Making It into a Movie

So I made my one-woman show into a movie.

This was a risk because who knew if anyone would want to see it in that form? I knew my mom would buy copies of the DVD (thanks, Mom!), but what if no one else did?

I took the risk because ever since the show opened in Hollywood in 2013, people have asked me if it was available on DVD or streamable online.  They had heard about it on social media and were curious, or they had seen the stage play and wanted to share it with friends and family.

Now, the truth is, when I say “people”: I mean a few. A few people asked about the show being made available to the public as a movie. There wasn’t an overwhelming number of individuals ceaselessly requesting the DVD.

The thing is, if just a few people request or suggest something and it’s something I think I might like to do, it tends to take shape in my head as Something To Which I Should Pay Serious Attention. Do you do this, too?

At first I put it off. Getting music rights would be a headache, the whole thing would cost money I didn’t have, yaddayadda.

A couple of years passed as I toured the show around the US and world, and I realized I couldn’t tour it forever. I had begun working on my next show and I knew the day would come when I no longer wanted to perform the first one. At the same time, I knew that the first one was helping people, especially Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs: children who grow up among many cultural environments for any reason) and Adult Cross-Cultural Kids (ACCKs). This makes sense since ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey is about growing up as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East, and Connecticut. It’s a memory play that has helped many people to process their feelings about their own upbringings and identities.

There are countless CCKs and ACCKs on our planet, not to mention 8,000 English-medium international schools with 4.26 million students who have passports from virtually every nation on the globe. (That’s just the English-medium schools—I can’t even guess how many other international schools there are. Google hasn’t helped.) When I decided to make the movie, I surmised that we CCKs would like to see our stories told much more often, since we rarely saw them told realistically or at all. It can be extraordinarily cathartic and even healing to finally see one’s own struggles and humorous quirks and emotional life depicted in a story. I’ve learned this from my audiences every single time I’ve performed ALIEN CITIZEN: AEO on stage.

The good news is that the story seems to touch CCKs and non-CCKs. So I forged ahead and made the movie because I saw how the play spoke to people of vastly different backgrounds, from local citizens in Spain and Iceland to international theatre-makers in South Africa to Third Culture Kids in Panama and Singapore to multiracial scholars at US colleges, and more. I’ve learned more about the invisible connective tissue of humanity than I ever dreamed just by doing the show. I had no idea that it would have that kind of impact when I was creating it, but I’m gratified it does. That’s what gave me the incentive to make it into a movie.

Filmmaking is hard work as a rule, and in my case there was no studio nor any production assistants. The movie was one year and 11 months in the making, not including time spent on pre-production. The budget was so minuscule that my intrepid directora, Sofie Calderon, had to do her own slating (“Alien Citizen, Scene 2, Take 3”). She did this in practically freezing temperatures, because I overheat when I perform my show, so I needed the room to be Very Very Cold.

On the two-day shoot there was just a small, magnificent team: the indefatigable Sofie, and my scrappy crew on cameras and sound and in the booth running the technical stage cues. We had very high-end equipment rented for a song from a friend, and very kind people (friends and strangers) filling the theatre the night we shot before an audience.

It was exponentially more enjoyable to perform for them in one take—stopping only for sirens outside, the bane of filming in a city—than to empty seats in starts and stops while the crew watched silently the day before. Performing the 80-minute show nonstop is like doing a sprint triathlon while emoting—and I would know because I’ve done a sprint tri. Now imagine doing it for five hours straight, repeating scenes over and over to make technical and performance adjustments. Unsurprisingly, the performance without audience had a more sober, serious quality, whereas it was lighter and brighter when I had an audience listening, laughing, and breathing with me.

Then it was time to edit all the footage. My wonderful husband did some sort of exhaustingly technical wizardry to label each take and order everything in Adobe Premiere so that I would be able to edit easily as an amateur/hobbyist. Sofie and I wanted something more dynamic and cinematic than a traditional screen recording of a stage performance, and I tried to manifest that, on and off, for months. I edited the first two cuts of the movie as smoothly as possible with my favorite takes…and then watched it…and…

It lay there. Like a dead thing.

I’ll never forget Sofie’s face as she turned to me and quietly said that it might be something academics would consider using for research. Maybe.

So I searched for a loan, which came from a completely unexpected source (thank you, guardian angel!), and was able to hire a pro editor. He turned it into a dynamic, fun, eminently watchable movie. He gave every country its own “look” on top of the theatre lighting. He added numerous special effects, like me playing Clark Gable in flickering black-and-white, and he even smoothed my skin slightly. (It’s just me for the whole movie, folks, so we’re gonna allow me some vanity.) Per Sofie’s direction, he added audio effects, like the piercing-yet-melancholy sound accompanying the removal of glass shards from…well I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it.

