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New Jersey Film Festival Premieres Zack Morrison’s Musical Comedy Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major on Sunday, January 27, 2019.

By Al Nigrin

originally published: 01/23/2019

New Jersey Film Festival Premieres Zack Morrison’s Musical Comedy Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major on Sunday, January 27, 2019.

Zack Morrison’s musical comedy 
Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major Premieres at the New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, January 27, 2019 at Rutgers University.

Here is my interview with Zack:

Nigrin:  Your short film Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major  is musical comedy about a woman at the onset of her quarter-life crisis Please tell us more about your film and what made you want to make it?

Morrison:  Everything's Fine was my MFA thesis film at Columbia University. Getting my masters was such an incredible experience, and as I filmmaker, I feel it was the best artistic decision I ever made. It opened my eyes to what directing truly was, and taught me how to actually write. However, there were aspects of film school that were difficult. It challenged me; worked me harder than I ever worked before. It also pushed me to try different things, and tell stories I wouldn't normally tell: dramas with dark undertones, films with social justice messages, character-driven stories that pack a punch. I'm very glad I had the opportunity to explore thematically like that, but that's not really who I am as a filmmaker. I grew up on genre, on comedy, on Raiders, Star Wars, and The Blues Brothers. As a result, I always felt like a bit of an outsider among the majority my classmates.  So when the time came to work on my thesis, I wanted to do something that was true to who I was, to my experiences and personality.  When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, most of my films (the ones that weren't ridiculous and absurd) were about music, or incorporated musical and theatrical elements in them. I wanted to do something like that again, but on a larger scale.  I grew up playing music--tenor saxophone, guitar, drums, piano; and always enjoyed musicals. 

I started experiencing panic attacks during my second year at Columbia. For anyone who has been lucky enough to have never gone through that--I pray you don't. It's awful. Your body is convinced that one of about ten-thousand horribly-different ways for you to spontaneously drop dead IS going to happen, despite your inner monologue shouting as loud as it can reminding you that you're actually, in fact, ok.  It's a really bizarre experience.  Like a heart attack that's not actually happening.  And then after it passes, you feel worse. Because then the guilt comes into play, like "wow, I allowed myself to get like that."  I would blame myself for experiencing mental weakness, and then I would worry about it happening again, and then it would, and so-on.  Thankfully, school had a fantastic mental health center, and I was able to get help and work with someone on how to manage anxiety. My directing professor, Ramin Bahrani, is the best and talked with me for a while about it after I walked out of his class several times, because I just couldn't sit still anymore. He was incredibly helpful in my coming-to-terms with what this thing actually was.  And he encouraged me to embrace it in my work.

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That's when I started playing with the idea of doing my thesis about anxiety. But as a comedy; to use the genre as a self-reflective conduit. Much like the way a good sci-fi story discusses real issues disguised by aliens and spaceships. There's a saying in musical theater: "when you can't say it, sing it." I was finding myself unable to articulate to friends and family what I was going through. Because honestly, we don't really have the common vernacular or social openness to discuss mental health issues publicly.  So I felt music was the right language to use here. I may not be able to describe to you what anxiety is, but maybe I can help you feel it.  As I dissected my own insecurities, I became fascinated by the "quarter-life crisis," and how FOMO and oversaturated social media feeds fuels anxiety for a lot of millennials. It certainly does for me.  So I wanted to tell a story that's reflective of what myself and many of us twenty-somethings fresh out of school are experiencing. Naturally, pitching this story as a high-concept musical certainly doesn't go down easy for many. Thank god my producer Taylor Ortega believed in it, and in me. Taylor was the one who made this whole thing possible. 

Nigrin: The actor who plays Zoe the lead character in the film is really terrific and has a great voice to boot. Tell us more about her and how you came about casting her too. 

Morrison: We were blessed to have Carly Blane walk in the door on audition day.  I can't speak highly enough about how much of a wonderful and lovely experience it was to work with her.  From the moment she started singing, our collective jaws were on the floor; we knew right away that she was the one.  She went through Syracuse's BFA musical theater program, and worked a lot on regional theater projects in the area, but Everything's Fine was Carly's first lead role in a film.  When it came time to rehearse, she brought in a lot of ideas and her performance really elevated the whole piece to another level, and I think it shows.  Whenever I'm working with actors, I find it so important to give them space to do their thing.  I start with an idea, but I'm always excited to see what the actors bring to the space.  Carly was great with that, and really took ownership of Zoe.  I can't wait to work with her again.

Nigrin: Where did you shoot your film? Did you write and perform the music as well?

Morrison: I wanted this very much to be a New York story.  I think it's so built into the psyche of anyone from New Jersey to want to get the hell out of New Jersey. It's the Curse of The Boss. It's the Frank Sinatra "if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere" thing. I'm from East Brunswick, which is by no means a far journey from Manhattan, but I think there's something about moving to the city to pursue your dreams that's a major part of the millennial experience. So we shot most of it in New York, and a lot of the outdoor scenes are in Central Park. I lived in Harlem, just north of the park, so there were many days where I would walk in the park for hours to clear my head. The north end of the park incredibly beautiful--I highly recommend it. The scenes in Zoe's apartment were in my actual apartment on 118th Street.  Kat VanCleave, our art director, did a fantastic job dressing it up, and Tyler Wallach, our production designer, has such an eye for color.  We stole a few shots on the sidewalk outside 30 Rockefeller Center--a subtle nod to my day job at the time at Saturday Night Live.  The opening shot during the graduation scene was outside the Waksman Building at Rutgers.  It's one of the most beautiful buildings in the area, and I lived on Busch Campus for a while, so I always would walk past it on game days.  It always struck me as a quintessential "college" building, so it was high on my list when we were location scouting--plus, they wouldn't let me shoot on Old Queens and I needed a good Plan B location. Dr. Felicia McGinty and the Rutgers administration were extremely supportive though of the project, and I wanted to create opportunities for Rutgers students to work on the film, so I'm glad we were able to shoot on campus.  We also shot scenes at my parents' house in East Brunswick.  For any young filmmakers reading this--shoot where you have access. It makes everything so much easier.

