Before the Fire poster frame

Before the Fire – A First Feature From Two Fearless Females

Diversity in motion pictures. It’s been a hot topic for years, but never hotter than it is now, in the midst of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Recent headlines include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing the formation of Academy Aperture 2025 to increase diversity in the film community. For the first time, the 2020 Emmys will have a Black producer. And Netflix hired a Black woman as their CMO.

Things are looking up, right?

Not so fast. Yes, there is also the recent news that Netflix’s Old Guard has a crew that’s 85 percent female, but the very fact that any of this is newsworthy is what signals the need for more substantial change.

The reality is that of the 1,200 top grossing films released between 2007 and 2018, only nine were directed by women of color: five were directed by Black women, three by Asian women, and one by a Latina. When you compare those statistics with the fact that women comprise 51 percent of the moviegoing audience, you see how far we still have to go.

So when friend and user Ryan McNeal of RKM Studios introduced us to Charlie Buhler, a biracial female director from South Dakota, and Minnesota-born writer/actor Jenna Lyng Adams, we jumped at the chance to highlight their story.

The team made their startling debut with Before the Fire—now available on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play—more than five years after they began working on it. No less startling is how they managed to get their movie made when no one would take a chance on the young filmmakers.

With a shoestring budget, a grueling shoot during a midwest winter, a house that needed to be burned down, a lot of goodwill, and a couple of supportive moms, it’s its own epic journey.

Timing is everything

Back in 2013, when Jenna first had the idea for this script, no one imagined that we would find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that’s eerily similar to the fictional one that sets up the film. Conceived as part thriller, part action movie, and part family drama, the genre-bending film took a frustratingly long time to see the light of day.

Released onto the festival circuit in 2020 and lauded at Cinequest as a must-see, the movie thrusts you into a world in which a global pandemic forces rising TV star Ava Boone to flee her life in Los Angeles and shelter-in-place in her rural hometown—which puts her into a different kind of danger.

After years of work, “We ended up finishing it right on time,” Charlie says. “It’s not like we finished it and then sat on it. It was all completely coincidental.”

But what about using a pandemic as the catalyst for the story? How could they have known how prescient this would be? The short answer is that they didn’t.

You’ve heard the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention”? It permeates every aspect of this project, from the script onward. First, to rewind: Jenna had done a fair amount of writing for, and acting in, local theater during high school, and had written and shot her own films on a Panasonic mini DV camera. She then went to Emerson College, earning her BFA in film production.

Charlie, meanwhile, had gone off to Notre Dame as a pre-med student, intending to follow in her medical-professional family’s footsteps. She’d always had an obsession with movies, and after her first chemistry class she realized that medicine wasn’t for her.

“Growing up in South Dakota, Hollywood was like Oz,” she says. “But when I took my first film class, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”

Both Charlie and Jenna headed to LA after getting their degrees. Charlie started out as a wedding photographer and took a lot of headshots for aspiring actors and models. Through her hard work, she found her way into becoming an on-set still photographer, while Jenna worked as a production manager and producer. Charlie had her eye on directing, and Jenna pursued both an acting and writing career.

The two collided on a short film that Charlie was directing and that Jenna starred in, and discovered that they shared more than just similar backgrounds. Jenna showed her a feature script she’d written, a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi story, and asked if she’d like to direct it.

“I would have loved to make this movie,” Charlie says, “but no one was going to give us $10 million to do it. So rather than being paralyzed by what we couldn’t do, we tried to lean into what was possible. We approached it like, ‘Okay! These are all the things we have. Let’s work with that.’”

Turning lemons into lemonade

Jenna took the script and rethought it, combining it with another story she’d been working on, a straight character drama.

That script was centered around an actress who’s left her hometown, and when she returns, her problematic family dynamics resurface. “I merged the two ideas,” Jenna says, “and that’s what turned into Before the Fire.

In the first draft it was even more of an action movie. But then Charlie and I started scouting locations in South Dakota and once we had the places in mind the story came together.”

