East Brunswick native Zack Morrison will screen his first short musical comedy, “Everything’s Fine – A Panic Attack in D Major,” at the 2019 Garden State Film Festival on March 29 at the Asbury Park City Council Chambers at 6 p.m.
Morrison, who attended Columbia University for graduate school, wrote and directed the musical comedy about a woman going through her quarter-life crisis and her journey through stages of anxiety as his thesis project.
“The idea was that we wanted to tell the story of a millennial going through a quarter-life crisis,” Morrison said. “It’s something that our generation specifically is dealing with that entire generations have never had to go through. This idea of getting out of school and doing everything that you were told to do and do well, and when you get out, you realize that you are no better off or better prepared for the world than when you started.”
Morrison has been involved with filmmaking his entire life. Through his time at East Brunswick High School to studying journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, Morrison made sure to always dedicate time to screenwriting on the side. This past May, he graduated with his master’s degree in screenwriting and directing, which he incorporated into his film.
“Turning 25 and finishing my master’s degree, I realized ‘What the hell am I doing?’ That to me, seemed right for exploiting for a comedy story,” he said. “And the fact that I come from a musical background – I have been playing guitar and saxophone my whole life – I wanted a way to incorporate music, comedy and also tell a story that is relevant to what young people are going through today.”
Columbia’s four-year master’s program is separated into two parts. The first two years, students are involved in schooling full-time, where they take 21-credit semesters. The next two years are fully dedicated to making a feature-length film.
“You become an artist in residency and at that point you have no class, no homework and it’s your job to just make your movie,” he said. “They give you potentially up to a fifth year to develop this thesis project. For me, because I was focusing on [television] comedy specifically, the majority of the work that I was working on was scripts and pilot writing, but I had the chance to make a film as well. I started developing the idea around Summer 2016.”
For Morrison, that was the summer going into his third year of graduate school, so fortunately it worked out that he would develop the idea then. But Morrison also started going through another phase in his life.
“Coincidentally, at the time, it was the peak of when I started to learn how to deal with my own anxiety and anxiety attacks,” Morrison said. “It was something that I never had dealt with before. I was fortunate enough not to necessarily have that problem at a younger age. Over the course of grad school, I started developing bouts of anxiety and having panic attacks. That was something that I was going through around the time that I started developing this script.”
After speaking to one of his professors, Morrison received guidance on how he should incorporate what he was going through in his own life into his script.
“It was one of the best pieces of advice that I had received,” he said. “So, I started working on this story of what does anxiety feel like? Because when you try to explain it to someone who has never experienced it, you realize that it is kind of impossible to explain it. We as a culture, don’t really have the vernacular or the mutual understanding to explain to someone who has never felt it before. It’s very bizarre. Objectively, you are OK, everything is OK, you are not in any physical danger, but your brain is convinced otherwise.”
After trying to explain his anxiety to his parents, Morrison realized that it would be an uphill battle because he couldn’t explain something that couldn’t be explained through words.
“That’s where the idea of music came in, because music is the expression of feelings,” he said. “I was really excited about that because musicals don’t happen at Columbia. Columbia is a major film school, but they are very serious. Most of the student make these very powerful and deep thesis projects and it was out of left field compared to everything that I was doing prior.”
Morrison began writing the script in the autumn of 2016 and finished that December, around the time grant applications were due at Columbia. The film got picked up and ended up being fully funded. Along the course of writing the script, Morrison also had to write original music for the film as well.
“All of the music in the film, I wrote myself. I co-wrote it with David Seamon, who is a frequent collaborator of mine. He is one of the guys, who I work with a lot,” he said. “As I started to write the script, I started to play out some songs on the guitar, and doing very, very basic song structures.”
Morrison spent most of the first half of 2017 writing the music and eventually revising and editing both the script and music. By the summer of that year, the film was ready to cast and start rehearsals. By October 2017, Morrison held a 4-day shoot where they spent three days filming in New York and the fourth filming at his parent’s house in East Brunswick. Now his project is coming full circle where it will screen at the Garden State Film Festival.
“It is always an amazing feeling to be sharing your work at a film festival,” Morrison said. “Part of the reason why I got into this is not the prestige of the festival, but the fact that we can share our work with people in an audience. Any chance you get as a short filmmaker to have that audience/moviegoer experience – it’s a dream come true. Every time that we get to play at a festival – especially one in New Jersey, in my backyard – it’s really special. I have been able to screen [at the Garden State Film Festival] in the past, so to be able to play there again, it feels like I’m coming home.”