I co-wrote the music with David Seamon. We're good friends and have worked together on a lot of projects over the years. He's one of the most talented guys I know.  The music for this evolved over time, and was a highly collaborative process.  The original draft of "Everything's Fine," the song, was extremely different. It was cynical, snarky, and something out of a Reel Big Fish album. Don't get me wrong--I love Reel Big Fish--but it just didn't really play well.  I didn't want this to be a cynical film. Christopher Pasi, my roommate another major collaborator of mine, who makes an appearance as the bum holding a sign in the opening number, worked with me on cracking that first song.  It had to be right--it sets the tone for the whole piece. Always surround yourself with people more talented than you are, who aren't afraid to tell you that something you have is crap. I scribbled out the remainder of the songs and played them on guitar for Dave--and then he went to town on piano.  He had so many great ideas (like the recurring piano melody, which was an improvisation he came up with in the room) and we went back and forth for a while until we had music on paper.   When it came time to produce the music, I brought in Owen Danoff, who is a musician based in Nashville.  I worked with Owen on my previous short, Captain Cyborg.  He orchestrated the songs and played the instruments along with Dave on piano.  All of the vocals are the actors' own voices.  Mike Squillante worked with us to lay down the vocal tracks--we camped out in a small recording facility for hours inside a warehouse that Columbia has on 125th Street.  We all pitched in on background vocals. 

Nigrin: How long did it take to make this film and how did you secure the funding for it?

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Morrison: This film was a long process.  I wrote the first draft of the script in November 2016, in the aftermath of the election.  Columbia's film program partners with several groups to provide grants for the thesis films every year, and we were fortunate enough to receive one from the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Thesis Film Fund. Katharina is a CU alum and strong supporter of the program.  She worked with Taylor and I in workshopping the script over most of 2017, and was a really great mentor and a helpful editorial voice.  After about a year of pre-production, we shot over four days in October 2017 (in between long nights at SNL). I took a month off, and then I began editing. I hate post. I always edit my own work--maybe I'm a control freak that way--but I hate doing it. It's like pulling teeth for me, but I suffer through it because that's where everything actually happens. I'm afraid I would be too much of a backseat driver if I let someone else cut it.  We were picture-locked by Christmas.  The faculty at Columbia thought we were insane, but that's the best part about doing so many long-takes.  But then it took several months to mix and re-mix the music, vocals, and soundscape.  We delivered a fine-cut in February to Katharina, who made the suggestion to remove one scene. At the time I hated that idea (it was where my cameo would have been), but she's a genius and knows exactly what she's talking about. The scene dragged the whole thing to a halt. I'm glad it's gone can see part of it in the trailer.  By March we were finished, and made a final delivery to the staff running the CU Film Festival.  We premiered in May at Lincoln Center, and now we're here. So overall, about two years of work. Production was fully funded by the Katharina grant, and the final budget for the film was about $11,000.

Nigrin:  Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to our readers?

Morrison: Working with Derek Klena was extremely cool! Taylor brought the script to him early on. He was so open to the ridiculousness of the xanax scene and absolutely crushed it.  I'm so thankful he shared his time with us.  

That scene is a two minute long take, and it took us 17 takes to get it right.  The idea of a 32-bar dance break in the middle of a graduate thesis film is absolutely absurd...which is why we did it! That scene was one of the first ones I wrote, and it's my personal favorite because I think it really highlights what people my age go though.  The pressure to be constantly "posting pictures of us having fun," in a world where you're judged by how many followers you have is an awful thing to have to experience. There's this notion that we need to "totally fool everyone," that every little thing we do needs to be perfect and exciting and that we're happy all the time.  I hope when people watch this, they realize that it's ok to be sad, to feel depressed, to feel feelings other than ultimate bliss 24/7.  What we need to do is recognize that everyone feels the same way we do. Everyone has anxiety to varying degrees. You're not alone in feeling this way.  

I also wanted an excuse to have Chris dancing around as a lion mascot in the background.

Everything’s Fine will be playing with two other films. Here is the skinny of this show:

The Bug Dean Cameron (Burbank, California)  In this funny short film, Dave’s life changes completely when he is befriended by a singing and dancing bug.2018; 7 min.

Everything's Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major – Zack Morrison (East Brunswick, New Jersey)  A musical comedy about a woman at the onset of her quarter-life crisis and her existential journey through the various stages of anxiety in song and dance. 2018; 15 min. Q+A Session with DirectorZack Morrison!

How They Got Over – Robert Clem (Stone Ridge, New York)  A stirring documentary about African-American gospel quartets like the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Blind Boys who developed a hugely influential musical spirit and style. Gospel quartets synthesized an  energy and beat that evolved into doo-wop, rhythm and blues, soul music, and rock and roll.  Quartet music also became a lifeline for African Americans who took to the road as radio and records became popular, popularizing an energetic musical form that was both infectious and moving. Featuring interviews with legendary singers, the film documents how quartets choreographed their gestures -- shouting, bending over backwards, dancing, jumping off the stage – to move their audiences. Pioneers of rock and roll, they created the unforgettable music that animates this film. 2018; 87 min. Q+A Session with Director Robert Clem!Co-sponsored by the Rutgers University American Studies Department!

Sunday, January 27, 2019 at 7PM  in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University,
 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey

$12=General; $10=Students+Seniors; $9=Rutgers Film Co-op Friends

Information: (848) 932-8482;


Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.

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