Throughout her life, Auburn alumna Sarah Heinss, class of 2011, molded her educational and professional experiences to fit one of her highest aspirations in life: to be a filmmaker.
Through her determined effort, Heinss released her first feature film “Instructions for Living” this December after spending a year in the film festival circuit, joining the list of notable Auburn alumni who have found success in the entertainment industry.
Heinss wrote, directed and starred in “Instructions for Living,” which went live to buy or rent on Amazon on Dec. 3.
The film follows a woman, grieving from the recent loss of her fiancé, as she sets off on an adventure with her older sister, played by Heinss, with the her late fiance’s bucket list as the guide for their journey.
The indie filmmaker Mark David Duplass has been a big inspiration for Heinss and her team. They used a reverse-engineering method to produce “Instructions for Living.”
This method takes a backward approach to building a film. Instead of writing a script, trying to find a budget and filming from there, Heinss and writing partner and fellow star of the film Morgan Owens looked at what they had available to them and made a movie from there.
“What people do we know, what apartments do we have that we can film in and what equipment do we have to film with?” Heinss said. “And we actually built the film from the ground up.”
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Along with her producing partner Maggie Hart, Heinss and Owens focused on the types of movies they love and characters they are drawn to. They wanted to play to their strengths in order to make a compelling film. Heinss looked at what was around her and built her production around that.
“We’re two middle class millennials, and we’re both living in Los Angeles, and what are the struggles that come with that?” she said. “We both have sisters, and that’s a relationship that we wanted to play to.”
At the time, both women were both struggling with grief from losing a family member and a sense of identity. They wanted to explore that loss and add the dynamic of sisters.
Heinss and Owens used their friendship and comedic chemistry to give personality to the film, but the women played characters very different from themselves.
“There’s just so much to be said to stop talking about something and to just do it,” she said. “We had this entrepreneurial spirit and wanted something that felt like ours.”
Her team benefited from taking the reverse-engineering path because they took full ownership of their production. If they had relied on a production company to fund their budget, they would not have had the same freedoms from doing it themselves.
Heinss is proud of her handmade film, feeling it is completely her and her team’s work.
She said she could have never done it without Hart as her producer and Owens as her costar and writing partner.
Heinss appreciates everyone in the cast and crew, which includes fellow southerner Drew Paslay from Gulfport, Mississippi.
One cast member Heinss thinks many would get excited about is Clayton Snyder, who is known for his role as Ethan Craft from the “Lizzie McGuire” series and movie.
When the film was finished, Heinss decided to take the film festival route, starting with the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2017. The TCFF was their best to date as it was the film’s world premiere, and they won the Audience Award for the featured film category in 2017.
“[The Audience Award win] is huge because we competed with major films,” she said.
Those included “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Florida Project.”
Since then, the film has been accepted into the Portland, Culver City and Dumbo film festivals. The cast and crew have been doing to indie film festival circuit for the last year, and finally, the film will be released for the public.
“From there, it was kind of like releasing our baby into the world,” Heinss said.
Heinss began her time at Auburn as a theater major, working in the department, as well. However, she knew her passion was production and film. She found herself at Eagle Eye TV and majoring in film, radio and television.
“The program at Auburn was more of a news broadcasting program more than it was a film, and I always wanted to make a feature film,” Heinss said.
She loved her work with the news outlet, but she felt it to be less about filmmaking and more about news.
“That’s why I ended up graduating in psychology because, as a director, I wanted to be in tuned with the human experience and able to get a grasp of telling human stories,” she said. “I took more of a non-traditional route.”
After graduation, she took a year-long hiatus in Birmingham to figure out exactly what her next step would be. In the end, she decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles to follow her dreams in filmmaking
Heinss started her career working at Apple for a while. Then, she worked at Buzzfeed as a producer and director for digital video content. She took part in the company’s producer training program for around a year before leaving to make her first film.
“A lot of people ask me ‘why didn’t you go to film school,’” she said. “I wanted to be too busy making films.”
She loved her time at Buzzfeed but was excited and ready to make something of her own.
“It’s one of those things everyone talks about doing but never actually does it,” she said. “I wanted to be the one that actually does it.”
Now, almost six years after moving to Los Angeles, Heinss has relocated to Chicago only to begin graduate school for counseling.
“I’ve really gone full circle,” she said.
Heinss loves Auburn more than many realize. She said the University gave her so many opportunities and so much happiness that she looks back fondly on.
“You don’t need someone to give you permission in order to do something that is a really big dream of yours,” Heinss said.
She hopes that she can be a testament for the Auburn Family to show that if they put action into their thoughts, words and passions, they can do anything.
Heinss advised taking advantage of all of the opportunities on Auburn’s campus, as she used her interests at the University to pinpoint what she was truly passionate about. Use college to find those passions, she said.
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