Update, June 24, 2019: Watch "Everything's Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major" online now! Click here to see it on Playbill.
The advice his Columbia University professor gave him – to turn the anxiety and panic attacks he was experiencing into “creative fuel” – inspired Zack Morrison ’14 to write and direct the short film “Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major.” The film was just awarded first place in Comedy Series at the 39th College Television Awards on March 16, 2019.
“The film,” Morrison said, “is a musical comedy about a young woman, Zoe, as she experiences her ‘quarter-life crisis.’ We follow her through the various stages of anxiety in song and dance. It's a very tongue-in-cheek look at the course many of my peers go through: moving to New York to ‘pursue your dreams,’ and being overwhelmed by false sense of unpreparedness.”
Morrison submitted Everything’s Fine as part of the master’s thesis requirements at Columbia University School of the Arts. In May, 2018 Morrison graduated with an MFA in Screenwriting and Directing, with a concentration in Television Writing. His thesis work was supported by a grant from the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Thesis Film Fund.
It was the first time in decades that a musical comedy was submitted as a master’s thesis in film at Columbia, Morrison said, but he wanted to take the opportunity to express the angst of his generation by using humor. “That's kind of the thesis of this story: I think as a generation we are so oversaturated by the false sense of blissful happiness that everyone portrays online, and immediately compare it to our own perceived inadequacies--without realizing that everyone else most likely feels the same thing on their end in return. It's not an anti-social media story--I think social media is great, especially for artists as a means to self-publish one's work. But it's more about finding healthy relationships with social media, and how we create unrealistic standards for ourselves due to the judgmental nature of platforms like Facebook and Instagram.”
Taylor Ortega, Morrison’s fellow Columbia classmate, produced the film, and they accepted the College Television Award together. Of their collaboration, Morrison said, “Taylor was a creative producing MFA student, and this was her thesis project as well. As the creative producer, she was my partner in crime and key collaborator. We broke the story together, developed the tone and voice of the world, casted all the roles, and worked together for over a year in preproduction on it. When it came time to shoot, she was the boss, and it really makes a director's job easy when your producer is great at what she does. It was such a pleasure working with her, and I can't wait for what's next.”
Morrison was already an experienced and award-winning filmmaker when he arrived at graduate school. As an undergraduate at Rutgers, he majored in Journalism and Media Studies at SC&I (as did his mother before him), and he also created an individualized second major in Digital Filmmaking (before the current film BFA was established) at the Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts. He, and the fellow students he collaborated with at Rutgers, won Campus Movie Fest all four years he was an undergraduate student, and every year Morrison attended their annual event. Through Campus Movie Fest, he also screened his work twice at the Cannes International Film Festival in France.
While Morrison was a graduate student, he also interned in the writers’ rooms at each NBC late night show, and produced "We Have A Show,” which according to the website, is “an online, crowdsourced variety show featuring content and contributions by Youtubers across in the internet.”
“Everything’s Fine” was first screened at the Columbia University Film Festival at Lincoln Center in May 2018 as one of all of the thesis films presented that year. The following November it premiered at the St. Louis International Film Festival, where, Morrison said, this screening was their first major Oscar-qualifier film festival, and the first he ever played at. Following St. Louis, the movie was selected by New York Shorts, New Jersey Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, Pasadena International Film Festival, North Hollywood Cinefest, Fort Myers Beach International Film Festival, New Hope Film Festival, and the West Chester Film Festival.
Morrison also chose to work with many other Scarlet Knights on Everything’s Fine, and even shot part of the film on Rutgers’ Busch campus. The list of many Rutgers alumni and students who worked on the film include: Adam Volerich, '13, director of photography; Christopher Pasi, '13, 1st assistant director; David Seamon, '11, composer; Joey Lupo, '17, production assistant; Kim Bollard, '17, production assistant; Jessica Dotson, '17, production assistant; Dominic Mistretta, '20, production assistant; and Nicole Lagos, '20, production assistant.
“Winning Best Comedy, on stage at the Television Academy, in front of a packed audience, was such an incredible experience,” Morrison said. “Jaime Camil from Jane The Virgin was our presenter, and he was so lovely to meet with afterwards. It was quite a surprise, as the other two comedy nominees were equally as stellar in their own right-- in my mind it could have gone any way. I'm so grateful for the amazing hospitality from the Television Academy Foundation. They put on a great weekend of industry meetings, networking, and panels; which on its own would have exceeded my wildest expectation. Actually winning a College Television Award was a perfect cherry on top.”
Q&A with Zack Morrison ‘14
What inspired you to create Everything’s Fine?
I wrote the story very much based on personal experiences (as well as many collective inside jokes among millennials). I was entering my third year of grad school at Columbia; which is the start of your thesis residency in the MFA film program, and I was getting overwhelmed by my own impossible expectations of what adult life should be. Many of my friends and peers had steady jobs and stable relationships; achieving their life goals and portraying a sense of satisfaction and happiness over social media. I absolutely realize that doing film school is an entirely different path than graduating from college and entering the workforce--but it's a bizarre phenomenon that I think a lot of young people experience today: being EXACTLY where you both want and need to be, and yet feeling unsatisfied via comparing oneself to others.
