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The Daily Arts film beat offers insightful analysis of films of all genres. Nevertheless, there has been a lack of attention given to the many talented and passionate filmmakers who surround us here, at the University of Michigan. I started this series to highlight their work, their unique visions of film and the obstacles they face as student filmmakers.

“Let’s improv.”

“You just start talking and I’ll type.”

This is what LSA seniors Cassidy Caulkins and Monica Iyer do when the words aren’t flowing. Sometimes a real exchange between them will generate better dialogue than thinking about it could. Even the dialogue that the screenwriting pair don’t find through speaking is often tested this way, each taking the role of a character and seeing if the lines they’ve written work. They write together, sometimes taking turns to type, in coffee shops around the U-M campus or in one of their bedrooms in the apartment they share with six roommates.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Caulkins described their writing process of meeting for several-hour sessions to draft and edit their scripts.

“There has been a time or two when it might be a later night and it might involve some wine,” she said. “Not every time, but that is a part of the process.”

Since summer 2021, Caulkins and Iyer have collaborated to write a pilot for a sitcom titled “More Than a Degree” and a short film, “Disparate.” They have joined forces with other students to take their words to the screen, among them “Disparate”’s co-producer and Ross senior Victoria Huang, who was also present for the interview.

Of the three, only Caulkins is a film major. Involved in theatre costume design in high school, she tried to transition to costuming for film upon reaching college, but was faced with the disappointment that most student film productions don’t focus much on costumes. She has since become more open to other parts of film production, “opening my perspective on what I would enjoy” — but costuming will always be considered in her own projects. “You can tell a lot about a character by (what they wear),” she said.

Iyer is a biopsychology major, but she took up acting in college and joined writing forces with Caulkins to take the advice to write her own material. Her excitement over their projects is infectious. She keeps a running list of funny things that happen in her and Caulkins’s apartment for use in future “More Than a Degree” episodes and, with post-college plans that veer away from the film world, regularly mentions how sad it is that this might be the last time they work together.

And then there is Huang, who is studying business with a global media studies minor and appears to be the organized one. She has found her place in the arts as a coordinator, not filming or acting, but bringing people together where their visions can become something real. She worked as head of costuming at her high school theatre company and as a production assistant for Musket, the University’s student acting organization, her sophomore year, where Iyer was also an actor. She is the first to admit that her business classes lack the creativity she craves, which she has tried to find in these film productions.

From disparate backgrounds, the three have found each other from chance friendships founded on this shared need for a creative outlet and love of film, despite the different forms it takes for each. All seniors with vastly different paths ahead of them, their time as a filmmaking trio is short — a momentary merging of inspiration and creativity.

Their year of working together began at the end of the summer when Caulkins and Iyer wrote the pilot for “More Than a Degree,” inspired by their own house: five friends live together, close-knit but not without their differences, and drama and hilarity ensue. Iyer compares it to “New Girl,” but rather than centering on a quirky and awkward 31-year-old, it aims to capture “that transition from college to post-graduate life.” They asked Huang to join them as producer and began casting and crew calls in September for the pilot episode about a birthday party gone wrong, which quickly overtook their semesters with long days of shooting nearly every weekend through November. Their goal to finish the episode by February has not been realized. At the time of the interview, it was nearly April and Huang had just received the rough cut from their editor.

As they entered their final semester of college, Caulkins and Iyer’s regular meetings to discuss their pilot morphed into meetings about the possibility of a new project: one final film together before graduation. With little time, the planning of this film, now “Disparate,” was shaped by its limitations: What story could they tell effectively in 10 minutes, with a small cast and which they could feasibly complete in a single semester? The script for the story of two high school friends entering college and discovering they are no longer compatible was still going through final revisions at the time of the interview, even as they planned to start shooting the following weekend. Huang joined them again as co-producer, Caulkins is directing and Iyer is co-producing and acting as one of the main two roles.

The group’s stories typically reach for relatability with their audience and are often influenced, if not inspired by personal experiences.

Of “Disparate,” Caulkins said, “I couldn’t say (the experience is) universal,” but by the end of high school, many friends “realize they’re going in separate directions.”

Their director of photography, LSA sophomore Adela Papiez, as well as many people who auditioned, told them they experienced this, which encouraged them to believe they were creating something that could touch many viewers.

Besides Caulkins, Iyer, Huang and Papiez, their crew includes sound operator (“slash anything else we need,” Iyer laughed) and LSA senior Jacob Gutting, actor and SMTD junior Olivia Sinnott and Caulkins’s mother, who is playing the “adult” the film requires. It is more difficult to find people for the crew, according to Huang, so they kept their numbers small and worked with members of the crew from “More Than a Degree.” Iyer believes the number of student productions happening this semester is partly responsible for the lack of available people interested in joining a film crew — they are already part of different films. Finding people for the cast was easier. Huang emailed their casting call to various University listservs, including that of the Film, Television and Media department.

