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The Undertaking of “Understory”

Very rarely does a college student manage to participate in the making of a feature film, much less direct and write their own. And yet, Jake Rothman, a Swarthmore senior, has brilliantly crafted an 88-minute-long debut feature film with his brother Manny Rothman titled “Understory.” A Lynchian, whirl-wind of a movie, “Understory” refuses to be confined within the conventional beats of a regular narrative. 

The plot introduces Benjie (Jake Rothman), a confused storyteller who catches an echo of his dead friend’s voice out of nowhere, prompting him to leave town for the first time in search of his long-lost friend. 

Do not be fooled by the seemingly straightforward synopsis: “Understory” is anything but. Jake and Manny’s filmmaking constructs a mosaic of provoking, yet enigmatic images and interactions that weave together as effortlessly in form as in substance. What begins as an innocent search for a missing friend evolves into a series of surrealist strands that gradually bind themselves into a puzzling web of a chronicle.

Trying to make sense of this bizarre assortment of ideas might make you wonder how someone could possibly come up with a story like this. But, as it turns out, Jake’s writing process was as free-flowing as his film. In January 2021, Jake began brainstorming for his debut feature. After four months and two scrapped scripts, Jake felt the need to pursue a project he couldn’t immediately envision. 

“To remain engaged in the process, which would take a year, I would have to have a script where I didn’t really know what the movie was going to look like at the end or else I would feel bored making it. Just like filling in the colors by the number. Which is fun but I don’t know if I want to do it for a whole year,” he said.

So instead, Jake ditched the traditional narrative framework and gave his subconscious full reign to roam freely, collecting concepts that piqued his interest.

“I decided I can’t come up with a narrative. Because the narrative is what is making me really bored. When I discover ‘I want the character to do this this and this,’ then I’m putting in these scenes that I don’t really like but are necessary for the narrative to continue. That’s something I struggle with a lot: I don’t know how to make narratives with scenes that I only like. So then I figured, ‘why don’t I just not think about narrative and only think about the things that come into my mind?’ So the things that came into my mind were a lake, a popstar like Billie Eilish, and someone with an instrument that summons a storm. So then I thought, let me just write that stuff down. And we’ll see where I go with it.”

Now it’s important not to forget that this feature film was not solely a product of Jake’s creativity but a joint collaborative project engineered by the Rothman brothers. For Jake, quarantining with Manny during the height of the pandemic sparked the conditions in which the two brothers’ creative aspirations in film converged. Helplessly stuck together for months, he and his brother came upon a serendipitous epiphany.

 “I like to do certain things in filmmaking; he likes doing certain things in filmmaking. And we don’t cross over in any way!” Jake exclaimed. 

And after making a series of short films together, he and his brother knew they wanted to make something that truly aligned with why they were so obsessed with this art form in the first place. 

“Neither of us really like short films all that much. We feel like a great thing with movies is being in there for a while and seeing the world and changing people. Whereas with a short film, it’s really just ‘let’s see one moment happen.’ Which we’re not a big fan of. So then we thought let’s do the thing that we really want to do. Which is to make a 90 minute movie. So when we decided to do that, we basically agreed without even saying it. That I would write it. We would direct it. And he would edit it. And that’s how we normally do our projects. It starts with me, goes to both of us, and ends with him.”

In Jake’s mind, “Understory” is a perfect amalgamation of the two brother’s visions. 

“I am much messier and he’s much cleaner and more precise. So together, I think the movie alternates between messy and clean between different elements … If I made the movie by myself, it would’ve been different and worse.” 

The brothers began working on the movie all the way back in January 2021. They then embarked on a year-and-a-half filmmaking process that resulted in the first iterations of “Understory,” which they screened at their hometown Lewisburg, PA, and at Swarthmore.

“And I was still writing the film as we were shooting. And he [Manny] was very patient with me.”

However, Jake made it clear that the movie is not exactly a finished product. In his eyes, “Understory” still needs refining.

“We’re gonna be editing a little bit of it, to knock a few minutes off it. We both think the pacing is a little too slow … I prefaced before the screening that it’s 96% done. We’re not reshooting anything; we are just gonna be taking some stuff out, maybe mixing some sound to get levels right.” 

Once done trimming its edges, Jake and Manny will be ready to submit their debut film to film festivals around the country in the student film or no budget/micro budget categories. 

“I’ve just been doing research into festivals that have those categories. So we’ll probably submit it to those [festivals], and then hear back within the next year. Once it is done attempting to go to festivals, then we’ll probably just put it online. We can’t put it online yet, or else the festivals will be upset with us!”

With their year-and-a-half long undertaking finally coming to an end, Jake has set his eyes on another unorthodox filmmaking approach for his independent study in film.

“I was just racking my brain for ideas, and I just couldn’t come up with any that I liked. I felt that I don’t really have anything I wanna say right now. So why don’t I let other people come up with it?”

Imagining a wholly collaborative approach in which the actors would improvise and develop their own characters and story while shooting the film, Jake hopes that the collaborative nature of this project will lead to more opportunities to socialize, something Jake adores about filmmaking.

“The writing process can be so grueling but I like the people part. So I’m just deleting the writing and just doing the people part!”

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