Pivotal to the production was that Charlie’s family’s farm in South Dakota had a dilapidated house on it that had been her grandfather’s and that needed to be destroyed. “The way you raze houses in South Dakota is by burning them down,” Charlie explains. “So we asked if we could burn it down for the film.”

With that as a set piece, they reverse engineered the rest of the story. The last piece of the puzzle was getting Ava back to her hometown.

“There had to be something that would shut the world down to make someone go home to their family,” Charlie says. “But it needed to be cheap to achieve. And that’s how we came up with the idea of the virus. You can’t see it, but it affects everything.”

An extra-lean crew

With a script that worked, the next steps were to assemble a crew. Charlie and Jenna already expected to wear many hats. In addition to directing and producing, Charlie was handling everything from the logistics of where people would sleep to helping with craft services. “At some point you’re literally doing every single role,” she says.

Jenna, beyond writing, acting, and producing, sourced much of her own wardrobe, beginning in her own closet and moving on to South Dakota thrift stores in order to fully look the part.

And just to clarify, Jenna’s “acting” was an athletic endeavor, requiring everything from installing fence posts to running while toting legitimately heavy gear, to partially undressing on a sub-zero day. Some of her bruises were makeup, but a lot weren’t.

The total crew for the feature, which they shot across two seasons in South Dakota, along with a short LA shoot, totaled an extra-lean 40 people. Everyone pulls more than their share of the weight on indie features, but there are a couple of contributors without whom the film couldn’t have been made.

One particular callout was DP Drew Bienemann. “Our movie would not be our movie had he not been there,” Charlie says. “He’s so talented, and it looks so much more expensive than it was because of his ability to make things look beautiful with next to no support.”

Although she would have loved to shoot on film, the cost was prohibitive so Drew shot on an ARRI Alexa mini. Charlie made it a point to help him dump cards after shooting long days. “I wasn’t going to let him stay up for three extra hours without sleep and not be there supporting him.” Such is her director’s ethos that no one should work harder than she herself does.

Other production heroes included Charlie’s cousin, a firefighter who helped them through the burning house sequence. “He figured out the right gas diesel ratio to make the chair burn,” Charlie said.

“We only had one chair and we really only had the one chance to get it right. We didn’t shoot any sound, and the only people who went into the house were Jenna, Drew, and I. We didn’t want to risk anyone else getting hurt.”

Both Charlie and Jenna’s fathers were outside. “There was no one with a more vested interest in everyone’s safety than our fathers,” Charlie said. “And our mothers were there supervising our fathers.”

Which isn’t all Charlie and Jenna’s mothers were doing. Charlie’s mother acted as the local “fixer,” while Jenna’s mother was the production caterer. “My mother is seriously one of the best cooks I’ve ever met,” Jenna says. “There was one really long day and it was freezing cold and I was exhausted. And then my mom brought over a plate of grilled salmon and paired it with an amazing cauliflower dish and white wine, and I almost started crying. It’s insane how well we ate on this project.”

Flexibility is key

Like Charlie, Jenna also put in extra hours beyond the shoot. The crew didn’t have the luxury of doing reshoots, and South Dakota weather is infamous for its changeability in the dead of winter and the height of summer, for which they made two separate trips.

“There were a lot of times when the weather would make it impossible to do the setup we’d planned for, so we’d have to figure out something else to shoot and I’d have to rewrite the scenes for the next day,” Jenna says. “And because we were shooting out of sequence, it would ripple into other scenes, so the script was constantly in flux.”

And yet, there were happy accidents. “There was one day when we were planning an interior scene in a barn with a tin roof,” Charlie says. “But the rain was so hard that we couldn’t shoot inside because it was too loud. So I saw these fence posts, and we made up a scene where Ava is putting in fence posts, and it actually works better than the scene we’d originally planned.”

That kind of flexibility is key, no matter what you’re shooting. Even in the most controlled environments, there’s always the chance for unexpected twists.

