*Warning: This post contains discussion on the sensitive topics of sex trafficking and sexual abuse*
How exactly does a horror movie leave you with chills? I feel like I can now tell you. As soon as I heard about this project, I knew I had to learn more, and it just so happened that the creators were up for an interview! Enter The Callback, a local short film crowdfunding to cover pre-production costs. Based in Connecticut and written by Sara Lynn Maher, The Callback will be produced by Theriot Productions and brought to life by a talent-filled team of actors and specialists. They are just days away from the end of their crowdfunding campaign to create their new take on the horror genre, so be sure to visit their website to learn more, contribute if you can, and share!
I got to talk to writer/director/actress, Sara Lynn Maher, and executive producer/director/actor, Nathaniel Lee, all about the nitty-gritty details of the film and, of course, why everyone needs to see it.
QM: So, tell me a little bit about each of your roles in The Callback.
SLM: I’m Sara Lynn. I’m the writer and director, and I play Jessica, who is one of the main characters in The Callback.
NL: I’m Nathaniel Lee. I’m the executive producer, and I play Samuel in The Callback. I’ve dabbled with some of the scenes with Sara with a bit of a co-writing credit.
SLM: And you’ll also be co-directing. We’re going to be directing each other’s scenes that we’re not in.
NL: Yeah, it’s a little complicated, but we have an incredible team.
QM: Awesome! And how would you summarize The Callback?
SLM: So, the logline for The Callback is: “An aspiring actress is asked to go on a callback, only to find out the filmmaker’s intentions are darker than she ever anticipated.” And the film is also going to use the horror genre to metaphorically parallel the real-life horror of sex trafficking and exploitation.
QM: What was the initial inspiration for The Callback? When did you know that you had to tell this story?
SLM: So, my initial inspiration came during the COVID lockdown of 2020. I knew I wanted to get back into writing, and I’ve always loved the horror genre. One concept I always wanted to explore as an actor [was] I’ve always had this fear of, you know, maybe a casting notice that has unsavory people behind it and they’re using it as a guise for something more sinister. And so I was like, “Let’s take that fear and explore it a little bit.” And then The Callback happened.
QM: When did you realize it was meant to be a larger-scale production?
SLM: I would say now-ish. Like, it just kind of it keeps kind of morphing into something else at each and every stage.
NL: My brother [is] filming the movie. He’s what we call the Director of Photography. We own a video production company based out of Connecticut; it’s called Theriot productions, and we’re going to be producing The Callback. Last year during the summer, when it was peak lockdown, we ended up doing a short film, and that was a lot of fun! But we had to pay [for] that out of our own pocket. So, when Sara was writing The Callback, I was like, “Oh man, this is good.” So, we decided, “Hey, let’s crowdfund this.” We had never gone down that road before, so we researched different topics on our own hand and had figures coming up in our head. [But] we ended up getting referred to this campaign manager, whose sole purpose is green-lighting and funding these independent, amazing stories. And, long story short, we were asking for a certain number, and on our initial phone call he was like, “Oh you’re going to have to triple that immediately.” So, one thing led to another, and here we are.
QM: Where did your passion for the horror genre begin? Why do you think it creates a more fluid space for otherwise uncomfortable conversations?
SLM: Well, for me, my passion for horror has come from a very young age. I think ever since I watched Beetlejuice for the first time, I’ve always been into like creepy, weird kind of stuff. And I think that horror is a great genre to create those conversations because it can be so hyperbolic and exaggerated. If you have a message, it’s not necessarily beating people over the head with it; it’s kind of metaphorical. Like, for example, I know George Romero’s zombie movies of the 80’s were like, a statement on consumer culture, and even his original Night of the Living Dead has been said to parallel racism of the time because it was made in the 60’s. So, I feel like horror has always been a good place to make statements.
NL: I was never that hardcore into horror until [Sara and I] started dating. So, she’s kind of…
SLM: Introducing him.
