming locations. Upon arrival in New York, Fine took the group on a hike that “everyone hated (him) for.” They went out to dinner and blocked scenes in his front yard.

Finding the other 20-some filming locations, particularly places up to Fine’s high standards, was difficult and began with making meaningful connections a talent Fine demonstrates in the first 30 seconds of a conversation. During our interview, he compared his experience with film to my writing — “I’m sure as a journalist you have this too where you … feel like it could be just a little better,” Fine said.

He asked what classes I was taking and what my favorite films were. When finding locations, he quickly found things the others were interested in, chatted with them and formed a connection, “and not in an artificial way.” With a U-M alum, Fine brought up his time at the University, an experience they shared.

“I think 90% of the time, people were saying yes,” Fine said. He credits part of this to his being a student. “If I was 25 years old, people would be asking for money, but I think people just want to help you when you’re in college.”

They shot at the Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman & Mackauf law firm in the financial district, where White sat with his feet up on what Fine claims was a $70,000 desk. Chappaqua Performing Arts Center provided a 500-seat theater and backstage for the opening sequence. Other locations included a school in the city, the Kensico Dam, the study of a man with a “weird book collection,” and a mansion where Denzel Washington’s “The Manchurian Candidate” was partly filmed — the owners watched Fine and his crew from the window on their final night of filming. Houses like this provided the backdrop of affluence and greed that Fine wanted.

Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

They shot the film, recently titled “BURN EVERYTHING,” in 28 days, adhering to a 12-page, color-coded schedule that producers Jacob Gruber, a 2022 Tulane University graduate, and Daniel Martin, Rutgers University senior, made. Fine described White’s character as someone who “thrives in complete chaos.” While the chaos of the film’s production itself may not have been complete, a different type of chaos, combatted but hardly eliminated by careful planning, faced the crew. The shooting schedule often changed multiple times a day due to weather issues or the needs of the people whose houses they used. When scheduling to shoot in someone’s house, Fine said, the cast and crew were at the mercy of the owners, not wanting to cause them more trouble than filming already required.

“You have to tell the people in these houses, ‘You can’t talk, your AC has to be off, there can’t be any noise,’ you know, ‘Get out of your house,’” Fine said. “So that’s not really a blast for them.”

Air conditioners turned on accidentally during filming, ruining takes. The 90-degree weather put White’s positivity to the test when “continuity reasons” required him to wear a sweatshirt in nearly every shot. The digital camera itself overheated on occasion. Two weeks into production, the cast and crew began experiencing headaches, colds, congestion and fatigue. They continued production for fear of running out of time and money. Fine complimented White extensively for his positivity through this, meanwhile criticizing his own handling of the situation.

“The director was an asshole,” he said of himself. He admitted he didn’t always communicate well with the rest of his team and struggled at times to “put (his) ego aside,” as actor Charlotte Falk, 2022 U-M graduate, told him he must. If there’s a problem on set, Fine said, “the problem should never be coming from the director.” At moments, the high-stress, fast-paced environment on set made him forget to step back and communicate with people about the problems that arose.

By both Fine and White’s accounts, shooting days were very long. They often started work at eight in the morning and didn’t finish until 10 at night. Besides working with locations, other scenes involved complicated preparation. When shooting a scene of White in a car with a bloody face, they attached a camera rig to Fine’s car while makeup artist Veronika Orlovska, Pace University sophomore, painted a gash onto White’s cheek. The effort and time each team member spent raised the stakes for the other: If they were going to work this hard, for this long, the film had to be good, and making it that good forced them into longer days and harder work. Fine and White agree that the project has been worth everything.

Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

On set, White learned from other actors and crew members alike. Students had come from around the nation to work on the film, an environment White said you don’t often experience. He described an “exchange of knowledge” between the actors as well as the crew. White’s interest in filmmaking was piqued as he picked up on techniques from camera operators and those working with other equipment.

White spent many scenes out of his comfort zone. These were his favorites to shoot — the moments when he had to leave the scenes typical of daily life and explore the emotional depths of his character, getting to “experience emotions that you don’t get to experience all the time.” In one scene, he breaks down, and while he admitted this wasn’t exactly “fun,” it showed him how much he was capable of as an actor.

“I used to limit myself to (roles) not so emotionally different from myself,” White said. He stepped out of that comfort zone during the shooting of this film. He hopes to one day play a real person, learning their mannerisms and taking on their emotions, something he once assumed he would or could never do.

Production lasted from May 14 to June 13, and the script constantly evolved throughout the month. Many times, Fine and the actors worked until the night before shooting to perfect a scene and get the dialogue right. Even while shooting, White said, if something felt wrong or an actor was inspired to change something, they could. Fine created the characters, but production demanded that the actors reshape them in order to connect with them and bring them to life.

At the heart of a story that has changed considerably — Fine’s original draft was about two friends who robbed aquariums — the central friendship between White’s character and Van Sant’s character has remained key. When he rewrote the script for his FTVM 410 class, Fine said his professor, Jim Burnstein, told him to focus on “that tension in the relationship, that underlying obsession,” which has remained a focus of all iterations of the script.

Photo courtesy of Jason Fine.

Post-production has involved another country-wide search, this time for editors, visual effects artists and colorists who met Fine’s looming standards.