Both filmmakers, however, have so much behind-the-scenes experience that they know how to anticipate potential problems and have backup plans in place. “I’m not an expert in every department,” Jenna says, “but I know enough to understand what could go wrong. Sometimes I’d be up late just staring at the ceiling thinking about everything that could happen, and that really helped me prepare.”

It also helped in terms of crafting a script to fit their limited budget. “There are some setups that you know will be hard, but you also know will be worth it in the final film,” Jenna says.

Polishing in post

Big budget films customarily have an editorial crew in place to do rough assemblies during principal photography to ensure that they’ve got what they need before moving locations or breaking down sets.

Charlie and Jenna had no such luxury and, in fact, after shooting wrapped Charlie did the first cut herself. As a former Final Cut Pro editor, Charlie adapted the keyboard hotkeys so that she could do this project in Premiere Pro. Once editor Brian Denny came on board, “I let him make it a lot better,” she says. In the way of a true auteur, Charlie stayed with him during that phase of the edit.

For her part, Jenna started off in the edit bay, working with Charlie and Brian to see how scenes could be shifted around to improve the narrative. After a while, she disengaged a bit from the editing.

“As an actor, I’m not sure watching every take is the best thing for your sanity,” she says. “There’s also something about pouring everything into it as both a writer and an actor, and then having to let go of moments that don’t make it to the final cut. If you’re too close to it, you mourn the things that get left behind more. It’s sometimes better to have a little more distance.”

Another key partner in finishing the film was Ryan McNeal at RKM. Introduced to Charlie through one of the producers on the film, he was the final piece in the finishing puzzle, helping to bring the look that Charlie and Drew envisioned to the screen.

While many bigger budget features will consult the colorist prior to or during principal photography, Ryan didn’t come to the project until late in 2016, well after they had wrapped.

“Generally I try to be very objective about a film, and I purposely keep the audio off while I grade,” Ryan says. “But I was struck by the beauty of the footage and how high the quality was for an indie film. When I finally watched it all the way through, I was really impressed. Charlie is a photographer, so we spent some time experimenting with different film emulation LUTs and grain stocks to give it a more filmic look. And it was great working with her because she really understands how film works and we didn’t have to go through an educational phase. We were able to just immediately get to the creative part.”

“The colors were so important to the storytelling,” Charlie says. “Especially the distinction between winter and summer. Summer needed to feel lush and alive, and winter needed to feel dead and cold to reflect the disintegration of the world. Ryan did a wonderful job.”

After the initial grading, there were portions of the film that were recut, and Charlie wasn’t able to be onsite with Ryan for the subsequent regrading. As an early adopter, he was one of the first colorists to use it as part of a remote grading workflow (even before the DaVinci Resolve integration). Ryan especially appreciates that makes it easy for clients to leave concise feedback that he can accurately and easily implement.

Charlie also used to communicate with the VFX artists. “We had to add in the military planes and do gunshot wounds in VFX,” Charlie says, “and made it really easy to just mark what we wanted or circle something. And since we’ve been on lockdown we’ve been using it all the time. It’s great to have a clean place to make notes without having to go back and forth.”

Looks can be deceiving

Charlie and Jenna finished the movie and Cinequest featured it. And then COVID happened, and in-person festivals were suspended.

Fortunately, Dark Sky Films bought the distribution rights, so not only will it become available on VOD on August 14, they’ll also have theatrical screenings in Wyoming and North and South Dakota. “It’ll be so much fun because I can bring it home to the local fan base,” Charlie says.

A happy ending, to be sure. But that doesn’t erase the reality of how hard it was for Charlie and Jenna to get their movie across the finish line. Of course, there are the familiar biases toward women in Hollywood that we’re all aware of. But both of them encountered their own specific forms of bias along the way.

Charlie, because of her name, has often been assumed to be male based on email communications. She’ll get a great response and develop an online rapport with someone. “When I show up, it’ll be like ‘Where’s Charlie?’” she says.

“And then, when they realize that I’m Charlie, I can see their gears moving. It’s happened too many times that all of a sudden, they become condescending and assume I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about. And they don’t even have enough context to judge me or to know what I know.”

