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Written in collaboration with Clay McLeod Chapman

Our short film—Henley—had been back-burning in our brains for over five years. Clay had published a novel back in 2003 called Miss Corpus. Craig, it turns out, was the only person who read it. There’s a chapter in the book, The Henley Road Motel, which is all about a boy growing up in a family-run roach motel. Think lil’ Normie Bates before donning mom’s summer dress. When business begins to dwindle, our 9-year-old hero cracks a pretty devious scheme to bring customers back to the family business—and poof: A short film is born.

When you’re writing a script and the phrase “a dilapidated motel sits next to a lonesome highway” mysteriously appears on your computer screen, you think—Oh, we’ll be able to find one of those, no problem.

Henley, a short film directed by Craig Macneill

Not that you’d tell the motel owners this. “Quaint” was an oft-expressed term we used during our location scout. Or “homey.”

Not “run down,” which it said in the script. Not “ramshackle.”

Ask and you shall receive: Located right off the interstate in rural, back-country Virginia, we found “quaint.” We found “homey.” Six rooms. The beds were nothing but rusty-wired cots that doubled as ant farms. For a shower, you needed to wait about three minutes for the water to reach an acceptable hue, flushing the mud out. Each A/C was on the fritz from day one—and this being rural Virginia in the thick of summer, the temperature was already well on its way into triple digits.

We had sweet-talked the owner into renting out the entire motel for eight days. During the day, we’d shoot, turning the motel into our own set—and at night (more like four in the morning), we would crash right there on-set, picking whichever room was available and grabbing a few hours of sleep before starting the whole thing up again in the morning. In theory, it was perfect. With little money to go around, we had everything all under one roof: A set that had practically designed itself, housing for talent and crew… The works.

Day 1 of production: Our beloved motel owner took one look at the ten-man crew assembled outside her bedroom window, only for the cold, misguided realization that her motel had suddenly become overtaken by some Hollywood heavies—and panicked. Before Craig could call action, we were shut down. It took hours of sweet-talking the owner from kicking us off her property. When she finally relented—Day 1 of production was quickly becoming Day 2. The clock never stopped ticking…

Deer ticks started popping up on our shins. Our sound mixer was the first to spot the telltale bulls-eye lesion ringing around his skin. Our cinematographer was next. Visits from the local doctor to inoculate us for Lyme disease became a daily event. Everybody wants to take home a token of the production to remember the shoot by, a T-shirt or a baseball cap with the title of the film stitched on the front. A bacterial infection isn’t on top of anybody’s list. But now a hefty percentage of our crew would have a tell-tale reminder of our short film that would linger within their nervous system for the rest of their life.

Day 2 became Day 3… 3 became 5.

Word had spread throughout the town that a film was being shot up at the motel starring none other than Matt Damon. Then it was Morgan Freeman. Suddenly there was a lot more traffic passing in front of our road motel. Cars would slow, windows rolling down for a good look at Leonardo Dicaprio, wherever he was—while all the while, the script kept using such phrases as “lonesome,” “desolate,” “isolated.”

Doubts about whether or not we were going to get ten minutes were beginning to pop up.

Every production has its own trials and tribulations. They evolve into tales to share on the next shoot “I shot this short last summer in the dog days of Virginia, just bathing in the humidity, sweating off pounds while hefting this jerry-rigged steadicam, sleeping with ants, getting eaten alive, getting Lyme disease, getting fleas, getting heat-stroke, getting zero sleep.”

Getting ten minutes.

The right ten minutes.

The crazy thing? We were lucky enough to get them. And through some miracle, those ten minutes got us to Sundance.

Hope to see you in Park City…

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