NL: Slowly. And now I’m like, “Oh man, I can’t wait for Halloween Kills,” which comes out in October. So, I think I’m more along the lines of character-driven pieces. Like, yeah, horror has its ridiculous tropes, and there are some similarities in this film that [Sara] wrote about, but at the same time, to be able to spark a conversation that might be taboo, right? Like human trafficking. It’s a reality of the world that you’re not going to talk about at dinner. And it doesn’t flat-out throw it in your face, [she] wrote it in such a way that it’s nuanced, but I think it’s very important.
Script & Storyline
QM: Describe the process of writing the script. How long did it take? How did the characters develop?
SLM: I would say they’re even still being developed now. We’re kind of doing some final little rewrites just to give the script a little more life and vivaciousness. I feel like maybe that’s the weird thing about writing, too, is that it never feels finished because you keep coming up with a new idea. And we constantly bounce ideas off of each other, too, so it’s been an ongoing process.
NL: Yeah, it’s funny that the script just won an award for Best Short Screenplay at the Austin International Arts Festival. I say it’s “funny” because that was our older script. There’s so many more little updates that go a long way [and] it still won an award four versions ago. So that’s pretty cool!
QM: How did you decide on the main themes of the struggles of an actor’s lifestyle and sex trafficking awareness?
SLM: That came from my previous background apart from acting. I originally wanted to be a therapist, and I went to college for psychology. And my first job out of college was at a group home working with 13 to 16-year-old girls. And I worked with a girl at the home who had been trafficked, and her stories were just so heartbreaking. I remember crying because of the things she would tell me, and it’s like this really happened to somebody. I just feel like there’s no need for that and it’s disgusting what people will do for a profit. And then, as we all know, in the entertainment industry you have cases like Harvey Weinstein and things like what happened to Brendan Fraser. And it’s just awful that people want to exploit the vulnerable.
NL: Prey upon people’s dreams and hopes. To tie in the acting industry portion of it, as Sara was saying, it’s strange because in acting there’s this sense of “the actor wants it so badly” because it’s your expression of creativity and your gift, but when somebody’s dangling an opportunity… it’s just creepy. It’s something that more and more everyday people who aren’t involved in Hollywood are being like, “Wait, wait. This is what these people are doing? This is what they’re endorsing or going along with?” And that’s probably what makes this movie so compelling is, I know I threw around the word “taboo” but, yeah it’s not a friendly conversation. Just the fact that these things happen. When you put yourself in the shoes of these characters in the movie, just reading it you’re like, “I feel sick to my stomach.”
SLM: Which is what we want.
NL: But it also kind of explores the mental anguish of being a contemporary actor, too. You know, going through these hula hoops of rejection, if you will. So hopefully we can show some people not just that side of things, not just the human trafficking, but a little enlightenment about, “Oh my gosh, not every actor is Brad Pitt.”
QM: I noticed on your website you guys have a really great team working with you on this film. What do they specifically bring to the table in order to bring The Callback to life?
SLM: A lot!
NL: I mean, we can start with development. So the mask in the photo behind us was developed by this award-winning puppeteer.
SLM: Well it’s funny because our set designer who’s gonna be building our set, I know that she’s artistically inclined, so I asked if she could create a mask like that. And she was like, “I can’t, but let me get you a person who can.” Enter Full Moon Special. We just went back-and-forth via email. I sent pictures of inspiration, and then they came up with the concept art. And then it turned into [the final product], and they just did a phenomenal job!
You can find Full Moon Special at:
NL: The set designer who put us onto the puppeteer has actually worked with Chiller sci-fi channel, and [is] super talented! She’s building our set starting in a few weeks, essentially building a world. Instead of CGI [computer-generated imagery] and all that, we have a full-blown set we’re building. And then we have incredible actors involved, too. Not just Sara and myself, but Michael Greca (award-winning actor), Marybeth Paul, Chris Borkowski, Kyle Mitchell, and just an incredibly talented cast. And my brother’s DP-ing it.
SLM: Awesome producers behind the scenes. We have a gentleman from New York who has been amazing.
NL: Incredible, and who else is on here? I don’t wanna forget anybody. Our sound mixer, he’s done work for Castle Rock out of Massachusetts. Phenomenal guy, Kevin Hagan. And our composer, award-winning composer, Katrina Zemrak. She’s out of Los Angeles. This is funny, this is what she tells me all the time: “Oh Nate, I wanna score [your and Sara’s] horror movie. I’ll do it in between my day job…” which is scoring Nickelodeon shows. So the team, I like to say that we’re incredibly talented in every department.
