From Drums to Directing: An Interview with Reilly McHugh, Director of “Tangerine Drum Machine”


by Brandon Mirador

The team of “Tangerine Drum Machine” making movie magic in our HHS auditorium.

Dani Biondi, Staff writer

This past month, Montclair State University (MSU) senior and HHS alum Reilly McHugh directed her senior thesis, a short film titled Tangerine Drum Machine, which was filmed at HHS with the help of other past students. I had the pleasure of interviewing Reilly about the film itself, as well as the filmmaking process and her experience returning to the high school to shoot:

What do you want people to know about your film?

I want people to know that Tangerine Drum Machine is a labor of love that’s been in progress for over a year now. I came up with the initial concept in December 2021, and started writing the script in January 2022. We had more than five months of pre-production, which all led up to seven total days of filming.

This film is partially based on my own experiences as a musician. I was a percussionist for ten years, and I knew it wasn’t going to be my career, so I did it purely out of enjoyment. I loved the feeling I got being part of an ensemble that was just creating the most beautiful sounds on earth. I feel music deep within my soul, and I wanted to tell a story about a character who felt the same way. Some of my all-time favorite memories are playing with the HHS Marching Band or Percussion Ensemble, and I wanted to bring those feelings to life on screen in a way that everyone could experience, so that I could share that joy with musicians and non-musicians alike.

This is also my senior thesis film, which is the culmination of my work and growth over the past four years at Montclair State University. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, and the goal has always been to tell a story that’s beautiful and meaningful.

Also, everyone always asks, but the title came before the film. I took a really good nap one day, and when I woke up, I had the words Tangerine Drum Machine in my head. I thought that it sounded too good and had to be turned into something, so then I had to come up with a story to match. It’s kind of strange, but I’m not complaining.

Has your experience directing and going to film school impacted your view of film/the entertainment industry in general?

I think this experience of going to film school has shifted my perception of both the industry and the art form itself, and in ways I maybe didn’t expect.

I always knew the film industry was male-dominated, but I didn’t realize just how much I’d end up feeling that dynamic on set until a couple years ago. After so many offhand comments and experiences that ranged from annoying to infuriating, I really found that I loved working with not only other women, but people of all different genders, backgrounds, and experiences. I decided to make that a priority on this project, so I deliberately selected my key crew members, the most central of whom are women. It all starts with the incredibly talented Natalia Lugo, my Director of Photography. I found that having a woman behind the camera really does make a huge difference, both for the actors and for myself as the director. I also assembled an all-female producing team, and having them by my side is an incredible experience because I constantly feel supported and uplifted. It’s really easy to get frustrated as a woman in film, but instead I’ve just learned to channel that into support for the other women in the film program. I feel a stronger sense of community, having been to film school, and it’s turned me (a very competitive person) into a more collaborative person.

It’s also interesting to work with other people with different skills and talents. I came into filmmaking through an early love of art. I started doing photography at age four, but I was also an avid reader as a child. I read at least two books a day growing up, and that love of stories has translated into this career that I’m building, leading me to focus on writing and directing. But that isn’t the case for everyone. I’m so incredibly lucky to work with brilliant technicians who can build some of the most spectacular rigs, or gaffers who can design a jaw dropping lighting setup. Those are skills I don’t have, and never would have thought of before I started film school. So the experience has opened my eyes to just how many people it takes to make a set run and just how expansive the industry is. There’s really room for every type of talent.

I’ve also developed my approach as a filmmaker, and I’ve found that it’s a bit different from what people might expect. I obviously enjoy watching movies and learning from them, but I actually don’t love to prepare for my own films by watching other ones with similar elements. For example, in the lead up to “Tangerine Drum Machine”, everyone kept asking me if I’d seen Whiplash and if this story was inspired by it. The truth is, I’ve never seen Whiplash, and I don’t plan on it. At least, not until “Tangerine Drum Machine” is firmly in my rearview.