Every day, the editors package footage from a given shoot so they and Fine can choose the takes they like. Then, Fine said, “I say to my sound guy, ‘George, the sound sounds awful, can we please fix this?’” George Liu, Penn State senior, sends back edited footage. Fine and post-production supervisor Jelani Embree, 2022 U-M graduate, are hoping to find an editor in Ann Arbor to join their team.

Meanwhile, colorist Christine Park, another 2022 U-M graduate, works with Fine to edit stills like those included in this piece. Park is living in South Korea for the year, 13 hours ahead of Fine, making for a difficult work schedule. When she starts editing in the afternoon, Fine says he’s up until 3 a.m.

Every Wednesday, Fine meets with the editors. His goal is to have at least someone working on the film at all times.

At the time of our interview, nine people were helping Fine with post-production. He claimed he and Embree were going to “reach out to every single school that has a film department in the United States.” This was likely no exaggeration. Two weeks later, they had added almost 50 college students to their VFX, editing, color and sound departments. Their recruitment has gone international, now involving students from Lebanon, Spain, Colombia and South Korea. They hope to have 100 by the end of their search.

“We’re not messing around with this feature film,” Fine said. Despite their recent increase in numbers, it has been hard to find people he trusts. “To me it’s either you care or you don’t care … People put in too much work, (White) gave too good of a performance for this to just falter.”

While he can’t give details on the record, Fine has plans to premiere “BURN EVERYTHING” when it is finished, which he hopes will be in three or four months. He said he and his team have made connections that could allow this to happen. They are building rapport with publications, too, hoping to get additional press coverage closer to the premiere.

Fine wasn’t shooting films on a Super 8 camera at the age of six. He entered college planning to study sports management or something adjacent. In his first semester, he walked into a biological chemistry lecture in a room with several hundred students and knew it was not for him. Scrolling through the course guide, he found a screenwriting class.

“I was like, ‘Wait, you take this as a class? Are you kidding me?’” Fine said. Discovering screenwriting made him feel “like a little kid on a coffee table jumping up and down,” but it has also been an uphill battle. When writing dialogue, he said, “it has to be rhythmic, it has to be snappy.” When it doesn’t sound natural, he gets upset, turning a critical eye on himself.

While writing the screenplay for “BURN EVERYTHING,” an especially bad bout of writer’s block led him to former School of Education professor Shelly Kovacs. He proposed a study on conjuring creativity. During a year of research, he discovered ways to re-immerse himself in his work.

“Revenge,” a 10-minute song by Daniel Pemberton from the “Steve Jobs” movie soundtrack, is one of Fine’s gateways back to a flow state. Exercise and showering are others.

“There was one point when we were writing the script, I was taking six showers a day,” he said.

Fine integrates personal experiences and emotions into his writing to give heart to the stories. They become personal and honest. It is the stories of films — the emotional journeys and inter-character relationships — that compel him, more than the plot.

He and Van Sant are also beginning work on another script. The two have become close while working together, but their personalities differ: Van Sant, Fine said, likes to take his time. Fine likes to get things done. He was tired of progress on their projects not moving fast enough, resulting in an argument between the two.

Van Sant wrote Fine a message. He was hurt by what Fine had said.

“It really affected me,” Fine said. “I just wasn’t myself for a few days … And the best thing I could do wasn’t talk to a therapist, wasn’t stay in my room with the blinds closed and sulk in my bed; it was to write. It was to express it.” Writing his way through his feelings, working them into a story, helped Fine find his way back to his friendship with Van Sant.

“BURN EVERYTHING” is imbued with personal experience and devotion to the story, but it is born also from frustration. Fine is upset with the state of movies. People don’t seem to go to theaters except for blockbusters. Hollywood, he feels, is becoming a joke. For his crew — “people who live and bleed movies” — this is a travesty that must be resolved.

Frustrating, too, is the FTVM department at the University. Fine’s out-of-state tuition costs $240,000, but he said the $20,000 spent on this personal project has taught him more. He says he feels cheated by the whole experience.

Fine is “done with the French film theory,” wishing the University offered more practical production and editing classes. He lied to a professor in the School of Art & Design, telling her he was an art student and had taken the prerequisites for their cinematography class.

“She caught me dead in my lie and I was out of there,” Fine laughed. He lamented the lack of such classes in the FTVM department. He doesn’t mean to sound vindictive — he likes many of the professors — but asked, “how would I know how to become a colorist? How would I know how to become an editor when we only offer one editing course?”

Fine and White’s film is as much a response to this frustration with the department as it is an answer to the lack of good movies. They hope to form an “armada” of qualified film students from around the country. For the students involved, this film is a way to “skip the line” past what could be a 10-year journey up the film industry toward the career they actually want. For other students, his cast and crew are an inspiration.

Few students are making feature films at this level. The crew was told countless times that they couldn’t do it, that they were delusional to think they could. To have not only nearly finished the film but to have done so without compromising their vision is a statement to other discouraged students of what is possible.

“We did this,” Fine said. “Other people can do this too.” He knows he is not the only one at this or other universities frustrated with their film education. The work on this film is a road map, a resource to give students a glimmer of hope.

Senior Arts Editor Erin Evans can be reached at