QM: How has the crowdfunding process been for you so far?
SLM: It’s been wild. It’s a lot of work, that I guess if you haven’t crowdfunded or had an inkling to, you wouldn’t know, but there’s just so much. It’s almost like a full-time job pretty much.
NL: I wouldn’t even say almost. It is. There’s so many facets to this. But I’m so glad we reached out to our campaign manager who has kind of been our guide up this mountain.
SLM: One of his other clients calls him a Sherpa because it’s like he’s guiding you up this Mount Everest, which it really feels like! It’s like this day-to-day process.
NL: So, we reached out to him like four months ago and in our mind we studied successful campaigns just on our end, took some online classes with the founders of Seed&Spark, which is the platform we’re using. A lot of people are familiar with like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Seed&Spark is the third most popular, but it’s also specific for films so it really caters toward filmmakers, which is one of the main reasons we chose it. So, we reached out to our campaign manager, Justin Giddings, AKA “The Kickstarter Guy,” about four months ago and he put us through a ninety day boot camp. Absolutely incredible, and we still felt ill-prepared to launch. But that’s the thing: you’re never going to feel ready, but you still gotta do it. We’re over here like a roller coaster. One day we’re like, “Yeah, this is it!” And then the next day we’re, like, crying.
SLM: Saying, “What’s going on??”
NL: “What are we going to say??” So, this is really cool, because I kinda geek out about analytics sometimes. Just on our Facebook page, which we created maybe four months ago, right before we started doing the boot camp [with Justin Giddings]. We’ve gotten like 2,500 followers, which is a decent amount. However, in the last two weeks of our campaign we’ve reached over 50,000 people.
SLM: That’s across platforms.
NL: Right. And it’s just like by the end of this thing, we’re gonna reach over a hundred thousand people. So, as a grassroots movement, coming from Connecticut, local New England, hopefully it launches us to be able to do bigger and better things.
QM: What are some of the aspects/details of creating The Callback that an audience might not see, but still need to be funded?
NL: One thing we’ve done with this campaign is pull back the curtain a little bit to show our audience where some of this money is going, but here’s one I can think of: If you’re watching a Hollywood film, you’re not going to know, as a viewer, how it’s filmed, right? If you’re filming a scene with Ryan Reynolds or something, there’s a legitimate colorist that goes in and colors the movie and makes it a color palette that correlates with the director’s vision.
SLM: The sound design, especially for horror movies, is really important. Like, go watch any horror movie and see how much just the sound affects your feelings during the spooky scenes. Think about watching that scene in Psycho, the shower scene. If it had any other music besides the violin, it probably wouldn’t have been as effective. That’s why the credits of movies are so long. There’s so many people throwing in work to make such an awesome end piece.
QM: Do you have any tips for fellow artists looking to crowdfund for their upcoming projects?
SLM: Justin Giddings!
NL: In all honesty, I would set realistic goals that still stretch you. And I wouldn’t take it lightly, either. I’ve seen a lot of people jump into it without any preparation, like any social media buzz about it. So I would keep that in mind for crowdfunding: really have a game plan, because you don’t want to be scrambling for content as you go. We have days like that, but we’ve also put in 120 days of content already just to get to this point.
SLM: Piggy-backing off of that, social media can be understated when you’re doing a campaign. Like, Seed&Spark offers a free course where they give you tips, tricks, advice, and stuff. And one of their first ones is when you do crowdfunding, you’ve gotta have a crowd. So, create a social media base.
NL: And we didn’t really know what that took until now. And really, the biggest thing is consistency. People have supported us that we never would’ve imagined so far. And, you know, the more traction something gets, the more real it gets, the more people want to support it and spread the word.
QM: After crowdfunding, what comes next for The Callback? Do you have a tentative timeline of how things will roll out?
SLM: We do, at least for filming. The campaign ends [the week of] September 16, so we’re going to take a couple weeks, get our ducks in a row, and the plan is to be filming by October 11.