I feel like I don’t want to get too caught up in what someone else did: how they framed their shots, how they depicted a similar subject matter, how they lit this scene or that scene. One of my biggest struggles as an artist is self-doubt, and watching something like Whiplash would only exacerbate that. My thought process would probably spiral into something along the lines of: “Oh, they shot the drummer like this. Should I do that? Wait, but does that work with the story or the other shots we have planned? I don’t think so, but it looked so good…etc, etc”

Instead, I find inspiration in other mediums so that I can focus on my own ideas and creativity, and not stress about how another filmmaker may or may not have done it. It’s important for me to not second guess myself, and staying true to my story and vision is essential in keeping that little voice in the back of my head quiet. I always want to be my own unique, completely original thing, and while I really admire other filmmakers, I never, ever want to be the next one of them; the next Spielberg, the next Scorsese, even the next Greta Gerwig. I want to be the first me. In that same vein, over the past four years, I’ve found that I don’t eat, sleep, and breathe movies. Some people do, and that’s totally cool. But I’ve found I need outlets; I need opportunities to take steps back so that I don’t burn myself out. Sometimes, it’s other forms of art, such as poetry or music. And when I really just need to separate myself, I love to watch basketball with my younger sister. She’s actually the one who helped me realize that if you hyper-focus on your “thing”, whatever it is, then you’ll stop loving it because it’ll become your sole form of existence. I want to make sure I’m able to fall in love with filmmaking every day, and that actually means keeping a bit of distance, and not letting it consume me. Films are fantastic, stories are fantastic, but real life and being a good human being will always take precedence for me.

Share a little about the process involved with filming at the school. What are some behind-the-scenes tidbits you want people to know?

Filming at HHS was a months-long process. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to film here, due to the way the stage worked for the script and the special memories I have associated with performing on this exact stage. I wanted nothing more than to return to the place where I experienced so much music and joy to shoot this portion of the story that will end up closing out my time as a film student.

So many people were involved in making it possible. I’d love to shout out Jules Haran, Director of Bands, who kindly lent us music stands and chairs to use as part of our production design, as well as the custodial staff who showed us how to work the stage lights and made sure the doors were open for us all weekend long.

It was really surreal to not only be back at HHS, but to have my college friends there with me. It was a real “worlds colliding” sort of moment as my past as a band kid at HHS met my present as an MSU film student. Being able to put my character in the exact same spot I once stood was unreal.

It was also incredibly special to have HHS alumni involved with the production. Jack Levinson (Class of ‘17) is the composer of “Tangerine Drum Machine’s” music, Boone Breigs (Class of ‘21) is our 2nd Assistant Camera, Surya Vaidy (Class of ‘19) was a behind-the-scenes photographer, and Grace McHugh (‘21), Adam Sutton (‘22), Kevin O’Connor (‘22), Abby Tantry (‘19), Caroline Cappabianca (‘22), and Jake Smith (‘20) were all a part of our on-screen ensemble. It was so cool to have everyone back, and even better to be using this location that I have so much history with to tell a fresh, new story. Everything came full circle in a really beautiful way.

 What has been your favorite part of the process of making a short film?

It tends to differ from film to film. I really enjoy the writing process. I love getting to craft a story, and I find writing to be an exhilarating but peaceful process. I’m a huge introvert, so time spent creating in my own quiet space is always valued, especially since the set itself can be so hectic. But at the same time, I do love the adrenaline rush of being on location and seeing things you’ve only seen in your head come to life in front of your eyes. Now everyone can see these characters and these places; they exist in real life, not just in your imagination, and I find that feeling to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

On this film in particular, I’ve loved working alongside so many talented people, and it’s been rewarding to see not only the amazing product we’ve created, but to witness my own growth as both a filmmaker and a person.I actually find the whole thing very surreal; sometimes I have “pinch me” moments when I remember that this is actually happening, especially because the preparation and the lead up has been so long. It’s definitely been an incredible journey so far, and it’s not over yet.

Why should people watch Tangerine Drum Machine?

I hope people want to watch it! I think it’s a complex story that weaves so many topics together. It’s about music, and the power all forms of art have. It’s about friendship, and what that bond truly means. It’s about trauma, and how that affects us in ways we don’t always understand. It’s something I’ve pulled from the depths of my soul to create, and I think that it carries important messages about human emotions.

There’s also an incredible crew behind this. We have such a diverse and talented group of young people who are bringing this story to life; women, people of color, and members of the queer community are spearheading this project, and these are voices historically underrepresented in the film industry. Tangerine Drum Machine is about the storytellers as much as it’s about the story, and I couldn’t possibly be more lucky than I am right now: getting to do this with the best of them.

It’s an ambitious project that carries my hopes and dreams. It promises a lot, and I’m crossing my fingers that we deliver, because I hope that when it’s all said and done, it’ll be unlike anything anyone’s ever seen on screen.