×

Unlike some of its A-list competitors at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards, Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut film “Test Pattern” was funded on nine credit cards the director took out themself.

Awards shows like the Spirits and the Gothams are known for highlighting the possibilities of indie cinema, but there isn’t always a clear through line among those filmmaker’s experiences. All contenders are labeled “low budget” projects: the Gothams set a $35 million budget cap for eligibility, and the Spirits are even stricter, stopping nominations at $22.5 million. But any discussion of “millions” still leaves a wide range — the term “micro-budget” exists for a reason — and there’s also the question of where the money comes from in the first place. For example, “Zola” and “The Lost Daughter,” two of the most nominated films at the Spirits, were financed by A24 and Endeavor Content, respectively.

“I had tried to get another movie made a year before [starting on ‘Test Pattern’], and I knew that the landscape was pretty bleak for independent film, especially if you weren’t integrated into some sort of festival pipeline or greater program,” Ford told Variety about their mindset going into production. “I wasn’t feeling very confident. I think financiers are already looking for things that are a sure bet. People they already know, who already have fancy agents attached to them, people who they have some sort of confidence that this new director can pull it off. A lot of times, that is very subjective.”

While trying to secure funding for that film, which still has yet to be made, Ford found themself fighting to convince people that they knew what they were doing at all, despite having the whole project mapped out verbally and visually. “I’ve made a personal commitment to invest in unknown Black female talent, because I think that’s really, really important,” they said. “But it’s the kiss of death sometimes in independent filmmaking, when you’re trying to find the financier to let you make a movie starring an untested, brand new, not-famous Black woman. ‘God forbid! No one will go see that. We’re gonna lose our investment!’ So that is a problem.”

“Test Pattern” is a story about sexual assault and consent where most of the big ideas are communicated wordlessly. The film stars newcomer Brittany S. Hall as Renesha, a Black woman drugged on a night out and taken home by a stranger. While trying to comprehend what happened to her, her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) drives her all around town determined to find a rape kit, despite Renesha’s wishes to simply decompress without involving the bureaucracy and harm of hospitals and police departments. The film never depicts the violence Renesha endured on that hazy night, or explicitly addresses the skewed racial dynamics in her relationship, or gives her anything resembling “justice.” Instead, Ford wanted to make a quiet film, one that realistically mimicked the confusion and silence that comes with most people’s experiences of sexual trauma.

In meetings and in test screenings, Ford received multiple suggestions to give Renesha more clarity on what happened to her or a more triumphant ending. But they resisted those ideas — and that approach was part of why Hall was initially attracted to the project.

“I had a very similar experience to Renesha in my early 20s. I was so confused by the experience, I didn’t process what actually happened to me,” Hall said, explaining that her initial meeting with Ford was the first time she’d truly considered her own trauma. “I tucked it away and locked the door until this script came to me. My mind really exploded. Like, ‘Oh, my god. This happened to me, too.’ And I had to sit with that. [‘Test Pattern’] for me was a very healing and cathartic experience, even after we wrapped. I felt like I was still responding to life through the trauma, and the film unearthed it for me. It shined a light. And I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get down to the bottom of this, and let it go.’”

Producer Pin-Chun Liu was similarly struck when Ford first came to her about “Test Pattern” in 2017. “I had a lot of people starting to pitch me stories that would involve sexual assault. And I care about the issue a lot, but I was always a little unsure how to talk about it, or what would be a better way to bring these conversations forward,” she said. “A lot of the time, sexual assaults have been used as a plot [device], rather than really trying to have a conversation. So I was hesitant about all these other projects, but when Shatara pitched me about the story, I was like, this sounds like a perfect way to present sexual assault and consent.”

While deciding to fund the film all by themself was scary, Ford felt more fear about going about it in any other way. The more they tried to find money in other sources, the more pressure they felt to turn “Test Pattern” into something that would fit in better with mainstream conversations about rape. “And that’s a scary thing when I’m a first time filmmaker,” they said. “My voice has to be as clear as possible. I have to be with people who are willing to allow me to take risks, because that’s the best way I’m going to be able to express myself and put my foot forward in this business.”