NL: Filming on October 11, and hopefully be wrapped before Halloween. And then the editing.
SLM: The post-production.
NL: But what’s cool is that we’ve accounted for all this in the budget that we’re raising, including film festival submissions. So we’re gonna be trying to get this in as many important festivals as possible internationally. And then we will be seeking distribution. So, short films are notoriously not money-making. There’s no real “market” for it. However, AMC created this really cool streaming service called Shudder. It’s the number one horror streaming platform in the world. So, they actually have, unlike Netfilix or Amazon Prime, a section dedicated to horror shorts. So we kind of eyeballed that, and it might be a big goal, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to make that a reality. And I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves but we already…
SLM: We’re talking about making it a feature, and having this short be a proof of concept to show people, “This is what we did with a $35,000 budget. If we could get a bigger budget, we could make something even more amazing.”
NL: I think it’s the perfect level of what was next in our trajectory anyway. We’re not going to come out of the woodwork and ask for a million dollars without a track record. But if we showcase an award-winning film that’s tasteful and sparks conversation, and we’ve already built a grassroots audience [and] reached hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. I mean, in my mind it’s like, “Write the check now!” That’s how I see it, but it’s just a matter of finding those people.
Creativity & The Arts
QM: How was a love for the arts fostered throughout your lives?
SLM: I would say one of my favorite activities with my family was always watching movies. My parents were separated, so it’s something I did with my mom at her house, but I also did with my dad at his. And I was always encouraged to read. Reading was always one of my favorite things when I was younger. I loved to just read and create the little worlds in my head and imagine all of it. And that was just kind of encouraged! Going to the movies, and having discussion afterward, and good memories.
NL: Mine was similar, but I do recall an actual moment where I was like, “Oh man. I want to learn to write better,” and that was when I was in eighth grade. I got in trouble at school and I got suspended. My stepmother at the time, she was a dean at this school of troubled youth up in Maine, so she had tactics, right? She’s like, “Okay. In order for you to earn free time, you have to read this story. In order for you to earn fifteen minutes of free time, you have to do an hour of reading/writing.” And I learned to actually love it. Once you can translate your thoughts into text and tell stories, the world is your oyster at that point. You could influence people, you could just get people to stop thinking about troubles of their day-to-day lives. As an actor, that’s my favorite thing to do is get people to be so invested in a scene. My mom would always say, “I hate Tom Cruise.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And she’s like, “I hate his character.” And I was like, “Mom, that means he’s doing his job really well.” And that was always funny to me.
QM: In your opinion, what makes The Callback most special? Why do people need to see this film?
SLM: I think, touching on what we talked about in some earlier questions, the parallel to human trafficking definitely makes it special because, like we said, it’s not going to be an in-your-face, PSA type of thing. But it’s going to be a weird icky feeling that the audience is going to get, and it’s going to all be through the tone of the movie, the way that it’s shot, and I think that makes it special. And I also think the fact that it’s about acting makes it special because I feel like for people in the industry, it’s like it’s something that they get and they understand like, “Oh, I totally get what she’s going through.” And then for people not in the industry, it’s kind of like a, “Oh my god, that’s what an audition is like? That’s what a callback is like? Holy crap,” kind of thing.
NL: It definitely has a lot going for it in that it’s not your run of the mill horror. It definitely has, like Sara was saying, a deeper context to it. And again, I think the most special thing about it is its ability to hopefully spark conversation between everybody. It doesn’t matter what your ideologies might be, but I think we can all agree on [the fact that] trafficking other people is…
NL: So I really hope it can bring some people together.
QM: Where can people find you online?
- Instagram: @thecallbackfilm
- Sara Lynn’s Instagram: @the.saralynn
- Nate’s Instagram: @iamnathaniellee
So, are you willing to ask yourself the tough questions? Art pushes us to take on new perspectives and discover who we are and who we want to be. The Callback will challenge us to face the reality of what our fellow humans experience up-close, and what we’re willing to do to in order to make the world better. In a world that turns a blind eye, artists like Sara Lynn and Nate continue to bring what’s important into direct view. What’s so important about a callback? Well, as they say: “Every actor is dying for one.”