Bubbly is not an octave I can hit.

Because she is Black, people expect her to tell stories set in urban environments. “I find that there is a very specific type of story that African Americans have been allowed to tell. Usually they are set in inner cities, usually they are violent, and I’ve never seen myself or anyone I know in those images. I grew up in rural South Dakota. My grandpa is a farmer. That’s my Black experience. And I always try to bring that nuance and complexity to my work,” Charlie says. 

In Jenna’s case, as an actor breaking into the business, she was often typecast as the “hot girl.” For a long time, the castings she was sent on traded on her looks, putting her up for parts that required a “bubbly” girl. “And bubbly is not an octave that I can hit,” she says.

But not only did she want to stretch as an actor, she was trying to build her career as a writer. “I once met with a big producer who had liked one of my scripts,” Jenna says. “And he actually said, ‘This is good. Have you ever considered making a career out of this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s why I wrote it.’ I went to school for filmmaking so I could make a career out of this. Would he have asked a male scriptwriter the same thing?”

The good news is that both Charlie and Jenna are finally getting the recognition and respect they have earned over the course of the last decade. Charlie was just signed as a director for LA production company Doomsday Entertainment for commercial representation, and to Verve for film and TV representation. She’s also working on a documentary about Native-American rappers on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota.

Jenna, meanwhile, is at work with writing partner Anna Akana on So Much, a pilot for an HBO dark comedy that’s executive produced by Diablo Cody. “I’m really enjoying working on more comedic material right now,” she says. “And I’m learning so much from Diablo.”

She’s also appearing in the upcoming psychological thriller Presence, and The Kominsky Method has been renewed for its third season—so she’ll be busy on both sides of the camera.

Hard-earned wisdom

As you might imagine, both women have learned a lot along the way and have advice to share. Not that anything they can say will prevent other women from doing all the hard work and maintaining the determination that goes into building a career from the ground floor up, as they have.

Don’t let people define you. Don’t let yourself get stuck.

Jenna’s advice? “Take risks. We took a lot of risks on this project, and I think always pushing genres and trying new things is what it takes to get people to pay attention.” She also thinks it’s important to not be limited by the expectations of others.

“Men are allowed to have all different layers, but as women, especially young women, people are always trying to put you in a box, and it can be limiting to not just your career but also to your emotional and mental health. They’ll project onto you based on the sliver of you they’re seeing at the moment. So don’t let people define you. Don’t let yourself get stuck.”

“Would I advise someone young to go out and make their first feature in the freezing South Dakota winter with almost no support? I would probably advise them to make it smaller or more manageable,” Charlie says. “But there was something so special about being young and not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Our naiveté is what kept us from stopping ourselves. You have to push yourself to the edge and even fail at times. That’s how you learn. It’s an important process for any artist. I strongly believe that making your own work is more useful than, say, graduate school. Too often people spend two years and a hundred thousand dollars, and their diplomas don’t translate into actual work. Why not invest that time and money into something tangible? Then at least you’ll have real world experience and a feature at the end.”

And then there’s both women’s advice to all of us in the industry, especially those who are actively seeking to increase diversity.

“Support independent films,” Jenna says. “Find the little movies that people poured themselves into to make them happen. People don’t take chances that often on new filmmakers, new writers, new actors, and there’s so much talent out there.”

“There are people who are working at Trader Joe’s right now who could someday win an Oscar,” Charlie says. “Just don’t underestimate someone because they don’t have the right resume or the right buzz. There’s so much untapped talent. I had friends who saw my potential and championed me and my film before I had ever done anything on that scale. That support is the only reason my movie got made, and the only reason I’m on the path I’m on now. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

As distribution models adapt to our new reality, the time is right for industry leaders and decision makers to explore the deep pool of diverse and driven filmmakers who are eager to make original content—and can do it on indie budgets. The people, stories, and tools are all in place. All they have to do is dive in.

Lisa McNamara

Lisa McNamara is's senior content writer and a frequent contributor to The Insider. She has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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