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How SXSW’s “Inheritance” Became a Movie

Inside the early creative process of a film fueled by perpetual collaboration.

How SXSW’s “Inheritance” Became a Movie

About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. “Revision History” tells stories about one of the least understood, but most creative, stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting…) of the screenplay.

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The film: “Inheritance,” a Belize-set drama about a relationship triangle in the aftermath of a patriarch’s passing.

The writers: Jessica Kaye (who also stars and co-directs) and Laura Davis, (who also co-directs).

BEFORE BREAKING GROUND: A TEAM COHERES

“Inheritance,” which premiered last week at South by Southwest, is a film whose engine was always collaboration. At every stage, it was an intuition about who they wanted to work with that propelled the creators onto the next step.

The film was conceived out of a new friendship. Jessica Kaye and Laura Davis had both lived in New York through most of the 2000s, though had happened not to know each other there. By 2012, both were living in Los Angeles, and were introduced by a mutual friend. Soon, their own friendship deepened rapidly. One day, over lunch at a restaurant in the Silverlake neighborhood of LA, Davis suggested they someday make a movie together. But by August of 2012, before making that idea a reality, Davis moved to Austin, TX, for a program in screenwriting.

In the summer of 2013, Kaye, fresh out of film school herself, spent some time at a property her parents owned in Belize. Steeped in the natural beauty of the place, the vague shape of a story began to form in her mind: “I just knew I had a feeling: something about family, maybe about lost children,” she recalls now.

The idea remained dormant, uncatalyzed for some months. Then, in April 2014, Kaye met a musician named Daniel Ahearn, and felt as quick an intense a connection to him as she had to Davis. She told him she wanted to make a movie with him. “I told him ideas I had, and the first one was the Belize one, and he said ‘That one.’” Soon thereafter, she called up Davis, telling her of the connection to Ahearn and the intuition that they should shoot a movie in Belize.

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For Davis, the timing was auspicious. Another project she had been laboring on for over a year had just fallen through. She remembers exactly where on the East Side of Austin she was when she took the call from Kaye–“I remember where the flowers were on my left-hand side,” she says–and the sense of new creative possibilities.

The Belize project it would be.

FIRST DRAFTS: BELIZE, AUSTIN, AND LA

For a few months, Kaye, Davis, and Ahearn collaborated remotely via Skype, fleshing out ideas and characters. For Davis, though, she felt at a loss for how to write the script without having actually spent time in Belize herself. “Finally Jess [Kaye] was like, ‘Let’s go,’” recalls Davis.

In November of 2014, Davis took a week off from her graduate program at the Michener Center in Austin, flying down to Belize with Kaye and Ahearn. Kaye and Ahearn improvised scenes, while Davis filmed. “We didn’t have a script yet,” says Davis, though the team had a number of Google Docs. (“We’re big on Google Docs,” says Kaye. “Hundreds of Google Docs,” concurs Davis.) “We shot footage in a lot of directions,” recalls Davis, since at that point, the script could really go anywhere. Soon, they sent a teaser reel built from their footage to a producer, Aengus James, who requested a full script.

In December, when Davis was on winter break from school, she reconvened with the team in LA. Davis and Kaye got in the habit of going on long walks where they talked about the characters. They started scripting pages, passing them back and forth in a tag-team. Each watched reference films that were important to the other: “Fish Tank,” “Festen,” “Good Will Hunting.” The theme of trauma became central to the script, though the notion of “lost children” became more metaphorical than literal. (The finished delves deep into the intense relationship between the grown son and daughter of an oppressive patriarch.)

“We had like 12 drafts,” recalls Kaye. Many scenes from the initial drafts didn’t wind up making it into the finished film, including an extended sequence early in the film that was set in LA. “There was an ayahuasca ceremony in that first act in LA,” Kaye recalls. “Too bad, that would have been really fun to shoot,” says Davis. (The finished film occurs entirely in Belize. Ayahuasca doesn’t figure, though prescription drug abuse does.)

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FINAL DRAFTS: SHOOTING THE FILM

Alfred Hitchcock famously locked down his scripts and planned every last shot before coming to set; Kaye and Davis are at the far opposite end of the spectrum. Though they did have a script by the time they got to Belize for their shoot in the spring of 2016, it was hardly locked. As they met performers they would use in Belize and discovered new locations, the filmmakers allowed themselves to make drastic changes to the story they were about to put on film. A suggestion from one of their Belizean actors–an idea about her character that would transform central relationships in the film–was accepted very late in the process.

One minor dialogue change represents the philosophy the filmmakers took with them to Belize. In the written script, Ahearn’s character tells a Belizean woman that he’s a vegan, and Davis and Kaye had written her response: “What’s a vegan?” Now that they were in Belize with an actual Belizean actor, that response felt untrue, almost condescending to the Belizean character. Many people in Belize knew what a vegan was, particularly those who worked with or for the expat community. In the finished film, the character asks instead, “Why are you a vegan?” The Belizean character knows all about veganism; she just thinks it’s foolish.

By March of 2016, with the team convened in Belize, and shooting of the film properly began.

The film premiered last week at South by Southwest, and initial reviews are trickling in, with the Hollywood Reporter saying the film “should catch some attention as a calling card for several of the key talents” and with the Austin Chronicle lauding it as “creative and twisted.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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