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Behind the Scenes of DISPATCH: A Short Film

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-03-25
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An Interview with Writer-Director Caleb Hermann

In DISPATCH, a rookie 9-1-1 dispatcher receives a bizarre phone call, plunging him into a horrific waiting game. Based on a true story, DISPATCH is a short film that was made to bring awareness and honor to all emergency dispatchers and what they do for our communities.

Written and directed by Caleb Hermann and starring Tosin Morohunfola, Jeff Staab, Sarah McGuire, Aaron Hermann, the film is an intense and insightful story about a recent incident that some of you may recall reading about. Evoking the reality of the 9-1-1 dispatch environment and featuring authentic and sensitive performances, the film provides a sobering look at the reality of the 9-1-1 dispatcher as that vital link between public and public safety, and the rare qualities that characterize those who dedicate themselves towards serving their community – both in non-emergency situations and, as this film shows, in their most dire hour of need.

9-1-1 Magazine spoke with Caleb Hermann about his objectives in making the film, what it took from pre-production through shooting and post-production to get it done – and what it means to the 9-1-1 profession.

If you haven't seen the film yet - click here to open a new page and watch the full 6:56 minute video on YouTube, then return here to read the interview. 

The dispatch center set. Unable to film in a live 9-1- center, the crew built a set inside a local office building and filmed over a weekend.

Q: What is your background in filmmaking?

Caleb Hermann: I started filmmaking 10 years ago when I was 15 years old. I grew up just loving to tell stories. I always was writing stories and filming stuff with my parent’s old camera. When I was a junior in high school I knew I wanted to make filmmaking a career so when I graduated I went to college for filmmaking and now have a B.S. Degree in Film and Media Arts. Throughout college I produced several short films all of which have gone on to several festivals and been nominated for awards or won awards. I grew in writing, directing, and producing throughout college on my own as well as in the class room.

Q: What inspired you to make a film based on this incident, focused on the 9-1-1 dispatcher?

Caleb Hermann: A couple years ago I read an article about a 9-1-1 call where the caller was “ordering a pizza” to get the police to help her in her domestic abuse situation. And the call actually worked. I thought that was fascinating. I looked more into that story and read an interview with the dispatcher that took that call and he elaborated more into what 9-1-1 dispatchers go through every day. It really caught my attention so I started digging more and more into finding out as much as I could on dispatchers and what they do.

After reading and watching many interviews and videos I knew I needed to tell their story. I never knew dispatchers go through so much for us and I knew that most people probably didn’t know either. That is where it all began.

Left: Writer-director Caleb Hermann, at left holding the notebook, discusses a scene with main actor Tosin Morohunfola.

Q: The film has a provocative mix of cinematic narrative scenes and interview segments with the primary call-taker and his supervisor. How did the script develop?

Caleb Hermann: I listened, watched, and read many interviews from real 9-1-1 dispatchers and what they said just needed to be the backbone of this story. So I based the story on that initial 9-1-1 call with the “pizza delivery” along with intercutting my character with real interview questions and answers I had read and watched from real dispatchers. The dialogue in the script is all real dialogue said by 9-1-1 dispatchers or 9-1-1 supervisors.

Q: What were the steps to fund the movie, gather the crew, find location and begin filming?

Caleb Hermann: So far I have funded every film I have made myself. I’m very blessed with a job that allows me to do that for these shorter films.

As far as crew, over the last 10 years I have connected with many filmmakers, actors, crew, etc through facebook and the strong film community right here in Kansas City. So for years I had known of several people that I wanted to work with and with this film I just started reaching out and everyone wanted to be involved. We had an incredible cast and crew!

For the location, I was trying to actually find a 9-1-1 dispatch center to allow me to film there but that was quickly turned down. So I knew I needed to find and office area where we could “build” our own dispatch center. My wife had a friend that owned an office building and they so kindly allowed us to shoot there over a weekend.

Q: Where did your cast come from?

Caleb Hermann: The main 9-1-1 dispatcher actor, Tosin Morohunfola, was originally from Kansas City but was now living in Chicago getting into stage plays and TV shows such as, CHICAGO FIRE and EMPIRE.

The other cast are from Kansas City. Again we had a fantastic cast and I’m so proud to have been able to work with all of them. Jeffrey Staab, Sarah Mcguire, Aaron Hermann, they all were great.

Q: The film is very authentic in its presentation and its tone. Did you have a 9-1-1 dispatch center advisor to help ensure this?

Caleb Hermann: I did meet with the Johnson County dispatch supervisor several times to ask questions and was given a tour of their facility which really helped in knowing how to stage our office and get the right feel for the film. I’m very thankful for the Johnson County dispatch center and their help.

Q: Where was DISPATCH filmed, and on what medium did your Director of Photography (DP) Chris Commons work?

Right: Director of Photography Chris Commons, at left,
discusses 
a shot with Gaffer (head electrician) Cory Vetter. 

Caleb Hermann: Chris Commons was fantastic to work with as a DP. He really got my vision and made it happen. And he had some great ideas too which added to how the film turned out. We shot the film on a RED ONE 4K digital camera.

Q: Was it difficult for Chris to light the set, since there were numerous computerized light sources throughout as well as a generally low-light call center environment?

Caleb Hermann: It wasn’t necessarily difficult but it took some playing around with lights to get the right look. He had to remove some of the tiles in the ceiling and put our own lights up in the ceiling at times. We also had a small lights taped on the front of our main characters computer screen to get that “natural computer light” on his face.

Q: How did you work with your composer Johnny Reide as far as developing the kind of music that would accentuate the film’s drama while remaining mostly unobtrusive?

Caleb Hermann: Jonny Reide does incredible work. We sat down for coffee and talked about what would sound good for the film. I love the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the film THE SOCIAL NETWORK and we used that soundtrack as a big inspiration for this film. But really Jonny added such a great ambient but tense and thought provoking score to this film and it couldn’t have been a better fit.

Q: Who do you see as the film's primary audience, and what kind of marketing have you given the film?

Caleb Hermann: I made this film to really spread awareness and honor of what 9-1-1 dispatchers go through and do for our communities every day so in that area this film is for everyone. I want people to know the truth about dispatchers and thank them for what they are doing. Since the film has been released we have been marketing through Facebook and Twitter.

Left: 1st Assistant Camera (focus puller) Caleb Vetter, left, with Gaffer Cory Vetter on set.

Q: What was most challenging for you about making the film?

Caleb Hermann: I think the most challenging part of this film was making the office look like a dispatch center. We hung huge maps on the walls, we set up a big TV screen with “city camera footage” in the background, and we had to get lots of desktops so each dispatcher could have at least two screens. We didn’t have enough computers to plug into each screen so whatever angle we were getting we hooked up laptops to the screens in the shots. I think getting that real feel of a dispatch center was the most challenging part.

Q: With the film’s recent launch online, what kind of feedback have you received – from the lay public as well as from the 9-1-1 community?

Caleb Hermann: It’s been overwhelming. The film really is finding a voice with 9-1-1 dispatchers specifically, which I’m so happy about. It’s been amazing how many messages and comments on the film I’ve gotten from dispatchers thanking us for telling the truth about their job and telling their story and showing them appreciation. Some dispatchers have gone as far to call us heroes for getting their story out like this. It’s been a very humbling experience being a part of a film that can touch so many of these unsung heroes hearts. They are the true heroes.

We have also gotten requests to use the film in 9-1-1 dispatch training courses or be shown to new hires and recruits. It’s been really awesome.

For more information, see the production company’s web site at www.resoluteproductions.net

Photos courtesy Caleb Herman/Resolute Productions

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