Casting was easier in some ways, as many people auditioned. On the other hand, while the crew had already bonded from their previous production, the actors posed the difficulty of choosing a stranger with whom they could work well. According to Caulkins, they learned when casting their TV pilot how important it is for actors to be able to take direction well.

“They could deliver exactly what we were looking for within the first couple lines we gave them,” she said, but then wouldn’t do anything different with the performance, which lead to material they didn’t want to use.

During auditions for “Disparate,” they asked actors to change their performance in some way, even if it wasn’t in a way they planned to ask for during production, “just to see that they can exercise that muscle and are willing to try something new,” said Caulkins. Besides this ability, they looked, of course, to see which actors reflected the characters in a believable way and brought the necessary emotion to their auditions.

They chose Sinnott to star opposite Iyer in part because of her ability to hold the “duality” of the character she played, who is meant to be “bubbly and nonchalant” at first, but becomes more emotional toward the end of the film. They held auditions for both leading roles, despite knowing Iyer would be cast in one of them, before ultimately deciding she had to be a specific character.

When I asked the three how they balance the rest of their commitments in college with the long hours spent filmmaking, Iyer laughed and said, “My parents ask me the same thing.” She has started waking up early on Monday mornings to do work for school after weekends are taken over by work on their film or TV projects. Huang and Caulkins agreed that, while tiring, the energy they feel from creating these projects prevents them from being too drained to keep up with other work.

Now on the brink of production, “Disparate” is transitioning from the planning phase to one which involves more obstacles. Caulkins likes the pre-production phase particularly, she said, because this is where her ideas can be “pure… In the very beginning, all you have is an idea that you’re passionate about, that you’re excited to be creative with…and you’re just thinking about the possibilities.” Then they enter production, where challenges consistently arise, among them, the scheduling of actors and crew members, all of whom (except Iyer’s mother) are college students with their own busy schedules, and none of whom have any incentive to remain in the production other than their own commitment to and desire to be a part of it.

“Everyone’s doing this on their own time,” Iyer said. It’s not for a class, and they aren’t being paid, so the work of the creators is largely to choose which moments to be stricter with the actors or crew for the benefit of making the film what they envision while not making them think, “Oh, I thought this was fun. I don’t want to be a part of this project anymore.”

Caulkins added that “People can just drop out at any moment just because they’re not enjoying it anymore, or stop responding to emails.” In their previous production, they gave the cast and crew hourly schedules for each weekend of shooting.

As the producer, Huang was responsible for much of this and said, “Sometimes things happen and they can’t make it. That’s when we have roommates or anyone who can fill in an extra position on crew come in and help out.”

With the goal of getting through the production of “Disparate” by the end of the semester, Iyer and Caulkins are making final changes to the script, scheduling shooting, which is taking place at Iyer’s childhood house in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. and considering their post-production plans, including the fact that they do not have an editor. Caulkins and Huang may take on the role of editors themselves. When they finish the film, depending on the end product, they hope to submit it to festivals either as a short film or, Caulkins said, as a “proof of concept” for a feature or series they could pursue in the future.

They have been looking more seriously into festivals and funding for the “More Than a Degree” pilot, the final cut of which they are expecting to receive from their editor soon. Iyer keeps a spreadsheet of the festivals where they would like to send it, specifically focusing on those aimed at students and sitcom pilots. If they get into a festival, Iyer and Caulkins will be prepared to talk to anyone interested in their project.

“We will know exactly what to say,” Iyer said. “We will have our season (and) three-season arc down, because we can’t make any more episodes (right now), but we can write more episodes.”

While they will continue trying to get attention for their pilot and would continue working on it if it received attention at festivals, the possibility of working together after graduation is small. Iyer plans to go into a health-related field before returning to school for public health. She hopes to keep writing, acting and making films. She doesn’t know yet how it will fit into the rest of her life, but said, “I need that creative side.”

Huang hopes to work on the business side of an entertainment-based company. She would like to continue working on films but isn’t sure how to go about it. When you don’t already know people interested in filmmaking, she said, it becomes difficult to “insert yourself into that world. Hopefully, I have time to do that and have the courage to do it.” When it comes to film, she wants to get “as many experiences as possible.”

Caulkins plans to enter the film industry, likely in development or pre-production. She worked as a production assistant last summer, which “kind of sucked.” As someone new to the industry, she described feeling like the “lowest person on the totem pole,” on whom people would take out their frustration. “Sometimes it just feels like it’s high stakes all the time,” she said, when in reality “we’re just making movies and TV. You hear people say, ‘We’re not saving lives.’” Despite the difficulties of making it in this industry and finding “an environment in which you feel like you can learn and make mistakes,” she is prepared to work her way up to get a position she wants, even if it takes many years.

The incompatibility between friends depicted in “Disparate” is a common experience, but the story of the creators behind the film is a different one, perhaps equally as universal — a story of three paths crossing in a passion project and then, inevitably, going their separate ways.

Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at