Ford acknowledged that even without institutional support, self-funding represents a certain amount of privilege. “The nine credit cards I took out were with my stellar credit, thanks to an incredible amount of student loan debt which I’ve managed to pay on time every single month for 10 years. That and my savings — my partner and I were thinking about buying a house and that totally went out the window — and some money that a friend of mine let me have. All of that cobbled together got us to a point where we could go into production properly and confidently.”

That isn’t to say that making the film was easy. “I did a lot of things on ‘Test Pattern’ that I was definitely suggested not to do as a young producer,” Liu said. The first rule she mentioned was to never start on a project until you have funding set aside for pre-production, production, post-production and ideally some more for marketing and distribution. The second was to never use your own money.

“I graduated [from the American Film Institute] in 2013. So it had been four years, and I had tried to put together a few other movies, tried to get financing. And it was very unsuccessful,” she said. “Because I don’t have a network or a deep community tying me to people with money or the industry. I was running into a lot of middle people, like someone who maybe knows another person that has money, but it’s just never worked, because anybody who else is pitching your product is just not as passionate. I was getting frustrated that I might not produce any other film, and Shatara was feeling the same kind of desperation. They had a lot of people say, ‘The script is good, but we’re not going to give you money.’ So the two of us made a good team.”

The power of that “desperation” is evident in the story of how “Test Pattern” eventually found distribution without the support of a sales agent. During the early days of the pandemic, Liu attended a virtual panel about indie distribution that featured a speaker from Kino Lorber, which is renowned for championing arthouse films. By this point, “Test Pattern” had played at BlackStar film festival, but was rejected from larger events like Sundance and South by Southwest. The critics who had engaged with the film received it well, but their writings were few and far between. Liu became interested in the films Kino Lorber worked on and how they ran their business, and decided she thought “Test Pattern” would be a good fit. “They actually told the whole panel that they don’t take unsolicited films,” she said. “They don’t want to look at anything from a cold call. I was like, ‘This is obviously a little boundary, they said don’t do that…’ and I did it anyway. I should mention, on our first phone call, Wendy [Lidell, senior vice president of theatrical distribution and acquisitions] said she was happy that I did it.”

Kino Lorber agreed to distribute the film, and gave Ford and Liu the first outside financing they’d seen; in fact, hardly anyone besides the two of them even knew how much personal funding had gone into the project. They used that money to pay outstanding invoices, including music that they had bought festival rights for but weren’t yet cleared to include in a wide release cut.

Thanks to COVID, “Test Pattern” never got to screen in theaters — it debuted on VOD platforms in February 2020. It was well-loved by critics; Variety’s review noted that “Eighty-two minutes is not a long time. And yet Shatara Michelle Ford’s intelligent and engrossing feature debut packs an enormous amount in, while still finding room to let characters, moments and difficult, provocative issues breathe.” At the Gothams in November, the film was honored with nominations for best feature, the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award and outstanding lead performance. At next week’s Spirits, it will compete for best first screenplay, best first feature and best female lead.

“I feel a little like Cinderella,” Hall said tearfully. “On the red carpet [at the Gotham Awards], my inner child was going crazy. This little girl in me just kept reminding me, ‘Do you remember when we talked about this? Do you remember when you wrote this down? Do you remember dreaming about this? Do you see you made it? You made it!”

Ford feels the same: “All I wanted for ‘Test Pattern’ was for it to be evaluated critically, looked at as a text, to have it contextualized and taken seriously for the work that it was. That’s all. All these really lovely things have been written about it. And even when somebody hates it — ‘I hated every single choice and decision that Shatara Michelle Ford made! This was stupid! This was wrong!’ — I still love it. Because I’m like, well, at least they took the time.”

Despite the financial stress they took on, Ford has no regrets. “The truth is, I would do it again. And I threaten to do it again all the time,” they said.