Film school isn't all that different from law school—students are taught to argue about the subject at hand and tinker with existing models, though few will actually go on to produce any groundbreaking work in their respective fields that garners much attention. Undergrads simply don't have the opportunity or wherewithal to assemble the more than 200 cast and crew members necessary for a feature-length motion picture on the scale of 2018 standout Karen Doesn't Dream. Nothing like this had ever been done at Portland State University, certainly, and the chances of any student-made film emerging from obscurity to win awards at festivals around the country and catch the attention of streaming services would be too unbelievable. Karen's creators, in other words, dreamed big.
Although PSU—recently named tops for theory and criticism training by Moviemaker magazine—has been nationally recognized for its theory-based curriculum, the simultaneous neglect of production facilities tends to discourage the creation of a broad-based network of alumni resources to support student projects. Moreover, the $50K-ish budget cobbled together from crowdfunding and a Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission grant would be a better fit for a documentary short than Karen Doesn't Dream's full narrative. But somehow, the filmmakers made it all work.
The script came from novice Cody Dean, who producers approached at a screenwriting workshop after hearing his ideas about a troubled young woman's obsession with videos of sleeping strangers presumably recorded during home invasions. The director, another first-timer named Zach Huckaby, had only recently switched majors from public health.
"I didn't really go into school for filmmaking," admits Huckaby. "I'd always been a fan of the cinema—I made my own movies with a webcam when I was young—but to actually start doing the work, I had to rediscover all that."
Although Huckaby didn't enter the film program until his junior year, he'd spent years working on shorts for PSU TV: the student fee-funded extracurricular organization whose video storytelling facilities and hands-on training serves as de facto narrative production department for the university. Karen Doesn't Dream began as one of the school's Annual Film Projects, which gives students the chance to put together a feature from start to finish. Shooting took place in Portland and Seaside, which posed its own set of problems.
"There were a lot of challenges," Huckaby recalls. "We had budget constraints, location changes, weather. Most of the film takes place at night, and working in the summer really forced production. We were wondering whether we could even finish, but once we finally got to take a look at an edit, we started thinking this could be something."
Though the film plants its flag squarely in indie terrain, Karen Doesn't Dream arrives brimming with professional craft and the look of a budget leagues higher. Producers searched outside their own department to enlist the assistance of top graphic design and music students. The ever-expanding local film and television industry also offered myriad opportunities for on-set training. Producer William Whitley interned with Portlandia, cinematographer Tafadzwa Nemarundwe had shot several concert videos, and some crew members worked on 2017's Portland-shot, Sundance-winning I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore.
"This kind of production value wouldn't [normally] be possible," explains Whitley, "unless you went to an expensive school in Los Angeles and had a parent that could foot the bill, but even most UCLA and USC students make high-quality short films. We were only able to do it because we were a scraggly group of Oregonians willing to invest an entire summer eating white rice and mustard to create a single coherent narrative."
To the extent Karen Doesn't Dream does reflect the threadbare resources available, a lingering air of desperation and bare-bones dynamism only heightens this tale of insomniac porn-store clerk Karen (Jessica Lynn Skinner), whose swirling anomie finds focus in mysterious videos of vicarious slumber evidently recorded without the subjects' knowledge. It's an intriguing idea fleshed out with a measured grace found in Skinner's performance—wryly ethereal, hauntingly detached, and utterly, weirdly new. Perhaps owing to the creative team's peripatetic backgrounds, there's none of the winking homages or empty stylistic flourishes usually indicative of alums from the better-known Hollywood feeder academies. Karen Doesn't Dream may be the work of a director just learning the craft, but it doesn't feel like a film school project.
SEE IT: Karen Doesn't Dream screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org, on Thursday, May 2. 7 pm. $5-$10.