I started coping with bouts of anxiety and panic attacks--very physical, visceral experiences--about halfway through grad school. It got so bad that I started hyperventilating in class at times for no reason at all. Anxiety is a weird sensation to try to explain to someone, because by any objective standard, nothing is wrong, and everything actually is "fine." Your brain knows this, but your body is convinced otherwise. One of my directing professors, Ramin Bahrani, pulled me aside one day after noticing this, and thank God he did. We talked about it, and he pointed me towards finding help. But he also encouraged me to try to use the experience as creative fuel. So that's where the ball started rolling on this.
Though my own journey in therapy and examining my own unhealthy relationship with social media, I realized this was something that MANY people my age were experiencing. And yet, no one talks about it. It's like Fight Club. I think we're finally getting to a point in society where the stigma of mental health issues are going away, as we're now starting to better understand anxiety and depression. But it is as if we still lack the common vernacular to properly articulate feelings about it. I felt a musical was the right vehicle for this story, because you can explain feelings in music that you can't otherwise in prose. PLUS--no one has done a musical thesis film at Columbia in 20-something years, and I wanted to change that! My favorite movie ever is The Blues Brothers (I play saxophone and guitar among other instruments), and that absurd kind of humor mixed with music has always been a guiding light for my creative sensibilities.
How did you and Taylor Ortega work together?
Taylor was a creative producing MFA student, and this was her thesis project as well. The structure of Columbia's film program is different than other major film schools. Everyone does two years of full-time classwork, but the thesis residency is structured differently based on your concentration. Producers are in and out in three years total. But writer/directors spend 4-5 years as they write and develop their projects for producers to sign onto. So by the time you're ready to do your thesis film, it's possible your previous collaborators have graduated already. Taylor and I met at a "speed dating" event they had to match writer/directors with producers, because it's hard to meet students in other years. She heard that I was doing a musical and I heard she was a big musical theater fan, so as soon as we met we knew it was going to work.
Where did you film the movie, and are the actors Columbia students?
We shot the film over four days. Most of the scenes were in New York: we did a day at Central Park, Zoe's apartment was my actual apartment in Harlem, and we shot some exteriors around the neighborhood and in midtown outside 30 Rock (as a quiet nod to my working at Saturday Night Live at the time). We also had a day in New Jersey, where we shot the opening scene outside the Waksman Building on Busch Campus, and used my parents' house in East Brunswick (where I grew up) as Zoe's home.
All of the actors were professionals we casted in New York. Carly Blane plays Zoe, and she was incredible to work with. She came in first on audition day and we immediately knew. She has such a unique and warm presence on screen, and is musically perfect with such a strong singing voice. We also found a lot of our other actors through auditions as well. Taylor is good friends with Derek Klena (Anastasia on Broadway, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and brought him on board for the Xanax scene. I'm so grateful he was willing to share his time with us.
Did you submit the film for credit toward your master’s?
Yes, this project was part of my MFA thesis portfolio, included alongside four original television pilot scripts. This was Taylor's thesis film as well.
Did any surprises happen while filming?
There are always fun quirks that come up during production, and this film had its fair share of Murphy's Law scenarios. We only had Central Park permits for one day, and due to Derek's schedule, we had to shoot him out first, so our first day ended up being the hardest (not exactly ideal, as typically you want to start with a lighter day to build momentum as a crew). The Xanax scene was always intended as a long take from the very early drafts of the script, and naturally that creates some complications. We had a small rehearsal day so I could figure out blocking in a black box space near Columbia, but we had to run it a few times on the day with all the pieces in place. The take you see in the movie was the 16th and final take. That was challenging as a director because there were so many moving parts. Because of how long it took, we had to cut two different crew moves to other areas in the park. Originally, "Oh Why Oh Why" was supposed to take place on this beautiful gothic bridge near the reservoir that we scouted. But Taylor and I knew there was no way we were going to make it before dark. So my DP Adam Volerich (SAS '13) and I worked together to find some alternative areas near where we were already set up. Adam and I throwing out the shot list and improvising a new one is a recurring bit for us. We've worked together on several projects now and it's amazing to have a DP that you have a short-hand with. He also has such a strong eye for shot choice and framing that I make sure to give him room to do his thing.
We tripped the circuit breaker in my apartment in the city (an old brownstone), and it actually broke the breaker because the pieces were so old. So that was fun! Both the camera and art teams did a great job turning my kitchen into Zoe's space, but we were limited by the size of the room in how we could shoot it--so couple that with the lost time from having no power, we had to completely simplify our coverage and make the most out of a limited number of takes. It's always important to have a plan, but it’s equally as important to surround yourself with people who can productively help you figure out the best possible solution when you have to "yes, and" alternative situations.
Are you working on any new projects?
I have a couple new scripts I'm working on right now, but currently I'm actively working on developing Everything's Fine into a half hour series.
This is Part I of a two-part interview with Zack Morrison. Next week, check the SC&I website for Part II, where Morrison will describe how he made the most of his four years on the banks, and provide incredibly valuable advice to aspiring filmmakers.
To learn more about SC&I’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies, click here.