He fixed it, in other words.

Meanwhile, I gained new skills: I learned how to make the DVD “case wrap” (cover), the DVD “face art” (on the actual discs), the digital design of the DVD playback (links, images, etc.). My husband set me up with DVD Studio Pro, taught me the basics, and off I went. I’m quite pleased with the results considering I’m not a professional DVD author. The outcome is not wildly sophisticated, but a viewer can easily make their way around the DVD’s menu and sub-menus with their remote control, which was my main goal.

Have I mentioned that the DVD includes Special Features? I wanted to give my parents and brother the opportunity to share their own perspectives on being a nomadic family and on the show. I wanted Sofie to have a chance to express what it was like to direct the show and then tweak it between bookings and for the movie shoot. I wanted viewers to get a glimpse of the show’s evolution by giving them scenes from the original run that we recorded in 2013, which were removed once the show began to tour. So I included interviews and deleted scenes as special features on the main disc.

I also knew that the show provoked powerful emotions. Rather than leaving audience members to cope with the ways in which the story moved or perhaps even triggered them, I wanted to offer a tool that would help them to process their emotions and unleash their creativity. So when I began planning the movie, I came up with the Tool Kit, a study guide that would be on a second disc for the Institutional (K-12/University/Library) version of the DVD. It would contain clips of the movie followed by discussion/writing prompts, definitions of terms, recommended reading/viewing lists, and more.

The Tool Kit took weeks and weeks to create. I’m very proud of it.

Marketing the movie has been challenging but not impossible. While a theatrical solo show is its own genre no matter the subject, the movie of ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey is hard to define. Can it be called a documentary—or perhaps a biopic—if one person reenacts moments with over 30 separate characters, most of whose names or identifiable characteristics have been changed? Probably not. It’s also not a traditional screen recording of a stage performance, à la the UK’s National Theatre Live, because my editor added special effects and audio effects that are utterly filmic and could not be recreated on stage. Like the theatre production, the movie goes out of its way to be entertaining but it’s also educational but it’s also just one individual’s unusual story but it’s also relatable to people of different backgrounds, or so I’ve been told. It exists in a liminal* space, which is fitting, since that’s my identity in a nutshell.

I am more than proud to share my movie now. So far, critics’ and audience’s responses have been great. The movie of ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey had its US West Coast and East Coast and European/International premieres at intercultural conferences. (Of course.) In the academic world, I’m delighted that a professor of Anthropology at Santa Clara University is already “teaching” the movie, which has also made it onto the syllabi of theatre classes at universities in New York, Illinois, and Canada.

My alma mater’s library has a copy and it has already been checked out!

Customers who have bought the DVD have gone out of their way to thank me for it afterward via email or social media.

Between you and me, I didn’t know if I could sell more than 25 copies…total. I hoped for 50 and was prepared to get a survival job to pay back the loan. I ordered 1,000 copies—as the producer/distributor you have to order in bulk for the expense to make any financial sense—and wondered if the boxes of inventory would sit in our garage in perpetuity.

Sales have made me realize that I need to think bigger. I’m going to try to sell out the first printing within 18 months of the first sale. I also hope to get it distributed on airlines and on TV (PBS? cable?) and accepted into film festivals. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

I’m writing this because making the movie was hard work and I’m proud of having finished it. I also want to show you how the timeline for a creative project can be long but worth it. In this case:

  • the idea popped up
  • I delayed taking action
  • I eventually took action
  • production was short (two-day shoot) and lengthy (pre-production and post-production)
  • I finally launched the product…in the middle of performing the “live” show for the first time in 18 months.

Timing: not ideal by any stretch.

Sales: much better than I feared—enough to inspire me to think bigger!

Audiences have told me that the movie has special worth in our terrible, wondrous, frightening, fragile world today. Because of that, I hope that it will have the widest reach possible.

Have you been sitting on an idea for so long that you think you should let it go? If it still excites and scares you, then I hope you’ll give it some attention. You never know where it will take you, and you’ll likely have something to be very proud of in the end.

*in-between, transitional

BONUS: A helpful reminder of how important it is to take creative risks:

Keys to Creativity: Taking Risks by Diana C. Pitaru, M.S., L.P.C., of “Unleash Your Creativity” on

Thank you for reading my twenty-eighth post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.