(photos provided by Matt Spear and Devin O’Connell)
Media Arts and Science (MAS) alumnus Matt Spear initially went to IUPUI thinking he would go into engineering, but his first semester he was undecided. During that time, he found out about a program at Luddy Indianapolis that specializes in video production and immediately was interested. “It was something I had always been interested in but never seriously considered for a career until coming to IUPUI and learning about the Media Arts and Science program,” Spear said. Fast forward to 2023, when Spear and fellow MAS alum Devin O’Connell were honored at the Indy Shorts International Film Festival for their film, ‘Love, Grandma’.
“My time at SoIC (now Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, Indianapolis) was such an influential period of my life. Having project-based classes was an incredible learning experience. At the time there was a group of students that all seemed to take the same classes so being able to build those relationships and collaborate and work with people on class projects that had the same interests as you made for a great time and some fun projects. Thomas Lewis always created an incredible learning environment and always created an atmosphere that encouraged trying new things and taking risks. Learning in that way is incredibly valuable. My Capstone project that I did with my now wife was an awesome experience. Thomas Lewis was our capstone professor, and that short, Three Months, went on to be selected to play at Heartland Film Festival.
I remember getting the notification we were selected while sitting in a Mathew Powers‘ class, took everything in me not to stand up and shout in excitement!
After graduating in 2014, Spear got into the freelance market as a Production Assistant working primarily on commercials. He did that for a couple years before working his way into the camera department where he continues to freelance mostly as a 1st AC but also doing Cam Op and DP work. “‘Love, Grandma’ was my first narrative passion project since graduating. It was an incredible experience to be able to work with so many talented friends that work across multiple departments to bring this together. Now that this project is done, I would love to work on a feature,” Spear said.
Devin O’Connell’s story nearly parallels Spear’s. When he first came to IUPUI, he had declared a major in nursing. After one semester, he switched to ‘undecided’. Another semester passed before he discovered Media Arts and Sciences, in which he was primarily interested in web development. O’Connell took one video production course and realized that he had a passion for telling stories. He graduated from IUPUI in 2018 with a BS in Media Arts and Science focused on video production and a minor in Film Studies.
During his senior year, O’Connell started actively working in the freelance film and TV industry in Indianapolis on various commercial, corporate, documentary, reality, and narrative projects. He found himself working in many different roles on set including as a production assistant, assistant director, grip, camera operator, 1st assistant camera, and director. He says typically the way he gets hired is by a producer or production manager calling and seeing if he is available for an upcoming shoot; most work is passed along by word of mouth.
Outside of working as a crew member on large budget productions, O’Connell enjoys working on passion projects with the friends that he has made in the industry. The year after he graduated, he made a short experimental movie on 16mm film called ‘The Fear of Living’, which was another project that Matt Spear and he collaborated on; him as the director, Spear as the director of photography. Over the last couple of years, O’Connell has been producing and directing commercial projects in order to build a demo reel in the hopes of getting more directing work. In 2021, he produced and directed a short fashion film called ISOLATION that went on a festival run and picked up some awards. Recently, he started a full-time position producing video content for a freight logistics company in Indianapolis called Spot. In his free time, he still writes scripts and currently has a couple of short narrative film projects in production.
“As someone who greatly benefits from experiential learning, I just enjoyed being given the opportunity to make films. I had never made a film or even cut together a video prior to starting my major so it was exceptionally helpful to be allowed to make all the ‘beginner mistakes’ and learn from those mistakes,” O’Connell said.
On receiving the Spotlight Award
“Indy Shorts is an incredible festival, and we are lucky enough to have it in our back yard,” Spear said. “Just getting in is an honor as they have about a 4 percent acceptance rate. It is also one of a small number of festivals in the world that is an Academy Award qualifying festival. We are incredibly honored and excited to receive the Indiana Spotlight award from such an amazing festival. It feels good to be recognized for your work, but even more so to me it feels good for the cast and crew that put in so much time and effort to get that recognition, without those incredible people I am lucky enough to call friends, this would only have lived in my head as an idea.”
O’Connell said, “Matt and I were hoping for a local festival to accept Love, Grandma and, fortunately for us, one of the best local festivals for short films selected our project. That alone felt special, but winning the Indiana Spotlight Award was something else. I have always thought that the film was great and deserved recognition, so I think this award really validated that feeling.
“Now we are waiting to hear back from many more festivals where we can hopefully collect some more accolades. Outside of that we don’t really have plans for further promotion of the film. We each have more projects that we are looking to move on to shoot. It’s sort of a never-ending cycle of filmmaking.”
Partnering to make ‘Love, Grandma’
Writer and director
This short comes from his own personal experience with his grandma, Spear said. “This particular day is one that had always stuck with me, and I would think about often. I had wanted to do a short for a long time but never knew what type of story to tell. During a brainstorming session with my wife where we each wrote down as many ideas as we could think of in 20 minutes, one of the ideas I wrote down was about my experience with my grandma. From there it developed into what finally became ‘Love, Grandma’. In developing it I wanted to stay as authentic and true to my own experience as possible. This short to me feels more like a recollection of my own memories than anything else,” he said.
One of the very first things Spear did was write out what he remembered from the day and the things that had stood out to him. After writing out his memories and experiences from the day, he began putting it into script form. Once the draft was completed, he began looking up visual references for the tone and look he was after.
“The first major hurdle me and my producer faced was a location. I was after an older looking home that looked like something your grandparents might have lived in in the 90’s. I really wanted the home to have wood panel walls and a midcentury look to it. We looked for months to try to find the right house. Either they didn’t fit the description, or they were unavailable for us to use for various reasons. It got to the point where I was ready to settle for a location that wasn’t perfect, but we could make work. Thankfully my producer encouraged me not to settle because the location is so important to the story and overall look of a film. Thankfully he did that because we ended up with the house in the film and I think it works perfectly for what we set out to accomplish with it.
“While we were location hunting and working through that we were also casting and locking in our crew. Casting was all done through Talent Fusion, a local talent agency. They were incredible to work with and couldn’t be happier with the cast we got for our short. They were great to collaborate with a lot of fun to have on set with us.
“We knew this was going to be an art-heavy short so that was the first department we worked on getting in. Aly and Taylor, our art department, did an incredible job at bringing the vision to life. I told them grandma aesthetic in the 90’s and couldn’t be happier with what they did with the set design. The house had to be emptied of all the decoration and furniture that was in there and they brought in everything you see on camera, from the chairs and couches to the candy and glass bowls on the coffee table.
“The actual shoot days went really smoothly. As usual we did get a little behind and had to cut some shots from the schedule. But the days went really smooth. It was cramped in that house with around 30-40 cast and crew crammed inside, but we made it work and had a great time!”
“I think Matt had written the script back in 2019 or 2020 and he had shown it to me sometime shortly after it was finished,” O’Connell said. “I had always thought that it was a good idea worth pursuing but Matt and I had never formally sat down and talked through what it would take to get it from script to screen. In late 2021, I had put together a commercial demo reel that I was happy with and when I started to think of what to do next, I remembered Matt’s script. Typically, when Matt and I work together as creative partners on a project, I fill in my desired role as a director and Matt in his desired role as a director of photography. But this story was just too personal to Matt for me to try to direct so instead, I told Matt that I would act as the film’s producer.”
O’Connell said having a producer on a project is really such a great thing because producers, or production managers depending on the size of the project, usually are the ones who handle a lot of the logistical needs. If someone were to ask questions like, where are we shooting? When are we shooting and how long is the day going to be? Where are we getting actors and equipment from?, the producer would be the one to ask. This position doesn’t really have a specific definition. Some producers have creative control, some are on a project for specific scenes, and some producers seem to be doing nothing on a project – and occasionally that is the case. But for “Love, Grandma’, O’Connell wanted to step into this producer role in order to allow Spear some freedom to focus on the story and the look of the film. “It can be challenging when you are trying to decide on the feel of a scene, and someone comes up asking where the bathroom is,” O’Connell said.
The house location for ‘Love, Grandma’ is owned by a friend of theirs, Mike, in Noblesville. Mike and his wife Tawni were kind and allowed them to completely remove all the furniture from their living room in order to bring in their own set decorations that fit the era of their film, the 1990s. Every piece of furniture and little tchotchke you see in the film was meticulously placed by their very detailed art department. And the restaurant scene was filmed at Mama Carolla’s in Broad Ripple. “It was incredibly kind of the owners to allow us to film a part of our project there,” O’Connell said.
Casting the film was made easy by connecting with a local talent agency, Talent Fusion. “The owner, Scott, was especially helpful when we found ourselves without our grandma actress at 10PM the night before the first day of shooting. Our actress had a medical emergency (she’s perfectly healthy now) and wasn’t sure if she would be released from the hospital in time to be on set the next morning. I immediately got on the phone and was able to get in touch with Scott who stopped what he was doing to find us an actress. While we waited to hear back from him, Matt and I were on the phone, debating on whether to cancel the shoot and push it to another week. Luckily, Scott was able to find someone who was available for half of the day which worked for our schedule,” O’Connell said.
When it comes to finding crew for these types of passion projects, O’Connell said he first looks to friends to see if anyone is willing to help. “Fortunately for Matt and I, our friends make up some of the most talented professionals in the area and they span across all departments. Because of this, the shooting days went smoothly, and we were able to quickly transition into post-production. The editor for the film, Will Wertz, did a phenomenal job and after we filmed a quick day of pick-up shots, the film was complete. A few final touches like creating an IMDB page for the film, and having a poster designed (credit for the poster design goes to IUPUI Herron alum Sara Frucci!) were all that was left before submitting to film festivals,” he said.
Parting advice to future filmmakers
Spear offered this advice to those following in his footsteps: “Take advantage of the time you have in school to work on your craft. Having an environment where you can try new things and seek advice from your professors and peers is so valuable. Continue making things, every project is lessons learned that will help as you grow in your career. And network! Getting out there and meeting people and connecting with professionals in the field is vital to a successful career.”
O’Connell added, “For anyone interested in pursuing filmmaking I would recommend refining your networking skills. Finding work in the film industry almost entirely comes from word of mouth. Plus, if you want to make your own projects, it helps to be able to communicate to people in a clear and concise manner. Some of that networking includes setting up awkward meetings over coffee with strangers, but going out of your way to make those meetings happen will make you stand out as someone who is willing to go above and beyond. Also, keep making stuff. Practice the skills of filmmaking in every project, even if they feel insignificant. It pays off in the long run. Also, over prepare during pre-production, but be prepared for that entire plan to fall apart in a moment. And, finally, my most important advice is to bring an extra pair of socks.
“God, does that feel good to change your socks after being on your feet all day.”